Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cultural Relativism, Excuses and Understanding

In a recent New York Times op-ed, anthropologist, Mike McGovern offered an examination of the background of the woman involved in the alleged case of rape against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It’s well known that problems emerged with her credibility and the accounts she provided for investigators. McGovern’s piece was simply one that provided a greater context for the woman’s life, as she is an immigrant from Guinea and McGovern is an anthropologist who specializes in West Africa.

Robert Fulford of the National Post wrote a response piece earlier this week that criticized McGovern for using a “coarsely applied version of cultural relativism” to excuse or explain away any of the woman’s potential guilt for deceiving investigators. While cultural relativism is a multifaceted and, at times, contentious concept, it is not “an idea that long ago lost its professional moorings and became a dead weight on serious thinking” as Fulford argues.

McGovern’s essay nicely shows this. He gives the social, political, cultural backstory of a woman in the news to show that she wasn’t simply some Westchester County debutante looking to make a quick buck off of a rich older man. She was a woman who had come from a difficult place in difficult times, when bad choices were often more available than good ones. McGovern provided the context which makes her actions a bit more understandable, not excusable, but understandable. In my opinion, making it easier to understand other people is one of the noblest missions of anthropology and cultural relativism.

Update: Just after I made this brief post, Living Anthropologically posted a more thoughtful and informative response in line with my own.

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