Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works, such as her current book Infidel or the earlier The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, make the argument that some cultures are better than others, specifically that Western, liberal culture is superior to Muslim Middle Eastern culture. This runs counter to one tradition of cultural relativism in anthropology that holds there is no basis for establishing the superiority of one culture’s traditions and values over another, or even that all cultures are substantially equivalent in value, that the values of practices of any given cultures are morally or ethically equivalent.
I would argue in principle that some cultures are better than others and that cultures can improve in quality. For example, I would argue quite fiercely with anyone who thought that Western culture after the abolition of slavery was not superior morally and ethically to Western culture before that abolition. At the same time, I am a bit wary of specific comparisons between contemporary cultures (though in a limited way, I will do so below), since such comparisons in the present political climate are more often used for neoconservative than liberal or progressive ends. Instead, I’m more interested (despite my provocative title) in ascertaining whether any and all particular cultures might be improved (and what improvement of a culture would entail), an approach that does not necessitate the comparison of the relative superiority or inferiority of different cultures, but instead assumes that all cultures (very much including Western culture and Muslim Middle Eastern cultures) can be critiqued and improved in some ways (and simultaneously allows for recognition of the merits of all cultures).
There is an approach to cultural relativism that evades the critique of other cultures by asserting a moral or ethical equivalency of all cultures and of their practices. This can be seen in the arguments of some, such as Dwight Read, concerning female genital modification. He essentially argues that it is hypocritical for westerners to critique female genital modification in Sudanic Africa and some surrounding areas on grounds of the pain the practice causes, in which regard it is essentially equivalent to some western practices, such as male circumcision, and in that respect, I’d agree with Read. He is also insightful in delineating a separation between moral and scientific modes of discourse in writing about this or other topics. To the extent that Read (or anyone) can be read as implying a general equivalence between female genital modification and male circumcision, there are problems with the approach.
There are some analogous features between these two practices: they are both forms of genital modification and they are both imposed upon children (though of quite different ages) – and to the extent that I have a problem with either practice, it is this imposition of the practice on individuals without consent that I am mainly concerned with. These analogous features do provide for useful comparison, and I have engaged students with just this comparison in classroom settings on several occasions. Along similar lines, I find it useful (as a way of familiarizing the “exotic”) to get students to compare gendered patterns of modesty in dress between various Middle Eastern contexts and Western cultural contexts, but in both comparison of genital modification or practices of modesty it is also crucial to recognize the differences, e.g. that some forms of female genital modification greatly inhibit the experience of sexual pleasure in a way that male circumcision does not; that to the extent male circumcision marks male gendered status in some Western and Middle Eastern contexts, it marks male status as socially superior while female genital modification tends to do the opposite; that even though in both Western and Middle Eastern cultural contexts, women are generally expected to dress more modestly than men, “Western” dress (including when present in Middle Eastern settings) does tend to allow for greater individual expression than the hijab and head covering in places like Saudi Arabia (but also that there are varying degrees of personal expression possible alongside modest dress for women in different Middle Eastern contexts). Such comparison and contrast alone doesn’t indicate superiority or inferiority, but simply that cultures are quite diverse (obviously a long standing anthropological position in its own right) and not equivalent.
What is it that makes a culture better, for example, what makes post-abolition Western culture better than the pre-abolition West? What might make a culture better than it is now? The ability of the individual to autonomously and freely develop their person within the context of the culture is the crucial consideration. In the context of chattel slavery, millions of members of Western culture were clearly in no position to freely develop their lives, experiences, and personhood. The Jim Crow era, with sharecropping arrangements in much of the U.S. Southeast that often functioned as de facto slavery, alongside legal discrimination, was not a vast improvement, but the end of legal enslavement was nonetheless a clear and definite improvement. Racism has clearly not ended today, and so there is plenty of room for improvement for Western culture on this front, but the end of legal discrimination in the U.S. in the context of the civil rights movement was another signal improvement for the culture.
In an earlier post, “Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention,” I discussed certain aspects of Edward Sapir’s article “Culture: Genuine and Spurious,” namely his discussion of different senses of the word “culture.” In another part of the article, he made a claim for what he called “genuine culture.” By “genuine culture” Sapir meant one which fostered and made possible personal development. Personal development is never completely free – one’s choices are always restricted by the material constraints of one’s historical and cultural circumstances, and one’s operating premises, worldview, and values are highly shaped and influenced by culture, but there are different ways for culture to shape personality and personal development. Sapir used the term “genuine culture” to refer to cultural contexts which influence, channel, or otherwise positively nurture the development of the person, rather than those which greatly restrict personal autonomy or which largely impose forms of discipline and subjectivity upon persons. There are cultural practices in a variety of settings that disturb me. I’ve mentioned chattel slavery and racial discrimination in the history (and in the present in the case of discrimination) of Western culture. Practices like female genital modification in Sudanic Africa or ritualized homosexuality in highland Papuan male initiation also disturb me. What disturbs me in the case of female genital modification is not so much the practice itself, but the absence of consent. Likewise, in the case of ritualized Papuan homosexuality, it is not at all the ritualized homosexuality that bothers me, but, following from the accounts of anthropologists like Gilbert Herdt or Fitz John Porter Poole, its complete involuntariness.
So, what would improve a culture (any culture)? Changes in patterns of cultural practice which have an effect of fostering and nurturing free development of the person to a greater extent than before (again knowing that there’s no such thing as total freedom or total individual autonomy) and lessening restrictions and impositions on personal freedom and autonomy.