Tolerance vs. Relativism

by David D’Amato

Tolerance vs. Relativism

This week is remarkable in at least one rather important sense; it marks one of the most hideous and deeply frightening statements I’ve heard in all of my twenty-nine years, a viscerally unnerving remark made so casually and offhandedly that I nearly became ill on the spot. In the course of an otherwise pleasant conversation on the countless differences between cultures and the importance of patience and tolerance, I was told that female genital mutilation (from here on “FGM”) was not necessarily barbaric in and of itself — that its barbarism or lack thereof depended critically upon the cultural context within which it takes place. No act, I was told, is per se barbaric, but rather all cultures must be regarded as equal, and thus nothing is to be deprecated in itself. Here I offer, for the edification of the reader, a primer on the subject, which comes to us courtesy of a BBC article entitled “Anatomy of female genital mutilation” (the description that follows is explicit and extremely disturbing):

Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes any procedure that alters or injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

In its most severe form, after removing the sensitive clitoris, the genitals are cut and stitched closed so that the woman cannot have or enjoy sex.

A tiny piece of wood or reed is inserted to leave a small opening for the necessary flow of urine, and monthly blood when she comes of age (most FGM is carried out on infants or young girls before they reach puberty).

When she is ready to have sex and a baby, she is “unstitched” – and then sewn back up again after to keep her what is described by proponents as “hygienic, chaste and faithful”.

At this exoneration of FGM’s perpetrators, I was quite taken aback, practically thunderstruck by the enormity of the error, of its practical implications and an amazement that seemingly reasonable people could believe this. I had not imagined that my partners in conversation would cleave so closely to their cultural relativism as to embark on an apology for a practice so cruel and inhuman. But then this is among the fundamental philosophical problems with such extreme cultural relativism; it puts one in the uncomfortable position of having to accept any kind of brutal rights violation insofar as it is consistent with some arbitrary cultural value or tradition. My compeers at least were consistent in their barbarousness.

It occurred to me then, as it has before, that the anarchist as such cannot also be a cultural relativist in any meaningful or principled way, for the opposition to authority simply will not brook even longstanding cultural practices such as FGM. Anarchists oppose authority not randomly or haphazardly, not in any piecemeal way that happens to make us feel comfortable in a given case. The opposition operates always, at all times.

It must not be overlooked, moreover, that all such barbarities — supposedly legitimate, “not barbaric” practices like FGM — are of course bound to be vaunted pieces of the cultural and customary inheritance. Were this not the case, were these vile practices simply aberrant and treated as such, they would hardly be worth opining on. It becomes necessary to vociferously condemn crimes like FGM precisely to extent that they are considered time-honored cultural traditions. Indeed, it must escape relativists such as my conversation partners that the lowest, most odious forms of bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. — are all age-old cultural practices in their own right. We are apparently meant to defer to crimes like FGM just to the extent that they are at their most vicious, inhumane and ingrained. This is the juncture at which open-mindedness becomes mere mindless folly, an exercise in preposterous infinite regress.

Individuals are the social elements which actually exist. Culture, religion, politics — all of these we as individuals have invented, exalting them to such a degree that we now make of them much more than the human lives they are there to preside over. Cultural relativists give all manner of potential genocidal maniacs and human rights violators a carte blanche, a cultural pretext to which they can point while devastating human lives. Doubtless we ought to respect other cultures, even to actively look for the unique contributions they make to overall human flourishing. We must not, however, pretend that the imprimatur of culture is capable by itself of redeeming savage acts such as FGM. One needn’t be an anarchist or a proselyte of the nonaggression principle to understand that such acts are wrong wherever they are found, regardless of religion or culture.


17 responses to “Tolerance vs. Relativism

  1. I wonder why D’Amato puts an “F” in front of the “GM”?

    I’ve just been having a lively discussion over at the Telegraph, under an article by a genitally mutilated man promoting genital mutilation of infant boys on cultural grounds-

    The gender division- that it is evil to do this to girls, but fine and even desirable to do it to boys- is bizarre and (as an adherent of non-aggression myself), repugnant. But the invective is all directed at the Establishment level against the half of the human population who are characterised by an “F” before the “GM”. I know nothing of David D’Amato’s penis, but if he is American (I think he is?) he has a much higher than evens chance that his parents had his genitals mutilated. And, that it would have been justified on the same grounds- that it is cleaner, nicer, that it is culturally appropriate. I have even encounted Americans claiming that being opposed to male genital cutting is a liberal cultural marxist conspiracy against, I dunno, the Great American Penis or something. Where is D’Amato’s outrage at this practise of his own culture. Is it just easier to lecture darkies in faraway places?

