Shweder: Civilizing Project Alive And Well

5 April 2002

By Stentor Danielson
Managing Editor

Rick Shweder, a Professor of Psychology and Human Development at the University of Chicago, spoke on Wednesday about "The Failure of Anthropology 101 and the Return of the Civilizing Project." The lecture marked the end of this year's series sponsored by the Center for Ethics and World Societies.

"The ranking of civilizations and religions on a scale of better to worse may have gone out of fashion in cultural anthropology, but it's back - with a vengeance - in some surprising places," Shweder said.

His lecture focused on the "imperial liberal civilizing project," which he described as an attempt to improve other nations and cultures by exposure to liberal Western beliefs and practices.

Associate Professor of Philosophy David McCabe, who introduced Shweder, described him as a proponent of "pluralism" - a philosophy that lies between absolutism, which declares that there is only one right way to do things, and relativism, which says that any way of doing things is just as good as any other. A pluralist, McCabe said, believes that some cultures and practices are better than others, but that there is more than one right way to do things.

Shweder said the mission of Anthropology 101 was to combat ethnocentrism by asking students to suspend their immediate judgement of a culture. He said that those who criticize anthropology as fostering an "anything goes" attitude toward culture are "as misguided as the ideas they critique."

The current emphasis on American values as the cure for "backwards" nations' ills is similar to the "white man's burden" of the 19th century, according to Shweder. Europeans of 100 years ago believed that they had an obligation to "enlighten, develop or transform" other societies.

"Is this how [famous anthropologist] Franz Boas and other relativists felt 100 years ago, debating against cultural evolutionists?" Shweder asked.

Shweder used the issue of veiling in Islamic societies as an example of the modern "civilizing project." The media portrays veiling as oppressive, but most Islamic women see veils as an expression of pride in their identity and proper modesty, according to Shweder.

"The burqa preceded the Taliban, and the burqa survived the fall of Kandahar," he said. "That has not been in the news."

Shweder said that there are a variety of universal values in the world, but they cannot be reduced to a common denominator that would allow an objective choice between them. Because of this, he said, "morally decent and fully rational people can disagree about such things."

"There's plenty of what I will call mutual yucking in the world," Shweder said.

Shweder compared contemporary struggles against Muslim polygamy in India, waged by liberal feminists and Hindu fundamentalists, to court cases against Mormon polygamy a century ago. He said that polygamy had been shown not to be subversive of society, as opponents claim, because it coexists peacefully with monogamy in many societies.

In the past, groups could insulate themselves from other groups who practiced morally repugnant customs, but globalization is making this kind of sufferance more difficult, according to Shweder.

"Do we really know, other than by presumption, what people around the world really want?" Shweder asked. "Is there really a way to say which of these wants are superior?"

Shweder questioned the yardsticks, such as GNP, conventionally used to measure progress. He said that we would get different results if we used a biological standard such as reproductive rate, or measured spirituality. Even a simple standard such as life expectancy changes if we measure it from conception or age 45 instead of from birth.

The human rights movement asserts that "acknowledging any social distinctions must be invidious ... where there are ethnic groups, let there be individuals," Shweder said.

"Like the stories in the Bible and the Qur'an, the story of the Enlightenment is a powerful origin myth," Shweder said. The story of the Enlightenment is the story of the triumph of science over superstition, individualism over collectivism, democracy over authoritarianism and secularism over religion, and is used to promote the imposition of these values on other cultures.

"[The lecture] helped me to articulate and process my own reactions to what I saw while I was studying in Kenya witnessing honorable ceremonies, such as circumcisions and animal sacrifices," senior Emily Boyd said.

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