Cultural Tolerance: It’s All Relative… Or Is It?

This week for my Moral Ed class, we were asked to read “Confessions of a Former Cultural Relativist” by Mr. Henry H. Bagish. It’s a good, quick, and easy read. It even has pictures! Beware: it may cause you to rethink your understanding of the world.

I really related to Bagish’s article because this issue is a very prevalent in society. The tensions of cultural relativity are inherent in society. How we interpret and process the world defines our views, opinions, and assumptions about other cultures.

Bagish takes many liberties in his article with regard to assumptions. Firstly, I believe that he assumes that his audience is a middle- to upper-class white Americans. Considering that he wrote this article in the 1980s, he is probably right. He does not consider that someone who may have a cultural heritage similar to that of the Dani or someone from a religious minority that has customs perceived as “strange” could be reading this. He never explicitly defines who his target audience is, but based on his examples and his biases, the inherent “normal” perspective of his article and students represents a common, but narrow, American view of the world.

I found it interesting that Bagish uses the tension between the Dani killings and the Nazi killings to highlight the flaws of cultural relativity. In my opinion, it highlights his own view of what really is “relative” or tolerable, and what is not. I have a feeling that if you took this to a different cultural group, such as a tribe in Southern Africa, they would have a very different perspective and tolerance for the different rituals. The understanding of right and wrong is stemmed within familiarity of the situation and each individual’s understanding of the logic. Because the Nazi regime has had so much publicity and education, readers are familiar with the faults in their thinking. It is culturally acceptable—and encouraged—to believe that the Nazis were wrong. However, the Dani culture has had next to no publicity or education. Readers have no frame of reference when trying to interpret the Dani rituals. The logic is not explained thoroughly, so readers are left with very little understanding. Perhaps when we talk about cultural relativity we are really stating that we do not understand, just as most of us do not understand Newton’s theory of relativity.

Part of his argument is also in how he portrays each case. When he describes how the Dani placate ghosts by administering one “sharp blow from a stone” resulting in young girls having “two fingers chopped off” (Bagish, 1981), he uses dramatic language and presents no theory as to why they see this as an important ritual. This brings to mind the article “The Body Rituals of Nacirema,” which describes in great detail how this particular group of people live their daily lives, and the rituals they encounter. After reading the article, some of the cultural activities seem cruel, unusual, and remain unexplained. The article makes sense once the reader realizes that Nacirema is “American” spelled backward. Once the reader has that frame of reference for understanding, the “rituals” seem normal and logical.

On the topic of logic, I found Bagish’s approach of “if… then” statements to be productive in objectively evaluating personal beliefs. However, because the “if…then” logic system is very simple and only accounts for one factor, it can at times be superficial. Bagish give an example in his conclusion that “If you value your [child’s] life, and don’t want them to die of smallpox, then vaccination is better than goat sacrifice.” Yes. This is true for most people; however, making the claim that “if you value your [child’s] life” is a blanket statement. How do you define “value”? I imagine that “valuing a life” has a very different meaning to me than it does to someone else. For example, for me, valuing a life means that every effort must be made to ensure the safety of that person. To someone else who has a different culture and understanding, valuing a life might mean that they are a prime candidate for a sacrifice—they are so valued here on earth that the god(s) would really appreciate the gesture.

At the end of his article, Bagish summarizes that he is advocating for tolerance by presenting these tensions. I agree with Bagish we need to promote cultural tolerance. However, that is the first step. In order to live in a peaceful world, we cannot promote “just tolerance.” We need to promote understanding, compassion, education, and curiosity. It is very hard to tolerate something you don’t understand (i.e. “Mr. Smith, why can’t I text in class? That is a dumb rule.”), but living in harmony is much easier to do when an understanding and cultural framework is present and logical.


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