This essay critically engages with and moves toward reconceptualizing the concept of cultural relativism. In ongoing public policy and academic debates, cultural relativism has become a nuanced idea generating diverse perspectives from various segments of the political continuum. Indeed, through its proliferation in international relations dialogue, it has become a concept that is difficult, if not impossible, to apply in contemporary human rights issues. What is often negated in understanding cultural relativism’s normative underpinnings is the decolonization phenomenon.
Although cultural relativism prior to the mid‐1950s was a construct employed by both Western anthropologists and indigenous peoples to resist European initiatives for cultural hegemony, since decolonization, the concept has been appropriated by third-world bourgeois‐nationalist elites to undermine pre‐colonial rights of members of various non‐Western communities. Using the case study of homophobia in Zimbabwe, I investigate how political elites of postcolonial states are exploiting the constructive ethos of cultural relativism to persecute individuals who fall outside the socioreligious purview of “compulsory heterosexuality.” This article concludes by imploring for a critical negotiation of cultural relativism so that it transcends its current enabling relationship with oppression and once again returns to embodying a strategy for resistance to oppression, hegemony, and social injustice.
Posited at the crux of cross‐cultural feminist and international relations discourse is the question of cultural relativism. Since the conclusion of the Cold War, debates over cultural relativism have predominantly bifurcated scholars, practitioners, and policymakers into dichotomous schools of thought. Opponents of the concept, normally labeled universalists, unequivocally reject relativism and caution for its application in the construction of international norms and doctrines that endeavor to define categorical human rights. Universalists aver that there are inalienable rights affixed to every individual under all circumstances. Alternatively, there are those who espouse cultural relativism as being paramount to establishing optimal relationships among peoples and states that maintain dissimilar social creeds. Relativists assert that differences exist endemically between cultures and should be respected.
This essay amplifies the necessity of rethinking the traditional interpretation of cultural relativism. I argue that cultural relativism as a concept has been problematized by a series of postcolonial events. Unfortunately, its orthodox definition has remained unyielding. When the term first gained prominence in critical intellectual circles during the latter part of the colonial period, it was a term that embodied resistance to Western domination, and its primary agents—that is, anthropologists—acted as the medium through which indigenous narratives could be transmitted across cultures with the least risk of voice appropriation. Following the decolonization project, however, cultural relativism was utilized for purposes beyond its initial mandate. Those, then, have significant implications on a wide range of social justice concerns. This article explores some of the implications of cultural relativism through an engagement of contemporary sexual politics in a particular postcolonial state.
First, I describe how cultural relativism was conceived during Western imperialism. Here anthropologists’ significant contributions to the development of the term are underscored. Then, I use a case study of homophobia in Zimbabwe to illustrate how cultural relativism has recently been employed by bourgeois‐nationalist elites as a means to sustain their privileged social positions. In sum, this analysis revisits the disputatious concept of cultural relativism and argues for defining the term within a critical framework that holistically considers questions of power and praxis.
Extending from the scholarly developments of Franz Boas and his graduate students at Columbia University in the in late nineteenth‐ and early twentieth centuries, cultural relativism has gained currency as both a principle for academic field research and as the cornerstone of various social ideologies. Boas, alongside Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and other anthropologists, assisted in the cultivation of relativism’s mainstream understanding, which asserts that all truths are subject to the norms and expectations of a specific culture and that neither liberties nor value claims should be considered to be fundamentally inherent to human nature. As Melville Herskovits puts it, “judgments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his [or her] own enculturation.” When applied, this can certainly be a provocative assertion in debates over cultural domination and cultural superiority. Accordingly, the virtues of cultural relativism become especially salient when studying colonization.
As recognized by feminist postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak, colonization was dedicated to the shifting of parochial norms through which gender and racial paradigms were redefined so to make it coherent with the colonizer’s ideology. Hence, colonization’s social corollary was “interested in the seemingly permanent operation of altered normality.” Anthropologists who adhered to the ethos of cultural relativism, therein, became crucial mechanisms through which subaltern classes of this “altered normality”—or more simply, the victims of Western imperialism—could exercise limited agency and at least attempt to represent themselves in the discursive cultural dialogue transpiring within the realm of liminality; namely, the social interstices where negotiations between and among cultures manifest.
Perhaps more importantly, anthropologists have invoked the concept of cultural relativism to deconstruct myths of racial and cultural superiority. Resisting the axiological project that labels the West as a norm and the Other as deviant, relativists conceived of cultures as being part of a greater global paradigm that cannot be ordered in any sort of hierarchy, but merely juxtaposed by their similarities and differences with one another. Thus, according to them, no culture should be considered better or worst than another; rather it should be understood that they each have their unique identity and that they should be equally acknowledged for their self‐worth.
