by Denyse O'Leary
Recently, a Canadian high school teacher broke the silence about where cultural relativism really leads.
Update: When we celebrate “diversity,” what exactly are we celebrating?
We are told that it means that everyone will accept people of other faiths and sexualities. But what can that mean when it is unpacked?
In “Moments of startling clarity: Moral education programming in Ontario today,”* Stephen L. Anderson recounts what happened when he tried to show students what can happen to women in a culture with no tradition of treating women as if they were fellow human beings with men:
I was teaching my senior Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies—multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.
I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha. Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.
The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions.
But I was not prepared for their reaction.
I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.
They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff .”
Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”
While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”
One reason might be this: For thousands of years, most thinkers assumed that virtue was something specific; it could be described, and could be distinguished from not-virtue (vice). Courage, for example, was a virtue—a cardinal virtue. Cowardice was a vice. One ought, they said, to aim for courage because it is intrinsically worthy, and avoid cowardice because it is intrinsically a disgrace. Those thinkers are—in the students’ terms—judgmental!
In recent decades, a new view has taken root. The new view is that courage and cowardice have no intrinsic reality. Neither does the classical virtue of justice or the vice of injustice. It all depends on how you feel about things, which in turn depends on your culture. That underlies the students’ inability to move from “I feel bad” to “This is wrong.”
One outcome has been the popular convention that all cultures are of equal value. If Afghan men see their treatment of women as just, then it must be so. We lack any legitimate basis for saying it isn’t. One common way of putting it is that our ancestors were bigoted imperialists who didn’t see the worth of other cultures.
How would a traditional philosopher respond to that? Well, if he believes that virtue and vice (right and wrong) exist in some sense, even as abstractions, he would likely say that most cultures excel in some virtues but not in others.
The Afghan culture, for example, excels in the virtue of courage; it produces many brave suicide bombers. But it falls behind in the virtue of justice, especially where women are concerned. The traditional philosopher would insist that this is an objective assessment, based on evidence, and that no one who makes it can properly be called a bigot.
A different culture may excel in justice, but fall behind in courage. That is a particularly unfortunate combination because people vaguely understand that when a woman is mutilated for running away from an abusive husband, a terrible wrong has been done. These students, after all, were not a Taliban mob, cheering the mutilators on. They do not speak up for fear of criticism for the one remaining sin—passing judgment. Again, from the traditional perspective, it is not bigotry to say that their cowardice is a vice. It is a vice.
The students could not go from their vague discomfort to a rational ethical conclusion because they have never learned traditional philosophy of ethics. Therefore, their objections have no force and, for all that they sense injustice, they will likely do very little good in the world. And the “accept everyone, accept everything” assemblies they attend unwittingly feed the problem: They learn to accept gay rights in North America and stoning gays in Afghanistan.
Theirs is an education to avoid at all costs.
*Education Forum (Fall, 2011); pp. 27–29. Education Forum is a publication of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. Stephen Anderson is also a PhD candidate in the Philosophy of Education at the University of Western Ontario.
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.