"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Cultural relativism and decadence

Here is an essential read have only just come across. It is a provocative critique by Keith Windschuttle of "cultural decadence". This is a flavour of it:

According to this ideology, instead of attempting to globalise its values, the West should stay in its own cultural backyard. Values like universal human rights, individualism and liberalism are regarded merely as ethnocentric products of Western history. The scientific knowledge that the West has produced is simply one of many “ways of knowing”. In place of Western universalism, this critique offers cultural relativism, a concept that regards the West not as the pinnacle of human achievement to date, but as simply one of many equally valid cultural systems. Cultural relativism claims there are no absolute standards for assessing human culture. Hence all cultures should be regarded as equal, though different. It comes in two varieties: soft and hard.

The soft version now prevails in aesthetics. Take a university course in literary criticism or art theory and you will now find traditional standards no longer apply. Italian opera can no longer be regarded as superior to Chinese opera. The theatre of Shakespeare was not better than that of Kabuki, only different. The hard version comes from the social sciences and from cultural studies. Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink are now accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned.

The piece finishes by discussing freedom of expression in what the author describes as the West's "adversary culture":

The Western concept of freedom of speech is not an absolute. The limits that should be imposed by good taste, social responsibility and respect for others will always be a matter for debate. But this is a debate that needs to be conducted within Western culture, not imposed on it from outside by threats of death and violence by those who want to put an end to all free debate. The concepts of free enquiry and free expression and the right to criticise entrenched beliefs are things we take so much for granted they are almost part of the air we breathe. We need to recognise them as distinctly Western phenomena. They were never produced by Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam, the idea of objective inquiry had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. In the twentieth century, the first thing that every single communist government in the world did was suppress it.

But without this concept, the world would not be as it is today. There would have been no Copernicus, Galileo, Newton or Darwin. All of these thinkers profoundly offended the conventional wisdom of their day, and at great personal risk, in some cases to their lives but in all cases to their reputations and careers. But because
they inherited a culture that valued free inquiry and free expression, it gave them the strength to continue.


Anonymous Tom said...

Karole, it's my first time posting on your blog, this post came to me through via my RSS feeder. Cultural relativism is an interesting topic, and something I vaguely remember looking at around 2000 during one of my final year philosphy modules in UCC.

Cultural relativism, as opposed to moral relativism, is the expression of individual beliefs, experiences and taste as seen through a particular historical and cultural view point. From a Japanese point of view, taking into account the cultural impact of growing up in that society, Kabuki is no doubt more entertaining, more relevant and more interesting to them than Shakespere. For people from a Western cultural point of view, Shakespere wins.

Cultural relativism is the view that there is no overridding intrinsic value in artforms, but rather that value is given to an artform or artist which resonates most clearly with the culture in which he is performing. Shakespere resonated with the audience at the time and had a huge impact on the development of Western culture and writing because he so clearly tapped into the cultural zeitgeist at the time of his publishing.

A statement saying that Hamlet or King Lear (my leaving cert play) is better than a Kabuki play or performance is based on the fact that the person making that statement grew up immersed in western culture. To say that Western culture is better than Japanese culture takes no account of the history or views of people in the Japanese culture. It is also moving from a matter of individual taste to being a judge of a culture through a neccessarily biased viewpoint.

Of course, the argument above is taken from teh point of view that there is no universal artistic value, no synthesis of art that will create a universally accepted definition of what is good. Whether that premise is correct or not is a discussion for a different day.

Fri Mar 24, 03:50:00 PM GMT  

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