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Tolerance vs. Relativism

This week is remarkable in at least one rather important sense; it marks one of the most hideous and deeply frightening statements I’ve heard in all of my twenty-nine years, a viscerally unnerving remark made so casually and offhandedly that I nearly became ill on the spot. In the course of an otherwise pleasant conversation on the countless differences between cultures and the importance of patience and tolerance, I was told that female genital mutilation (from here on “FGM”) was not necessarily barbaric in and of itself — that its barbarism or lack thereof depended critically upon the cultural context within which it takes place. No act, I was told, is per se barbaric, but rather all cultures must be regarded as equal, and thus nothing is to be deprecated in itself. Here I offer, for the edification of the reader, a primer on the subject, which comes to us courtesy of a BBC article entitled “Anatomy of female genital mutilation” (the description that follows is explicit and extremely disturbing):

Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes any procedure that alters or injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

In its most severe form, after removing the sensitive clitoris, the genitals are cut and stitched closed so that the woman cannot have or enjoy sex.

A tiny piece of wood or reed is inserted to leave a small opening for the necessary flow of urine, and monthly blood when she comes of age (most FGM is carried out on infants or young girls before they reach puberty).

When she is ready to have sex and a baby, she is “unstitched” – and then sewn back up again after to keep her what is described by proponents as “hygienic, chaste and faithful”.

At this exoneration of FGM’s perpetrators, I was quite taken aback, practically thunderstruck by the enormity of the error, of its practical implications and an amazement that seemingly reasonable people could believe this. I had not imagined that my partners in conversation would cleave so closely to their cultural relativism as to embark on an apology for a practice so cruel and inhuman. But then this is among the fundamental philosophical problems with such extreme cultural relativism; it puts one in the uncomfortable position of having to accept any kind of brutal rights violation insofar as it is consistent with some arbitrary cultural value or tradition. My compeers at least were consistent in their barbarousness.

It occurred to me then, as it has before, that the anarchist as such cannot also be a cultural relativist in any meaningful or principled way, for the opposition to authority simply will not brook even longstanding cultural practices such as FGM. Anarchists oppose authority not randomly or haphazardly, not in any piecemeal way that happens to make us feel comfortable in a given case. The opposition operates always, at all times.

It must not be overlooked, moreover, that all such barbarities — supposedly legitimate, “not barbaric” practices like FGM — are of course bound to be vaunted pieces of the cultural and customary inheritance. Were this not the case, were these vile practices simply aberrant and treated as such, they would hardly be worth opining on. It becomes necessary to vociferously condemn crimes like FGM precisely to extent that they are considered time-honored cultural traditions. Indeed, it must escape relativists such as my conversation partners that the lowest, most odious forms of bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. — are all age-old cultural practices in their own right. We are apparently meant to defer to crimes like FGM just to the extent that they are at their most vicious, inhumane and ingrained. This is the juncture at which open-mindedness becomes mere mindless folly, an exercise in preposterous infinite regress.

Individuals are the social elements which actually exist. Culture, religion, politics — all of these we as individuals have invented, exalting them to such a degree that we now make of them much more than the human lives they are there to preside over. Cultural relativists give all manner of potential genocidal maniacs and human rights violators a carte blanche, a cultural pretext to which they can point while devastating human lives. Doubtless we ought to respect other cultures, even to actively look for the unique contributions they make to overall human flourishing. We must not, however, pretend that the imprimatur of culture is capable by itself of redeeming savage acts such as FGM. One needn’t be an anarchist or a proselyte of the nonaggression principle to understand that such acts are wrong wherever they are found, regardless of religion or culture.

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