Is culture ever wrong?

It's almost a truism that liberally-minded, progressive people of the world make an effort to understand and appreciate other people's cultures, no matter how different they might be from our own.  We might find practices ranging from arranged marriages to initiation ceremonies among Papuan tribes people a little strange, but we would not, heaven forbid, stand up and denounce them as “wrong”.  To do this would smack of cultural arrogance, imperialist hangovers or worse.

Does this mean, then, that everything deemed to be part and parcel of any culture is acceptable?

I think we have to distinguish between cultural practices and cultures in their entirety. No, we should not dismiss any culture in its entirety as “wrong”. There may be certain aspects of the culture which we find distasteful, but that does not justify our dismissing it out of hand; anthropologists have taught us to see that people with cultures which seem quite alien to us may actually lead happier lives than we do. When it comes to cultural practices, however, I would suggest that we might take a different point of view.

Culture is not static: very few cultures in the world are exactly the same as they were 200 years ago.

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At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it would have seemed entirely normal to most people within our western culture that children would labour in factories, that people would be sent to the other side of the world for stealing a loaf of bread, or hanged for poaching. Our culture has moved on from that, and most of us are happy to see that it has. Closer to home, cannibalism was once part and parcel of the culture of certain Pacific nations, including New Zealand – it no longer is; the culture has moved on.

Undesirable practices can be eliminated from cultures without the culture in its entirety turning to dust. And perhaps there are today still certain cultural practices which we really should not be tolerating. The problem, though, is how we determine what is “undesirable”.

We come back to cultural arrogance. We might well denounce some “primitive” initiation ceremony, yet perhaps the practitioners of such ceremonies might well denounce certain aspects of our culture, possibly the materialism and greed which threaten the stability of the earth. Which of the two cultural phenomena represents more of a threat?

I think there are criteria which might help us to determine whether we can, and perhaps should, denounce certain cultural practices with a clean conscience. For example, if the practice clearly results in permanent physical harm, if it is inflicted upon children or anyone against their will – then I think there is a clear case for condemning it. A case in point is female genital mutilation, practised in certain African cultures. In this instance, the criteria just mentioned clearly apply, and I think we can say this practice is wrong and should be stopped. That does not mean that we condemn lock, stock and barrel the cultures espousing it, but it does mean that this one aspect of their culture should disappear.

This is fine, but what actually do we say in response if we asked to change one of our cultural practices and stop destroying the planet?

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About The Author

Peter is Principal of Euroasia.