Cultural Relativism and Global Values: the Median That Works

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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...
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