Cultural Relativism in an Age of Globalization
After spending an entire life in the U.S. or the relative shelter of Western Europe, perhaps visiting a country where women cannot show their hair in public, drive or own property could come as a shock. In some places, gender differences continue to create deep power rifts, especially where the divides come from religion (Levine & Robbins, 2017). How would a westerner react to what is (from a western perspective) a clear infringement on gender equality and human rights? Culture plays such a significant part in interpersonal communication because it informs the contextual backgrounds of all communicative interactions. In an age if globalization, the boundaries of morality and cultural relativism are blurry.
A parent culture informs social learning and worldviews. Since all people develop in cultural contexts, it follows that they look at the world from behind the rich and selective lens of their culture (Raley & Sweeney, 2017). Attitudes and perceptions, ingredients of verbal and non-verbal communication, come from such cultural contexts (Raley & Sweeney, 2017). When two people are speaking, each forms an impression of the other. The emergent impression directs all manner of communication, including the attitude of the other person. Subsequently, the richness and depth of a communicative interaction depends on the specific perspective of cultural values and cultural identity.
The first major contribution of a foundational culture is its connection to self-identification. Individuals define themselves according to their cultural backgrounds and geographic origins (Levine & Robbins, 2017). The sense of identity tends to elicit a defensive reaction if a subject were to perceive an attack against their values or their regional and social backgrounds (Raley & Sweeney, 2017). In other words, if one person condensers the other, the second person will develop a negative impression of the speaker and erect communication barriers (Levine & Robbins, 2017). After the first impression, the depth of the emergent communication barriers determines the quality of subsequent interaction. Here, contextualization is a relevant part of communication to not only avoid erecting barriers, but also as a moral imperative.
Circumcision is an important rite of passage. In the bible, circumcision was a mark of a covenant between Jews and God. In other places, it marks a transition from childhood to adulthood. Circumcision is such an important rite of passage that children prepare for the moment from their childhood. Their culture creates a sense of deep respect and transition in the simple act of circumcision. Male circumcision is not only a common feature of western civilization, doctors encourage it as a hygienic exercise. Problems begin with female circumcision. The phrase female genital mutilation (FGM) has gained prominence around the world (Walley, 1997). The term depicts the exercise as a form of mindless mutilation of female genitalia, and this writer strongly agrees with the assessment, especially after the background research for this paper.
From a native perspective, FGM is an important rite of passage. It marks the boundary between childhood and adulthood. Circumcision also creates a new mindset, one that establishes a self-perception of an adult rather than a child (Walley, 1997). Due to its symbolic significance, FGM also initiates membership into one’s community. From this paragraph so far, a notable theme of perspective is emergent. The very use of FGM is a powerful illustration of perspective from the writer. In all likelihood, the thought of FGM is likely to compel a show of dissent and a very negative image of the source (Walley, 1997). Does it matter that the subject wants to undergo the exercise? Perhaps a ready response of “brainwashing” and “social pressure” would come readily. FGM is simply out of date and out of place in the world today.
According to the symbolic interactionism theory of communications, symbols are a critical part of group membership. The relevance of symbols inspires tattoos and other forms of body labels. In a community of bikers (motor cycle enthusiasts), owning a motorcycle is a critical sign of group membership. From the theory of symbolic interactionism, a shared symbol connects people, forges a sense of collective identity and informs the future of inter-cultural communication. Clearly, circumcision played a similar role as a tattoo would play for fresh recruits in the army (at least from popular culture depictions of tattoos in some army units). The activity informs group membership. A person would feel out of place if they were to bypass the ceremony somehow. Such significance would not matter from an outside perspective. A mutilation is unacceptable.
From a western perspective, the contextual understanding of the outdated culture comes with sufficient medical and ethical support. A patriarchal society traditionally enforces its will on women, forcing them into activities that make them docile (Condon & Yousef, 2016). FGM ranks close to childhood marriages (forced), child soldiers (whether forced or voluntary) and denial of the right to own property. This research uncovered an article about wife inheritance. The very thought of wife inheritance is repulsive, yet it is part of some cultures, albeit an outdated culture that is phasing out.
In the context of all injustice in the world, does a westerner have a right to ‘defend’ the rights of oppressed communities? Perhaps the defense if a moral imperative. After all, humans owe a sense of duty to each other. It is immoral to stand aside and witness others suffering. In a quest for liberation, it does not matter than the target group wants to continue with their way of life (Sheen, Yekani & Jordan, 2018). Rather, any indication of resistance would fuel the quest for liberation. Resistance to enlightenment, after all, would be a demonstration of the depth of brainwashing in the foreign community. In addition, a communicative interaction is likely to dismiss the outdated cultural values as suppressive and savage (Condon & Yousef, 2016). Such dismissal comes from an enlightened position and authority.
