When culture relativism can no longer suffice

Sanne van Oosten and Davey Meelker

When visiting other countries one should always be careful in judging practices of this foreign nation. If habits and norms of a certain culture differs from your own, this does not automatically mean that they are wrong. So far we agree with the culture relativists. Still, this does not mean that that judging is forbidden. We should not judge by comparing cultures, but measuring it to the greater morality. What is this greater morality? This is hard explain in one blog, but certain things are universally wrong. The best explanation is through the following example.

She was the village’s prima donna, the most beautiful girl of all. Every young man wanted to marry her. But, she had to choose one. At the customary age of 16 she choose her husband, to great sorrow of all the others. Jealousy turned some of them bitter and this motivated some to find their revenge in black magic. This is what our host explained to us. Black magic is the use of traditional Javanese religion in order to do someone harm. It is used in many other cultures as well.

Two months after she had gotten married the black magic had its impact. She went crazy. The nature of her symptoms were not made clear to us. But the result was devastatingly clear; her husband divorced her and her family had put her in quarantine. That was 25 years ago. She is still locked up to this day. Just around the corner of our hosts house was her house. We had walked by it numerous times already, and never noticed anything peculiar about it. Not until it was pointed out to us did we notice the large lock on the outside. A house only to be opened from the outside. Her brother and sister brought her one meal a day and that was most of her contact with the outside world.

Our host brought us to the house and we stood talking in front of it. While I was looking at the large lock on the outside she suddenly appeared in front of the window. The prima donna, after 25 years of solitude. She stared at us with a blank expression on her face, and we felt embarrassed to be standing in front of her house and disgusted by the injustice of the situation. Our host spoke a few words to her. She nodded and he pushed two cigarettes under the crack of the door. She looked thankful, although the blank expression on her face was still the most overpowering expression. When we started arguing why locking up a person with mental troubles is inhumane and what gave the people of the village the right to lock her up, our host retorted our arguments through explaining how she had broken loose once. “She was running through the streets naked, screaming the whole time. That’s why we need to keep her locked up” We couldn’t blame her, we might have done the same. Who knows how one would act after so years in nearly complete solitary.

“It’s just their culture and we should respect that” a culture relativist could say. But is this really the right way to value this situation? What gives the citizens of one village the right to lock a fellow human being up? There has been no legal process, and there has even been no crime. This way she is not only deprived from professional help, but also her freedom. When you think about it, it is immoral twice. Therefore it should be of universal value to condescend practices like this and not reduce it to an element of a culture.

2 responses to “When culture relativism can no longer suffice”

  1. MediaTantrist says :

    As someone who has lived in Asia all my life, I would have to hate to say it, but I do believe in the hocus pocus of the local spiritual witchdoctors. I have personally known of at least one leadless crime that has been solved by a bomoh, leading to a confession to a murder.

    To say that it is eastern mumbo jumbo is to impose one’s Western scientific rationalism on another community’s subjective myths. We create our reality through breathing life into these myths by which we define our collective selves. Maybe a middle path is preferable, while respecting these beliefs but allowing science and medicine an opportunity, and this we could suggest. Not to do so, is perhaps a crime in itself.

  2. MediaTantrist says :

    A crime has indeed been committed against the woman and society and state, which has been deprived of her interaction and contribution. A crime has been committed against those who suffer from psychological illnesses who have stigmatised as being ‘crazy’ and ‘bewitched’.

    If a person has been the victim of a ‘bomoh’ (witchdoctor), the family has the option of finding out the perpetrator through another ‘bomoh’ and have the spell recanted or reversed.

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