An incident this weekend (which I may or may not go into in a future post) got me thinking about multiculturalism and cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism and multiculturalism are too often used as synonyms, when, really, they are two different (if not mutually exclusive) concepts. In the modern state system, multiculturalism is the tolerance of different cultures and identities within a political unit. It can manifest in anything from allowing public schools to use multiple languages for instruction to making room for the holidays of multiple religions in federal holiday schedules. Of course, multiculturalism can also be the individual, personal acceptance of other people with different backgrounds, cultural practices, and religious expressions.

Cultural relativism, on the other hand, is the acceptance of different ethical and legal standards for different groups within a population on the grounds of culture. People in the human rights field generally love multiculturalism and abhor cultural relativism. Here’s why: while multiculturalism helps facilitate the fulfillment of social and cultural rights, cultural relativism makes the application of universal human rights principles, especially in the areas of civil and political rights, extremely difficult. By its very nature, cultural relativism is anathema to the ideology of human rights.

If human rights are universal, and non-derogable rights are, well, non-derogable, then, logically, that leaves no room for the argument that, because of culture real of imagined, some people are less entitled to rights than others.

The most common argument that these themes play out in is the argument over women’s rights in Muslim societies. While one side argues that a woman in Riyadh and a women in Brussels are fundamentally equals in rights, regardless of religion, the other argues that history, cultural norms, and religious beliefs should be taken into account when assessing the rights of both women. This argument also plays out within societies. Take almost any Western European country as an example. The debates over the hijab continue, ferociously in some circles. But here’s where the argument gets tricky. Too often, equal rights are used as a mallet to pound personal expression. Example: the French hijab-in-schools ban. If one really believes that a woman or girl should be free to choose what garments she wears –with rare exceptions for public safety and common sense, obviously– it is just as bad to tell her she cannot wear her hijab in the classroom as it is to tell her she must wear one. Conversely, cultural relativism is just as destructive, if not more so, to human rights. Take the example of a German judge who, in March of this year, refused a German woman of Moroccan origin a fast-track divorce from her abusive husband because of the "Moroccan cultural environment in which it is not uncommon for a man to exert a right of corporal punishment over his wife." (The judge was removed from the case shortly thereafter, by the way, and the German public was outraged at the first decision.)

Balancing multiculturalism with human rights means allowing for different cultural and religious identities and expressions, while applying the same laws to everyone and keeping respect for all human rights as a universal minimum standard.

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