The Birth of Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism may be more important than you recognize

Posted Feb 22, 2010

The novelist Virginia Woolf once said, "on or about December 1910, human character changed." (see Jackson Lears). She was kidding about the specificity of the date but in earnest about the change. Roughly speaking, the change in human character to which she referred had to do with the shift from an emphasis on duty, respectability, and moral uprightness to a concern with enjoyment, popularity, and personal fulfillment.

Lately I've been writing about how, along with this change, modern institutions such as entertainment, advertising, and psychotherapy started to develop. These things all fit together in some uncanny way. The new ideas about the importance of personal enjoyment and fulfillment encouraged consumption because they made people especially interested in the steady supply of consumer goods being turned out on assembly lines. Advertising stepped in to help enhance the message that consumer goods and services could bring fulfillment and address one's personal ills. Psychotherapy came from another direction, of course, but it too was based on the new idea that personal happiness and self-realization should be an expected right for everyone.

A society that emphasizes the right of everyone to pursue their own desires and inclinations is going to have to be willing to tolerate a wide range of beliefs, values, and behaviors. Thus it is not surprising that this period was also characterized by a growing flexibility about values.

The good news about this flexibility-often called cultural relativism--is first of all that it is adaptive in an economy based on high levels of consumption. In a climate of cultural relativism, people are willing to try new things; they are on a quest to discover themselves and are receptive to arguments that this or that is just what they need.

Second, cultural relativism tends to encourage tolerance of different ways of life and beliefs, and is an important part of the foundation for the diverse society that began to take shape. But cultural relativism also creates some significant problems. For example, what are its limits? Are there no final standards of right and wrong?

This may all seem somewhat philosophical and academic, but in fact it is one of the most important questions of our time. The political climate in America today is becoming increasingly polarized, and one of the reasons for this is that people have different moral standards and are losing their faith that these differences can be reconciled. In recent decades the strongest backlash against cultural relativism has taken the form of religious fundamentalism. This battle over cultural relativism has been and will continue to be one of the defining conflicts of our time.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website.  Photo provided on Creative Commons by Tara Hunt.