*Cultural Relativism means that I won’t feel like someone is coming on to me when an adult man holds my hand in Cote D’Ivoire; in their culture men hold hands all the time and it is not a sign of some deeper relationship.
But cultural relativism has its limits. Most people in the world do not want to hear any cultural justifications for forcing the elderly in a society to kill themselves to save everyone else the expense of keeping them around. This is probably because we think of forced suicide as murder and elderly people as particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
On the other end of the age spectrum is another group of people that generally agree need to be protected. So it is curious that in India many continue to practice arranged marriages of children.
In the United States we like to think of ourselves in control of our destiny – that is the basic philosophy found in the Declaration of Independence. So even the idea of adults giving away their agency in a matter as significant as deciding on a life partner sounds a bit suspect. But to combine that idea with the fact that the parties to get married haven’t reached puberty yet takes cultural relativism to an absurd place.
By continuing this tradition Indians are, in some cases, practicing child abuse by knowingly attaching their children to abusive spouses and families. In other cases they are merely robbing their children of the ability to fulfill their potential and live a fully satisfying life by attaching them to spouses and families that will hinder their ability to pursue certain careers. Of course I am judging this by American cultural standards, but even outside of our country it is hard to find people that would say it is fine to commit someone else to a life of servitude. And of course this affects girls more than boys but it can be equally stifling for a young man to be under pressure to earn a living for his family immediately and be forced to abandon longer term plans.
As much as I like to have other cultures retain their traditions, some traditions were eradicated with good reason. Families agreeing to marry their children before the children have a clear idea of what a lifelong commitment like marriage means is thinly veiled child slavery. And when we layer in the fact that marriage involves unquestioned sexual access to the young woman, it becomes sex trafficking.
India is a place that has practiced Hinduism for thousands of years, the belief system that helped to establish the caste system (another anachronism that should be abolished) to the detriment of potential and individual agency. So it can’t be that surprising that this is the society that continues to allow for arranged child marriages. But in this instance India’s culture is allowing for some to take advantage of others and is therefore wrong.
Cultural Relativism should protect things like 30 year olds worshipping rodents; that doesn’t impact anyone but the worshipper. But nothing should protect 40 year olds forcing 8 year olds to marry 10 year olds.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.