    It is also worth noting that in describing the F version, he deploys the most extreme form practised. This ignores that there is a whole scale of FGM. For instance, in Malaysia, it is a literally symbolic nick or pinprick to the clitoral hood with absolutely no consequences whatsoever; which compares in terms of harm very favourably to the amputation of up to half the skin of the boy’s penis. But FGM is delcared to be always bad, always, regardless of actual harm, and is always represented, as in this article, by description of the most extreme.

    So, before we get on our high horses about cultural relativism, let us remember that genital mutilation is universally condoned by Western societies and actively and enthusiastically practised in the USA. And wonder why there is such silence about applying the non-aggression principle to baby boys.

    • While I rejoice in the intactness of my own manhood, I really don’t think the loss of a foreskin is quite the same as the removal of a clitoris – which is what we are mostly talking about here.

      • They are comparable. FGM is a subset of MGM (all FGM cultures are also MGM cultures, whereas not all MGM cultures perform FGM). In each case, a large quantity of erogenous and functional tissue is removed for ritual purposes. Bear in mind that most FGM’ed women retain orgasmic capacity. Most of the clitoris is internal, and is not (and cannot be, in fact) amputated.

        And as I said, what we are “mostly” talking about is a range of practices from the mild to the severe. It is interesting to note that when the American American Academy of Paediatrics proposed that parents desiring FGM be offered the harmless, Malaysian “sunat” style so that they could fulfill what they consider a religious or cultural obligation without actually harming their daughters, the AAP was forced to retract the suggestion amid a storm of outrage against any sort of accomodation of FGM. By the same sorts of Americans who continue to tear bits off their boys’ penises.

  2. Here’s a video of a ritual genital mutilation being performed on a boy at the request of apparently intelligent, educated, middle class American parents-

    Listen to the baby screaming for help from the parents who are supposed to protect him- who are instead standing back enjoying the show.

    Here’s a more primitively carried out version-

    • Nasty stuff. I wouldn’t do that to any son of mine. But everything still works afterwards.

      • Everything still works after FGM as well. A tribe wouldn’t last very long that rendered its females reproductively incapable.

        Please note: I am not defending FGM. It repulses me. But we must apply criticisms consistently.

        • Julie near Chicago

          Removing the nerve-endings that produce sexual pleasure in the female does not result in the condition “everything still works.” Unless you think that pleasure is not an integral part of a woman’s experience of sexual activity; and if so, that directly implies that you see the woman as an object for the gratification of your desire, nothing more. Is that really what you think? I assume not.

          Also, the most extreme form described in the article sews the vaginal opening SHUT, the precise aim of which is to DISABLE the woman’s reproductive system: “Everything” specifically WILL NOT work. The sewing to be removed upon the male’s wish to enjoy the female, or to impregnate her (“everything works” to the extent that the man can get in there and enjoy himself, but not to the extent that she can enjoy him), and then the brief period of “well, it doesn’t really work for her, but it’s good enough for my purposes” comes to an end and the woman is again surgically disabled from all sexual activity.

          • Infibulated women are, as noted above, entirely capable of reproduction. If you’re worried about “integrity of pleasure”, you’re back to asking why Americans routinely- and Jews almost universally- excise the most sensitive and nerve-enriched part of their sons’ penises.

            The primary problem here though is the attempt to fit the broken Feminist theory of gender to these practises. The result is a failure to understand why they ever came to be done, and a necessity to exclude the more common (male) victims from any protection or even sympathy. Here’s a classic example: Lynn Featherstone MP, who is now a minister for “international Development” and was previously a Home Office Minister for Equalities(!). Here’s what she said in a speech-

            “It’s a practice that has been going 4,000 years and, without wishing to be crude about this, quite frankly if it was boys’ willies that were being cut off without anaesthetic it wouldn’t have lasted four minutes, let alone 4,000 years.”

            Featherstone is Jewish. She has lived a live among genitally mutilated male family members, and presumably had sex with some. Every time she had sex with her husband, she was interacting with a penis that had had a large part of it cut off without anaesthetic. If she’d had sons she would have been culturally obligated to have their penises cut. But, as a Feminist, she has to pretend that it does not even happen.

            So, let’s look at the actual “cultural relativism” here, shall we?