After stepping back and re-evaluating the issue, western norms litter all interventions. In the afore-mentioned issue of widow-inheritance, the wife (of a deceased husband) must engage in sexual intercourse (unprotected) as part of cultural rituals (Perry, et al., 2014). Current research shows that the specific region in the world, sub-Saharan Africa, has the highest prevalence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (Perry, et al., 2014). In other words, the cultural practice exposes women to venereal diseases. Consider an alternative perspective. What if the woman is HIV positive and the man is not? The sexual contact is as much a threat to the man as it is to the woman. In fact, considering the high prevalence rate of HIV, having unprotected sex with a widow takes on new significance. Perhaps the husband died because of the feared virus. The man would expose himself to a chronic disease by conforming to the culture. Due to the cultural expectation of male dominance in sexual affairs, the dissent against such cultural practice stands on solid ground. Again, this writer opposes such practices completely.
Continuing on the same intriguing (if very dark) topic, widow inheritance intended to help the woman after her husband’s death. In some of the sub-Saharan cultures, women’s inability to own property left them vulnerable to chronic poverty after the loss of their husbands (Perry, et al., 2014). Therefore, wife inheritance allowed the woman an opportunity to continue raising her children in a sheltered homestead. The justifications are sickening (Perry, et al., 2014). These societies crippled women so much that they needed to the support of new husbands. The women did not have a say in the matter whatsoever. Today, the offensive cultural practices are phasing out. However, in these regions, women face an uphill struggle for survival after loss of their husbands (Walley, 1997). Crippling poverty and single-parenthood are increasing as an outcome of rapid cultural change (Walley, 1997). Perhaps a replacement cultural practice needed to come before the ideological changes.
In the other issue of FGM, the sustained effort to rid the world of the unethical exercise has finally moved the activity to the brink of extinction. However, its loos has also left significant damage to affected communities(Levine & Robbins, 2017). Primarily, the loss of a central rite of passage does not prepare girls for the transitions from childhood to adulthood(Levine & Robbins, 2017). Therefore, the cultural loss has eroded the capacity of the community to communicate important cultural messages such as the dynamics of interpersonal communications(Levine & Robbins, 2017). Subsequently, the rates of adolescent pregnancies (before marriage) are also increasing. This paper holds that the bad outcomes of change are better than the prior societies. Perhaps these communities will transition into better setting for women and children in the next generation.
A clear theme of seeing the world from behind one’s cultural perspective is a powerful part of intercultural contact. Each group is likely to see the other from the informed lens of one’s cultural background. In such context, true harmony is impossible (Levine & Robbins, 2017). Inequality, perceptions of injustice, mistreatment, and condescension among other indications of power disparity are likely to endure. While the examples of FGM and widow inheritance are extreme, similar illustrations of cultural differences would offer a similar assessment of cultural relativism.
An arranged marriage. Its foundation sounds completely unromantic and devoid of love. An arranged marriage also has a texture of complete loss of identity and inability of the married couple to select their wedding partners. Arranged marriages also have an aristocratic texture as a tool for maintaining power and gaining influence. The book The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri tells a different story. In the book, arranged marriages were much more effective than romantic marriages. An arranged marriage also brought two families together and tended to create a sense of equal cultural foundation (Adoor, 2018). Today, India has one the lowest divorce rates in the world, less than 1% (Adoor, 2018). A few decades ago, divorce was almost non-existent. In the United States, the global champion of liberty, marriages are failing in the same rate that they are succeeding.
The duration of marriage is not the only measure of its success. In fact, in a repressive culture, women (due to the tendency for men to wield more power) could face a significant threat of loss of social position if a marriage were to fail. In the west, unhappy marriages endured because of the justification of children and power among other factors (Booth, 2018). In the Indian culture, a marriage is a symbolic union of two families. The union is so powerful that a divorce would involve members from two extended families. In other words, a marriage is such a significant social event that its end goes beyond the man and the husband. In the same way, it follows that measures of happiness, such as co-existence, predict that arranged marriage could create a better chance of happiness and endurance than love-based marriages.
If a westerner were to meet an individual in an arranged marriage, the westerner is likely to express skepticism and sympathy. Perhaps out of a sense of entitlement to choice and liberal though, the westerner somehow perceives his or her position as superior to the individual in the arranged marriage. Unfortunately, numbers tell a different story. The theme of cultural relativism continues to grow. Looking at an outside culture from a local perspective is misleading and potentially divisive. It creates a false impression of subjugation and loss of autonomy and fuels condescension.
