When I was looking for an article on cultural relativism, I was searching for a practice that was widely used in a specific culture but popularly regarded as wrong. Instead, I found an article that I think is much more thought provoking. An opinion piece from Lisa Shannon highlights her experiences in the Congo working with women who are survivors of sexual violence. Shannon describes her encounter with a European aid worker who was creating videos to be used in refugee camps in Tanzania to encourage them to return to the Congo, assuring refugees that violence had decreased. The aid worker explained, “Foreign militias are gone, just rapes and looting for the moment. No attacks.” When confronted by Shannon regarding the dismissal of rapes, the aid worker explained that rape was not a security threat; it was so common in Congo that it was cultural.

Sexual violence in the Congo is without a doubt one of the worst anywhere in the world. To be dismissed as cultural is to infer that Congolese women should accept this practice and that men are encouraged to behave this way. Shannon explains, “ …we in the West too often find it easier to perceive rape as an accepted part of an unfamiliar culture rather than as a tool of war that we could help banish. Too often, the enemy becomes all Congolese men rather than men with guns terrorizing the Congolese people. By casting the chaos and violence as “men vs. women” or dismissing the crisis as “cultural,” we do a profound injustice to Congolese men. Rather than help, we send an implicit insult: It’s a pity, but, well…it’s just who you people are.”

In this case, cultural relativism becomes the means through which we (in the West) have taken an incidence of supreme violence against women as cultural in order to excuse ourselves from working to stop the practice. The document explains that cultural relativism can be used as a means to excuse inaction and allow the perpetuation of injustice. As Shannon explains, “when we label rape in Congo ‘cultural,’ we let ourselves off the hook. And that is a cultural issue. Ours.”

This is a dangerous form of cultural relativism because it is one in which we come to expect negative behaviors from certain cultures. In dismissing the violence we are excusing ourselves from responsibility. How can social values and structures premised on false conceptions of human nature be critically examined and reformed?



[to see more work from Kimia Kline click here]