The Myopia of Cultural Relativism*
When asked by an English reporter what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi reportedly quipped: “It would be a good idea.” Scholars doubt that this exchange took place. However, the popularity of the anecdote shows how widespread hatred of our civilization has become, including among our own culturally relativistic elites. Their self-loathing is frequently coupled with a glorification of the Far East and apologetics for Islam. In actuality, the West created the greatest civilization in world history, and it was only until after the Enlightenment that its decline began. A comparison with Oriental and Muslim societies reveals that it was only in the West where freedom, beauty, and the search for truth could flourish.
For cultural relativists, 1789 serves as the demarcation line between barbarism and progress. In their misguided view, the West before the French Revolution was a dim, ignorant, superstitious place. True enlightenment only existed in India. The Romans and Greeks were cruel, the Church Fathers were misogynists, and the Middle Ages—the ‘Dark’ Ages—were an unredeemable embarrassment. The Renaissance was temporarily treated somewhat better, as it was incorrectly viewed as a turn towards secularization, but now it is more frequently presented as the age of corrupt Borgia popes and the time of the first encounter of Europeans with the rest of the world, a prelude to the latter’s oppression. It was only thanks to the Enlightenment and French Revolution that the West ‘discovered’ ideals such as liberty, equality, and brotherhood, which finally led to ‘progress’, the abolition of monarchy, secularization, and notions of equality that have recently led to the apex of human achievement: the legalization of abortion and homosexual ‘marriages’.
Of course, the above description of the antiWestern historical narrative is somewhat of a caricature. However, this construct is more or less what most students in the West are taught about their civilization. They are indoctrinated to hate tradition, religion, and order, instead idealizing progress and emancipation and turning towards the East for guidance.
These self-hating Westerners are right about one thing: 1789 indeed was a watershed moment in Western history, insofar as the French Revolution created the world’s first totalitarian regime. Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov wrote that the difference between Christ and Marx is that the former asked his disciples to give their own goods to the poor, while the latter asked his followers to take others’ by force and redistribute them equally. The same applied to the French Revolution, which attempted to enforce liberty, equality, and brotherhood by the guillotine. It was the period before the French Enlightenment that allowed the West to flourish. The interaction of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem created a civilization based on the quest for truth, beauty, actual equality, freedom, and rationality. The ancient Greek philosophers taught us how to search for truth, while the Romans gave us the basis for modern law and, applying reason, constructed cities, roads, and works of architecture. The greatest philosophical revolution in the West, however, occurred after the Edict of Milan in 313.
It was Christians who built the first hospitals and poorhouses, founded the oldest universities, and created masterpieces of art. Above all, Judeo-Christian values made Western man see his neighbour as an equal—because, to quote St. Paul, “there is neither Greek nor Jew”.
The French Revolution, and the French Enlightenment that preceded it, represents a hermeneutic rupture with the past, a point when Western thinkers detached themselves from Roman law, the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage, tradition, and the search for truth. In the 19th century, Comte replaced God with the cult of reason; Marx created the blueprint for what was to be a society without inequality (violently imposed, of course); Nietzsche convinced us that some are weak and therefore a burden to society; and Bentham rejected the notion that all men are endowed with equal dignity as “nonsense on stilts”. What followed was a series of true disasters: genocides, wars, concentration camps, and the Gulag.
The main intellectual influencers of today’s West are the ideological descendants of Comte, Nietzsche, Bentham, and Marx—people such as Michel Foucault, Slavoj Žižek (who has written a panegyric about mass murderer Lenin), and Judith Butler. They postulate a world in which everything is relative, simultaneously elevating the homosexual agenda and abortion to religious dogma. Today’s post-modernists strictly reject the search for objective truth, especially if it does not fit their ideological agenda.
For example, despite the fact that all scientific evidence shows that unborn children are, indeed, humans capable of feeling pain, that differences between the sexes are real, and that a child needs strong male and female role models for stable development, today’s ideologues champion the homosexual agenda and permissive abortion laws. They want to interfere directly in the democratic right to free worship. (In recent months in the United States, legislation intended to protect religious liberty in Indiana was lambasted by intellectual and political elites, while presidential candidate Hilary Clinton has said that Christianity must change its teaching on abortion.) In fact, many of these people no longer hide that they want to destroy the traditional family—an outcome that Marx and Engels prescribed in the Communist Manifesto.
