It is a truth universally acknowledged by "progressives" that all cultures are equally good and equally valuable. Common sense says that this is nonsense.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by "progressives" that all cultures are equally good and equally valuable. Common sense says that this is nonsense.

I lived for eighteen months with a nomadic tribe in southeastern Iran in order to study  their way of life. These people were ethnically Baluch and religiously Sunni Muslim. They lived in black goat-hair tents and raised goats, sheep, and camels to make a living. Each was a member of a group descended from a common male ancestor, and that group was charged with defense and security of the land, livestock, and people.

Tribes are regional defense organizations in which small descent groups are balanced against other small descent groups, and large against large, and peace is kept, when it is, by the deterrence of potential retaliation. There are no rulers, police, or judges. Every man is a warrior, if only part-time. Tribesmen are jurally — that is legally — equal. Most decisions are made democratically and in a decentralized fashion. Individual families have considerable autonomy.

Tribes do two important things: One is that they give small groups access to large territories, which is important for raising livestock in arid landscapes with erratic rainfall and plant growth. The other is that autonomy and equality are maintained by resisting the impositions of pre-modern, despotic states, and the intrusions of other tribes.

Tribal life has all of those benefits, plus a high level of hospitality for strangers, very useful for nomads in large territories. These Baluchi tribesmen, both men and women, were mostly very decent people and were very kind to my wife and me.

At the same time, the limits of tribal life were evident. Although making the best in difficult circumstances, the Baluch had no architecture but tents; they had no machines but relied on muscle power; they had no literature but the Koran brought from outside, and most were illiterate; they had no art other than flat-woven rugs of traditional design; they had no science but relied on practical knowledge; they had no education but experience growing up.

The same limits exist for all tribal societies, such as the famous mountain nomads of Iran, the Qashqai and Bakhtiari, the northern Turkmen, the Maasai of East Africa, the Fulani of West Africa, even the sedentary tribes of Africa. It is true that the mountain nomads and Turkmen made beautiful small carpets, and that African tribes had attractive body decorations and ritual masks. 

Limits are even greater for hunting and horticultural peoples. North American natives had similar limited profiles to tribal peoples, although the Pueblo Indians did have architecture, mostly domestic, and the peoples of the North West Coast, in an exceptionally rich environment, did develop magnificent wooden sculptures.

Tribal and sub-tribal peoples, although fully human as all other people, relied on cultures suitable for their circumstances, but lacking in the material, intellectual, artistic, and scientific development that characterize world civilizations such as Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Western.

While not everyone in the West cares to go to Shakespeare plays, read Jane Austen novels, listen to Beethoven quartets or Italian operas, view French paintings, or eat French cuisine, these cultural accomplishments are available for those who do. Most people in the West watch movies and television and listen to jazz or rock or hip-hop, all of which depend upon elaborate creative and production organization.

Not everyone wants to be an architect, an astronomer, or an anthropologist, but these and many other specialized occupations are available for those who aspire to them. Western universities that provide education and research in these and many other fields are the envy of the world and always rank at the top of the annual world rankings.

Most people in the West have a material standard of living that is astonishing in historical perspective. We live in commodious dwellings protected from the cold by heating, and the heat by air conditioning. Their always available electricity, hot water, and indoor plumbing are luxuries that kings and queens in the past did not even dream of. Most of us have private vehicles — cars and trucks of great power, capable of technical feats to increase safety and efficiency. Many of us travel great distances for pleasure. Food is so readily available that our problem is not hunger but obesity.

The view that all cultures are equally valuable is called “cultural relativism.” For this, anthropologists must take much responsibility. What began as a research effort to see other cultures without bias and through the eyes of their members, became an extremist moral and ethical relativism, the view that someone from one culture cannot judge what happens in another culture. In this view, no criteria may be applied from one culture to assess other cultures; above all, no judgments may be made indicating that some are better than others.

According to cultural relativism, we must accept without judgment bride-burning as part of the dowry system in India, honor murders of girls and women in the Middle East as part of male control of fertility, witchcraft accusation in Africa as part of the social control system, slavery in the Islamic world as part of Muslim supremacy, and the Holocaust as a manifestation of traditional German antisemitism. If they do it in other cultures, it’s all good.

In reality, everyone judges others according to their own ideas and values. And judgment is a universal human activity. The reason for this is clear: social norms and cultural values are not hardwired but are learned, and within every society peer judgment of people’s activities is one of the main ways that a culture’s norms and values are maintained. It is ironic that professors advocating relativism spend their lives making absolute judgments about exams, essays, articles, books, and candidates, evaluating on scales from good to bad.

In the same way, we judge other cultures according to our own values. Contemporary Western values include equality, freedom, democracy, achievement, tolerance, and charity. When we look at other cultures, we see shortcomings of which we disapprove: the lack of democracy in China; the lack of equality in India; the lack of achievement, tolerance, and charity in the Middle East.

Above all, we do not want outside influences of which we disapprove to affect our culture: we do not wish to import despotism, inequality, suppression of freedom, economic dependency, and intolerance. Multiculturalism is fine as a cover for the diversity of origin, but it is not an invitation for undermining American and Canadian values and institutions. Caste discrimination, religious determination of public policy, male domination of females, rape gangs, honor killings, and religiously-based anti-Semitism are not welcome. No more appropriate is the adoption of native folklore and traditional folkways as a replacement for modern science and medicine.

Philip Carl Salzman is a professor of anthropology at McGill University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. His latest book is Classic Anthropology: Studies from the Tradition.