Cultural Sensitivity

The cultural clashes that have resulted from criticisms of female circumcision have centered on whether there is any justification for interfering with the deeply held practices of other cultures. Extreme ethical relativists state that there is no moral or epistemological basis for interfering with popular customs in other countries and that meddling constitutes cultural imperialism (Scheper-Hughes; Ginsberg; Shweder). This view, which once was popular among anthropologists and others, has been challenged on many sides (Kopelman, 1994, 1997).

First, shared goals and methods sometimes can be used to assess other cultures in a way that has moral and epistemo-logical authority. For example, most people share the goal of seeking health for woman and infants and endorse similar methods of logic, science, and medical investigation. Medical research is respected in those communities and their own studies show that the rites cause pain, emotional trauma, infection, chronic disease, disability, and death. These shared goals and methods can be used to help reason with people about destructive cultural practices that involve not just female genital cutting but wars, pollution, and epidemics.

Second, criticism of these practices within those communities is growing (Moschovis), and as a result the depth of the commitment to the rites is changing. As the investigators who originally touched off the contemporary debate over female circumcision illustrate, cultures are not monolithic but contain passionate disagreements and may change rapidly. Moreover, most people do not live in only one culture but cross easily from one culture to another in their professions, religions, and ethnic groups. People who brought the practice of female genital cutting with them when they moved, for example, live in more than one culture. It no longer is possible to count or separate cultures sharply when world travel and communication are so easily available. Cultural, religious, professional, ethnic, and other groups overlap and have many variations within nation-states. To say that people belong to overlapping cultures or that people cannot distinguish precisely between or count cultures, however, undercuts extreme ethical relativism and its tenet that the only way to determine whether something is right is to see if it has cultural approval (Kopelman, 1994, 1997).

Third, cross-cultural criticism seems to be important and even obligatory when one considers cultures that engage in terrorism, war, torture, mass rape, infanticide, and slavery, and so people should be able to criticize female genital cutting on the same basis. Otherwise, people would be led to the very problematic view that any act is right if it has cultural approval even if it is a culturally endorsed act of war, oppression, enslavement, aggression, rape exploitation, racism, or torture. In this view the disapproval of other cultures is irrelevant in determining whether acts are right or wrong. Even if this version of ethical relativism is defended consistently, its plausibility is eroded by its conclusion that the disapproval of people in other cultures, even victims of war, oppression, enslavement, aggression, exploitation, rape, racism, or torture, is irrelevant in deciding what is wrong in the aggressor culture (Kopelman, 1994, 1997).

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