Stuck in Social Constructions
Cultural relativism exists since I don't know when. It actually appear in lot of texts, not under the heading cultural relativism, but under the image of a heuristic device meant to criticize a society. Voltaire, a French philosopher of the enlightenment period would use it a lot to mirror the French society and its given ideas. Cultural relativism also implies that most of our thoughts, attitudes and behaviours are the result of a social construction. We are animals, but how we see the world is not in animal way at all, it is as a political animal. The Chinese would tell the Japanese for example that there is no hierarchy of Teas in nature, but only the person tasting the tea would make that hierarchy.
But this idea that everything is the result of a given society, and is therefore not absolute, can be criticize to be ameliorated is not growing as the technologies of the world are. Logic would have said that as we have more comparative examples to make, we could liberate ourselves more from our societal cages of thoughts.
Well this conclusion has easily some counter-arguments to be made. Cultural relativism was well explained by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who had the occasion to visit South-American tribes in the middle 20th century. Also, the different movements of the sixties were based on this idea that society wasn't and shouldn't be such a cements of thoughts and hierarchies. So what do I mean ?
Well I believe that as much as we have grown wiser maybe, we still have a long way to go to be free, and the first step is still to admit that we are far from intellectual freedom as we can be. It is in my everyday life that I do notice this conflicting processes of global-village and cultural absolutism growing without bring to us much more liberty of the mind.
The first example is the question of the nation-state. Throughout history, our spacial identity has changed. But this is something that we are not accept to see, except when our ethical education lets us use this fact as an argument. But there are not many people who are ready to accept that countries do not represent much. Coming from Belgium, it is maybe easier for me to say it, Belgium being a construction of foreign powers, and our national identity never existed before, and it is still an on-going discussion to know if there is still one. The thing is that it is the same for most countries. Belgian are maybe the only one ready to accept that there country is not an absolute.
I'll take the Irish as an opposite example. They are an island, so there is more an idea of a spacial identity there that has lived maybe throughout history. But that is the only thing. Their Celtic culture and origins can be found as well in Ireland as in England as in France or even in Spain. They do have their own language, but it is living alongside English, and as proud they are of their identity, when it facilitates them, there are not ready to get rid of the colonial language. But when it comes to Euro-phobia, they invoke, like their ex-colonial power, a defence of their culture and new nation-state as arguments against the facility of a powerful alliance. The logic of the nation-state is not a irrefutable one, since all nation-states are the products of an international history, of an international population, defending a nation-state has no real logic, except this illusion of protection of the immutable. ( I would also like to point out that nationalism is the excuse of lazy minds for not being capable of imagining an alternative global world).
An other example of social construction that people tend to favour and stick to are technologies. Technologies are embedded within a society, and other technologies, or information sources or informations tend not to change much. Even in the promises of the world wide web, individuals keep themselves to their society. A good example is the variety of social networks within the web which are restricted to only certain cultures and economies. Facebook might be a huge one, but it represents only a small part of the population. Facebook groups are only the one to which our close friends have invited us or we found, but our researches are restricted to our social knowledge. Facebook has never opened much minds, at most it embeds us into our identity because we use it as a tool of identity reaffirmation more than a tool of intellectual development. Of course, certain fields in society do use internet as the globalizing tool it should be. I have mention technologies, and to show an other example of our incapacity of opening our mind to other technologies: new operating system scare us. Who is not on Windows or Mac ? Who would want to get out of these operating systems of our prime cyborg resources to try a new things that could liberate us from this two multi-nationals monopoly? It does require someone to accept that our society can change, especially that we could be freed from a strict capitalistic system which took the appearance of monopolizing the technological field. But it is a social construct also that we are too deep in our societal structure to resist it.
