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Cultural Relativism and Global Values: The Median That Works

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Cultural Relativism and Global Values

The Median That Works

Universal values and human rights are abstractions that are considered by many as little more than a romantic concept. Those who would like to believe in a set of universal values find that they either can not find enough evidence for, or that there is too much evidence against such values. Cultural relativism, a relatively new idea in political science that has its origins in anthropology, is the major evidence and argument against global values. Both widely supported and widely attacked, cultural relativity is a doctrine that states "Ð'...that the actions of people within each culture should be evaluated according to the rules of that culture." 1 Many countries and cultures use cultural relativity to support actions that "outsiders" attack as violations of human rights. The Taliban, the former ruling party of Afghanistan, used cultural relativity arguments to support their particularly strict version of Islamic law that included the subjugation of women and the destruction of priceless pieces of art and artifacts. The United States, when attacked by its Western allies for its capital punishment laws, responds that "it is their way and no one else's business. Which is precisely what the Taliban [said]" 2

For many cultures and countries, cultural relativity has become a scapegoat and an excuse for violations of human rights, and a defense mechanism to protect national sovereignty from real or imagined threats. Many cultures that claim cultural relativity as a defense do so on the false claim that the practice or value in question is actually an authentic cultural practice, and many others who say that universal values are in fact "Western" values, do so falsely as well. Cultural relativity does not merit complete dismissal as a concept, especially when looking at and judging other cultures; however, it is not a relevant argument against universalism when advocating global values.

When speaking of global, or universal, values one has got to realize that those ideas can be taken to a dangerous extreme. The world has already had glimpses of that extreme, European and American imperialism. Many political and social conflicts today - particularly those in Africa, South America, and the Middle East - have risen from the colonialism of these areas. Colonialism is a form of external change that is unacceptable in the twenty-first century.

To enter a culture and enforce new laws, borders, and languages; to destroy the previous way of life and force your own ideas upon the indigenous people of how their lives should be led, is in principle ethnocide. One could certainly understand, therefore, why extremist ideas of global values and global unity can be controversial. Any country that has a culture that differs from that of the West should be terrified of countries, politicians, and political scientists that spout forth their belief in global unity by assimilation. It was this belief that was one of the driving forces behind the social policies of many colonial states in past centuries.3

On September 20, 1999, Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, made a speech to the General Assembly that included what many countries might infer as a threat to their sovereignty.

State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined by the forces

of globalization and international cooperationÐ'....If states bent on criminal

behavior know that frontiers are not the absolute defense; if they know

that the Security Council will take action to halt crimes against humanity,

then they will not embark on such a course of action in expectation of

sovereign immunity.4

For many countries, to accept "Western values" and opinions on human rights, especially if they see themselves as defending their culture and religion from "Western values" as the Taliban claimed to do, or if they have another set of values Ð'- for instance, "Asian values"- would be tantamount to demolishing their national sovereignty and bowing to the West.

"Asian values" is a relatively new term. A political construct first used in the Bangkok Declaration of Human Rights written in 1993, it was meant to contrast the term "Western values". According to Dr. Kam-por Yu, of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, "Western values" actually mean "liberal values", but it is misleading to title "Western values" as liberal, for if we study the values people held in Victorian England, we would find that these "Western values" were extremely similar to what we now call "Asian values". Thomas M. Franck, Professor of Law and Director of the Center for International Studies at New York University's School of Law, supports the idea that so called "Western values" aren't really Western at all, but rather the product of industrialized countries. He writes that the

"Ð'...human rights canon is full of rules that, far from being deeply

rooted in Western culture, are actually the products of recent

developments Ð'- industrialization, urbanization, the communications

and information revolutions Ð'- that are replicable anywhere, even if

they have not occurred everywhere at once.5

Franck sights examples of Western history that today resemble many of the practices of fundamentalist Islamic countries, and then shows how trends brought about by events in history have led to this point in so-called "Western values", rather then "some historical or social determinant".6

Cultural relativism can also be used as an excuse for inhumane practices and

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