In recent blog posts, I’ve written on several occasions regarding two contemporary issues that pertain to the national context of Sudan: the genocide in Darfur and female genital modification (a phenomenon not restricted to Sudan, but practiced in varying frequencies throughout the Sudanic region of Sahel zone Sub-Saharan Africa and to some extent in surrounding cultural regions – but at the same time definitely a phenomenon of Sudan, and often practiced there in a form regarded by many as the most extreme example of female genital modification, what Janice Boddy has called, following local usage, “Pharaonic Circumcision,” which entails excision of all external female genitalia and infibulation of the vaginal opening). My question here is whether concepts of cultural relativism apply to either of these situations.
I’ve also written recently about differing conceptions or senses of “cultural relativism.” There are certain elements of cultural relativism that anthropologists in general tend to agree on. First, there is a recognition of the simple reality of different culturally shaped ways to be in the world. There is no single way to be human, and each of our ways of being human is largely influenced by our cultural contexts, and is “culturally relative” to that extent. Second, for ethnographic research, cultural relativism further entails an at least provisional setting aside of moral or ethical judgment of the cultural practices being observed and analyzed in the field context, and an attempt to understand cultural phenomena on their own terms, within their own logic. As Marshall Sahlins has written recently in his book Waiting for Foucault, Still, this is as much a pragmatic and methodological concern as anything. In order to do quality fieldwork, it is necessary to set aside preconceptions (to the extent humanly possible) and to not continually engage in moral judgment of those being studied. Beyond this, there is debate about the sense, meaning, or implications of cultural relativism. For some, the provisional setting aside of moral or ethical judgment or critique becomes an ultimate setting aside of these activities, at least with regard to the practices and premises of cultural contexts other than of one’s own upbringing. For me, cultural relativism does involve a strong inclination towards respect for the practices of other cultures (I think that’s been one of the strongest contributions of the discipline of anthropology to western culture [and other cultures]) and for the self determination and autonomy of others. Further, though, a concern for self determination and autonomy as well as respect for others as equals, for me, necessitates willingness to engage in cross-cultural dialogue and to critique and be critiqued.
But my question here is not so much the content of debates about cultural relativism but whether those debates about cultural relativism and their implications have any bearing on the issues of female genital modification or the genocide in Darfur? My short answer is “yes” to one, and “no” to the other.
Female Genital Modification is a “traditional” practice in most, if not all, of the communities where it is now performed. (I’m aware of the problems of invoking “tradition,” especially when notions of the traditional are used to imply stasis within the practices of a particular community or homogeneity in practice within a community or region. Still, I find the concept useful in referring to practices that have a history within a specific context [often, but not necessarily a long history] and which relate in important ways to many other elements of the culture. I’m respectful of those, like June Nash, who call for us to speak no more of “Tradition” – and we should speak no more of capital-T, static, essentializing “Tradition” – but I would call instead to speak in more complex, interesting ways of “tradition” or “traditional practice.”) It is important to provisionally set aside judgment (at least for those engaging in ethnographic fieldwork on the topic) and to understand the practice in relation to other features of the cultural context on their own terms, even if we ultimately engage in critique and/or support efforts to alter the practice.
The only element of cultural relativism that applies at all to the genocide in Darfur (or any other genocide, ethnic cleansing, or ethnic violence) is perhaps the goal of understanding the phenomenon on its own terms, the better to end it. Other than that, cultural relativism (and any associated notions of national autonomy) is utterly irrelevant in this case. While a certain amount of ethnic tension in Western and Southern Sudan may be “traditional,” genocide is clearly not and violates in the most extreme way possible the respect for diversity, self determination and autonomy on which cultural relativism is based.