05 July 2012

When cultural relativism becomes racism

Alex Aan
Human rights activist Maryam Namazie has a blog post about a ‘letter to the editor’ whose writer displays a contemptible sort of cultural relativism. In his letter responding to a petition for Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan’s release from prison (Aan was found guilty of blasphemy for posting atheist statements on Facebook), Raymond Carlise writes:

I have considered Edward Conduit’s appeal to sign the petition in defence of the Indonesian atheist who has been jailed for saying there is no God, but have concluded that I cannot sign [the] Avaaz petition for Alex.

There may well be no God for Alex, as for you or for me. With the Indonesians however it’s evidently a different matter. The limits of subjectivity and of objectivity have to be recognized.

So Raymond Carlise is an atheist who thinks that non-Indonesians have no business telling Indonesians to respect the human rights and civil liberties of their fellow citizens. How magnanimous of him! Clearly for Carlise the “limits of subjectivity and of objectivity” preclude freedom of thought and expression for Indonesian atheists like Alex Aan. Carlise is basically saying to Alex, “You did this to yourself, so tough luck.”

Liberals who share Carlise’s cultural relativism seem blind to the double standards they’re championing. They totally heart those wonderful things called ‘human rights’ and ‘civil liberties’, but hey, if a different culture doesn’t think they’re all that wonderful, more power to it! Who cares if other societies jail atheists/mutilate the genitals of girls/deny women the vote? My own enlightened society doesn’t (phew!), and that’s all that matters to me.

These same liberals are likely to be infected with the postmodernist idea that any one culture’s moral norms are just as valid as those of others, including those of the so-called West. To believe otherwise is to be a racist, a cultural bigot. But atheist writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali points out that it’s actually the opposite – cultural relativists are the ones being racist, for their refusal to oppose practices like persecution of atheists and female genital mutilation (FGM) condemns non-Westerners to pain and suffering that Westerners wouldn’t tolerate for their own cultural group.

Here’s a video from the Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne earlier this year, where Hirsi Ali joins Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris for a panel discussion. Hirsi Ali makes her argument that cultural relativism can become a form of racism (and worse) at time mark 0:07:13.

Referring to FGM carried out by British Muslims while a ‘culturally sensitive’ government allows it to happen for fear of being thought racist or Islamophobic, Hirsi Ali says:

If you think through the logic of racism, if little [Muslim] girls of seven, eight years old cannot be protected by British law, then you start to wonder what exactly is racist. If the genitals of little white girls were being cut off, there would be enormous outrage.

Cultural relativists like Raymond Carlise should seriously reconsider their position. If they think that they occupy the moral high ground by refusing to judge the moral failings of another culture, they’re only fooling themselves. Don’t be like Carlise. Sign the petition calling for Alex Aan’s release, or write to the Indonesian government to let them know that human rights are for everyone, not just privileged Western liberals.


1 comment:

  1. Well said. And don't forget the many people here in Indonesia who refuse to accept what the bullies and thugs want to make our society into. Indonesians are fighting for Alex too don't forget.