The “Genius” of Cultural Relativism

Why is it that refusing to judge is often seen as a form of virtue? I’ve been leading discussion groups in a class that explores the nature of genius this semester. This week we explored the idea of “evil genius,” which is a significant cultural trope in our society, often in other guises such as the mad scientist or the super villain. We asked the students if it was possible for genius to be evil. While most lined up on one side or the other of the debate, a few vocal students protested, and one defended his protest with a classic “Who am I to judge?” line: “What some might call evil, others might call good.”

Now as an abstract statement this might be defensible. There are certainly cases, particularly involving violence, where one person’s (or one country’s) evil is another’s greater good. However, what this student (and many others like him) was doing was to use the fact of a multiplicity of perspectives to conclude that we cannot and should not make distinctions between perspectives. “That’s just their culture” is disingenuous, but it is seen as a modern, savvy, and politically correct response. After all, its better than “They’re just inferior” or “They’re just savages,” right?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that cultural imperialism is not—at least overtly—the norm in higher education. The problem is that many students conclude that the best response to lessons about pluralism and diversity is to adopt a position of cultural relativism, and many teachers either don’t know how to correct the trend or think the same way their students do.

Of course, none of us are really cultural relativists. We are cultural relativists in so far as we are personally unaffected by, distanced from, the cultures we are reluctant to judge. We are cultural relativists in so far as we reside in a culture that allows us the privilege to treat other cultures as thought experiments. Yet insofar as we are privileged, we should instead use that privilege to question thoroughly both other cultures and our own in order to make judgements for positive change.

So a historical shift has taken place from explicit cultural imperialism to an implicit cultural imperialism under the guise of appreciating and valuing cultural diversity. Religion plays a significant role in maintaining this separation. Echoing my own past religious experience, students who profess a strong Christianity usually fail to see a connection between their ideological ethics and their practical ethics, their way of operating in the world. Given, this is true to a certain extent with all students due in part to the infiltration of Christian values into American life, but it is more easily visible in the religious. These students are quick to defend Christianity from perceived attacks and extremist misrepresentation, but fail to see the ethical implications in their practical lives for the Jesus Christianity they profess.

I don’t think this is all their fault. The training to connect an ideological Christian ethic with reality is remarkably sparse from within the religious community. Christianity is personal salvation, after all, and it is rarely in the institutional interest to advance anti-institutional claims such as equal treatment for the LBGTQ community or universal health care. If anything, religious students are implicitly told to not make their religion a big deal in public for fear of being one of those extremists on the quad who screams at scantily-clad women that they’re going to hell. Higher education maintains a tacit agreement with religion to allow students to keep their faith unquestioningly, and even use it to make their decisions, as long as they don’t make it overly obvious.

This strongly contributes to the “Who am I to judge?” scenario above. It stems from an inability to engage complex issues because of a faulty and undeveloped means of reasoning. It may be that refusing to make any sort of judgement is better than trumpeting an overtly culturally biased one, but I’m not sure that it makes a lasting difference if the underlying mechanism of unjustified belief remains in place. If it was a success in the 20th century, it is no longer enough.

There has been much talk of the dim future of the humanities lately, and if pluralism and cultural diversity are the best things they have to offer, the analysis may be correct. Cultural diversity should absolutely be taught, but not in a way that allows students to keep their ideologies as sacred. We should at least not pretend that this makes for a productive and successful citizenry. What it makes is a body of people that profess love, care, and community support while they maintain bias and bigotry against others. Education is not about what not to say or what to think, but as David Foster Wallace claimed, “how to think.”


Persecution Complex? Easy for you to say…

medium_6253442273American Christianity has a persecution complex, several recent commentators have claimed. While Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere are experiencing real persecution, having their homes burned to the ground, being forced to flee, being thrown into prison, and being executed, American Christians cry persecution when religious tax exemptions are challenged or a lawsuit is filed to remove the Ten Commandments from a courtroom. The moral of the story, for these writers, is that Christians in the West should spend less time complaining about insignificant problems and more time protesting real persecution elsewhere.

