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Varieties of relativism, and Eric Hobsbawm

In memory of Eric Hobsbawm, an old post from 2007.

From Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, page 114:

Until Kabul, the UN’s disastrous lack of a policy had been ignored but then it became a scandal and the UN came in for scathing criticism from feminist groups. Finally the UN agencies were forced to draw up a common position. A statement spoke of ‘maintaining and promoting the inherent equality and dignity of all people’ and ‘not discriminating between the sexes, races, ethnic groups or religions.’ But the same UN document also stated that ‘international agencies hold local customs and cultures in high respect.’ It was a classic UN compromise, which gave the Taliban the lever to continue stalling…

In the chapter ‘Women and Cultural Universals’ in Sex and Social Justice Martha Nussbaum tells ‘true stories’ of conversations at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, ‘in which the anti-universalist position seemed to have alarming implications for women’s lives.’ Pp 35-6.

At a conference on ‘Value and Technology’ the economist Stephen Marglin, a leftwing critic of classical economics, gives a paper urging the preservation of traditional ways of life in a rural part of Orissa, India, citing for example the fact that unlike in the West there is no split between values that prevail at work and those that prevail at home. His example of this: ‘Just as in the home a menstruating woman is thought to pollute the kitchen and therefore may not enter it, so too in the workplace a menstruating woman is taken to pollute the loom and may not enter the room where looms are kept.’ Some feminists object. Frédérique Apffel Marglin replies: ‘Don’t we realize that there is, in these matters, no privileged place to stand? This, after all, has been shown by both Derrida and Foucault.’ Those who object are neglecting the otherness of Indian ideas by bringing their Western essentialist ideas into the picture.

Then Frédérique Apffel Marglin gives her paper, which expresses regret that the British introduction of smallpox vaccines to India eradicated the cult of the goddess Sittala Devi. Another example of Western neglect of difference. Someone (‘it might have been me’ says Nussbaum) objects that surely it is better to be healthy than ill. But no:  ‘Western essentialist medicine conceives of things in terms of binary oppositions: life is opposed to death, health to disease. But if we cast away this binary way of thinking, we will begin to comprehend the otherness of Indian traditions.’

This is where it gets really good. Eric Hobsbawm has been listening ‘in increasingly uneasy silence’; now he rises to deliver a ‘blistering indictment of the traditionalism and relativism’ on offer. He gives historical examples of ways appeals to tradition have been used to support oppression and violence. ‘In the confusion that ensues, most of the relativist social scientists – above all those from far away, who do not know who Hobsbawm is – demand that Hobsbawm be asked to leave the room.’ Stephen Marglin, disconcerted by the tension between his leftism and his relativism, manages to persuade them to let Hobsbawm stay.

That’s good, isn’t it? Feel for poor Stephen Marglin, confronted by outraged relativist social scientist colleagues who don’t know who this tiresome old geezer is and don’t like his blistering indictment, demanding that Eric Hobsbawm be thrown out! It would be funny if it weren’t, at bottom, so disgusting.

 

Comments

  1. hotshoe says

    Huh. I’m ignorant. I didn’t even know Eric Hobsbawm existed, and now I’m sorry I hadn’t encountered his work earlier, as it seems both truthful and fiery. Qualities in all too short supply nowadays …

  2. jose says

    Human first, Indian or Westerner second. Would be bad to replace their food with Whoopers but ffs health is a human issue.

  3. thephilosophicalprimate says

    This sort of thing always reminds me of this cutting observation from Randall Munroe: http://xkcd.com/451/ He picks on literary criticism, but the degree to which similar morally and epistemically bankrupt postmodernist asshats have infiltrated otherwise-respectable social sciences — anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, and so on — is an appalling tragedy, and a perpetual embarrassment to me as a career academic.

  4. maureenbrian says

    That is one of the great stories and it’s by no means the first time I have read it.

    His long interview with Simon Schama is here – done just in the last few months, schedules were cleared to repeat it on the day of his death – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01g4f87

    Do give one of his books a go, hotshoe. As well as being a world class pricker of relativist and postmodernist bubbles, he’s an amazingly accessible writer.

