Humanism, Feminism, and Cultural Relativity: Contradictions and Ambiguities

Posted on: August 14, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

Coming full circle
I wrote this essay nearly 40 years ago and now, though I might change some wordings, the essential message I sought to convey then is the same I am advocating now with Critical Hydra Theory. I have indeed come full circle.


Humanism, Feminism, and Cultural Relativity: Contradictions and Ambiguities


Thomas E. Arcaro
The Columbus College of Art and Design1

[Note: First published in The Humanist Sociologist, newsletter for the Association of Humanist Sociology, fall 1980]

This essay is an open question to my humanist colleagues. I will outline below what I feel are basic theoretical contradictions in the acceptance of humanistic, feminist, and culturally relativistic ideologies and the application of these ideas to my everyday life and my teaching of undergraduates. I am not certain that I want my colleagues to respond with answers, and thus somehow reconcile the contradictions that are outlined. For, like Miles Richardson (1976), I feel compelled to view the human condition as necessarily involving contradictions and ambiguities.  Elaboration on that digression, however, will have to wait for a future essay. The question for my colleagues is this:  Can an individual be humanist, a feminist, and adhere to the principles of cultural relativity while remaining philosophically and ethically consistent?

First, some brief definitions

My definition of humanism2 is simple. Humanism is an ideology of human growth and freedom based upon the assumption that every human should have access to whatever basic material and psychological environmental conditions that will allow and even encourage the individual to realize his or her own unique potentials.  This freedom to grow should be restricted only insofar as the overall good of the culture is threatened.

Feminism – and I label myself as a radical feminist – is an ideology of growth and freedom based upon the assumption that women should have access to whatever basic material and psychological environmental conditions that will allow or even encourage women to realize their own unique potentials. The basic reason why women are not able to realize their potentials is seen when one examines the internal logic underlying capitalism. A feminist, then, works toward radical change in the economic system and assumes this change will produce a social environment conducive to individual fulfillment.

We all were taught – and now teach – in Intro to Sociology what the concept of cultural relativism means.  Each culture has an internal integrity and balance of components.  To understand or explain any one part of a culture, it is necessary to understand the context within which this part is found.  Ethnocentrism – which we also explain to our Intro to Sociology students – is bad: you should never condemn the customs of another culture simply because they are different from your own; one must examine these seemingly bizarre practices relativistically.

On the surface they compliment

On one level I feel no problem stating that I am humanist, a feminist, and a cultural relativist.  As an instructor I make every attempt to impress upon my students the positive values that underlie each of these three ideas.  To be a humanist is good. To be a feminist is good. To be a cultural relativist is good. If my students walk away from my class at the end of the term understanding and embracing these three ideologies, I feel that I have accomplished something worthwhile and positive. Yet, as I further critically examine (with perhaps an upper division class) these three ideas, I encounter some perplexing contradictions and ambiguities.

Under the surface they contradict

As should be clear given the definitions I offer above, my definitions of humanism and feminism are essentially the same. I cannot envision being a humanist while at the same time not a feminist. Conversely, to be a feminist and not a humanist seems also a contradiction in term. A humanist is necessarily a feminist (women, of course, are human), and a feminist who is not also a humanist seems to me in need of further intellectual development. Both the humanist and the feminist understand that the root source of much human misery is found in exploitative economic systems. The task of the humanist/feminist is to work toward radical social and economic change.

The humanist/feminist looks around the world and sees horror after horror: mutilation or removal of the young girl’s clitoris at puberty in Eastern Africa, the Arab rape victim fleeing her own family in fear that she will be punished or even killed because of what has happened to her, female infanticide in numerous cultures around the globe, Dani women having their fingers cut off as part of a funeral ceremony…the list goes on. Women all over the world are denied basic human rights, and on a gut level as well as on an intellectual level the humanist/feminist is “against” this, and vows to never rest until basic rights for all humans are insured.

The cultural relativist looks around the world and weeps as one primitive culture after another is contacted by technologically advanced cultures (the missionaries forge the path, followed by anthropologists, and finally by tourists, politicians, and assorted developers) and then slowly and painfully disintegrates, its internal integrity and rhythm raped and destroyed by greedy or (ostensibly) benevolent outside cultures. The total destruction of a unique and rich culture is accomplished all too quickly, caused very simply by external influences. The cultural relativism position argues that to tamper with the internal workings of a culture is tantamount to genocide, and that is a profound violation of human rights.

But what about a “little” tampering?  The humanist/feminist, viewing with horror the clitorectomies, might argue that we should get the East Africans to stop this practice. They can have the rest of their culture, but this custom is clearly wrong.  The relativist maintains that there is no such thing as a “little” tampering. And besides, who is to determine what constitutes a “little”; where does one draw the line?

A concluding question

When I have aided my students to understand and embrace the ideas of humanism, feminism, and cultural relativism I have at the same time encouraged them to accept competing and even contradictory ideas. Can one be at the same time a humanist/ feminist and hold completely to the principles of cultural relativism?  I think not. To thoroughly embrace the idea of relativism is to rationalize and justify a repressive and even destructive status quo in most cultures, at the very least with respect to the way women are treated. Yet how do I rationalize the go ahead to further culture contact and, necessarily, genocide?


Richardson, Miles
“Culture and the Struggle to be a Human,” Paper read at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November 1976.

1 My second job after graduate school, I taught at the The Columbus College of Art and Design for 5 years before coming to Elon College, now Elon University.

2My definition of humanism has been updated over the years.  I currently use this version:  Humanism is an ideology of human growth and potential based on the assumption that all humans need and deserve to not only have but also be encouraged to pursue pathways which allow the maximization of all their potentials -intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual- and that those who are able should work together to help create a world where all humans live with dignity while at the same time, critically, (1) respect the other life forms with which we share the planet and (2) insure the maximization for human potential for generations yet to come.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' will be out later in 2023.

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