Just Say No to Cultural Relativism

A Russian track star defended her country’s repressive laws on pro-equality expression during a press conference and she used an argument that I find extraordinarily annoying. She said, in essence, that we have to “respect” (whatever the hell that means in this context) Russian culture.

ISINBAYEVA: “If we allow [them] to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys. […]

It’s unrespectful [sic] to our country. It’s unrespectful [sic] to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different from European people and other people from different lands. We have our home and everyone has to respect (it). When we arrive to different countries, we try to follow their rules.

No, no, no. I don’t have to “respect” (again, no idea what that could possibly mean here. Stop criticizing? Agree with?) oppressive laws in Russian any more than I have to respect them in my own country just because a majority might support them. Oppressive laws are wrong no matter what country they occur in.


  1. John Pieret says

    We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys.

    Well, gee … if that’s true, why do you need these laws at all? Oh, maybe not all Russians want to be boys with woman or woman with boys. Oh, I know, the Russian tradition is one of tyranny and that’s the way Russians like it.

    No, I don’t have to “respect” it. I only have to fear it.

  2. says

    I’m hearing similar rubbish from Japan, where people are starting to talk about scrapping their curent constitution and replacing it with something that reflects some uniquely wonderful “Japanese values” — which apparently don’t include individual rights.

  3. says


    Your comment seems off-point, to say the least, since pole vaulting is one of the elements of track and field.

    As such it is entirely accurate to refer to a (presumably famous) pole vaulter as a track star.

  4. rabbitscribe says

    When calling someone an idiot, it’s nice not to miss an apstrophe and a comma, misspell a one-syllable word, and (as composer helpfully observes) be entirely incorrect in the first place.

  5. abb3w says

    In general, “Respect” would seem to involve some kind of social signalling to associate the idea of something as having “value”. More pedantically still, that the value is non-negative — that is, not less than some implicit baseline reference. (Greater than, equivalent to, or incomparable involving sub-gradations signalled.) Further pedantry can involve addressing the concept of “value” as a partial ordering over a set of choices, which in turn leads to Hume’s “is-ought” problem.

    Cue Cartman screaming “Respect My Authoritah!”

  6. raven says

    replacing it with something that reflects some uniquely wonderful “Japanese values”…

    Such as what?

    Taking over Asia and Oceania and using their natural resources to fuel their economy. Occupying Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria again?

    IIRC, the last time they tried that, it didn’t work very well.

  7. Abby Normal says

    Perhaps he’d like to pass a law banning criticism of the law that bans promoting equal rights. Then, just to be on the safe side, they should probably ban criticism of that new law too. In fact any suggestion that the government is imperfect should probably be done away with. Perhaps they could even form a special police force tasked with ensuring loyalty to the ruling party and loyalty to motherland.

    I’ve got the strangest sense of déjà vu all of a sudden.

  8. says

    raven: the values I heard specified in the NPR news bit were duty to the state and respect for the emperor. So yeah, your guess is probably right, if only because uppity dissenters won’t have any freedom to call out jingoistic BS before it’s too late.

  9. says

    What I find sickening is the hypocrisy. Fundies will cite cultural relativism to justify their immorality but happily accuse liberals and secularists of being cultural relativists whenever it’s rhetorically convenient.

  10. eric says

    Russia agreed to abide by Olympic rules when it agreed to host the games. The rules say don’t discriminate against people based on gender, race, etc.

    So unless Russia’s “culture” includes breaking contracts or making them in bad faith, the cultural relativism thing is a moot issue. If discrimination is a part of your culture, you should’ve never agreed to host the games in the first place.

  11. D. C. Sessions says

    How does she feel about that “respect” thing when it involves the treatment of women in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia?

  12. imthegenieicandoanything says

    The idea of relativism has a place, but of course is ridiculous as an excuse. Cultures, civilizations, nations, societies finally don’t “exist” but are the creations and excretions of individual humans – what existence they possess is on a different and largely imaginary level (at least from the point of view of any human being).

    Human beings definitely DO exist in the world I walk around in, and my experience and my considered opinion is that they all deserve the same rights as myself, whatever I think of their relative intelligence or preferences. Working that set of conflicting interests is plenty enough for me to deal with.

    I understand – humans are very, very, very, very lazy. Most want everything to be easy for them, especially thinking and feeling: hence RELIGION!

    The Olympics – though not the athletes so much – are a shitty, absurd spectacle that should’ve died with the Cold War. May this one flop so immensely the whole institution of corruption go belly up and evaporate.

  13. beardymcviking says

    Poll vaulters! Able to leap short questionnaires in a single bound!

    On-topic: If ‘respecting’ these sorts of tyranny-of-the-majority laws means throwing minorities under the proverbial bus, I’m sure I don’t ‘respect’ them at all.

  14. says

    Cultural relativism is literally might makes right. Whenever you “respect” a “culture,” what you are catering to is the wishes of the most powerful– the mightiest– within that culture. They are the ones who make the rules, who decide that “women live with boys.” That culture also contains boys who would like to live with boys and women who would like to live with women, but nobody’s “respecting” them.

    So, good job appeasing the mighty, cultural relativists. Doing for the powerful in other cultures what you might well blanch at doing for the powerful in your own.

  15. Ysidro says

    You know, I was taught to “obey” cultural relativism in academia. That is, when acting as an anthropologist, not to judge what you observe by your own culture.

    This makes sense to me. In academics.

    Outside of that, it seems bonkers to NOT judge another culture by one’s own. Of course I’m going to disrespect a bigot in my personal life (incudling my part in my own culture and sub-cultures.)

    I’d love to know where this idea that we should be using cultural relativism all the time came from. Mostly I hear anti-cultural relativism screeds from the right, but I rarely trust that their targets are actually engaged in the practice.

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