Some of the best examples of cultural relativism appear in the works of Boas. While completing field research among the Central Eskimos and the Kwakiutl Aboriginal community of northern Vancouver, Boas developed some key philosophies for the social sciences. In his 1911 groundbreaking book, The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas discredits theories of racial superiority laid down by his predecessors arguing that racial—and phenotype—factors do not a priori determine the values of any society. Instead, he advocated for understanding cultures through a critical engagement with their history.
Boas was instrumental in humanizing those individuals who differed in creed with Westerners. Progressive in ideology and holding the belief that intellectual freedom advances democracy, Boas intricately carved the original perspective of cultural relativism, a perspective that was initially condemned by his colleagues, yet, has since become the cornerstone for ethnographic research. Anthropologists have indeed been crucial actors in generating cross‐cultural understanding. To fully appreciate anthropologists’ contribution to relativism, it is useful to incorporate the writing of critical theorist Homi Bhabha into this discussion.
In his seminal postcolonial text, The Location of Culture, Bhabha argues that it is at sites of liminality that cultural value is negotiated. Anthropologists have been situated in these discursive liminal spaces and, in many cases, have employed their academic authority to serve as the voice of groups who they dedicate their careers to studying and who have usually been silenced in the hegemonic discourses of international affairs. That is, they have, for over a century, functioned as the mediator between the Western world and those groups that do not possess a significant presence within the global community.
As we entered the twenty‐first century, it became unequivocally clear that cultural relativism was no longer a construct to be exclusively applied as a way to comprehend human differences across global cultures. Instead, cultural relativism became a weapon in the arsenal of bourgeois‐nationalist elites that could be invoked in an effort to undercut the voice‐consciousness and degenerate the lived experiences of the masses residing in postcolonial states. This section uses the question of homosexuality in Zimbabwe as a case study to scrutinize how relativism has been usurped and misapplied.
Anne Norton, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, provides an excellent examination of the non‐Western world’s response to imperialism in the era of post‐coloniality. According to Norton, “the postcolonial order, which denies postcolonial significance on the world scene, impels [postcolonial citizens] to make themselves visible, make themselves seen. Once the object of the empire’s voyeuristic monopoly, they make themselves actors on the global stage.” In their desperate attempts to be seen, postcolonial states seek to discursively construct identities that are antithetical to those embodied by the West. Because their European imperialists defined their previous identity, often what manifests is a superficial polarization of indigenous normative traditions to those values associated with the modern West. The identity captured here is articulated by the notion that, “we are Us because we are not Them.”
A crucial issue that falls at the core of the cultural identity formation of postcolonial states and its constituents is the question of homosexuality. Since the mid‐1950s, postcolonial states governed by heteropatriarchal and often misogynistic institutions and leaders have consciously distanced themselves from anything perceived as being effeminate. At the most rudimentary level, this includes homosexual practices as such relationships connote, among other things, some males in the role of the passive sexual recipient. Added to this dimension of homophobia is the prevalent accusation that the homosexual lifestyle is an import of the “perverse, decadent” West, according to Saskia E. Wieringa. Even the great postcolonial thinker, Frantz Fanon, emphatically supported this fallacious claim.
To avoid ardent international pressures or military intervention on grounds of a humanitarian crisis, ideological‐wielding elites in various postcolonial states have veiled their persecution of members of the homosexual community by situating their actions under the purview of cultural relativism. They attest that same‐sex relations were non‐existent prior to Western intervention and that it was the West who corrupted the indigenous (hetero‐)sexual paradigm through their introduction of deviant practices. They further rationalize that by carrying out a systematic attack against homosexuals, postcolonial states are merely protecting values inherent to their pre‐colonial creed. According to this group, the marginalization or elimination of a large segment of the population should be interpreted through the lens of relativism, which would authorize such actions.
In his speech delivered on August 1, 1995, at the International Book Festival in Harare, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe targeted the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) in his remark: “I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst.” Mugabe’s suggestion that homosexuality is inconsistent with the model of sexual relations of pre‐colonial Zimbabwean culture is simply erroneous. Historian and former professor at the University of Zimbabwe, Marc Epprecht, argues that same‐sex relations existed in pre‐colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe, however, social acceptance of homosexual acts in the latter have been closeted due to fears of cultural, political, and at times legal threats to personal security. Moreover, in her analysis of lesbianism, Kathryn Kendall has put forth the provocative thesis claim that “love between women is as native to southern Africa as the soil itself … homophobia, like Mugabe’s Christianity, is a Western import.”
