Rights and Eurocentrism

Edited version of a Metafilter comment posted on 19 August 2002 to a thread about a TLS review of Roger Sandall's The Culture Cult (the review is no longer online, but here's another).


Eurocentric culture is slowly gaining the mental tools to say it is better than other cultures. ¶ posted by rhyax

The objectionable part of this idea is the full stop at the end, because it implies "absolutely better than other cultures" when the question should be "better at what?" English culture isn't better at helping you to live in the heart of the Amazon than Yanomami culture. American culture isn't better for living in a city of ten million Chinese than the local culture of that city.

Cultures should be considered relative to their particular environments. That has little to do with the stereotyped cultural relativism that critics attack for suggesting that "anything goes". Such "crude" cultural relativism (as it is often described) is a strawman. Sure, some people may believe it, but you'll see it attacked much more often than you'll ever see it defended.

I spent most of my twenties grappling with these issues, as part of a broader study of how traditions and cultures change. My conclusions were simple enough: certain universal rights and values take precedence over any defence of a particular practice as traditional, or part of an indigenous culture. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may not be a perfect expression of those universal rights and values, but at the moment it's the best political tool available to encourage their protection. We should not flinch from promoting and arguing for human rights over traditional practices that breach them anywhere.

But the necessary flipside of this is: practices that fall outside the domain of universal rights and values are the preserve of particular cultures. They are by definition not universal, but local and relative: that is, to be considered in the light of the surrounding physical and social environment, local values, and so on. In this light, any statement that a certain culture is "best" in absolute terms is pointless. A culture can only be the best at doing certain things in certain environments and certain circumstances in certain people's judgement.

Talking about "Eurocentric" culture as "the best" shows the pointlessness of such claims: what is "Eurocentric" culture? American culture is not Australian culture, Australian culture is not Scottish culture, Scottish culture is not English culture, English culture is not German culture. So whose is "best"? Before you say "USA!", American culture is not Southern culture is not Midwest culture is not West coast culture is not Californian culture is not Northern Californian culture is not San Francisco culture is not Haight-Ashbury culture.

And before anyone says "Eurocentric cultures are best at respecting human rights"—I haven't read Sandall's book, but the last paragraph of Tallis's review is worth comment:

Some of the passion in Sandall's writing comes from a local issue: his horror at the betrayal of the Australian Aboriginal people by practitioners of romantic primitivism, the intellectuals who rewrote Aboriginal history, enforced bilingual instruction, encouraged a cultural apartheid of "self-determination" and prioritized the preservation of traditional culture over the skills of modern life.

The "betrayal" being attacked here was an attempt to redress the terrible effects of exactly the sort of cultural assimilation and Western triumphalism we see promoted by some today. For much of the 20th century, many Aboriginal children with partial white ancestry were forcibly removed from their mothers, tribes and homes and "integrated" into white society for their supposed betterment, a policy that remained in place in some parts of the country until 1970. The attempts of recent years to support traditional Aboriginal culture, while they may not have been wholly successful or without problems of their own, have to be seen against that background of attempted cultural obliteration as an attempt to undo harm, or at least prevent further harm.

We may not agree about exactly which rights are universal, but the right of children to remain with their families would probably make most people's list. Out of a belief in its own absolute superiority, "Eurocentric" culture demonstrated in Australia—a democratic, Western society—that it is just as capable of transgressing basic human rights in a sustained and misguided fashion as any other.



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