The other night I had an interesting conversation with my dad, a doctor and professor at the University of Pennsylvania (soon moving to Johns Hopkins) and brother, a first year MD/PhD student at Temple University. Buzzing out while my brother quizzed my father on first year medical school knowledge from some home-made flashcards, I ruminated on the conversation we had the previous evening about brain development, psychology as a discipline in the West trying to become more “scientific”, and how culture shapes people’s worldviews and understandings of the meaning of things. We noted that the attempts of psychology and psychiatry to become more rigidly “scientific”, and insist that everything has a biological origin in the brain regardless of culture, has the potential to be highly problematic. This is because it could shut out the possibility of examining the ways in which culture and environment might shape those very biological functions. For me, this is an area of immense interest as I attempt in my intellectual and philosophical growth to wrestle with the creation of a conceptual model in which one may understand how to navigate and interpret cultural differences.
The concept of cultural relativity as it relates to areas such as human rights and “development” has been nearly constantly floating around in my mind for years now. There seem to be a number of dots to connect, and I simply haven’t been able to articulate what the dots are, never mind try and connect them. I have struggled with the concept of “development”, as it implies a ladder of progress akin to the one laid out in modernization theory where those living in “developing” countries, and their societies, are somehow inferior to those living in “developed” countries. I’ve also struggled with the argument that the human rights framework is based largely on Western values and Western legal traditions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the UN General Assembly at a time when its membership consisted of just 57 countries, at the exclusion of non-members, colonies, and other territories. After the Declaration was passed, the American Anthropological Association criticized it as a “statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America.” While I think it’s valid and important to point these things out, I also think the West can’t claim a monopoly on the idea of universal rights or the concept’s antecedents.
To take one example, one of the earliest instances of a regional set of protections that applied to all residents regardless of race, tribe, gender, or religion was the Constitution of Medina in medieval Arabia, circa 622 CE. The contributions of the Middle Eastern Muslim scholars to the European Enlightenment in terms of science, medicine, education, scholarship, and the preservation of classic Hindu, Greek, and other texts, inter alia, are often overlooked. Early Islam also helped lay the foundations for frameworks such as natural rights and human rights by virtue of its scripture-based humanism. Under the Constitution of Medina ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender equality were ardently legislated.
In addition, my second graduate experience included courses that made me take a serious step back and question my assumptions. Professors challenged me to ask myself how I knew what I “knew”, and challenged me to question the received wisdom of Western culture. Not in a superficial way, but in way that made me realize how I took my own culturally-shaped values and outlook for granted. This was perhaps most astounding to me in terms of thinking differently about gender issues such as the practices of bridewealth exchange and female circumcision. What I thought were clear and simple human rights battles turned out to be complex ethical and legal dilemmas saturated with cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Less controversially, I also became elucidated as to the subtlety of lingual translations, and the way language and culture together, along with history and religion, shape meaning.
All of this makes it nearly impossible for me to untangle the concept of universal humanity. So, what is it that’s the essence of “human”, and what is shaped by culture? “I think I know what I’m trying to figure out,” I interrupted my dad and brother. I explained my thoughts, ending with the assertion that what I want to do is try and determine what’s universally human and what’s culturally determined. Simple. Well, not a simple task, but simple as a concept. My dad pointed out that Abraham Maslow already kind of did this with his hierarchy of needs model. I said yes, but how do I know he was right? What were his own cultural biases and did he take them into account? What are my own biases and how can I account for them in my own attempts to create a conceptual model?
We then got onto the subject of education, and schools, and for a moment there was a bit of friction over the concept. My dad said, “I’ll tell you what has been shown. Where girls are educated, there are fewer health problems and lower fertility rates.” I temporarily set aside my discomfort with the idea that lower fertility rates were unquestionably a “good” thing. I noted that there is a fixation with both the physical and metaphysical structures of “schools” and an assumption that without them, or without the students-gather-in-one-place-and-teacher-teaches structure, there is no education. I said my point is that people talk about poor, “developing”, places or places affected by disaster or conflict as though they’re blank slates, with no politics or history. My point is that there are educational systems that make sense in the local context already there, or at least concepts that are organic to particular places. Our concept of school is not even that old, and came from the Prussian attempt at social organization for the purposes of ensuring a complacent and obedient citizenry, as John Taylor Gatto explains in his excellent article “Against School.” I said you can’t just take your idea of what education is and try and force it on people who already have their own idea of what education is. My dad said, “of course.” So what do health and fertility look like in places where girls are educated, but not schooled? Can there even be an objective definition of what it is to be “educated”?
I declared that there can be no moral absolutes, no pristine right and wrong with no exceptions, and that everything is nuanced and context-driven. But this is essentially esoteric and philosophical—there has to be right and wrong in real life, even if it is context-driven. There has to be a set of attributes, needs, and functions that make human beings human beings. It follows, then, that—despite the fact that the idea of individual “rights” as we think of them are the product of particular historical and cultural experiences—a truly universal rights framework could be established. (This also putting aside momentarily the Western legal tradition that shapes the current framework.) While in philosophy and even academically you can certainly argue about these things forever from safe, inconsequential places, there comes a point when there are real life consequences and implications, and sometimes people’s lives are at stake. If there is such a thing as being human, then there must be something that makes us human; something universal. There then has to be concrete human needs, and potentially a foundation with which to work with to better assess when something is unjust or “wrong” even taking into account cultural relativity, even if such a set of principles was highly context-specific. My dad laughed and said I should be glad that Wittgenstein wasn’t there or he’d be waving a red hot poker at me. Ha!
I should have taken notes during this conversation, because I can’t seem to remember much else. After we brought the discussion to a slow, I said to my brother, “I should have live-tweeted that conversation!” My plan is to take the questions I’m still left with—what are the dots and how can I describe them, then connect them—and continue posting bits and pieces of the puzzle. I welcome comments, arguments, disagreements, thoughts, criticisms, etc., as the more I can broaden the discussion the more I might come to new and different conclusions through ideas and discussions I might not otherwise have had. I hope, in the near future, to post a clearer outline of what I’d like to accomplish—just for my own intellectual clarity and, as my brother would attest to the importance of, to establish my own internal conceptual framework. Right now that’s something I’m lacking, mostly because I have yet to explore some of these complex issues. These initial meandering thoughts are just a drop in the ocean.
 Amyn B. Sajoo, “The Islamic Ethos and the Spirit of Humanism,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 8 No. 4, Summer 1995, p. 582.