Are universal human rights a form of cultural imperialism?

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3.2 Cultural Relativism

In the following section we will concentrate on cultural relativism, in order to introduce the term before proceeding to the discussion surrounding cultural relativism and universal human rights.

The term cultural relativism refers to the belief that different cultures are characterized by differing principles of morality, belief systems, and practices and can therefore not be fully understood from an outside point of view. It is the belief that different cultures cannot – and should not – be compared or paralleled to each other as they build on differing value systems and thus have no common frame of reference. In this sense, a culture’s beliefs are valid and meaningful relative to those within this particular culture and should therefore not be attempted translated into one’s own socially constructed value system (Edgar & Sedgwick, 2008: 78-79). A central notion within this principle is that no culture or cultural practices should be perceived as inferior or superior to other cultures, rather all cultures should be regarded as being of equal relevance. It is a common belief that cultural relativists in general aim to increase focus on the more marginalized cultures even though that is not necessarily the case (Edgar & Sedgwick, 2008: 80).

3.3 Universality of Human Rights Versus Cultural Relativism

On the subject of international human rights law, a central theoretical debate remains the so-called ‘Universalism-Cultural Relativism’ problem. The assumption is that universal human rights depend on the existence of fundamental principles of justice transcending society, culture, and politics, and in this sense, the concept of universally binding human rights is not compatible with that of cultural relativism. The debate focuses on the contradictory nature of the two concepts, as it is assumed that to uphold cultural relativity is to reject the legitimacy of universal human rights and vice versa (Binder, 1999: 211).

According to works of traditional theorists such as Locke (1689), Wolff (1749), and Vattel (1758) all persons hold inherent rights regardless of their citizenship, culture, or nationality. These universal rights of the people should be prioritized over political and social institutions and were thought to be a precondition for a legitimate sovereign state. In this sense, an international law on human rights, and enforcement of such, would not violate the principle of state sovereignty and nonintervention, as state sovereignty would only be guaranteed by respecting human rights. Some would even argue that state sovereignty derives from natural rights being internationally protected as opposed to the other way around; a view in overall accordance with the Lockean perspective (Binder, 1999: 212). If this is the case then individuals, rather than states, have the ultimate authority in the context of international law, and as a result, human rights advocates have implied that moral absolutes transcending society and culture do exist. This assumption essentially constitutes the origin of the ‘Universalism-Cultural Relativity’ debate (Binder, 1999: 213).

The debate was thus founded on the criticism of universal human rights, based on claims of Western bias within international human rights law – such as the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted in 1966. These devices reflect a liberal individualism, which is characteristic to the West, and prioritize this over social and economic needs which might be of more importance to developing nations. They also fail to include other features such as social membership and respect for nature, which are emphasized in several non-Western cultures (Binder, 1999: 213-214). Cultural relativists built this criticism on a more fundamental note, namely the argument that there can be no rights completely separated from culture and society. This argument is supported by the notion that rights derive from values, which are determined and developed by human beings, and thus socially constructed. In this sense, they are products of human beings, shaped by social and historical contexts and would not exist apart from human society or culture. As human rights are socially constructed, and not determined by any source of authority superior to state sovereignty, any belief about rights would have to be culturally relative and therefore, no universal set of human rights or values can exist without valuing one culture over another (Binder 1999: 214).

Universalists – or advocates of international human rights law – often reply to this with a critique of cultural relativism, stating that the concept is self-contradictory in itself. They argue that cultural relativists generally emphasize certain principles such as equal significance and worth of all cultures or equal rights of the people to participate in international law making. These are treated as universally valid values, much like the points of human rights law, and therefore universalists argue that cultural relativists do favor certain values over other, implying that some cultures must also be superior to other – hence the claim of self-contradiction. By deeming certain values better than others, cultures employing such ‘good’ values must be better than those devoted to ‘bad’ values, meaning that all cultures cannot be of equal value. Neglecting to value certain principles over others would turn cultural relativism into cultural nihilism; somewhat stating that social democracy is a system of governance equal to that of Nazism, for example (Binder, 1999: 214-215).

3.4 Culture

In order to use cultural imperialism as a tool in the analysis part of our project the terms of culture and imperialism will now be described separately, as they are both rather complex terms. After having touched upon the terms individually the notion of cultural imperialism will be discussed in order to create a basis for examining the extent to which it is useful when discussing cultural globalization.

Cultures emerge when human beings join together in communities. The level on which a culture exists differs. For example, it can exist on the basis of religious beliefs. These beliefs are decisive for the way in which a society is indicated to be run. Therefore, ethnicity, religion etc. are fundamentals of culture. In history, religious affiliation has been perceived as the dominant way of referring to culture, as religion provides a kind of moral core for a certain community. Analyzing culture can be challenging, as the concept is rather complex in itself. However, including culture when examining human behavior is essential because culture influences human behavior and because it constitutes a major part of the world (Murden, 2011: 416).

        The theory of culture can be perceived as a tool that can be used to understanding the meaning of human behavior. This is essential, as people will act upon things in accordance with the meaning they attribute to them. Barth (2002) defines culture as “learned behavior” and “ideas transmitted through symbols”. He further draws on the definition of culture as described by Meyer Fortes. Here, culture is seen as "the standardized ways of doing, knowing, thinking and feeling - universally obligatory and valued in a given group of people at a given time" (p. 27).

