Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism excuses too much. From pushing on the trains to the bribes associated with guanxi—when you ask people whether they like this stuff, they say no, of course not. But what can they do? they ask. There's no use complaining. A Chinese saying warns, "The nail that sticks out gets nailed down." Besides, goes the argument, if I don't push, I'm not going to get a seat on the train. A lot of Westerners like to brag about how well-adjusted they are because they no longer mind the pushing, but I mind. I don't like to be pushed, so I don't do it to others. I'll accept that the idea of personal space is small, but I reject that it is absent or, worse, not important. "That's just their culture." There's a difference between culture and habit, preference and acquiescence. All day I hear culture used as an excuse for why someone will or won't do something, as though culture were the easiest thing to explain, as though one constantly had culture on one's mind and could wield it knowingly.

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