In Which I Take a First Stab at Explaining Cultural Relativity

Cultural relativity is a heinously difficult concept to fully comprehend. I want to say: “Look, there are some cultures where they do certain things that ‘we’ find abhorrent. But that’s the way their world works.” Yet in the same breath, I have to say, “Yes, it’s probably not desirable in the long run, but it’s still just the way some people live.” The two are parallel, in the purely geometric sense of the word—they run alongside each other, ‘and never the twain shall meet’. When they do, we inevitably find conflict. 

The inspiration for this post came from an NPR story, by Quil Lawrence and Ahmad Shafi, about an Afghan girl sentenced to death for possessing a mobile phone, and allegedly using it talking to a (presumably non-related) boy. To ‘Western’ sensibilities, such a sentence seems repugnant. But in a culture where strict delineation of the sexes is observed throughout all spheres of life, it is at least comprehensible.

What is interesting about this report to me, in terms of my Ph.D. research, is the predicament in which places the American soldiers. The girl came to a US army base seeking refuge. It was duly provided. But the soldiers in the base—trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local population—will be making no friends by sheltering this girl from the punishment which her culture has deemed appropriate.

It’s a deadly Catch-22. If they let the girl return to her family, she will most likely be killed. If she stays on the base, what little local support the Americans in the area have gathered in the years they have been there. The point that Quil and Shafi raise is, in a counterinsurgency environment:

When she came to an American military base pleading for help, U.S. officials had to figure out how to save her life without enraging the local community.

This is an extremely difficult question to answer. Part of my purpose with the dissertation is to develop metaphors to help us understand these cultural differences, and to accommodate as many of them as possible. It is not my intention here, or anywhere else, to ‘draw lines’ around what is acceptable and what is not. But I will write more on the ways in which these different cultures might not see eye to eye.

As an example of why the cultural differences are so important, consider the following observation from the historian and anthropologist, Thomas Barfield. We must consider the ‘perceptions’ of the girl’s presence on the base. As a matter of honour for her family, this could legitimately be considered a grave undermining of her male relatives’ authority. As Barfield points out: “Because honor itself [is] judged in the theoretical realm, perception [is] more important than reality.”1 The majority of Afghans, whether or not they are Pashtun by descent, follow the precepts of pashtunwali: “a code of principles thoroughly rooted in the primacy of maintaining honor and reputation.”2 In Afghan culture, it is vital to the integrity of the family that these principles be upheld.

The necessity to uphold honour is so important that, as Quil and Shafi point out:

This is where the story in Afghanistan often ends: The woman is sent home, and later killed by her family to cleanse the dishonor.

In this case the story ended more happily. From the point of view of this post, however, the comments of the girl’s Marine caretaker is more telling:

There are so many women who have this issue. It would be nice if there was something we could do that was tangible, but I don’t know what that thing is.

I’m going to keep searching for something. But it will be a long and difficult struggle to find a way to reconcile to very different cultures. And these cultural differences don’t make the delicate matters of counterinsurgency any easier.

—————

1. Barfield, Afghanistan, 185.

2. Barfield, Afghanistan, 59.

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