        Culture contributes to shaping our perceptions and judgments of others and ourselves. Therefore, it can be a source of conflict. Especially when people do not act in accordance with our expectations, cultural differences become evident. As every individual sees things from their own point of view, cultural differences can lead to a lack of common understanding. What is perceived as a matter of course in one culture or group may not be perceived in the same way in another group - it might be seen as strange or wrong. Hence, occurrences across cultures often turn into complicated matters. Additionally, it should be taken into account that culture can be argued to be in a constant flux. This means that conditions are likely to change over time and along with these changes cultural groups may attempt to adapt to these changes. For example, according to Modernization Theory, which was briefly explained in chapter 3.1.1, the Western model of development should be applied to the rest of the world as industrialization and economic development lead to positive change. All in all, it becomes challenging to define a cultural group in a final manner, as things such as context and time of occurrence play a role. Even if we make an effort to understand another cultural group or look at things from a different perspective, this is challenging, as members of different groups may not follow their cultural conviction completely due to context or personal reasons (Lebaron, 2003). In previous times, the concept of culture was mainly of positive association, whereas in more recent times it appears to a greater extent in relation to conflicts (Hannerz, 1999: 394). According to Hannerz (1999) culture is often connected to "culture clash, culture conflict, [and] culture wars" (p. 394).

        During the Cold War, there was not a lot of focus on cultural differences due to the domination of the geopolitical struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Ideological and economic points were in focus when it came to defining differences. However, according to Murden (2011), the end of the Cold War brought with it a triumph of the West as well as a reshaping of world politics. Culture came to be seen as a means to understand both differences and similarities of the new age of globalization in which capitalism and cosmopolitan culture met a world full of different cultures. Further, the existing cultures were brought into closer contact with one another. In this regard, Western culture has been the most influential (p. 418). This 'Western domination' has evolved over time, for example, resulting in the emergence of the term ‘Westernization’, which has become a well-known term due to globalization (Murden: 418-419). The process of globalization is often seen as a top-down process. That is, one single global system will impact other parts of the world, and this might in extreme cases result in a kind of global monoculture – such as Westernization. Cultural globalization in this way may end up being a kind of cultural imperialism, which, as will be further elaborated, is characterized by cultural flows taking place between partners of unequal status, and in this way can be used as a mechanism for powerful states to exercise domination over weaker states (Heywood, 2011: 145).

In regard to the subject of culture it is, as mentioned, crucial to take into account that people with different cultural backgrounds will often have different views on the same event or subject. Hence, when discussing the subject of homosexuality and how the African attitude toward homosexuality differs from the Western attitude, it is crucial to take cultural differences or cultural diversity into mind.

3.4.1 Imperialism

        Imperialism can be argued to have had a great impact on the shaping of world politics and economic systems. It is by Heywood (2011) defined as "the policy of extending the power or rule of the state beyond its boundaries . . . In its traditional form, imperialism involves the establishment of formal political domination or colonialism" (p. 28). Historically, the term has included sovereignty, control, and heavy influences by dominant states over other states or societies. Imperialism is often connected to colonialism. In this regard, earlier scholars were preoccupied with the relationship that emerged between dominant states and the colonies they settled in, whereas the emergence of 'first wave' imperialist scholars resulted in a focus on how this relationship developed from being mutually beneficial into a relationship of domination (Kettel & Sutton, 2013: 244). As is the case for imperialism, it can be argued that colonialism is a form of domination. However, colonialism is the control one group has over another group’s territory. The relationship between colonialism and imperialism has been cause for debate. It can be argued that colonialism is a model of political organization and can be seen as an example of imperialism. Nevertheless, it is also argued to be the imperial policy of the West occurring from the sixteenth century. Butt (2013) points to three characteristics, which to the greatest extent explain the core of colonialism: domination, cultural imposition, and exploitation. Colonialism is often argued to be one group imposing values on another. The domination of colonialism is mainly characterized by the rejection of self-determination for the colonized people and the attempt to impose rules of the superior power. It has also been associated with imposing the culture of the superior power onto the colonized group, which makes it a form of cultural imperialism. The reasons for spreading one's own cultural values might be a desire for missionary undertakings, or to attempt to enforce political control. Colonialism can further be perceived as a type of exploitation, for example seen in the form of slave trade and the founding of trade relations (Butt, 2013).

        The European colonization of Africa from the 16th century onwards inevitably has had a great impact on African development. It is a key factor to include when seeking to understand the African continent as well as its people as it is today. We therefore find it essential to include a short section on African colonialism in order to emphasize the influence it has had on economic and political development and the African self-perception. The largest colonial powers were France and Britain and after World War I they held power in more than 70 percent of the African continent. It was especially during the mid 1800s and early 1900s that the imperial rule in Africa was at its highest (Khapoya, 2012). Most African countries gained independence during the 1950s and 1960s and it can be argued that decolonization, to a great extent, was affected by super power competition. Further, it contributed to a change in international relations (U.S, 2014). According to gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell (2014), there are no records of anti-homosexuality laws before Western colonization. Therefore, homophobia is perceived as an import stemming from the colonial era (Smith, 2014).

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