The Pitfalls of Cultural Relativism
Bruce W. Davidson
At JALT '93, in various articles, and in training seminars aimed at language teachers in Japan, I have noticed that some cross-cultural communication specialists base much of their advice on an assumption that many might not recognize or accept. This assumption is cultural relativism, the view that it is only meaningful to speak of reality within the context of a particular culture's way of constructing the world. A related concept is linguistic relativism, which Milton Bennett expresses when he states that language "is a 'system of representation' for perception and thinking. . . it directs how we experience reality. . . Language teaching is also reality teaching" (Bennett, 1993, p. 3). These concepts are not original with Bennett; they are also held by others in the field.
Though widespread, these ideas have questionable intellectual credentials. A number of problems confront language teachers who adopt cultural relativism, namely that: (1) it is incoherent and self-contradictory, along with having unimpressive evidential support; (2) it erects barriers to communication and understanding between people coming from diverse cultures; and (3) it implies moral relativism, negating any basis for universally-valid ethical concerns. In addition to being difficult to defend, these characteristics would have unproductive effects on our field, in my opinion.
As a philosophical view, relativism can be traced at least to the time of Socrates, who encountered a form of relativism in his antagonist Protagoras. Socrates also gave perhaps the first recorded expression of the relativist's philosophical dilemma, which is that the relativist denies the concept of absolute truth yet asserts that his own relativistic view is the truth. According to the presupposition of the relativist himself, no one can make any such truth-claims. Protagoras's relativism was individualistic relativism: he held that whatever a man thinks is reality for that man, and no one can dispute the truth of what he believes. The cultural relativist asserts a similar idea, except that in his case the truth-defining circumstance is not the man's individual personality but the culture he belongs to. This view has been called "framework relativism" (Siegel, 1987). Similarly, linguistic framework-relativism subscribes to the belief that language creates and circumscribes one's world and one's reality. This idea puts all truth within some framework --a culture, a world view, or a language. No one can escape his or her own particular "box" and make objective knowledge claims. The fatal weakness of this view is the same as Protagoras's trouble. The cultural relativist, in telling us "how things are," is doing exactly what he forbids. He is preaching his relativism itself as an objective truth, which his system does not allow. The modern philosopher Quine sums it up this way: "Truth, says the cultural relativist, is culture-bound. But if it were, then he, within his own culture, ought to see his own culture-bound truth as absolute. He cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up" (Siegel, 1987, p. 43). So the assertion of the cultural relativist is self-contradictory and self-defeating. Philosophically, he has cut the ground out from under his own feet. If each of us is really imprisoned within his own culturally-bounded conceptual world, so is the cultural relativist himself. He cannot consistently claim to be able to take off his own culturally-tinted glasses and tell us what another culture --or anything else, for that matter-- really looks like. That would require the existence of an objective, neutral vantage point from which to analyze or describe things, which for the relativist does not exist.
Aside from the philosophical problem, linguistic relativism rests on little empirical research or linguistic theory. Bennett brought forward weak evidence both in his article in The Language Teacher and in his plenary address at JALT '94. His foundation-stone is the strong form of the Whorf hypothesis, which is far from being generally accepted by present-day linguists. Many modern linguists --Noam Chomsky, to name one-- are more impressed by the universals of human language than by the differences, which Whorf once maintained could mold completely diverse perceptual world views. At any rate, Whorf's idea is a hypothesis, which can be defined as an assertion that has yet to be tested and proven. Therefore, one can not draw practical conclusions from it for language teaching, as Bennett does. Another problem is that the examples Bennett uses are unconvincing. He claims that because the Japanese language has various quantifiers for counting objects, Japanese speakers somehow perceive objects differently. But regardless of the fact that the Japanese speaker might say "inu o yonhiki mita" and I might say "I saw four dogs," the presence or absence of quantifiers makes no difference in the number of dogs seen by each of us, if we are looking at the same animals. Actually, Bennett's quantifier example provides some evidence against his own view.
Implications for Communication and Ethics
In his plenary address, Bennett took his idea one step further when he said that two people from different cultures "should never assume they are talking about the same reality." Likening this world view disparity to individual perceptual differences, another prominent cross-cultural communication specialist also contended that "husband and wife do not plan for the 'same' child; doctor and patient do not discuss the 'same' disease..." (Barnlund, 1975, p. 11). On the contrary, they must be talking about the same thing, or they would have nothing to talk about. This "diverse realities" notion goes against the whole basis for communication, which is that two people do indeed share something in common which they can discuss in some way meaningful to each and corresponding to their joint experience of reality. There is no denying that individual mindsets and cultural backgrounds color and shape our perceptions to some degree, but to say that such variations seal us into completely different universes is another thing altogether. That would radically undermine the whole communication enterprise.
Furthermore, this way of thinking can lead to ethical confusion. If one carries through the assumptions of cultural relativism, then any behavior (such as the Indian caste-system) based on a culturally-determined world view can not be criticized. After all, concern for human rights might also be a kind of cultural attribute without relevance to certain societies. In place of such universal moral concerns, the cultural relativist sometimes advocates a kind of "cultural apartheid" to protect the sacrosanct autonomy of cultures. The only real moral stricture then condemns "cultural colonialism," which has been applied even to certain language teaching practices (Gray, 1994). Actually, that charge itself implies a kind of moral judgment impossible according the premises of cultural relativism. Like other truth-claims, moral judgments must also be confined to cultural frameworks, so no objective standard exists by which to judge "cultural colonialism" as immoral.
Other points could be raised, but these may be enough to show the weaknesses of cultural relativism and the problems in making it a touchstone for language-teaching methods. Language teachers do not need to feel obligated to justify themselves before this court of concepts.
- Barnlund, D. (1975). Public and private self in Japan and the United States. , Tokyo: The Simul Press.
- Bennett, M. (1993). How Not to be a Fluent Fool: Understanding the Cultural
Dimension of Language.
The Language Teacher: , 17(9), 3-5.
- JGray, K. (1994). Error awareness and the Japanese learner. The Language Teacher:18(1), 13-15.
- Siegel, H. (1987). Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological
Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
- From The Language Teacher a monthly publication of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT),1994 (18) 2, 30-31.
Bruce Davidson is a professor and formerly the missionary-in-residence at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan. He has been teaching and researching theology, critical thinking, and English in Japan for over 20 years. He lives with his wife and enjoys hiking and fishing in his free time. He has two grown children named Asher and Sarah, who teaches at the International Christian Academy of Nagoya (Japan). His latest work is a paper in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, named "The Four Faces of Self-love in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards," tentatively scheduled to be published at the end of 2007.
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