Saturday, June 28, 2014

Relativism as subjugation

In my political theory classes there is a big discussion about liberalism and relativism. Liberalism is of course the idea that focus should be on individual liberty as opposed to social class (Marxism) or ethnicity (Fascism) in a nutshell. Sometimes I will hear left-wing people (who aren't really that liberal) think of liberalism and the expanse of democracy as cultural imperialism or something like that. These people will argue at times that expanding democracy and overthrowing existing governments hurts their culture. I think this analysis is misguided.

I do not think that any major culture (which I would define as music, language, literature, art, etc.) is inherently better or worse than another in general within certain limitations. These limitations are very important however, because we also need to value people, and there are some times and places (The Deep South is a dishonorable mention here) where societal norms have encompassed treating other people unequally. The return of voting regulations that disproportionately hurt African Americans across the Old Confederacy is a big argument that racism is not dead, and research has shown hate tweets are far more common in the Old Confederacy than anywhere else in the United States. Some countries mercilessly hurt women and girls in things like female genital mutiliation, allowing husbands to beat their wives where the woman has no recourse, and for men to beat women on the streets with no legal prosecution possible. These are not cultural differences, this is an individual abusing others, and it doesn't matter where the person lives it is still abuse. These sorts of statements from relativists are not support for culture but support for abuse which is opposed to the idea of respecting other people, are deeply misguided notions, and illiberal. We need to stand up and oppose governments that hurt their own people. No culture on Earth has a tradition of abuse like what we observe in Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and North Korea among others, the current abuses from their governments are just abusive and not cultural.

Another feature that people will frequently look to is governmental systems as a form of cultural relativism. They seem to think that countries adopting democracy is a form of colonialism by the US, at least that is the interpretation I get from them.

There is a very big problem with this, and that is that democracy has been chosen by people in many countries that are not European and it has worked extremely well. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Botswana are the best examples of where Democracy has been the most successfully implemented outside of Europe, none of which have European roots. Other regions still have progress and they are better now than they were 50 years ago. Countries that have seen their people stand up for democracy and individual liberty are wealthier (or at least see their economies grow much faster) than countries that are non-democratic. They see lower corruption in their government, and lower barriers to ingenuity. The most successful implementations and improvements were done not by being forced on them but through the people themselves without foreign involvement.

A few case examples:

  • North Korea is an excellent example of how tyranny is not a function of culture because before the Kim Dynasty came to power North Korea was even more advanced than what became South Korea, and South Korea is a fully developed nation where people are free. The situation in North Korea and other places is not a function of culture but a function of tyranny.
  • China is perhaps the most traditionally communal culture in history, and even China sees the idea of questioning and individuality in the writings of Mozi, and if it weren't for the suppression of his writings which are problematic for tyrants it would have a much larger impact on Chinese culture. The ides of Mozi were about as liberal as one can get, and if he wasn't killed by the government Chinese norms would be very different. China's emperors were more successful at keeping strains of thought that threatened their tyranny. Confucius also taught tyrants should be dethroned if they were abusive to their people, but he also argued from a more communal perspective so the Chinese emperors used those ideas to further their cause of absolute power to get people to be part of the whole. The existence of people like Mozi and events like Tiananman Square shows China has a long undercurrent of the people desiring more freedom, which has been able to flourish in Taiwan (which shares a similar culture and language) where people can speak freely and has led them to extreme economic growth and stability.
  • There is no other explanation for such contagious support of liberalism in every country with a free press and how millions of people stood against the USSR in the early 1990s to implement democracies, 3 of which have been able to meet the EU acquis which are very strict and now enjoy the highest quality of living in the former USSR. If the systems put in place by the Czar and Communist Party were merely cultural there would not have been such a wide revolt across so many different cultures that have almost nothing in common besides being human, yet the majority of people in all areas agreed they preferred liberal democracy over communist tyranny.
If it were culture than there is no way to explain Machiavelli was able to move his area to be the most prosperous nation on Earth in his time through economic and social reforms which then were adopted across parts of every region of Earth.

The idea of America's "spreading democracy" as spreading democracy is inherently flawed. When the US goes around claiming to be "spreading democracy" they always tend to come in with big guns when the people elect someone the US government doesn't like. This is not spreading democracy. This is spreading imperialism. This is highjacking the name of democracy like neocolonialists have stole the term capitalism from liberals. Social liberals need to reclaim the capitalism of Adam Smith, which was most certainly not completely laissez-faire given his support of government in non-competitive public goods, and use it in the way that it was intended in the first true masterpiece of economics, The Wealth of Nations, which is as far from an imperialist document as one will ever find. Realizing this will help liberals (if they are truly liberal) understand how different actions effect people and what we can best do to advance human rights throughout the world.

We need to look at how we think of foreign cultures and not be overly judgmental to cultural differences, but also not be overly sympathetic to governments that abuse their cause which is what happens when many people start talking about cultural relativism. They have confused democracy and colonialism which are diametrically opposed to one another, and democracy is the best solution to colonialism. Amnesty International comes I think the closest to what it means to be a true social liberal, but speaking out against governmental abuses veiled in culture as many governments use. No child truly wants to work as opposed to go to school. No woman wants to beaten on the street with no legal protection. No culture historically supports this, except when an insane leader forces it on the people of a region.

I am a relativist only as far as it recognizes that different cultures have many lessons to tell, and no language is necessarily superior to another, but also balanced with reason and respect for the individual. To excuse every societal norm as culture, as I have demonstrated with North Korea, China, and the USSR forgets history and is the easy path of supporting the status quo, which when that is your only objective frequently becomes lacking in ethics and hypocritical. We need to stand with people around the world for them to be able to find their way, no matter what their local tyrant says.

1 comment:

  1. This is a thoughtful, well-researched paper. You sound like a knowledgeable, educated man.