Tag: Cultural relativism

Cultural Relativism: The Case of Pitcairn Island

By Jason Newman

In the middle of the vast emptiness that is the Pacific Ocean, there lies a small group of islands. Known as the Pitcairn Islands, these are the last of Britain’s colonial possessions in the Pacific; the second-largest, the only inhabited one, is called simply Pitcairn Island. This island, which measures just over two miles from East to West, is famous for two things.

Firstly, it served as the final destination for many of the mutineers who so famously wrenched their ship, the HMS Bounty, from the control of the supposedly tyrannical Captain Blythe. After having cast the captain into the Pacific, his right-hand man Fletcher Christian, along with nine crewmen, six Tahitian men, and eleven Tahitian women, set sail and landed at Pitcairn. Eventually violence broke out among the party members, and by the time they next communicated with the outside world only one man was alive. His name was John Adams, and he shared the island with nine remaining women and nineteen children. Much was made of the story, and it was sensationalised in the British press at the time. Even two centuries later, it served as the inspiration for three different films.

The second story that led to the island’s fame is just as salacious as the first. In 2004, six men, nearly one third of the island’s male population, were charged with various counts of sexual assault against girls as young as eight years old. The crimes came to light after an investigation was triggered when a teenage girl alerted a British police officer, who was visiting the island, that she had been raped.

The defence put forward by the men, and indeed many others on the island, was that this was simply part of island culture. When a girl reached the age of eleven or twelve, she was fit for “breaking in”. They argued that it had always been this way, and the practice had been carried out from as far back as the early descendants of the mutineers. These claims were ultimately rejected by the courts and the men were convicted, although they were given laughably lenient sentences.

One of the central questions that arises from the Pitcairn case concerns the legitimacy of pleading cultural relativism as a defence for such actions.

Cultural relativism, the favourite tool of the regressive left, states emphatically that actions can only be judged within the bounds of a particular culture. It is used to justify the wearing of the hijab as an act of liberation, and at its most insidious level it has been used to argue against the prevention of practices such as FGM (female genital mutilation) under the guise that it is a “cultural practice.”

In their quest to denigrate the freedoms achieved by Western society, the post-modernists and the regressive leftists claim that the reason we see such things as “barbaric” or “medieval” is our ethnocentrism. In other cultures these things are perfectly acceptable, and as a result this is enough to justify their legitimacy. To call into question the morality of these practices would be to impose our Western sensibilities upon different cultures, and would be an “act of oppression.”

According to this reasoning, the Westerner who mutilates his daughter is guilty of grievous bodily harm. However, the African or Muslim who does so is merely carrying out a cultural tradition, and thus should not be punished. Similarly, in the Pitcairn case, should a Western man have sex with a twelve-year-old girl he is guilty of rape, but if a native of the island should do so he is merely acting on a social tradition of his society. This system of thought proudly proclaims that there cannot be any objective truth or objective morality.

This system also states that no one culture can be prized above another: the cultures of certain tribes found in New Guinea who practice cannibalism are to be put on equal footing with cultures that prize free speech and individual freedom. Thus, the Western culture that the leftists are so opposed to—for its supposed “oppression”—can through this same thought process be dismissed as merely a cultural peculiarity, no better or worse than the rest.

Acceptance of the practices of different cultures, no matter how unpalatable their beliefs, has clearly become the virtue signal of the day. Should any dissent be expressed, the dissenting party is promptly accused of propagating cultural imperialism. Of course, this is ridiculous: society would become unsustainable should only one group of people be prosecuted for something like FGM, while others be allowed to proceed with the practice simply because they are part of a different cultural group.

The idea of tolerance as a virtue in and of itself, regardless of which policies one is accepting, is rather absurd; it is in fact a logical fallacy. If practices can only be judged within their cultural bounds, who is to say that tolerance is a virtue? It is only our ethnocentric culture that proclaims this, and as a result tolerance can be said to be only as good or as bad as intolerance, should another cultural group practice intolerance.

A society that would practice this insane level of “tolerance” (cultural relativism) would as a result rob itself of the ability to punish those who would harm other members of that society.

How does cultural relativism care for the Pitcairn girl who alerted the authorities? Despite her upbringing in the island’s culture, she still knew that what was happening to her was wrong. Indeed, the other thirty-two women who initially came forward and stated that they had been raped on the island, in cases dating back decades, obviously also knew that what was happening to them was wrong.

So then what should we say to these women? The relativist position, taken to its logical conclusion, would have us say, “You may not like this, but it is part of your culture. Therefore we are powerless to stop it, since we don’t want to impose our Western ideology on you. Sorry.” Some of the women who ended up protesting the case the loudest, saying the rapes were part of island culture, were the very women who initially were willing to testify against the men. This seems to imply that they had been intimidated by family members or neighbours. Even they originally did not feel the events that happened on the island were normal.

This suggests, much to the displeasure of relativists and racists alike, that humans are fundamentally similar at our basic level – that we all posses a certain universality when it comes to moral issues. If this is true then there are certain moral values that transcend culture, in which case there is indeed an objective standard of morality. If it is untrue then we are all, as members of our own cultural groups, fundamentally different from others who were raised in separate cultural groups. In this case, the danger is that that one cultural group can claim inherent superiority over the others and potentially obscure them.

The trouble lies in discovering which values will hold as an objective moral standard. Reason dictates it should be the system of values which has led to the most peaceable, prosperous and open society in the world. Much to the ire of those on the regressive left, that society is modern Western society.

Our society, at its most basic level, is built on the standard of the individual’s right to be left unmolested by other individuals or groups, and has at its core the conviction that all men are created equal and therefore are all beholden to the same set of laws without consideration for creed, religion or race. It is the same society and culture that would (and did, as they were tried under British law) prosecute the men of Pitcairn for crimes that they themselves surely knew were morally abhorrent.

Cultural relativism sounds wonderful on paper; after all, who wouldn’t want to understand the world from a new perspective? But when tolerance for other cultures descends into tolerating the worst and most barbaric aspects of these cultures, the position quickly becomes untenable.


For more from Jason Newman check out his blog or follow him on Twitter @jasonnewman96.