The problem with Cultural Relativism

We have just been watching ‘Lateline’ on ABC, and have been absolutely horrified by the reports that there is endemic abuse of women and children in Aboriginal communities in various parts of Australia.

Many people have been asking why (a) these issues have not been reported earlier and (b) why no one has done anything about them. I think the Australian populace has its heart in the right place, but there has been a reticence to report on these issues and to get involved for a number of reasons:

  • Cultural relativism – that is, that certain cultures have different standards, and it’s not for us white people of Judaeo-Christian backgrounds to criticise other cultures ;
  • Self-determination for Aboriginal people – that is, autonomy for Aboriginal communities so that they can govern their own lands and own lives as they see fit; and
  • Stolen Generation – a fear of removing Aboriginal children from their families and creating another aggrieved ‘stolen generation’.

I must confess that in earlier days I have been a very strong supporter of Aboriginal self-determination. However, it appears from these recent reports that this is not an ideal situation from a practical sense (however creditable it may seem in theory).

Nonetheless, at base, the solution to these various problems must come from within indigenous communities themselves. I have had some experience tutoring Aboriginal students, and it taught me that I could not study for them – the impetus, ideas and effort had to come from my students. But what I could do was support my students in their studies to the best of my ability. The same is true in this situation. But how can I support indigenous women and children? There’s not much I can do on an individual basis, but I can make a stand which may encourage the Government and others that something must be done.

I have realised that there are fundamental values which I believe in, and fundamental things which I do not think any person should have to suffer. Just to pick a few things… I do not think women should be abused, raped or killed because it is a male “right” to do so according to traditional principles. I do not think children should be sexually or physically abused. I don’t think homosexual people should be vilified. I don’t care what culture someone comes from, it just isn’t acceptable.

There have been a variety of criminal cases which have upheld a “culturally relative” point of view, both in the context of Aboriginal society and other cultures present in Australia. The tension in sentencing principals lies between treating all people equally, and recognising specific factors relevant to an offender’s individual case. I certainly don’t envy any Judge who has to impose a criminal sentence. However, there are some cases which just don’t seem “right”. For example, last year, there was widespread media coverage of a case where an Aboriginal elder assaulted and raped his 14 year old ‘promised wife’, and was only sentenced to one month in gaol as the sentencing Judge gave prominence to the fact that according to Aboriginal customary law, the elder was not committing an offence and was not aware that he was committing an offence against Northern Territory law. There have been other similar cases, such as the Jackie Pascoe case. The Judges in question no doubt were trying to be culturally sensitive and take into account different traditions: but assaulting and raping a 14 or 15 year old girl is just plain wrong if you ask me. If I were a young Aboriginal woman who had suffered a similar experience, I would be reluctant to report it to police when I heard of a case such as this.

People who espouse cultural relativism have the best possible intentions and tend to wish not to patronise or to judge other cultures. But it just proves to me that great wrongs can be committed with the best of intentions.

So, I think one small way in which we can support indigenous women and children is to stand up and confirm that there are some things which are not acceptable in any culture. It doesn’t matter whether you are indigenous, of Anglo-Celtic background or any other kind of background. The more people protest, the more likely the Howard Government is to deal with the problem. That way, Aboriginal women and children are not on their own.



Filed under indigenous issues, politics

5 responses to “The problem with Cultural Relativism

  1. Pingback: Indigenous Culture « The Legal Soapbox

  2. Pingback: Paternalism is not the answer « The Legal Soapbox

  3. Pingback: What to do? The indigenous crisis « The Legal Soapbox

  4. Pingback: God’s law and the law of the State « The Legal Soapbox

  5. Pingback: skepticlawyer » What to do? The indigenous crisis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s