Letter to a cultural relativist friend

Rohit Dhankar

[Did not get time to write something specifically for the blog, and am likely to remain busy for some more time. So thought will put this letter to a friend on it, as I have many relativist friends here too. It is not of general interest though. Still….]

Dear Friend,

We speak from two different lines of thought, so perhaps will keep on hitting road blocks. But still I will respond to two of your general principles, before shutting up.

Giving prominent place to emotions and personal politics in our meaning making and decision making in public life:

I may not have read much of a particular kind of literature on this issue, and my actual knowledge of cultural relativism is nonexistent; but I have thought a lot on this. I never rejected, and I never reject, the importance of desires, emotions, intentions, and politics to achieve what we want to achieve in this. Actually I believe that desires, emotions and intentions are what make the life worth living, enjoyable, meaningful, good as well as evil. What I object to is using individual’s emotions, desires and intentions in public decision making on issues of common interest. Once you accept that the desires and emotions of the stronger will rule, you have no antidote to that. The religiously tried compassion for the weaker is iniquitous, patronising, and keeps everything in the hands of (under the sweet will of) the self-interest of the stronger, as the weaker have no principle of unity to counter. Gandhi’s change of heart and Buddha’s karuna does not work. It leaves no ground for the weak to fight on. The idea that not allowing individual’s emotions and desires to play in the public arena shuts up the weak is plain wrong. It provides the weak the ground to fight upon and a powerful weapon to fight with. Therefore, the desires, emotions and personal politics in the public arena should be governed by some more just and inclusive principles. Sorry, considering every shred of idea of equal worth is not inclusive, it is ultimate exclusive principle.

The second point: who says what and why? Must be considered fist:

I must share with you a little personal detail. I come from Chirawa tehsil in Jhujhunu district in Rajasthan (advance apologies to Chirawa people, in case their feelings are hurt). This idea is ingrained in the thinking of every illiterate as well as well educated inhabitant of that area; sometimes I feel it is hard-wired in their brains and is part of their genetic code. This is not only a theoretical principle there, it is their lived reality, and most of them are aware of it, and can articulate. You go to any village in Chirawa, propose the sanest scheme that benefits all and be as transparent as you can. The first thing each listener to you will think and will discuss with his confident is: Who is she? What does she want? Why does she want to benefit us? What is there in it that is actually for her? If you don’t believe me, go to that place and start working with them, you will find that every semiliterate farmer is using this principle to the hilt.

I grew up in that culture. I saw, am seeing, devastating effects of this thinking, unbridled by reason. It is pragmatically a bad principle and theoretically untenable. It over emphasises either the evil side or the unconscious-ignorant side, or both, of human being. When we attribute people consciously using general principles for their own benefits alone, we are emphasising the evil side; when we think that their consciousness is shaped that way and they are unaware (and will always remain so) we are emphasising the unconscious-ignorant side of human being. I reject neither the possibility of evil not that of ignorance. I accept both. But I don’t want to celebrate them, I want to control the evil side and mitigate the ignorant side. (And don’t worry about my using the word evil, and come up with the argument that I am already terming others’ ways of thinking evil. I am doing no such thing. Consider “evil = self interest on the cost of harm to other” for the sake of simplicity. If you reject that that is evil, then we really have no ground to talk on, end of the dialogue. Period.)

Fortunately, there is another impulse (yes, impulse, generated by what we are) in humans. Which is capable of seeing the other as myself, and feeling the pain of the other (note emotion, as necessary ingredient in reason). “This other as myself” is a generalisable principles, and empathy connects me to the humanity. Both put together I call impulse of reason. (Why impulse of reason? A long story, some other time; but that is one of the definitions of reason. Or at the least, one necessary ingredient in the definition of reason.) This impulse of reason I find the only antidote to the impulse of self-interest and unawareness of one’s motives. I find this impulse lightening the darkness of human heart, and generating hope for the future of humanity. All this is not based on emotional proclivities; it has sound rational grounds.

So where does that lead me? To this: if I hear an Iliah or a Hitler say X, then

  1. First, I will examining X closely. Its concepts, its arguments, its proposals, on its face value. No matter whether it comes from Hitler or Iliah.
  2. Then I will examine the intellectual tradition in which it is said.
  3. Then I will examine who Iliah or Hitler is, how X related to his/her known agenda, why s/he might be saying that? And when I find that X is something good, but flies in the face of his/her known agenda, I will still hope and give her/him benefit of doubt—may be this time s/he has seen the light! And will keep my fingers crossed.
  4. And then I will use all three in my judgement; yes, I will make judgment as a thinking being.

I will not start examining number 3 first and will not decide the worth of X on the basis of who said it alone. It to my mind is a fallacy rooted in the belief that predominant nature of humanity is either evil or ignorant. I accept the possibility of evil and ignorance in humans, but reject the belief that it is their predominant nature. I believe that human beings do have the capability both to understand and go beyond the self; in recognition of the other as equally worthy. I would like to strengthen and use this later. And all my stark harshness is generated from this sand point.

In case you find all this too simplistic and un-nuanced, please consider the possibility that that might be because of the quick articulation in too brief an email.

At the end I cannot resist a dig J:

Cultural relativism comes in two varieties: methodological and moral/political.

The methodological variety is harmless, and perhaps a necessary and powerful research tool for the anthropologist.

Cultural relativism of moral variety has many ideas that are very useful in making people aware of their own biases, and thereby, making them open-minded towards other people and cultures. But when it is pushed to extreme it makes the relativist’s own mind opaque to him, throws him in the same pit, perhaps in even a darker corner, he wants to pull others out of.

Sorry for boring you with all these fundamental assumptions.



2 Responses to Letter to a cultural relativist friend

  1. mahesh kumar sharma says:

    Rohit ji,
    Thanks for thoughts you shared.On Boaring.. Once you said,”learning is not always joyfull’.


  2. Samir Samnani says:

    I get just 5% of it. I think I have to read 100 times to get this. Mathematics and philosophy looks ultimate combination to explain things way u explained cultural relativism. How these two streams or forms of understanding compliment each other I think this Blog would be gr8 example.


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