Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Otherness and "cultural relativism"

In comments to the last post, 'David Brin's Otherness', Doug questions whether this "cultural relativism" has been significant for much more than the past 25 years. I myself don't think that Otherness is quite the same thing, though I have a hard time putting my finger on the difference. I think cultural relativism is a subset of, or perhaps Otherness in its more pathological aspect.

At any rate, I was reminded of this poem, 'We and They'.

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? --They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn't it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

Was there ever as witty an expression of tolerance and "cultural relativism"?

It was written around 1919 by Rudyard Kipling, darling of conservatives and libertarians. The man who also wrote:

My brother prays, so saith Kabir, to stone and brass in heathen-wise. But in my brother's voice I hear, mine own unanswered agonies. His God is as his fates assign, his prayer is all the world's - and mine.


There are nine-and-ninety ways, of constructing tribal lays - and every single one of them is right!

I put "cultural relativism" in scare quotes, because it really doesn't look like the same thing to me. What these express to me, is an appreciation for our differences - but a strong, self-confident attitude towards them as well.


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