Cultural Relativism Not an Argument for Abhorrent Practices
By: Collin Sullivan, Daily Nebraskan (U. Nebraska)
November 14, 2006 7:49 PM
(U-WIRE) LINCOLN, Neb. - A recent case in an Atlanta courthouse says more about the global cultural divide than any books could tell us.
On Nov. 1, Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant, was sentenced to 10 years in a Georgia prison for aggravated battery and cruelty to children. By the listed charges, it would seem that he repeatedly beat his little girl, now 7.
In reality, prosecutors said Adem used scissors to remove his daughter's clitoris. And while Georgia recently passed an anti-mutilation law -- pushed through with the help of the girl's mother -- that law wasn't on the books when the mutilation occurred.
Adem said that he never circumcised his daughter, and that he grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, and he considers the practice to be more common in rural areas.
While he hasn't admitted guilt, Adem's case highlights one of the world's most culturally divisive practices, a topic of great debate within the human rights community.
Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or sometimes female circumcision, comes in numerous variations, but often involves cutting the clitoris from the female, usually young girls. This has various cultural justifications and implications, but is often intended as sexual damage-control.
Since the clitoris contains thousands of nerve endings, removing it can serve to moderate or completely dissolve a woman's ability to experience sexual stimulation. This quells promiscuity and removes physical temptation, sometimes with intent to keep women "pure" until marriage. Hence, those on the receiving end of this brutal procedure tend to be young.
As the Daily Nebraskan's audience is almost exclusively Western, it's safe to suggest that readers are either still cringing or are now just plain disgusted. That's because of our upbringing. An act as brutal as FGM -- often performed with unsanitary and primitive objects like broken bottles, sticks or sharp rocks -- can seem barbaric to those of us in the West.
Cultural anthropologists can explain this with the theory of cultural relativism. The idea is that no culture is inherently superior to another, no value system more correct. There is no one standard set of morals by which we can objectively judge all cultures, so comparing morality between cultures -- which retain independent and distinct histories and influences -- is basically futile.
This stands in stark contrast to the theory of moral universalism, which suggests that there are at least some moral standards by which all cultures and value systems may be judged. Murder, maybe they'll say, or rape shan't ever be justified with cultural arguments. Moral universalists look for values found consistently across cultures and identify them.
The theory of human rights takes principle from cultural relativism, but finally rests on the law of universalism. Human rights, simply by their nature, are universal. They do not rely on geography or political system for existence -- they do, however, rely on governments and activists to promote and protect them. Just because a government does not recognize or protect a particular right does not mean the people are not entitled to it.
People often look to the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights for guidance on what rights people do and do not have just by nature of being a member of the homo sapiens species. This, though, can get confusing.
Take, for example, Articles 3, 5, 27 and 30 of the UDHR. Article 3 establishes the right of "security of person," and Article 5 prohibits "torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Article 27, though, establishes the right "freely to participate in the cultural life of the community" Couple this with Article 30's declaration that nothing in the Declaration may be interpreted as implying a person has the right to violate any of the other rights enlisted and one can see the problem. No one can justify a violation of one right by saying he or she was merely exercising another.
Female genital mutilation, then, is a conundrum. It's ingrained as part of the "cultural life" of numerous communities, particularly in rural Africa. And so prohibiting the practice could be seen as a violation of human rights, while the practice itself is inherently a violation of human rights, very obviously cruel treatment and possibly torture.
Cultural relativism is a good start. It emphasizes the importance of local history and tradition, especially when working toward human rights implementation. But cultural relativism alone is not the answer.
There are some practices that are so abhorrent and degrading that they simply cannot be justified -- ever. Genocide will never be successfully defended with a human rights argument. Rape cannot be justified on free-speech grounds.
And cutting a young girl's clitoris will always be a repugnant act, whether in Ethiopia or Georgia. Cultural practices can be altered to include universal human rights and still honor tradition and local values. Human rights can never bow to culture alone.