Cultural Relativism In Literature

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If we look around at the whole universe today, there are tons and millions of cultures centered everywhere around the globe. With this much cultures in the universe, people are bound to believe that they’re all divergent. Even though they are dissimilar in some aspects, all of them are similar to each other in some way. So if this is the scenario, do we as human beings have the right to judge these cultures as ethically wrong or just a cultural difference? Cultural Relativism is the belief that we cannot judge someone cultural practices of other societies and that we should let them do as they please. But if we cannot judge them, does it make it right when they threaten the lives of others? Through the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, we begin to have a deeper insight into this idea of cultural relativism and the extent at which we should tolerate the cultural practices. The book follows Okonkwo, who is a socially popular warrior who wants to have the greatest title in the village to separate himself from his ‘weak’ father. The book goes in depth about the cultural practices of the Ibo people and what happens when preachers come to the village to convert other people. This brings up many different views on which we should decide to judge other cultures and when to interfere, and the answer is usually cultural relativism. However, cultural relativism can only keep the peace for so long before the people are forced to take action. Through cultural relativism, we should respect other cultural practices and beliefs until they threaten others by nullifying their rights. However, even though we should always find the most peaceful way to compromise with the little things, in life or death situations we must infringe the human rights in order to protect them.

To begin with, we should respect the beliefs of other societies because they have the right to believe what they want. As humans, we have basic rights that are meant to be with us forever. One of those rights is the right to freedom of thought, which means that every human being has the right to believe in what they want to believe. As a result, no person should judge other beliefs because they’ll just influence others to do the same. However, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 states that,” Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and that the right includes,” freedom to change his religion…either alone or in a community…” Through this right, everyone can believe what they want we have no right to judge. If we judge them, then we ourselves infringe on everyone’s right to be equal. Through cultural relativism, everyone can keep their rights and the world would rest in peace without any unnecessary fights. Instead of trying to judge the cultural beliefs of others, we could instead attempt to gain a better understanding of their beliefs. An example is in Things Fall Apart, where Mr. Brown and Akunna talk to each other in hopes that they would convert each other. They both have different views on religion; Mr. Brown believes in Christianity while Akunna believes in multiple gods. However, instead of judging each other beliefs immediately, they sit down and talk to each other peacefully about that matter. In the end, they learn that their religions are not as different as they had first thought. They both have “one supreme God” and they both have “ahead in this world among men.” (Achebe 179) Although they both have the intention of converting each other, Mr. Brown and Akunna both do not judge each other and learn new insights about the beliefs of others. All beliefs cannot be the same; however, they can all be similar in some way. As a result, if we are to judge the beliefs of one culture, then we would also be judging our own beliefs in the process. The whole process is a huge contradiction that can be avoided if everyone could just respect the beliefs of others through cultural relativism. However, in some cases, respecting a religion can turn hard once the belief itself becomes harmful to others.

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Different beliefs lose respect and become harmful once they begin to nullify the rights of others. The most common reason for beliefs losing the respect from others is due to the sacrifices and killings of humans. Humans no matter how young or old, have the right to live a full life and everyone should respect that. However, some cultures believe that it is ok to kill innocent humans because their God had told them to. Even though this act would be ok for them, the rights given to us at birth tell us otherwise. Take the killing of Ikemefuna for example; he was a young child when he was given to Okonkwo after the killing of an Ibo woman by the Mbaino. He lived with Okonkwo and his family for three years until the oracle had given the order to kill him. They took him to the outside of the forest and attempted to kill him, but he managed to get away. He went to Okonkwo and said,” My father, they have killed me,” but all Okonkwo did be draw his machete and cut him down while “dazed with fear” (Achebe 61). This quote shows that the belief itself is in the wrong for nullifying the rights given to Ikemefuna at birth. He had the right to live and even lived with the tribe for three years, and then their God suddenly orders him to be killed. This is ethically wrong, but Okonkwo himself isn’t. It is his belief, and he was raised thinking that he would never be like his father and show weakness. Even though his relationship with Ikemefuna had gotten better, his beliefs would always come first, no matter how wrong it was. The belief itself had eliminated Okonkwo’s right to choose what he wanted to do, in this case, it would be to save Ikemefuna. Even though it would show weakness, he evidently wanted to save him or else he wouldn’t have been “dazed with fear.” This point is also conveyed through the killing of twins in the Evil Forest. Obierika remembers when he and his wife had twin children after Okonkwo had accidentally killed Ezeudu’s son. He remembers how he had “thrown away” his twins and wonders “what crime had they committed,” (Achebe 125). The irony of this quote is that even though they believe it is a crime, their cultural beliefs say otherwise. This shows once again how the cultural beliefs on one managed to become harmful by eliminating the rights of one. They are forced to abandon their right to choose with the result that the goddess’s wrath wouldn’t be “loosed on all the land and not just on the offender.” Now, we have to understand what we should and shouldn’t do in order to protect these rights.