Meanwhile, the West has settled for mediocrity, even ugliness. It is difficult to read Petrarch or marvel at the perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures without feeling awe and pride to be the recipient of such a rich inheritance. Today’s mass culture, however, strives for vulgarity. When Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote The Dehumanization of Art in 1925, he could hardly have predicted that in 1999 New York’s intellectual elites would venerate, as a symbol of religious freedom, a painting of the Virgin Mary covered with photographs of female genitalia from pornographic magazines and elephant feces.
As mentioned before, the anti-Western school has instead turned to the Far East, especially India, for inspiration. While India is a top emerging economy, its culture makes huge inequalities unlikely to disappear no matter how robust its GDP growth. Whereas Christianity teaches that there is “neither Greek nor Jew”, Hinduism retains a caste system that consigns millions to destitution and neglect because of the families into which they were born. The abuse of women is commonplace in India and widows, considered “inauspicious”, are ostracized by their families and villages.
It is traditional Western values—the very ones that young people are taught to hold in contempt by academia, the Guardian, and New York Times—that represent the only hope for the millions of hapless Indians suffering because of such (anti-progressive) cultural shackles. Missionaries from Europe and the Americas (Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity are the best-known example) continue to rescue countless Indians from filth, neglect and starvation. The Catholic Church in India also is a great advocate of widows’ rights. These moves are not motivated by proselytism: The faithful serve persons of all creeds, and although the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in India, only about 2% of the population are Christian.
Further double standards abound—courtesy of the proponents of moral equivalence, no less. Western newspapers revel in stories of sexual misconduct by a tiny minority of Catholic priests, despite the Vatican’s adoption of a strict line against deviant clergymen. In contrast, the late Indian Sathya Sai Baba—a cult leader who claimed to be a deity and to possess miraculous powers (such as making Rolex watches ‘materialize’, a trick debunked by illusionists)—was accused of molesting dozens of underage boys from various continents. Indian courts refused to investigate, because as a ‘holy man’ he enjoyed impunity. Such license strongly contrasts with the Roman concept of equality before the law and the separation between Church and state dating back to Pope Gregory VII.
Today’s cultural relativists have a similarly bizarre approach to the Muslim world, embracing Islam and rejecting Christianity. A peculiar symptom of this inversion is that in 2007, Columbia University invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak, while one year later Sapienza University of Rome cancelled a planned lecture by Pope Benedict XVI to appease anti-clerical professors. The new dogma may be summarized by Barack Obama’s disdainful comments (putatively made in regard to the threat of ISIS) at his 2015 prayer breakfast: “Unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Certainly, Christians have committed crimes towards others. However, this fact comes with two important qualifiers that do not attach to all other religions. First, the right to kill innocents was never a part of Christianity, which has always preached love of one’s neighbour and forgiveness. Misdeeds by Christians resulted not out of the theology, but simply from the wretchedness of individuals. This is not the case in “the religion of peace”.
Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir has noted that Islam is based on three inequalities: between man and woman, freeman and slave, and Muslim and nonbeliever. When during a 2006 lecture in Regensburg Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor who said that Islam is incompatible with reason, Muslims killed an Italian nun, a missionary in Somalia, in response. Conversely, when Christians are constantly insulted on Western late-night television, they turn the other cheek.
Second, Christians—with extremely rare exceptions that are inevitable since their numbers exceed two billion—no longer commit violence in the name of their faith. Many Muslims, however, do. This distinction is not because more Christians live in developed countries and, as prevailing opinion holds, economic progress makes people less savage. Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest cities in Islam, is a wealthy country that espouses Wahhabism, a particularly radical form of Islam, which crucifies apostates and subjects women to genital mutilation. Yet it typically receives a pass from the Left.
It is indisputable that since 1789, and especially in recent decades, the West has been in a state of decay. If it ever wants to regain its former stature, it must embrace the fact that it was once great and acknowledge the unique source of its strength. This revival can only happen if a fundamental change is made in how history is taught in the West—and if an honest look—unhampered by cultural relativism or political correctness—is taken at the differences between cultures.
*Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, The Catholic Thing, and other publications.