Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cultural Relativism.

I have recently read a sci-fi book written by a literate conservative fool.  Unfortunately, he is also a good writer, so I still read his stuff, despite having to slosh through obvious and moronic prejudices.

For those of you that don't know, there is a rather sharp dividing line in Science Fiction.  You have liberal science fiction which covers a range of topics, including spy stories, mystery stories, romance (big among the ladies), steampunk, space opera, superhero.

Then there is conservative science fiction.  That basically falls into just two categories:

1) Christian wish fulfillment (oh, their are aliens and they already Christians!)
2) Military.  (War.  Don't need to bother with alien ideas and ethical questions, just use their own tech to kill them!)

There is also libertarian science fiction, which is different from conservative science fiction.  Usually it involves either 1) bad/evil governments with people rebelling against them (internal wars, as opposed to external 'military wars') or 2) an anarchic areas with little to no government.  Think wild west.  Some libertarian Sci-Fi is more conservative, other is more liberal.

This author is a conservative, with a slight libertarian bit (he clearly thinks conservatism is all about libertarianism, despite the strong pro-authority theme of true conservatism).  As such, of course he writes a Military novel, where the aliens are rarely a real threat to the creative humans.  Instead, most of the danger comes from within mankind.   This despite the fact that in real life, when a country gets attacked in real life, we all  ignore internal struggles and attack the threat.  In the US, prime examples are Perl Harbor, and 9/11.  But there are similar events in ANY country.  In the book, the USA are of course the good guys, but there are a bunch of whiny countries that complain and makes it harder for America to save the world.  Until eventually they bow down and accept US culture.  In the book, the supposed danger would be the American losing their position of authority, but it doesn't happen because foreigners all quietly obey the American as long as the American has the guts to stand up and insist they do it right.   In real life of course, the non-Americans would act far more honorably and the Americans would, if they followed this author's moronic advice, fail horribly.

The main point he is trying to make is to reject cultural relativism.  That we should not 'respect others culture', and trying to do that means nothing gets done.   But in real international business it is the ONLY way to get things done.  So much in fact that other countries call cultural relativism the real American business culture.

Why does he dislike cultural relativism so much?  Mainly because he, like so many conservatives, has failed to understand it.  He sees caricatures, often created by poor businessmen that don't understand it and thinks that is what is it is all about.  Or he sees half of it and ignores the rest.

He thinks cultural relativism  causes problems as opposed to fixing them.  He thinks it is all about  Americans bowing down and catering to the culture of other people.  Nope. 

This could not be further from the truth.  Cultural relativism is a way to deal with the innate belief that you are doing things the best possible way.  The thing is,  everyone thinks they are doing things best way.   If you don't think your way is best, you stop doing it look for something better.  That's obvious.

But if ten people are doing something, then they will do it ten different ways.  Only one of them can really be doing it the best way.  In a world of 7 billion people, there are really 7 billion different ways of doing everything.  Yes, people from the same culture do it similar, but the farther you get, the greater the variation.  With 7 billion people, there are probably at least 1 million major differences for any technique.  Whether it is putting your pants on, or fighting a war.

More importantly, while many things have better ways of doing things, not all activities do.  For many things, there is NO BEST way to do something.   Yes, certain ways are better than others (far better to punish the rapist rather than the victim), but most of culture is about random choices, not right/wrong.  In some cultures it is an insult to use their first name, in others to use their last name.    The choice is random.  But you need to know if the person you are talking too is trying to insult you or not.   Some countries drive on the west side, other's the left.  You need to know which to do where.

A major part of culture relativism is admitting that for some things - like which name (first or last) to use familiar, there is no best way.  The second biggest part is admitting that for things that there IS a best way, the mathematics means most likely your particular way is NOT the best one, and you should at least examine the other methods.

Cultural relativism is an attempt to convince people that they they are NOT doing it the best possible way, and that other ways are viable.  This allows you to try new ways without admitting that you were doing it wrong.   Sometimes you may actually have been doing it better, but you won't know until you try the other way.

But cultural relativism is not about allowing people to do things the obviously wrong way.  It's not for example, about letting foreigners arrest our women for getting raped, because 'it's their culture'.  Nor is it about letting foreigners drive on the left side of the street in America because in their country, that's how it is done.  Nor is it about letting hiring people in Mexico and letting them take a three hour nap during the middle of the day when you have a big rush order coming in.

Is instead about letting french kids drink wine on a cruise ship because they are french and it is LEGAL in France, and the cruise ship isn't governed by American laws.   It is also about driving on the left side when you go to Tanzania, not insisting on driving on the right side (and crashing repeatedly).   It's about not being an arrogant domineering shmuck except when you absolutely have to.

Culture relativism is also just as much about other people respecting YOUR culture.   If you employ Chinese people, they are not allowed to call you bastard, and you are not allowed to use their first name (unless you knew them from childhood.)    It also means explaining to them (one time, not many times) that pointing up with just their middle finger (i.e. giving you the finger) is an insult, as opposed to automatically assuming they know it.    Similarly, they should politely tell you that beckoning someone with a finger is a sign you believe them to be very low class (OK to do for children, waiters, taxi drivers, not OK for employees) .   Best if both you and they are told this before hand, not to let the mistake happen.

Why do I say this? 

First and foremost, respecting other people's cultures does NOT cause problems, it fixes them.  If some jack-ass goes into a foreign country and expects everyone to do it the 'American' way, his business will FAIL.  No ifs, no and's, no buts.  Because the whole point of cultural relativism is that when you fail to respect people, they don't do good work.   PERIOD.   If you hire a bunch of Hindus, then don't expect them to be grateful if you give them free hamburgers for lunch every day.   Yes, as the boss, you can require them to do work related changes to do the job.  But not stuff unrelated to the job.

No liberal in the world is going to let a Hindu tell him how he can run his beef stockyard.  But similarly, you can't force them to say Merry Christmas.

Think of what would happen if someone from China came to America and started using the middle finger pointing up all the time as a sign of a good job. (It is a common way of pointing in China, it doesn't mean 'f*$k you', the way it does in the USA.)  Let's say he also never looked you in the eye (counts as staring in China), and never give compliments.   What do you think his employees would say or think about him? Would his business succeed?  No of course not.  Not because he is trying to insult you but because his arrogance means he is insulting us without knowing it.

The same thing happens when you go to their country and ignore their customs.

In the real world, any good businessman knows they have to respect other cultures when starting a business - but that also means the boss gets to demand his employees respect HIS culture as well.

Cultural relativism is not about bowing to other cultures, but about understanding when to bow and when to demand they bow to us.    This particular science fiction author just saw the bowing we did and was too ignorant to see (or care about) the bowing we insist they do back.

Where does he get these ideas?  Well, no one likes to take responsibility for their own actions.  So sometimes, people do horrendous things ( like rape & cover up the rape of  a female contractor in Afghanistan), then blame it on the culture of other people around them.  

Any good idea can be blamed for your bad actions.   Capitalism is a great idea, and the mere fact that certain banks mistreat customers does not mean capitalism is evil.   It is the banks that violated the rules and they are just blaming it on capitalism.

Similarly, when some schmuck violates our most sacred rules, we should laugh when they try to blame it on cultural relativism.    Rule #1 about cultural relativism is you have to respect our own culture before we respect others.   If someone doesn't respect our culture, then respecting the other culture is not cultural relativism, it is cultural violation.

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