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.”


Not a “Bad Experience”

When I’ve talked to people about my experiences in church, I’ve often heard things like, “You just had a bad experience. It’s not all like that,” or “You shouldn’t judge all of Christianity by your particular circumstances,” or “Well, yeah. The church sometimes sucks, but God is still good.” In other words, my personal experience might have been bad, but for others, it’s all good, so it’s not God’s fault. Now, people close to me might say this because they neither want to blame God or me for my situation. People who don’t know me might tell me I forsook God and now I know where I’m going.

I wasn’t the most successful Christian, but I wasn’t the most insular, either. I attended a Catholic school as a child, and we went to Mass every Friday. I have at various times in my hometown church led small groups, taught Sunday School and youth groups, delivered the sermon, led worship, and prayed for people for healing and baptism of the Spirit. I’ve attended and been a counselor at youth camps of a more Pentecostal sort (think Jesus Camp, but a little less intense) where people prayed to be able to speak in tongues. I even attended an Episcopal church a few times, and went to a couple Mormon stake dances (it was all U2 and Depeche Mode). I didn’t intentionally take in the broadest swath of Christianity, but it wasn’t the smallest.

Here’s the thing. My Christian experience wasn’t bad. Largely, I enjoyed my involvement in the church. I rarely look back with regret, and I value the morality that was imparted to me. I am not bitter about my Christian experience.

When I co-led a group a couple years ago (also entitled “Exiting Christianity”), the majority of attendees’ experiences with the church were much worse than mine. I came away feeling lucky that my experiences were largely with Christians of a less dogmatic and judgmental type. It’s hard to convince people that religion is good when their encounters with religious people have been condemnatory. Why should the person who feels mistreated think otherwise? Especially from an outside perspective, why believe that God is good when the evidence or your life experience suggests otherwise? (Many Christians do this, of course, with seemingly little reason other than custom. I coasted on custom for a few years.)

Nonetheless, my spiritual experiences, overall, were good. Even when I was kicked out the church, I held no ill will; I figured if I had been a conservative Christian, I would have done the same thing. So if we can’t blame the church, or the pastor, what else could be at fault? Geographic and cultural changes, perhaps? When returning to my hometown church the first few years after moving to California, I regularly had people half-jokingly comment, referring to this or that change in my appearance, that it must be a “California influence.” Longer hair? California. Vegetarian? California. Liberal political views? California. Loss of faith? You guessed it. I had heard this type of explanation before as well, when talking about someone who had “fallen away” from the faith because they moved away or stopped going to church. These are certainly factors, but not for the reasons people suppose.

Viewed in light of an ultimate truth that you already possess, exposure to divergent world views and multiculturalism may seem like a bad thing. I stayed in my hometown until almost thirty and heard negative opinions expressed about what lay beyond all the time. Now having lived elsewhere (though still in the Western United States) and traveled considerably, I would argue that everyone should spend some time living in a different location, even if only for a few months. The challenges to your default way of thinking and the expansion of your cultural understanding are worth a great expense.

Though in the scope of things, my cultural and spiritual upbringing may have been comparatively provincial, I don’t hold it responsible for my leaving the faith. I would say that living in a different culture had something to do with my subsequent life choices, but I haven’t been put under a liberal, or Californian, or atheist spell.

The single greatest factor in my deconversion that I haven’t mentioned was my continued education, which played a much more complex role. I’ll talk about that in the future.