I had a lively conversation yesterday with a group of fifth graders about how we can understand, respect and evaluate cultures other than our own. The conversation took off when one student asked, “Why do we have so many different cultures in the world?” The students pointed out the ways in which the diversity of cultures gives rise to conflicts, but also observed that a world without a variety of cultures would be pretty uninteresting.

One student then asserted that we aren’t really justified in making judgments about cultures other than our own, because we’re not understanding them “from the inside” and so are evaluating their practices without really understanding why the people in that culture are doing what they do. This led to a thoughtful dialogue among the students about when, and if ever, people or groups outside of a culture are justified in criticizing, or intervening in, a cultural practice.

We talked about the different standards for disciplining children around the world. Several students articulated a distinction between coming to another country and practicing, for example, a form of corporal punishment unacceptable here, and doing so in your own country. The students tended to claim that it is one thing to insist that someone from another culture change their practice when they enter a different culture (or country), but that it is another thing to criticize the way people are disciplining their children when they are acting on the basis of a different set of rules and standards within that culture.

Still, some students argued, the way the harsh discipline feels to the children is the same. And can’t cultures be mistaken? We talked about the fact that in the US, for example, slavery was an acceptable part of the culture for a long period of time, and we would now want to say that this was wrong, that the institutions that supported that practice were in error. And if it’s true that cultures can make mistakes in sanctioning acts that ultimately the culture concludes were wrong, how do we decide when intervention is appropriate?

Several students raised the example of the Nazi regime, asserting that there intervention to stop what the German culture was allowing would have been justified. One student suggested that perhaps the standard should be whether human beings were being harmed in serious ways, and we noted that this standard also led to interpretation problems (What constitutes harm? When is it serious? etc.). We discussed the practice of young people marrying at young ages, 12 or 13, in some cultures, a practice that clearly horrified the children. Yet, we pointed out, inside those cultures, that is an accepted and perhaps welcome practice.

How do we know what it feels like from the inside? Can we? And if we can’t, does that mean we never are justified in judging or intervening to stop a cultural practice that seems deeply at odds with the ways our culture believes people should be treated? Are there some moral rules that apply to everyone, no matter where and how they live? The students saw clearly what challenging issues these questions raise.

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