  3. Julie near Chicago

    The point is not to get into the Victimology Wars — “My group’s victimhood is just as bad as yours!”

    The point of the article is that NOT all cultures or cultural traditions are created equal: some are in the harmless-to-helpful range and some are at the far-opposite end, which is labelled appalling (to understate the case), and that “multicuralists” or “cultural relativists” are going to have to face the fact that horrible, “rights-violating” things are done in some cultures. He says that anarchists, who by definition resist all authority, cannot accept the tenet that what is moral depends upon what a given society or culture accepts as its customs or traditions or “norms.” And that this fact of morality ought to be obvious to everyone, not just anarchists and libertarians.

    For he begins with this introduction to cultural relativism:

    “No act, I was told, is per se barbaric, but rather all cultures must be regarded as equal, and thus nothing is to be deprecated in itself.”

    And he sums up thusly:

    “We must not, however, pretend that the imprimatur of culture is capable by itself of redeeming savage acts …. One needn’t be an anarchist or a proselyte of the nonaggression principle to understand that such acts are wrong wherever they are found, regardless of religion or culture.”

    A very good piece from Mr. d’Amato.

  4. Ah, Julie, but Mr D’Amato is very much fighting the victimology wars, which is why he made the list of Unacceptable Things that he did, and thus why he (and most other FGM-antis) ignore the general application of principles in favour of special attention to particular popular victim groups (women, ethnic minorities, gays, etc).

  5. Julie, a final point is this-

    Also, the most extreme form described in the article sews the vaginal opening SHUT, the precise aim of which is to DISABLE the woman’s reproductive system

    At this point you have to remember that virtually every culture on Earth, including our own, has made continual strenuous efforts to control female deployment of their genitals. Most have not gone so far as surgery, but have used peer pressure, shaming, threats of eternal damnation, punishments ranging from social exclusion up to execution, and so on, and that most cultures have also imposed similar control attempts on males too.

    I find it particularly galling- as somebody who is a genuine libertine- that people suddenly get all upset when some other culture is found to be restricting female sexual freedom, when they are people who happily use these social and legal constraints to do it here at home. If you are, like me, happy for women to do whatever they want with their bodies (subject to the usual NAP of course), then fine. But I can’t think of a culture on Earth that has ever taken such a position, historically. Can you?

    • Julie near Chicago

      Ian, there’s a lot that I could say in response to those remarks, but I will just limit myself to this: It’s of the very essence of moral relativism to hold that “peer pressure” is no different in kind to out-and-out destruction of one of a human being’s most fundamental biological systems, which renders her PHYSICALLY DISABLED.

      Peer pressure, ostracism, and threats of eternal damnation are still not violations of the human body. To add execution as the punishment for sexual “crime” to this list is another example of moral relativism, and to add that the worst form of FGM is simply another instance of what societies have been doing all along just adds another example of what really resembles a fairly severe case of moral relativism on your part.

      • The thing you damn as “moral relativism” is simply the application of reason, Julie, rather than the use of artificial criteria to try to distinguish Us Good from Them Bad.

        The basic problem I have here is that- as in the original post- people shouting about “moral relativism” are invariably starting with an assumption that their own moral values are objectively correct. This wouldn’t be so bad if they actually were, but claims to such objectivity invariably crumble rapidly when reason is applied, which is why the attempt is made to shut down the discussion by yelling “moral relativism” in order to drown out the criticism.

        So, I’ll repeat again. Women are never, by any culture, rendered reproductively disabled. No such culture would survive. On the other hand, numerous males historically have been systematically reproductively disabled. Which is why we have such a term for a male (“eunuch”) but not for a female.

        If the disaibility you’re referring to is reduced capacity for taking physical pleasure, you’re back with the problem that (a) this is routinely done to males. In America, no less, but in general 3 in 10 human males globally are circumcised and (b) my previous observation that numerous cultures have gone out of their way to try to stop women obtaining sexual pleasure using social strategems, violence and everything up to killing them. Men too. There was mention in the papers here recently of a girl who was stoned to death in India for disobeying her family’s choice of husband. It was barely mentioned that her male lover was beheaded.