In order to protect the rights of humans, we should use peaceful tactics, but only in the direst situations use force. Some people may disagree and say that if the rights of humans are being jeopardized, then immediate force is needed to take care of the problem. If we use immediate force instead of peaceful tactics, we would only cause more unnecessary conflict. Take the missionaries’ ways of converting the Ibo people. Converting others should be done with peace and respect for their culture, not by saying that their culture is wrong. At first, these missionaries are peaceful and only convert those who come to their church. However, when Mr. Smith becomes the leader, he has no respect for the Ibo culture and wants the converts to be the same. Mr. Smith “saw things in black and white” and thought that “black was evil” (Achebe 184). He didn’t believe in a peaceful way to convert the Ibo people, he only saw the Ibo culture as ‘evil’ and the Ibo people as people ‘locked in mortal conflict’. Due to this, his immediate action was to ‘save’ the people by making them have no respect for the culture itself. This led the people who still believed to retaliate by burning the church. Mr. Smith never thought of the consequences of his actions, and he paid the price. The Ibo had to protect their culture from the threat known as Mr. Smith, even if they jeopardized the missionaries’ and convert right to believe what they wanted. However, no one was being harmed, so force shouldn’t have been the action taken to solve the problem. If we use force when the problem could be solved peacefully, it would only lead to more problems. This is shown when a while after the burning of the church, the District Commissioner took the six leaders of Umuofia and put them in jail. In the jail, they “were not given any water” and they “could not go out to urinate” (Achebe 195). Once again, the people didn’t think about the consequences of what they did, and because they took the forceful route over peace, they paid the price. They were beaten and insulted, and their rights were taken away. To be truthful, the world has a never-ending cycle of violence because people always take the forceful route over the peaceful one. It is a natural instinct that we humans have when our rights have been taken away. We should only use force in dire situations, such as the Libyan intrusion that was approved by the U.N. Security Council. They authorized “military action, including airstrikes against Libyan tanks and heavy artillery” in order to avert a “bloody rout.” This is the type of situation that should require force because it is a threat to the people’s right to live. Any other situations, such as the ones stated above, should only require peaceful tactics to resolve it or it would only cause more unnecessary conflicts.

In the end, human beings should always respect the cultures of other countries. The only time that we judge any other cultures is when they begin to be harmful to others. By harmful, I mean by jeopardizing the rights of others. There are so many meaningless conflicts in the world today that could be avoided, but our inability to use non-forceful ways to deal with them only makes it worse. There’s racism, problems with homosexuality, judgment through a person’s background, or even petty things like a person’s money. Everyone is different in some way, and sadly the human race is too ignorant to realize that everyone is still equal. It is a human right, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that all humans are born equal. If this is true, then isn’t our whole world one big contradiction? We all say that everyone should maintain and keep their rights, but people are continuously having this right taken away, not to mention also that this right is probably the second most important right for people. In some way, we're all self-righteous, and sadly we will always be this way. It's our human nature which cannot be swayed by the right of them.

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Cultural Relativism In Literature. (2021, September 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
“Cultural Relativism In Literature.” Edubirdie, 16 Sept. 2021,
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