2 Big Things 9/11 & a Rajasthani Dog Showed Me on Cultural Relativism
It was just after 9/11. We watched coverage of the attacks on BBC and local news from Rajasthan. We counted the planes and counted the lives. We called family halfway around the world to make sure they were okay.
They worried about us: Should the students all come home? (No, we’re not the ones they’re attacking.) Me…not thinking about the map or how close Osama bin Laden was to me there in Jodhpur. Closer than my sister’s house was to me back in the states. A good day’s drive, and that’s all.
Back home, emergency workers rushed into falling towers. Over 500,000 people evacuated New York by boatlift. Crowds sat in gridlock or walked out of DC when a jet drove a hole through the Pentagon. Another plane full of people thwarted terrorists with their courage, dying in a Pennsylvania field so others could live.
Us — we watched it from a distance, me taking notes in my notebook, finding details to help me manage the magnitude. We watched it presented through the lens of another culture: British or Indian, but hardly ever American. I didn’t realize the difference until I came home and saw the coverage here. By comparison, it was personal…visceral…shaken.
Because of that, I’ll never see the event quite like someone who experienced it here in the United States. It was filtered for me through another’s perceptions, with their sense of meaning.
Thing #1: The Cultural Lens Makes a Difference
The lens we see things through matters. In India, extremist attacks were more common, and America was very far away.
What I could touch was the desert heat and sand and an ancient fort rising high over the blue city. I could gaze at a plaque in the place where a man was sacrificed long ago to avert a curse. I could hear the noise of the muezzins at the proper times, the rhythms of a language I was new to and sometimes struggled to decipher.
I could resist the way I was always supposed to have someone else with me when I went out of the hostel. I could look past stone lace screening windows where the women used to live so much of their days inside those walls without even that much freedom.
Sometimes I complied and sometimes I didn’t. I like exploring on my own and have a deep psychological need not to have other people on me all the time.
On this day, a group of us went out and piled up in a rickshaw to ride back to the fort. When we got there, one of the guys stopped to pay the driver, blocking traffic at the door.
And while I waited, still stuck inside the rickshaw, I saw some other rickshaw-wallahs hold a dog down. They were getting ready to burn it. Nothing else mattered. I scrambled through the window and ran toward them, yelling in my limited Hindi until they let it go.
Afterwards, one of my classmates who hadn’t noticed a thing patiently explained to me about cultural relativism. She instructed me on how the rickshaw-wallahs just don’t see dogs the way we do. As if I was unfamiliar with the concept of cultural relativism (or she was an expert on rickshaw-wallahs). As if the problem was simply my perspective.
But I was pretty sure burning would feel the same to the dog, regardless of how the culture saw it.
Which brings me to the second point…
Thing #2: Too Much Cultural Relativism Protects Oppressors
Forget we’d seen nothing to make us think most Rajasthani people considered recreational dog burning normal. To look at the event only through the cultural lens of the oppressors and claim it as a norm seems incomplete. It also seems to sidestep accountability for a lot of abuse.
For instance: How did the victim view their actions?
Where do basic human rights come in?
Whether it’s a dog held down in front of a Jodhpur fort for burning…
Or a young Dalit groom beaten for having a mustache and riding a horse to his wedding (like his supposed betters)…
Or Saudi Arabian women arrested and tortured for standing up for basic freedoms…
Or a Black man dying with a knee on his neck…
Or any other number of hideous things people do to those they dominate in the pecking order…
…is it right for us to look through our enlightened lens of cultural relativism and fail to seek out the perspective of those harmed by it?
The lens doesn’t undo physical or psychological injury or do away with the need for basic human rights. So there’s how we see it…and then there are the objective effects. There is more than one perspective, even within that one culture.
My classes at the University of Virginia reinforced cultural relativism for Anthropology and Asian Studies. They emphasized the value in trying to see events and customs, as much as possible, through the eyes of the people who lived that reality. Not to judge them by the standards of my own culture.
In contrast to “othering,” the idea behind cultural relativism is a positive one. The intent is not to preference or stigmatize any particular culture. The ultimate goal is understanding, sometimes through immersion. But cultural relativism can only take you so far.
When I think about the problem of women in Afghanistan struggling with a destructive patriarchal system…
Or the Uighur minority being “reeducated” in China…
Or racism and anti-Semitism in a multitude of forms around the world, I see it:
One person’s cultural perspective ends where someone else’s begins. Perception isn’t everything. And entrenched hierarchies skew the benefits of cultural relativism.
Burning that dog would hurt it — maybe kill it — regardless of whether the rickshaw-wallahs thought it mattered. But who are they to say someone else’s pain doesn’t matter? An ethical cultural relativism shouldn’t give them that power.
For me, that’s the line. We can apply the principle in a lot of areas. We could even try applying it to historical figures, who lived in their own context of time, place, and custom. Just know there are blurry lines and places beyond the map that the principle can’t faithfully take us.
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