Advancement and Cultural Relativism

There’s been an amusing back-and-forth over a relatively recent book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, which questions whether “cultural preservation” is doing more harm than good for aboriginal populations.

As is often the case in these things, both sides succeed in demonstrating their opponents’ points. One of the book’s co-authors is caught dismissing the significance of the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia on the Mississippi a bit too glibly, and the Cahokia fans are a touch too eager to spin the existence of colored plaster into tales of a bustling metropolis.

But it’s a response from Christopher Powell, a Canadian sociology professor, that demonstrates why “native studies” are considered so ridiculous to those outside the field. Powell effectively dismisses any notion of progress or advancement, arguing that colonization has wiped out every definition of advancement that doesn’t rank European civilizations first, so there is no remaining objective measure of progress. Given the negation of any definitional foundation, Powell is able to draw equivalences between aboriginal Tasmania and the modern global economy:

The Aboriginal peoples of Tasmania cultivated their ecosystem’s resources sustainably for 12,000 years, while industrial food production produced a situation of global food insecurity in under 200. Which society is the more advanced?

I rather like the notion that aboriginal Tasmanians enjoyed food security, while occasional pockets of hunger resulting from political obstacles to modern global food distribution are proof that we don’t.

Powell’s question, however, is the bigger concern here. Most academics attribute at least some of their motivation to the belief that improved understanding of your topic provides a net benefit to society. If you really don’t think that the transition from stone-age tribalism to digital-age secular liberalism represents any kind of quantitative advancement, then I honestly wonder whether you value knowledge and understanding at all.

Powell goes on to consult dictionaries, finding that synonyms for “uncivilized” are often pejorative:

When we use words like ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’, these negative connotations come bundled up with supposedly value-neutral connotations. We can ignore this complexity, but it doesn’t go away. While nineteenth-century anthropologists like Lewis Henry Morgan had some genuine sympathy for the Indigenous peoples that they studied, they still took it for granted that European peoples were superior, not only technologically but culturally and morally as well.

Putting aside Sam Harris’s contention that empirical evaluation of different moral systems is possible, even within a single moral framework cultural advancement is definitely quantifiable. An action or belief can be unanimously morally condemned by a culture, despite the fact that its prevalence in that culture is not zero. Murder and rape have been condemned in every culture ever studied (although the definitions of both vary), and yet they have always remained problems; individuals constantly fail to live up to their moral ideals. A culture which succeeds in closing the gap between its professed ideals and its actual behavior has “advanced” by its own standards.

There is simply no question that European peoples have made progress over the past 12,000 years at reducing murder and rape, and I’ve never seen any argument from a cultural relativist that such reduction is a direct result of compensatory cultural degeneration. One may rail against capitalism and social mobility and all the other cargo carried along by modern secular liberalism, but questioning the relative worth of values which differ between cultures does not negate the progress that has been made on values that are shared. Even within modern societies, cultural advancement is both easily defined and readily apparent: since the categorization of racism and sexism as moral evils, the prevalence of both has steadily declined; one can see the same trend for homophobia. Even if you think that a culture accepting of gays is inferior to one stigmatizing them, there is no doubt that a culture trying to accept gays but failing is worse than one trying and succeeding.

Apologists for current aboriginal policies condemn books like Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry for advocating Eurocentric solutions to social ills like substance abuse, poverty, and violence. This seems like a disastrous conflation of aboriginal people’s right to choose their own goals and values (e.g. is preserving a particular culture and lifestyle worth much higher rates of poverty and violence than their colonial neighbors? is the pretense of sovereignty worth gross inefficiencies in service provision?) with the contention that traditional aboriginal practices are just as effective in achieving particular outcomes as Eurocentric approaches.

Modern government and social policy are as crucial and versatile a technological tool as modern medicine, and disinformation about efficacy should be treated with just as much contempt.