Though they accurately diagnose Christian fixation on persecution, this means of argumentation is impractical and hypocritical. It’s the adult equivalent of being told to eat your peas because children in Africa are starving. Is it true? Yes. Does the child ever think, “Wow. You’re right. Now I’m going to shut up and enjoy my peas.” No. If anything, it further reinforces a feeling of unfairness. The critique is made from the position of an outsider that has no stake in the game. Further, it’s not a principle anyone in the West can ever consistently apply to their own lives. On any sort of spectrum, be it religious, economic, social, or political, one can argue that those of us in the West are worlds better off than those elsewhere. The Christian religious perspective makes it easier to critique because it plays the persecution card more readily, but any of us could be accused of focusing on small issues when we set our problems on a global scale. Critiques that Western Christians are unfairly weighting domestic issues would have to be accompanied with an explanation of why consistency is more important in the religious sphere than in the economic or political ones, ones in which the levels of hypocrisy are just as far reaching.

So, where does the critique come from? It’s a matter of outsiders turning a professed religious solidarity against Christians. “If you all are part of the same group,” it asks, “why don’t you care about foreign Christians as much as your own?” It’s hypocritical because it criticizes Christians for not exercising preference for all Christians equally, yet when Christians exercise preference for their own vis-à-vis other Americans, these same commentators would cry foul. We could make plenty of other comparisons. I run the tap water for two minutes because it’s too cold for my hands while people elsewhere die from diseases contracted from polluted water. I live free from day-to-day fear for my life, while people (regardless of religious background) elsewhere live with a constant threat of being collateral damage in the “war on terror.” However, I still feel slighted from time to time, or treated unfairly, and having those feelings invalidated generally doesn’t motivate me to positive action.

None of this means that the martyr complex charge made against Christianity is incorrect. In psychoanalysis, a complex is “a related group of emotionally significant ideas that are completely or partially repressed and that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior.” Less formally, it just means disproportionate concern or anxiety. Christianity’s triumph, its path to becoming the state-sponsored religion, was built upon an ideology of persecution, one that never had more than a tenuous connection to the numbers of those killed. (This of course begs the question of what constitutes persecution; though few would claim it is only limited to deaths, that is the only way the numbers are tallied. How many deaths would equal legitimate persecution? It seems distasteful to even ask, and both sides exploit this ambiguity.) Theologically and psychologically though, persecution was critical to Christian growth. Although the average Christian likely would grossly overestimate the amount of Christians martyred in the early centuries (and perhaps even in the present), the actual numbers are largely irrelevant when placed on a supernatural scale. When battles are being waged against an “Adversary”—the Devil, demons, the Prince of Darkness, Evil, etc.— it doesn’t matter if you are in the apparent majority, because you are still battling a formidable force.

The abandonment of this persecution ideology would be the abandonment of Christian eschatology, of the Great Commission, of Christ’s return. It would be tantamount to acceptance of the world as it is, that God either approves of the existing world or is powerless or unwilling to change it. Faced with the alternative, many would prefer to cry persecution and await or try to bring about a Divine reckoning. So the answer, as usual, is much more complicated than just “stop complaining about being persecuted.” It would mean abandoning Christian identity. Some argue that would be better, but we might as easily abandon an American identity to solve the same problem. Neither is very likely, but the degree to which we retain these beliefs for our own existential well-being may be the extent to which we turn a blind eye to difference or lay the responsibility for change elsewhere.

photo credit: Tom Szustek via photopin cc


You Gotta Pay Your Dues

The logics of institutions are closed systems in which all your life questions are answered. The more you subscribe to one particular identity, the less tension, in theory, there is over these questions. If for example, you could and did subscribe fully to the system of consumerism that supports capitalism, your purpose would be to earn wealth in order to accumulate goods that would bring pleasure and define you. For the American identity (excerpting for a moment the capitalism bound up in it), your purpose would be to achieve the American dream, being an entrepreneurial spirit, owning your own business and house and two cars and a picket fence and 1.9 children. Few, I imagine, explicitly subscribe to these ideals, both because we like to think of our relative independence from the dictates of various institutions, but also because we increasingly live in a world of institutions fiercely competing for our loyalty, and try to manage multiple associations at the same time.

