Cultural Relativism and Global Values: The Median Essay

This essay has a total of 1492 words and 7 pages.

Cultural Relativism and Global Values: The Median That Works

Cultural Relativism and Global Values: The Median That Works Cultural Relativism and Global Values
The Median That Works

Universal values and human rights are abstractions that are considered by many as little
more than a romantic concept. Those who would like to believe in a set of universal values
find that they either can not find enough evidence for, or that there is too much evidence
against such values. Cultural relativism, a relatively new idea in political science that
has its origins in anthropology, is the major evidence and argument against global values.
Both widely supported and widely attacked, cultural relativity is a doctrine that states
"…that the actions of people within each culture should be evaluated according to the
rules of that culture." 1 Many countries and cultures use cultural relativity to support
actions that "outsiders" attack as violations of human rights. The Taliban, the former
ruling party of Afghanistan, used cultural relativity arguments to support their
particularly strict version of Islamic law that included the subjugation of women and the
destruction of priceless pieces of art and artifacts. The United States, when attacked by
its Western allies for its capital punishment laws, responds that "it is their way and no
one else's business. Which is precisely what the Taliban [said]" 2

For many cultures and countries, cultural relativity has become a scapegoat and an excuse
for violations of human rights, and a defense mechanism to protect national sovereignty
from real or imagined threats. Many cultures that claim cultural relativity as a defense
do so on the false claim that the practice or value in question is actually an authentic
cultural practice, and many others who say that universal values are in fact "Western"
values, do so falsely as well. Cultural relativity does not merit complete dismissal as a
concept, especially when looking at and judging other cultures; however, it is not a
relevant argument against universalism when advocating global values.

When speaking of global, or universal, values one has got to realize that those ideas can
be taken to a dangerous extreme. The world has already had glimpses of that extreme,
European and American imperialism. Many political and social conflicts today -
particularly those in Africa, South America, and the Middle East - have risen from the
colonialism of these areas. Colonialism is a form of external change that is unacceptable
in the twenty-first century.

To enter a culture and enforce new laws, borders, and languages; to destroy the previous
way of life and force your own ideas upon the indigenous people of how their lives should
be led, is in principle ethnocide. One could certainly understand, therefore, why
extremist ideas of global values and global unity can be controversial. Any country that
has a culture that differs from that of the West should be terrified of countries,
politicians, and political scientists that spout forth their belief in global unity by
assimilation. It was this belief that was one of the driving forces behind the social
policies of many colonial states in past centuries.3

On September 20, 1999, Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, made a
speech to the General Assembly that included what many countries might infer as a threat
to their sovereignty.

State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined by the forces
of globalization and international cooperation….If states bent on criminal
behavior know that frontiers are not the absolute defense; if they know
that the Security Council will take action to halt crimes against humanity,
then they will not embark on such a course of action in expectation of
sovereign immunity.4
For many countries, to accept "Western values" and opinions on human rights, especially if
they see themselves as defending their culture and religion from "Western values" as the
Taliban claimed to do, or if they have another set of values - for instance, "Asian
values"- would be tantamount to demolishing their national sovereignty and bowing to the

"Asian values" is a relatively new term. A political construct first used in the Bangkok
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