Where cultural relativism does not find its place where it seems the most logical, in this global world is the field of cultures. I will talk about taste being a pure social construction because it is. We like what we like because of the society we've grown in, our education and our restricted degree of personal interest. It is no excuse that we are stuck within a taste, within a culture, to make fun of others. And that is what still happen. The most interesting thing to observe is how people stuck within such a frame will make fun of people with a high degree of personal interest. Our cultural paradigm is attached with ethical paradigm which forbid us of any openly tribal criticism, most of the time. Though how many people haven't I seen laugh at a witch doctor ceremony. But the restricted frame people find themselves in is most observable when on television, someone has a deep personal interest in one subject under all its angles. This people are treated by TV-shows and their spectators as modern freaks, because they are capable of ignoring the general consensus of taste and behaviours.
Culturally, it is funny to also observe how people selects their team in national sports. It has nothing to do with the sportive quality of the team. It is only mildly related to the region of the team. It is highly related to the media representation of the team spirit. The team spirit is not related at all to some sport spirit in any way. The team spirit represented is only an image of the socio-economic background of the fans. The big winning team of a country will most of the time be the one supported by the powerful class and the easily manipulable population of the nation. The rival team will represent the opposite majority. The third team will represent the new-comers in a high class, the people who believe in the American dream, the nouveau-rich. The other more local clubs will be supported by the local population, in a quasi-tribal way, and most of the time, there will be two teams so class conflict can be represented. Of course, cultural construction will forbid fans such observation to the selection of their team, and only pseudo-sportive arguments will be presented.
Finally, I would like to present two important examples of the impossibility of thinking of our culture relativity in the field of morals and ethics. My first example is on our political ideals. Population have real difficulties changing political perspectives. Fukuyama was really wrong when he said that the end of history was represented by our liberal democracies. African multi-ethnic populations will admit that democracy is only creating a battlefield for them. A dictator is not any better because he will have fight to have power without learning the responsibilities of powers. But are we, the previous colonial powers, ready to see a monarchy re-establishing itself once again in a country? No, just like no parties will propose a truthful universal welfare state on its program, because as much as it is proven the best social help structure, it involves to much change, and too much change or difference do scare us.
The second example is our view on genders. There are lots of voices still raised for gender equality in the world, but without considering that gender equality does represent only a culturally constructed vision of gender equity. Of course, our system is as biased as societies were choice is not given. But should a couple decide as a couple who has what kind of power through discussion and through giving and receiving power? So if men, for example, would help for the chores in the house, that does give him real power within the house, he can decide what furnitures and how to raise the children. But if he wants to have a bigger buying power for himself by working only in the office and not doing much for the house, shouldn't he have only a restricted power of decision within the house ? Then what is wrong with women working at home and having full power at home ? There is only the illusion, within each society, of gender equity or equality, at least at home, but not one society has reached a true fair system, so no society should allow itself only to criticize others.
My final point is the one where in discussions, has raised the most voices. It's my belief that our view on paedophilia is highly restricted to our social construct of it, and that we still have a long way of self-criticism to go before we can find a solution to the problem. People have a lot of difficulties to understand how paedophilia is a social construct. They have no knowledge of the evolution of the representation of childhood within our society, and our representation of sexuality and emotional involvement as well. The most difficult part for people to understand is that our social view of paedophilia probably created the atrocities that paedophilia has created. Because we have represented paedophilia as an evil incarnated, people who are attracted by children will fall into a vicious circle of shame and alienation which will not give them the occasion to openly talk about their fantasies. This self-hatred or the hatred for such a judging society can only lead to the preservation of this secret and if they are too pushed by society, to act on their fantasies in the secret, with evilness. Their intentions will not be in their eyes acceptable to anyone else, so how can they come up to people before to talk about and see if there is another way out?
I don't know, it seems to me that our incapacity to liberate ourselves from our social perspectives, to adopt, if not for only a little while, other perspectives is growing. Our history permits us to make giant steps towards real peaceful discussions. But weak people will hide themselves behind modern society as an unmoveable society, as the idea of a better world being impossible. Or worst, I do know people who can only imagine living in idealized past, like conservatives,or ideals of the past, like French republicans, both perspectives only representing limited minds.