        Whether infibulating a woman to stop her sleeping around, or imprisoning her, or beating her, or executing her, or excluding her from the community and/or family which is essential to her survival, or threatening her immortal soul, or publicly humiliating her, or putting her in the stocks, which of these is the most moral strategy, I’ll leave those with more moral certainty than I have to declare. But if you want to declare that women have a right to sexual freedom, then I will agree. But in so doing, just repeat that such a thing has never been a human ideal anywhere in all human history until the 1960s sexual revolution which, it seems, many people still declare to have been a ruinous plot by the Frankfurt School and want undone; and it seems to me a trifle absurd to expect such a policy to have been implemented by primitive tribalists who had never even read Eros And Civilisation, let alone sat in a stoned haze listening to Sgt. Pepper.

  6. Julie near Chicago

    Well, Ian, you may be right, but since I can’t read Mr. d’Amato’s mind to see what ulterior motives lurk there, I must accept his posting at face value, which is that the cultural-relativist acquaintances of whom he speaks hold views that excuse, condone, or even celebrate many truly horrible acts, as for example one that he finds particularly appalling, and therefore chooses as an illustration of what such folks must accept.

    You will note that he recognizes many other moral wrongs enshrined in various cultures down through history:

    “…it must escape relativists such as my conversation partners that the lowest, most odious forms of bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. — are all age-old cultural practices in their own right.”

    …Although these do not in themselves (as attitudes only) rouse in us the natural shock that is to most of us the normal human reaction to out-and-out atrocities such as the form of FGM he uses as his example of savagery.

    He is well aware that there are other evilnesses to which the cultural-relativist’s view must grant validity:

    “Cultural relativists give all manner of potential genocidal maniacs and human rights violators a carte blanche, a cultural pretext to which they can point while devastating human lives.”

    Thus I do not see the piece as engaged in the Victimhood Wars on any front thereof.

  7. Respect for human freedom, tolerance and moral relativism are different things.

    As Henry Veatch points out in “Rational Man” (1962 – page 20) Mussolini was an intellectual (a serious intellectual – the image of him as a clown is propaganda) who wrote (and wrote in an intelligent way) in support of moral relativism. This did not mean that Mussolini was committed to tolerance (on the contrary if one opposed Mussolini too much one might be imprisoned on killed), or (still less) that Mussolini was a supporter of human freedom..

    On the contrary – Mussolini used the position that there was no such thing as objective right and wrong to argue that (therefore) it was not wrong for him to imprison or kill his opponents (because nothing was objectively wrong – this could not be objectively wrong);

    Ditto lies – why should not a political system be based upon lies? After all William James (and the rest of the American Pragmatists) had shown that there was no such thing as objective truth – and if there was no such thing as truth (so the intellectual Mussolini argued) then there could be no such thing as an objective lie either. What mattered (as William James put it) was what “worked” so if saying X “worked” for Mussolini (if it gave more power to the Fascist movement) then he would say X – regardless of whether hopelessly old fashioned reactionaries complained that X “was not true”.

    As Sorel (whom Mussolini had read and developed ideas from) had argued the statement “this is not true” shows a hopelessly reactionary attitude – even confusing science (where the statement “this is not true” might possibly have meaning) with morality (where the statement “this is not true” was “meaningless” as was the statement “this is not right”) – lying was fine (moral “truth” being an absurdity) – one used “myths” in order to gain power – as William James put it “the test of an idea is whether it works”. “With “works” meaning serves the objectives that the passions have set, reason just being a servant of the passions, and the passion of Sorel and Mussolini was for POWER, so what “worked” for them was whether it helped achieve POWER.

    Marxism (the doctrine that “the rich” systematically “exploit” “the poor” – that the interests of “capitalist employers” were systematically opposed to the interests of “the workers”) had long been refuted by economists (see Ludwig Von Mises on this).

    There are several possible responses to this…….

    One could reject Marxism – accept that the rightly understood long term interests of “capitalist employers” and “the workers” are THE SAME (the basic principle of Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism).

    One could refuse to see the evidence and arguments (shut one’s eyes and mind to everything) and just carry on declaring that Marxism was objectively true (in spite of everything) – the “Lenin” approach (the approach of the fanatic – the one that Karl Marx himself took, remember that by the time he was writing “On Capital” such doctrines as the Labour Theory of Value had already been utterly refuted and it was also clear that wages were going up, not down as his theory predicted – but he ignored everything, logical and empirical, and just carried on).

    Or one could wave one’s hand with boredom at reason and just carry on using Marxist arguments (as Mussolini did – when it would serve his purpose) even if one knew they were nonsense. After all “everything” was nonsense (there is no objective truth – no right and wrong) so if saying something or (or the reverse of it) helps one gain power……..