Epprecht and Kendall, among others, have debunked the myth that pre‐colonial Zimbabwe only practiced heterosexual bonding. In fact, there is much evidence to indicate that citizens of southern Africa used same‐sex relationships to exercise social agency, according to Epprecht and Gay, for example. This has led Epprecht to conclude that “the harsh homophobia African leaders have voiced in recent years does not reflect traditional cultures of discretion and tolerance. “To the contrary, it mirrors the Western colonizer’s ideological subscription to “compulsory heterosexuality,” according to Adrienne Rich. Hence, Mugabe’s campaign against homosexuals, which includes tangible physical and social violence, should not be viewed as a way of genuinely preserving the pre‐colonial past but, more aptly, as an example of the sadistic means that may be utilized by unscrupulous leaders to attain specious political ends. Under this scenario, relativism should not be justification for the international community to remain acquiescent to Mugabe’s atrocities against non‐heterosexual constituents.
Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is not the only country that actively persecutes members of sexual minority communities. The Bharatiya Janata Party of India, Mahathir Mohammed in Malaysia, and leaders of almost every other postcolonial state in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the South Pacific have unleashed vehement campaigns against those who partake in same‐sex relations. The third world has become a haven for homophobia. For postcolonial citizens to move beyond the psychology and the political environment of discrimination against sexual minorities, they must first discern their history of colonization and contemplate the socioreligious construction of compulsory heterosexuality as it was enacted during the Western occupation.
Currently, bourgeois‐nationalists are using relativism to suspend productive cross‐cultural dialogue and curtail humanitarian intervention. Their accusation that Western imperialism engendered many negative repercussions is undeniably true and must be substantively addressed. In the same vein, however, these elites claim that their interpretation of the region’s ethnohistory is supreme and that no alternative explanation is valid. Postcolonial leaders take a structuralist approach to understand their past, thereby inscribing totalizing narratives that much too often conjure values that are contradictory of the social mores of pre‐colonial indigenous society. Homosexuals and others who are not captured within such ahistorical projects of cultural retrieval are relegated to the outer margins of society, demonized, and further persecuted.
Many leaders of postcolonial states have intricately defined an excessively anti‐Western dogma by attempting to locate their respective, uncontaminated precolonial past. Bhabha argues that by delving into one’s own history to discern past values upon which the current ideology is intended to be based not only negates hybridity by succumbing to the nostalgic and essentialist notion of static culture, but it also creates the mimicry complex. Mimicry discursively induces anti‐Western leaders to cultivate and implement public policy that paradoxically reflects the hegemonic Westocentre. Rather ironically, many postcolonial states have an ideology that more reflects Western norms than those of the pre‐colonial period.
In reflexively practicing mimicry, tyrannical, conservative leaders come to attribute the existence of sexual minority communities to the colonial experience and label it the white man’s disease. Coupled with this idea is the notion that non‐heterosexual practices did not exist in pre‐colonial territories. Although there is little evidence, if any, to support such a claim, bourgeois‐nationalist elites have usurped the conventional meaning of cultural relativism to legitimize their persecutions of homosexuals and uphold hetero‐patriarchal values.
Colonization, and globalization thereafter, has infused traditions of one culture into another to thereby engender the elimination of any uncontaminated parochial identity. Still, however, some scholars, like Ngugi was Thiong’o, have examined the pejorative impacts of (neo)imperialism and have obstinately rendered that colonized subjects must return to their pre‐colonial epistemologies and traditions. Fanon went even further to argue that before their return to pre‐coloniality, colonized subjects should engage with a project for collective catharsis, wherein they commit violence against their white masters. The central dilemma for this proposition remains the impossibility of going back to what once was without essentializing the normative values of a given culture. As such, within the discourse of relativism, there must be due consideration of those events that have forever altered pre‐colonial normality and redefined a culture’s values, practices, and heritage.
Using the case study of homophobia, this essay has endeavored to amplify the shifts encountered in the concept of cultural relativism as a result of the decolonization movement. Whereas relativism was, prior to the mid‐1950s at least, largely applied to safeguard the practices and belief systems of colonized states, since decolonization, the concept has become a political mechanism for elites to carve out niches for power maintenance through the evocation of essentialist narratives. These elites have apprehended cultural relativism to oppress various sexual communities among the indigenous populace.
There is a plethora of scholarly sources that indicate cultural relativism’s positive impacts on the project for social justice and egalitarianism. While the concept has recently been violently hijacked by a small number of privileged elites in the third world who proclaim themselves as being the epistemological repositories for their nations, relativism nevertheless holds great potential in our current global paradigm. Indeed, relativism can allow us to draw insights into cultural differences and to dismantle harmful power relations that are currently being harbored by the North/South, and East/West socioeconomic divide. Cultural relativism may very well provide a forum in which cross‐cultural dialogue can manifest most fruitfully. For this to occur, however, there must be holistic consideration of how relativism has been manipulated thus far.