The Other and Ourselves: Is Multi-culturalism Inherently Relativist?

Understanding "the other" will pose the 21 st century's greatest social challenge. The days are over when "Westerners" could consider their experience and culture as the norm and other cultures merely as earlier stages in the West's development. Nowadays, most of the West senses the arrogant presumption at the heart of that old belief.

Sadly, this newfound modesty, so necessary for understanding other cultures and traditions, threatens to veer into relativism and a questioning of the very idea of truth in human affairs. For it may seem impossible to combine objectivity with the recognition of fundamental conceptual differences between cultures. So cultural openness poses the risk that we debase the currency of our values.

To grapple with this dilemma, we must understand culture's place in human life. Culture, self-understanding, and language mediate whatever we identify as fundamental to a common human nature. Across human history, always and everywhere, these basic faculties have demonstrated endless extraordinary innovation.

In accounting for such variety, some people anchor our understanding of human nature at a level below that of culture. Sociobiology, for example, seeks to discover human motivation in the ways that human beings evolved. Advocates of this view claim that cultural variation is but the surface play of appearances.

But we can never discover species-wide laws, because we can never operate outside of our historically and culturally specific understanding of what it is to be a human being. Our account of the decline of the Roman Empire is not and cannot be the same as that put forward in 18 th century England, and it will differ from accounts offered in 22 nd century Brazil or 25 th century China.

Here the charge of relativism arises. But it is wrong to believe that accepting cultural differences requires abandoning allegiance to truth. The 17 th century scientific revolution's great achievement was to develop a language for nature that purged the purpose- and value-terms bequeathed by Plato and Aristotle to earlier scientific languages, which were nourished by earlier civilizations.

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But the universality of the language of natural science cannot be applied to the study of human beings, where a host of theories and approaches compete. One reason for this is that the language of human science draws on our ordinary understanding of what it is to be human, to live in society, to have moral convictions, aspire to happiness, and so on. No matter how much our everyday views may be questioned by a theory, we nonetheless draw on our understanding of basic features of human life that seem so obvious as to need no formulation. It is these tacit understandings that make it difficult to understand people of another time or place.

Ethnocentrism results from the unchallenged understandings that we unwittingly carry with us, and which we cannot dispel by adopting another attitude. If our tacit sense of the human condition can block our understanding of others, and if it is so fundamental to who we are that we cannot merely wish it away, are we utterly imprisoned in our own outlooks, unable to know others?

True understanding in human affairs requires a patient identification and undoing of those facets of our implicit assumptions that distort the reality of "the other." This can happen when we begin to see our own peculiarities clearly, as facts about us , and not simply as taken-for-granted features of the general human condition. At the same time, we must begin to perceive, without distorting, corresponding features in the lives of others.

Our understanding of the "other" will be improved through these corrections, but it will remain imperfect. If the historiography of the Roman Empire in 25 th century China turns out to be different from our own, this will not be because the facts will be found to be different than we (or 22 nd century Brazilians) thought. The difference will be that different questions will be asked, different issues raised, and different features will stand out as remarkable. Of course, as in our time, some accounts will be more ethnocentric and distortive, others more superficial. In short, some will be more "right" and come closer to truth than others.

Avoiding distortion requires acknowledging that our way of being is not uniquely "natural," that it merely represents one among many possible forms. We can no longer relate to our way of doing or construing things as if it were too obvious to mention. There can be no understanding of "the other" without a changed understanding of the self - an identity shift that alters our understanding of ourselves, our goals, and our values. This is why multiculturalism is so often resisted. We have a deep investment in our distorted images of others.

Most of us recognize that we are enriched by understanding other human possibilities. It cannot be denied, however, that the path to acknowledging their existence and value can be painful. The crucial moment occurs when the "other's" differences can be perceived not as error, or as a fault, or as the product of a lesser, undeveloped version of what we are, but as the challenge posed by a viable human alternative.

Other societies present us with different and often disconcerting ways of being human. Our task is to acknowledge the humanity of these "other" ways while still living our own. That this may be difficult to achieve, that it will demand a change in our self-understanding and hence in our way of life, is the challenge our societies must reckon with in the years ahead.