Is cultural relativism an instrument for disguised oppression?

By Valentina Petrucci

From a historical perspective the concept of human rights was created from a Western-centred notion. Its construct and essence relies on the idea that all humans and citizens of the world are innately equal. With this in mind, the concept is based on principles that cross and overlap with terms such as freedom, equity and individualism. Yet, broader positions, beyond the Western borders, argue that this imposition of human rights on a global scale is not respectful of all cultures and is often categorised as forms of modern-day imperialism. This contrast of viewpoints leaves one questioning the ethical implications of human rights activism and whether this sort of mindset is actually a well disguised form of saviour-complex. Is the imposition of human rights actually a violation of cultures, of traditions and of centuries of non-Western practices? What makes the West entitled to demand the fundamental change of certain customs in order to fit them into what is prescribed to them as justice? 

The inalienable component to human rights, along with its individualistic, secular and rationalist nature, originates undoubtedly from Western documents. Primarily, from the period of the Enlightenment and subsequently, and consequently, from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens, as well as the United States Declaration. For centuries Western thinkers invested incalculable time in the development of these philosophical and ideological foundations which eventually translated into the principles that today uphold modern human rights. The interesting element to this observation is that these philosophers were entirely individualistic in their own evolution and achievements. Their entire lives revolved around their personal self-absorption and self-discovery processes which is what eventually led to the development of these individualistic ideas. Cultural relativists argue that this component leads to a lack of consideration for principles of community and welfare ideology, which is more prevalent in non-western countries. 

According to the traditionalists’ argument, the individualism embedded in the modern human rights discourse is not relevant from a more communal perspective. In cultures where communities and societal roles are praised and honoured, the individual is supposed to be one with society. According to cultural relativists, modern human rights actually seek to protect the individual from this society that they work towards uplifting. Besides, there is a heavy implication that takes societal duties into consideration in non-Western states. For some citizens of these countries it is almost impossible to separate duties from rights and therefore they represent concepts that are bundled into one meaning which is usually tied to their religion, family or specific institutions. 

Additionally, the birth of international modern human rights can be traced back to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The catastrophic ramifications of the two World Wars inevitably led to the necessary, and long overdue, cooperation between members of the international community, to establish a set of rules and norms that protected the rights of all humans. As if an entire history of massacres and oppression towards people of colour and indigenous groups were not already sufficient to sit down to find an adequate understanding about the prerequisites for human decency. Nevertheless, the document was drafted by members of the United Nations, which by that time, were mostly Western states. Regardless, it is also important to mention that with the passing of the years it evolved into a more inclusive document. Since 1976, two other fundamental documents were also ratified, which include the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Together these three pieces of human rights declarations form the well-known International Bill of Human Rights. 

Drifting the discussion towards the opposite perspective, it is essential to understand that a considerable number of states, including many non-Western ones, have shown broad acceptance for the treaties. Cross-culturally, and from states with very diverse perspectives, there has been support for the implementation and for the ratification of the modern human rights principles and norms. Within the treaties of the International Bill of Human Rights there is a strong and dominant discourse in regards to the necessary respect and honour that is supposed to be contributed to all cultures. It is undeniable that the concept of human rights irradiates Western values and ideology and its origins are undoubtedly traceable to the idea of creating a world that resembles that of the West. Yet, it is essential to also point out that the present-day bills have gone way beyond the Western-centred conversation. 

Nowadays, there is a massive emphasis on the contextual importance of these treaties. Ingrained deeper within the documents and on the rights established, there is an inevitable desire to truly represent all cultures and to speak inclusively of all human beings. Therefore, the possibility of there being an inclusive overlap between culture and human rights is undeniable and it has been demonstrated that the two concepts can coexist without showing signs of disrespect or intolerance towards communal values. Yet, this statement has been denied and refuted by various leaders of non-Western countries. They believe that human rights do not contribute to communal duties in society yet it is necessary to highlight that these practices usually include grotesque customs that coincidentally mainly target women, such as female circumcision and child marriage. 

Reza Afshari once said, in relation to Iran, that “the argument of cultural relativism is strongest when the traditional, patriarchal systems of authority are being challenged”. Here lies the true danger of misusing the title of cultural relativist given that it can potentially lead to oppression and the ideological disregard of the rightful respect for all human beings, as happened during the Second World War, but that is also taking place in countries like China or Israel. Hiding behind the ideology of cultural relativism, especially from influential positions of power, can lead to catastrophic instances of human rights violations or genocide. There is a thin line between advocating for the development of a community and the maintenance of cultural traditions and customs, and between exploiting the idea for discriminatory and segregating purposes. 

The discussion regarding whether human rights are considered Western values and therefore if they should be implemented by non-Western countries, can be approached from numerous perspectives. Each person confronts certain dilemmas through their own lenses and experiences, therefore topics that relate to culture and ethnic-identity can be subject to polemics and controversies. Yet, modern human rights, although undeniably originating from Western ideals, serve to protect the individual from the claws of a powerful system of collective governance. While communal values do not necessarily protect the peoples, human rights can also serve to protect the community and their traditions since these principles do not discriminate between cultures, ethnicities, religions, or genders. There is some sort of collective rewardness when each individual is free to live a life in the absence of abuse and maltreatment. What is the purpose of maintaining traditions that suffocate the will to participate within communal contexts and where the dignity of the individual is bottled into an oppressed reality? Most of the time, political leaders rely on these ideological gaps, in order to continue their insufferable justification for the control of their own people.   

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