  5. yaqub says

    some interesting discussing over at harry’s place on hobsbawm – worth a read: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/24/books/eric-the-red.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    at the risk of kicking up a hornet’s nest, seems to me that this relativism is what “dear muslima” was what dawkins was getting at, however indelicately. furthermore, i don’t quite ken why ophelia has characterised pat condell’s views as “disgusting” when in fact what he’s expressing is justified outrage at the accommodation and weaselly, mealy-mouthed excuses made by sections on the left for vicious homophobia, antisemitism, misogyny, “honour”-killing and murderous acts of terrorism, provided they emanate from “exotic” cultures (even when committed by western born perpetrators!) funny old world, isn’t it.

  6. dirigible. says

    Given Randall’s fetishisation of the culture of science, I’d like to see him actually test the theory he presents in that cartoon.

    I’d be willing to bet he wouldn’t last very long in the english literature department. The fact that he is ignorant of its culture doesn’t mean that it is contentless.

    Indeed the problem is precisely the nature of that content, as you point out.

  7. Select says

    Eric Hobsbawmis an unreprentant communist. Even in later life he still would not denounce Stalin’s atrocities.

    So Hobsbawm gets indignant about the misogyny in Orissa State while remaining silent on the starvation and imprisonment of tens of millions of innocent people.

    What’s his indignation really worth?

  8. sawells says

    @8: Hobsbawm was a Marxist, not a Stalinist, and you should read his history of the twentieth century if you want to know what he thought of Stalin. Generally speaking a historian who writes “Only during the war years of 1941-45 did Stalin pause in his terror” would not be described as remaining silent on Stalin’s atrocities. Please be better informed in future.

  9. sunny says

    Frédérique Apffel Marglin gives her paper, which expresses regret that the British introduction of smallpox vaccines to India eradicated the cult of the goddess Sittala Devi.

    ———

    As an Indian, this kind of drivel makes me absolutely [...] (I can’t find word for it). Perhaps my ‘otherness’ was compromised.

    Why is it that some on the left cannot abandon the notion of the romantic savage, unpolluted and uncorrupted until the arrival of the White man.

  10. says

    Sunny…I know. You should read Meera Nanda on the subject! Perhaps you have.

    @ 5 – but if so, why was Dawkins getting at it in that context? What did that context have to do with relativism? It’s not relativist to talk about local problems, even when they are far smaller than other, non-local problems. If that’s all you ever talk about then it’s worth a nudge to look farther, but one locally-based discussion isn’t evidence of that.

  11. Brian M says

    #8…One might also note that Western Imperialism and “Capitalism” has killed millions over the centuries as well. Stalin was a vicious thug…but what about the British imperialists responsible for hobbling famine relief in India during various times? All in the name of the Holy Free Market.

  12. maureenbrian says

    No need to go as far as India, Brian M, when Ireland in the 1840s will make your point perfectly well. :-)

  13. Rodney Nelson says

    dirigible. #6

    I’d be willing to bet [Randall] wouldn’t last very long in the english literature department. The fact that he is ignorant of its culture doesn’t mean that it is contentless.

    Perhaps he would last as long as Alan Sokal did.

  14. Timon for Tea says

    It is true that Hobsbawm’s denunciation of the evils of relativism should be shaded somewhat by the fat that his universalism was the same as Stalin’s. And how many millions of dead did that entail? More or less than the cult of Sittala Devi I wonder. In other words, I don’t think it is obvious which one is the clear winner. Although my instincts are universalist, my head says relativism has the better arguments. Hobsbawm believed that universal values were manifest in history, that there were laws underlying the existence of all human lives, a tide that tended towards a single perfect outcome. He didn’t mind if hundreds of millions of individuals had to be killed to reach that perfect collectivist outcome and that has a certain intellectual coherence. But those of us that don’t accept any sort of god or historical law or Hegelian spirit, how do we argue for universalist values?

  15. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    sawells said:

    @8: Hobsbawm was a Marxist, not a Stalinist, and you should read his history of the twentieth century if you want to know what he thought of Stalin. Generally speaking a historian who writes “Only during the war years of 1941-45 did Stalin pause in his terror” would not be described as remaining silent on Stalin’s atrocities. Please be better informed in future.

    I haven’t read Hobsbawm and I’m not sure of the context of this quote, but I’m not sure “terror” means what you think it means. Stalin himself embraced the concept, as did Robespierre before him and Mao after. I don’t know if the man was a Stalinist or not, but that quote doesn’t rule it out.

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