The (in)convenience of cultural relativism

This is a concept in anthropology that has always baffled me. Beliefs and their accompanying actions need to be put in the context of that person’s culture. Okay. Done. Now what? Apparently, what is and isn’t acceptable is based on said culture, not a universal truth. I argue that the whole globe can be painted with a broad brush dipped in the same bucket of ethics. Ethics, not morals. Moral relativism is a whole different ball of wax from my perspective, and I will devote a separate post to that.

We Westerners feel pretty sanctimonious about our culture. In many ways, I think we’ve got it right. In other ways, I think there are other countries that are more pragmatic with certain things. A prime example is our consumption. The states are gluttonous consumers. There is no other country that rivals our demand for food and energy, as well as our waste of them. The obesity epidemic is a hallmark of those proclivities. I spent a month in Florence, Italy, and marveled at their almost draconian use of resources. Air conditioning was a luxury there, whereas it is used here with complete abandon and inexplicably turning buildings, buses, and trains into iceboxes.  I’d scratch my head over the logic of that if my hands weren’t occupied trying to keep my upper body warm in the middle of summer. The cars were smaller, thus requiring less gas and dare I say, less reliance on foreign oil. I thought it was wonderful. I was not happy having to pay for potable water where it is free and bottomless in American restaurants. However, that is a small price to pay to lessen the burden on the environment. While we stretch our lips to take in an average piece of nigiri sushi while exercising control over our gag reflex, in Japan they serve morsels that have ample room to dance across the palate. Overfishing, anyone? But, that’s what makes the U.S. so damn lovable. We want more more MORE!

I’ll give the West a break for now. While respect for the environment and its limited resources is vital, there are other more damaging disparities between societies that are, sadly,  protected by the cultural relativism veil—an apt word choice for Middle Eastern civilizations. The American woman may still be chipping away at the proverbial glass ceiling, but it sure beats a public stoning for adultery (voluntary or otherwise), an “indecent” display of skin, or even seeking an education. Try as we might, we have not been able to punish them sufficiently for such an egregious disregard for basic human rights, much less change the idea that women are the inferior gender. Not to gloss over this, but that cultural corruption is governed by religion, i.e., moral relativism. As I stated before it is a different topic, thus, a different post.

The impetus for writing about my views of this subject is from watching a video that went viral this past week. In Indonesia, a two-year-old boy, Aldi Rizal, was videotaped while indulging in his two-pack-a-day addiction. My jaw dropped as I watched this child smoke like a champ while still in diapers. The average toddler is developing hand-eye coordination, but he managed that cigarette as well as a life-time smoker does. Oh yeah, he pretty much is. The father taught him how to smoke at 18 months, and the unsuspecting child took to it like a fish to water.

I’ve watched it multiple times with my rose-colored glasses on. Surely it is a hoax. Alas, it is authentic and an all-too-common reality for that culture. The statistics for children there having their first cigarette as young as five years old is alarmingly high. Of the 230 million people residing in the Indonesian islands, approximately 60% of that population smokes. I am guessing they start young. No wonder Big Tobacco relies on that country for business; they are the fourth most populous country and the third largest tobacco consumer.

In Aldi’s case, I fear the damage is irreparable. Introducing so many chemicals into a developing body may permanently alter his own chemistry—mentally and neurobiologically. I wonder if it is even possible for him to quit. If this keeps up, he will be a chain-smoker by  the age of five and dead of a heart attack before puberty. What is the point of all that? I suspect that when he is potty-trained, he will need a cigarette in order to make poopy. Ugh.

It is very easy for us on this side of the table to say this is wrong; our culture believes in protecting children, not exploiting them. The jury should be in for this one. Children are our future and all that. This may be a passive-aggressive form of child abuse, as they started it but don’t do anything to stop it. Aldi was taught how to smoke not having any concept of health and what compromises it, nor is his mind developed enough to make the connection that the cigarettes are the cause for his inability to romp around with other children, thus making him sedentary and overweight.  However, that pesky cultural relativism gets in the way from stopping the madness.  If this happened in many other countries, the consequences would be punishment for the parents such as losing custody of the child and being sent to jail.  In Indonesia, however, authorities have offered them a new car if they get their kid to quit smoking. A car. They are essentially getting away with bad behavior by being rewarded for stopping it. Still, the parents turned down that offer, as they don’t appreciate the damage they are inflicting on their son. Perhaps the cynical part of me suspects that the fact their child has become a tourist attraction gives them fame that surpasses the allure of any sticker price. Shocking, I know.

Just to drive the point home, lines can be drawn between this and pedophilia. While smoking in children is more acceptable and even encouraged in this country as we can see here, so is pedophilia in other cultures. There are even religions that sanction the latter. Both take advantage of an unwilling participant, i.e., a child who doesn’t have the capacity to understand what is happening. A victim of pedophilia is, by and large, either stunted in sexual development and/or becomes promiscuous and sexually active at a young age. With that introduction to sex, how can a child develop a healthy sex life as an adult? Considering cigarette addiction has a 90% success rate, when it is given to a toddler who has not been around long enough to be exposed to many things, it happens much quicker.  Of course this child throws temper tantrums and bangs his head against the wall: The addiction is stronger than the need for food. Did Ardi have a choice but to play along with his father’s game? Does any child have the ability to put the kibosh on twisted form of play that someone bigger and stronger initiates?

While creating a concept such as cultural relativism is not the root of the problem, it does slap a convenient label on it to explain why we are rendered powerless to change something that we know intrinsically is wrong. Oh, but that was how the people in that culture were raised. Of course! We shant play judge and jury on different perspectives of what is right and wrong. Look down your nose if you like, but don’t forget to turn the other cheek. The bible tells us so.

To be continued.

About Diane Bushemi

My name is Diane and am an aspiring artist, songwriter, and fiction writer. While I currently make my living in a rather safe manner as a manager in an accounting department, it is merely to feed what I am really passionate about. I have been blessed with the ability to express myself creatively, and somewhat plagued with the aptitude in more than one artistic medium. My life is a constant juggling act to fulfill all the basic needs with the less tangible ones, i.e., those necessary to live and the ones that remind me that I'm alive.

Posted on May 30, 2010, in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Don’t forget that Aldi is also morbidly obese. Neither this, nor his chain smoking seems to bother his parents who were quoted on CNN as saying they “don’t see the harm.” WTF!!! Clearly there is little hope for this kid when the people in charge of his well-being don’t even see anything wrong with this behavior.

    I buy into cultural relativism to a point. What is viewed as a total lack of privacy to me is viewed as good family bonding in say India, for example. But when it comes to doing harm, there ought not be so many shades of gray.

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