Thursday, 28 July 2011

The problem with cultural relativism


I've heard this phrase many times when discussing various issues online, particularly with regards to the the foods and cooking practices that different cultures may have. There is a school of thought that seems to think that there are no wrongs with what different cultures may eat, that no one should be able to judge a culture that is different from their own. 

Up to a point, this is true. However, this phrase is usually thrown into the mix when the subject relates to a food that involves unnecessary cruelty. For example, I came across several videos on Youtube recently depicting sashimi.  Sashimi consists of very fresh raw meat, most commonly fish, sliced into thin pieces. Or to be more precise, it consists of fish that has been partially cooked, and is served while it is still very much alive. Indeed, it is considered an insult to serve the fish if it is dead. While the partly cooked fish is still gasping for air and in terrible pain as it will have been cooked and sliced (but not killed), the diner will tear slices of the flesh from the fish with chop sticks to eat it. 

In one particular video, sashimi is served to a family in a restaurant. The family can be heard laughing while they prod the fish with their chopsticks. As soon as the fish opens it's mouth to gasp for air, they can all be heard applauding. Happy that their meal is still alive, they all begin to tear pieces of the fish's flesh to eat it.

While everyone who eats fish understands the importance of having it fresh, there is no excuse for going to such extreme lengths to keep the fish alive while you eat it. Serving up a fish that was killed just moments before will be just as fresh as serving up a live one.

Sahimi is just one example of a cultural difference in eating habits. 

The people who defend such cruelty under the guise of cultural relativism obviously think that people who are critical of such eating habits are simply being intolerant, ignorant and unable to understand that different cultures should be free to have their different ways of preparing, cooking and eating their food. And I agree that they should, but not when it involves such unnecessary cruelty. 

Eating an animal while it is still alive and gasping for air can never be considered anything else but barbaric. 

The term cultural relativism when it relates to food is simply a byword for cruelty. Like so many other phrases such as collateral damage, it hides the real issue behind benign words. 

There is never, ever an excuse to cause your food unnecessary pain or suffering. 

I fully understand that different cultures have their own ways of cooking and eating their food. I lived in Singapore for three years and frequently used to eat at their hawker centres where the food is cooked in full view of you. 

For those proponents of cultural relativism, maybe you would also like to defend female genital mutilation and female suppression too. After all, are they not too just differences between cultures. Some things are just plain wrong, and we shouldn't be afraid to say so, whether it be a different culture to our own or not. We need to be critical in our thinking, and see things for what they truly are, and not hide behind cowardly phrases such as "cultural relativism". 


  1. I think that it is important to tolerate other cultures, in the sence that it is important to be open minded.

    But for me its something called beeing too tolerant, when you start tollerating the intollerable.

    I think thats the problem with some people.

    To tolerate the repressing aspect of a culture - I think thats a misunderstanding of tolleration.

    Also questionable is the defence I know some people make on the issue of suicide bombings in Israel(because of agony towards Israels occupation,that is). I can see how Israels policies are messed up. I cant, howewer emphasize that suicide - missions in the name of religion is defendable.

    Of course, these things happen more in the name of religion than culture, but for me apologizing for these actions reminds me of some of the same things you mentioned. People dont find these problems to part of a religious indoctrination(something that they are), but places the blame on the West.

    Sometimes people really need to understand that the problem is in their own way of thinking, in the way theyve been brought up.

  2. I agree that everyone needs to exercise tolerance, but what I won't tolerate is needless cruelty.

    I think there is lot of emphasis and pressure to accept everything around us, or else we'll be labelled intolerant. Sometimes it's important to make a stand and to say what you think and believe.

    Be tolerant, but don't become blinded either.

  3. Precisely my point.

    We shouldnt be too tolerant.

    Ive heard cultural relativistic points of views some times, and I disagree strongly with them.