    The third approach is the one that Mussolini (once the leading Marxist in Italy – and senior to “Lenin” in the international Marxist movement) took.

    Lying, murder, (and on and on) were all “good” – if they helped achieve POWER. Ditto tolerating female genital mutilation – if one had allies and the price of their support was letting them cut up little girls (if they would then support the drive for power) then fair enough – O.K. let them cut up little girls.

    Remember as the British Logical Positivist A..J. Ayer put it – good and bad are just “boo and cheer words” (translation into practice – if cutting up little girls floats your boat, CUT UP LITTLE GIRLS). This form of “tolerance” has nothing in common with libertarianism.

    As for tolerance there should be a standard of what one tolerates and what one tolerates – if one says “I will tolerate anything” one is abdicating one’s moral duties to try and prevent rape. murder and so on.

    The traditional Common Law non aggression principle standard (if you attack the bodies or goods of others they your behaviour will NOT be tolerated) is where the libertarian makes their stand.

    If you like cutting up little girls we will NOT tolerate you – we will OPPOSE you and PUNISH you.

    Because what you are doing (cutting up little girls) is evil – and this is not just a “boo word” for A.J. Ayer to yawn over before he proceeds to lie to gain academic advancement, or just sits there reading the Manchester Guardian covering up for Stalin (and his calculated murder of millions of people).

    When the Manchester Guardian’s own employees (Malcolm M.) reported what was happening in the Soviet Union – the Manchester Guardian sacked him. Not because they thought he was lying (there is no such thing as objective truth in human affairs remember) – but because what he reported was not useful to the cause.

    A.J. Ayer (busy writing his main work at the time) would have approved – and Mussolini would also have approved of the principle (or lack of principle) involved. If there is no such thing as objective right and wrong (if they are just whatever is useful to the cause and what is not useful to the cause – a bit like Mohammed and Islam – or organisations such as ISIS today, which DEFINE “good” as whatever God commands and “bad” as whatever God forbids – with neither reason on the voice of conscious having any place whatever as a yardstick of morality ) then the Manchester Guardian did nothing wrong in sacking Malcolm M. for refusing to help cover up the murder of millions in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. And the New York Times did nothing wrong in covering up the same murder of millions of people.

    So if cutting up little girls floats-your-boat (if it serves your passions – serves your cause, for example the drive for power) then go and cut up little girls, “liberal” (or rather NEW “liberal”) “tolerance” (a basic misunderstanding of the concept) cheers you on.

    Ditto if saying that the interests of “capitalist employers” are systematically opposed to those of “the workers” floats-your-boat (serves your cause – gives you feelings of pleasure) then say it. After all (as William James, Sorel and Mussolini “proved”) if nothing is objectively true in human affairs – then nothing can be a”lie either.

  8. A practical example.

    Say that that people go about arguing for revolution and the expropriation of the “capitalists” (or “corporate big business” or whatever term is used) saying that this will benefit “the workers”.

    The revolution occurs (with the people who argued for it forming the ruling “intellectual vanguard”) – the “capitalists” are expropriated, and the “workers” are worse off (indeed millions starve to death).

    The moral relativist “tolerant” (false “tolerance”) reply to this is “so what”.

    “Yes I knew what I was saying was not “true” [if you insist on these reactionary concepts of “right” and “wrong”], I knew that millions would starve to death – but saying and doing what I did gave me feelings of pleasure therefore it was good”.


    Someone cutting up little girls can (if challenged) reply “so what? cutting up little girls gives me feelings of pleasure – so it is good”.

    About the only thing a moral relativist can say in reply is as follows….

    “I accept that cutting up little girls (or expropriating the capitalists – or whatever) gave you feelings of pleasure – but now it is going to give me feelings of pleasure to HANG YOU”.

    After all someone should not be so “intolerant” as to interfere with my “cultural tradition” of hanging “Social Justice” Revolutionaries.

    Ditto my cultural tradition of hanging those who burn women alive when their husbands die.

    As General Napier put it……

    “If you follow your traditional customs – and we will follow our traditional customs”.

    “But Paul – General Napier in India and Lugard in Africa (who fought human sacrifice) were not sincere moral relativists, they were taking the p….. with their comments they were actually as absolute as tempered steel”.

    Did I say they were not taking the p….?

    But how “intolerant” of anyone to point it out.

  9. I’d be interested in your opinions on the cutting up of little boys, Paul.