Practically before dawn on a frigid Thursday morning, Lawrence
Harrison walks to the front of a small auditorium in Boston, where a
dozen early risers have gathered to hear his views on how culture
has hindered the progress of some nations and groups.
Most of the attendees - adults catching some intellectual
enrichment before work - are still in a sleep haze. Harrison, a
Harvard professor, starts by coaxing them to sit closer to him. It's
a tentative start. But soon, questions fly. His thesis - that values
and traditions can be a "hindrance" - has struck a controversial
chord. One woman is close to tears.
Such tension is not unusual for discussions about culture. In
academic alcoves or in eclectic coffee shops, such conversations can
get as touchy as race talks.
It wasn't always so. When anthropologist Franz Boas studied the
Inuit in the Canadian Arctic in 1883, culture to most Americans
meant season tickets for the opera.
Today, the US is a full-fledged "multicultural" society - and
knows it. Your average college grad can tell you that capitalist
culture is prevalent, wonder about hip-hop culture, and shake her
head at starch office culture.
Since Sept. 11, however, many Americans are thinking more broadly
and redefining their concept of culture, especially in light of how
the US differs from Arab and Islamic cultures. "A lot of Americans
have begun to compare their own culture and other cultures in a way
they haven't before," says Gary Weaver, an international studies
professor at American University in Washington.
"Before" meant a tendency to view all cultures as equal, to
downplay the idea of universal values. That kind of cultural
relativism worked fine, some say, until terror came to US shores.
Now, a deep desire to uphold certain cultural values - namely US
or Western ones - is gaining ground. But the days of Western
travelers' notebooks describing foreigners as "barbaric" and
"uncivilized" are long gone. Instead, the struggle is under way to
evaluate other cultures without resorting to old imperialist lines.
Is it OK to judge?
With no compunction or academic footnote, Tom Cushman, a
sociology professor at Wellesley College, comes out and says it:
"The US is a better place to live than the former Soviet Union."
Cushman, a critic of relativism who has lived in Russia, thinks more
people should be comfortable making such judgments.
He finds many students yearn to confront tragedies of their
lifetime: Rwanda, Bosnia, Sept. 11. His course, "Sociology of Evil,"
has had large turnouts in the past three years. However, Cushman
says, "people generally are taught that you can't judge other
Opponents say cultural relativism is flawed in two ways. First,
it contradicts itself: to state that no one should judge other
cultures or that all cultures should be equally defended, is itself
Then there's the problem of the slippery slope. When
anthropologists first embraced relativism early in the 20th century,
it was in the spirit of scientific rigor: The way to understand
another culture, they argued, was to abandon one's own values and
assumptions. But relativism seeped into other contexts, until all
ethics became relative. Radical relativists were willing to defend
female genital mutilation in some societies.
For Cushman, the flaws of that logic are now painfully obvious:
Academics who cling to ethical relativism have failed to offer
explanations for how a society might have bred an Osama Bin Laden.
But those turning their backs on relativism don't wish to
resurrect the image of US colonizers in the Philippines in the 19th
century, staring at natives with Protestant disdain. Rather, they're
looking for a more liberal middle ground.
The first step, for some, is distinguishing between tolerance and
relativism. The former allows for respecting cultures without
necessarily condoning all their traditions. …