As a further source of insight into the depth of cultural differences affecting communication, the book Lahiri’s book (The Namesake) showed the complex dynamics of entitlement. Ashima and Ashoke felt that since they indulged their parents in a traditional ceremony, they deserved a similar honor. Unfortunately, their son Gogol dated American girls, notably Maxine, and lost his sense of cultural identity. The film adaptation of the book offers a compelling context for intercultural communication, specifically the value of moral relativism. Maxine erected a boundary between herself and Gogol’s parents despite the traditional functions of weddings and marital unions in the Indian society. The book established a powerful theme of cultural relevant in all aspects of life (Sheen, Yekani & Jordan, 2018). In other words, when interacting with a person from a different culture, it is critical to have a deep understanding of cultural undercurrents and show appropriate respect for diversity. Perhaps in a reversed situation, jokes and cruelty would not seem as funny.
For context, sexual liberation is a proud American heritage. The mannerism of dressing is a free expression of sexuality and self-concept. Despite the deep value of sexuality, such open expressions could have a different impression on an individual froman outside culture. For example, labelling tight-fitting clothing as designed for prostitutes is likely to offend. In some places, public embarrassment has resulted from women dressing in western fashion (Karega-Munene, 2018). In some places, reference to the loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden (when Adam and Eve realized they were naked) infer a need for using clothing to cover nudity (Karega-Munene, 2018). Here, a person from the west would feel a certain level of entitlement to select their clothing, even if the clothing would be inappropriate in other cultures. The entitlement, however, needs a strict restriction to one’s home.
Consider this situation for a moment. A woman is walking down the street, dressed in a smart attire and feeling good about herself. However, she is in an Islamic country. Her dressing offends the public, and to dissuade women from dressing in similar fashion in the future, take her clothes off in public (Karega-Munene, 2018). The reaction is unacceptable because the public is blaming the woman for the public’s own reaction to her clothing. Unfortunately, such events are a reality in some places. The events suggest that the victim (the woman) was insensitive to the local culture. It is likely that local women would lead the call for the act of humiliation. Here, the depth of cultural sensitivity tends to require continued vigilance and contextual awareness.
In the same way that dressing has symbolic relevance, some cultures attach deep pride to a woman’s hair. For example, heavy investment in hair and makeup are a part of the western culture. On the other hand, an Islam-inspired culture has a different perspective of a woman’s appearance. The feminine dress code restricts the visibility of a woman’s hair to the public and attaches deep value to the gesture (Booth, 2018). Hiding a face behind the dress code is also a common cultural practice and marks cultural events significant to the woman’s life (Mahmud & Swami, 2015). Her fashion choice could baffle an outsider, though the familiarity of the dress codes takes away most of the shock (Booth, 2018). In the different cultures, women use their choice of clothing to express their identity. In both cases, the subject is sending a strong message about her cultural background and her values.
Tight-fitting clothing could take an unwanted appearance of exhibitionism. Perhaps a woman from the Western countries is dressing the way she does to entertain men. In the same way, perhaps a woman from the Middle East is dressing the way she does as a sign of her docile compliance. In both cases, the interpretation of cultural messages is open to interpretation (Booth, 2018). An outside culture would have a different impression of the cultural item because of the restrictive effects of diverse worldviews. Perhaps interpersonal communications, and the depth of cultural interactions, vary because of such differences in value.
Perhaps some of the cultural coverage from this paper is over-simplistic. After proofreading the paper, a particular theme of referencing power dynamics and gender emerged. Specifically, women seem to bear the blunt edge of unethical conduct and suppression. The coverage does not reference a specific cultural group, and this writer would like to pass apologies if the content was offensive in any way. A growing theme of cultural illiteracy informs this section. Perhaps an outsider does not have the closest idea what they are talking about (Mahmud & Swami, 2015). Maybe speaking about intimate matters in a certain way is offensive to people from a particular culture. The intention was to point out the diverse perspectives behind intercultural interactions (Mahmud & Swami, 2015). Any offense would only illustrate the lack of depth and reinforce the argument about cultural appropriation. The future of multi-cultural interactions and cosmopolitanism may require society to overcome its current limitations and find a way to move forward.
Cultural diversity defines most regions around the world. Since culture includes all aspects of life, cultural affiliation tends to define the mannerism of interpersonal interactions, the perception of the world and the reaction to new cultures. The diversity complicates the depth of interpersonal communication because it creates in-dwelling assumptions and subsequently shapes the mannerism of social contact (Raley & Sweeney, 2017). Since all people see the world from behind the socializing agents of their origin, perhaps it is inevitable that such deep differences define perceptions of other cultures (Raley & Sweeney, 2017). Clearly, morality and cultural relativism interact along the lines of what is acceptable from a specific context of a background culture. Clearly, cultural relativism offers a powerful tool for bridging communication barriers or an immovable impediment against effective communications.
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- Booth, J. (2018, July 06). 14 fashion ‘faux pas’ that Americans make that French women don’t. Retrieved from https://www.thisisinsider.com/style-mistakes-american-women-make-2018-7
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