This idea goes some way to explaining why, when individuals are involved with a social group that dominates as much of the individual identity as possible, those outside that group take offense at the seemingly simplistic (and dangerous) logic within. When we label cult groups, we are indicating the internal coherence of a system that seems, to the outside, contradictory or nonsensical. Yet for many of those inside, the sense of belonging, identity, and purpose that comes with group participation compensates for what we outsiders would perceive as loss of freedom.

In theory, the various institutions we participate in have the power to do the same thing. Yet, once these reach a certain size or become a majority, benefits accrue to the participants with a minimal amount of effort, and the perceived alliance to the group can decrease with little cost. For example, I really don’t have to be that American in order to receive the benefits of being (middle-class) American: a comparatively robust infrastructure, a broad range of freedoms of speech and pursuits, etc. These benefits certainly do not accrue to all Americans, but having been born here allowed for the possibility of these benefits. Yet I’m not required to participate in many activities, as long as I pay my taxes, and I could even get away with not doing that for several years.

The downside of the relative freedoms and benefits of dominant institutions (aside from the very important fact that institutions are created and thrive with great cost to those who are not their members) is that with the decreased “cost” of membership, there is a decreased value in the ready-made answers to important life questions. Having the freedom to purchase my own home and live a peaceful life, or even the ability to make that a goal, certainly meant something different to a generation returning from World War Two than it does to me. The proliferation of “Freedom Isn’t Free” bumper stickers isn’t quite enough to fill the gap of insufficiency I feel when trying to relate to what I perceive are the identity markers of being an American. (The correlation between freedom and conflict is one established to benefit the institution, and only secondarily myself, if at all. I provide that example simply because it is a popular one).

The identity that came with being a Christian was never completely satisfying to me, but I perceived the fault to be with myself and not with Christianity. The costs and benefits of participation in the evangelical Christianity of my upbringing were relatively simple in theory. The initial costs were recognizing ones own insufficiency, sinful nature, and absolute reliance on God for salvation from that nature that would otherwise damn me to eternity in hell (which was not red devils and flames but eternal separation from God, in my understanding). The explicit benefits were eternal life with God and the comfort of knowing your sins were forgiven. The implied (and sometimes explicit) benefits were that you would be much happier and fulfilled than those non-Christians. You, unlike they, would have a sense of purpose. There were ongoing costs as well. Membership dues, you could say, and not just financial. These costs, in my experience, were that you should participate fully in the perpetuation of the Christian narrative, and most importantly, that you bring others into the fold. After all, if you were happy and unfulfilled, and your friends and acquaintances are not, wouldn’t you want to share your happiness with them?

My particular problem is that, having grown up in a Christian environment, nearly all my friends and family were already at least nominally Christian (or didn’t want to rock the boat by telling people they weren’t). Thus, for me to pay my dues, I had to go beyond my own social circles to bring in more members. In doing so, I was not only contributing to my local membership in a Christian community, I was participating in the fulfillment of history, for only when the entire world had heard the Gospel would the end of history come, after which the saved would spend eternity with God. I didn’t usually think about it on such a historical scope. All I thought about was how I was supposed to go make more Christians and the guilt I would often feel for not doing a good job. I was concerned that my membership card would be revoked, not that someone in the church would call me out, but that God might. In short, the first understanding I had about my relationship to the Christian institution was not one in which I thought it was insufficient for me, but that I was insufficient for it. From the institution’s perspective, that was a perfect place for me to be.