As an anthropologist, I taught the relativity of values and customs. Yet, I have come to feel that we need to choose among cultures. All traditions must be studied and treasured as a common human heritage. But they must be studied as the traditions of peoples who had no chance in their lifetimes to understand the changes and possibilities that are available to human beings today.
I studied Nazism and other reactionary nationalisms. I studied Islam in both theory and practice. I studied and taught the details of the cultural systems of many preliterate peoples. I have helped develop strategies for democratizing political structures in the less developed world. I have studied how American states and regions differ from one another culturally, and the reasons for these differences. I spent many years categorizing differences among nations in political rights and civil liberties. I have seen individuals and peoples in transition, shedding the traditions with which they were imprinted in childhood and adopting universal cultural standards that offer a broader and more satisfying scope for activity.
I have searched for meaning in the religious beliefs that historically attracted others before me in the West. I have come to know the world of politics and politicians at local and national levels. I have stood close enough to science to understand how scientists work and operate in the world. I have analyzed the uses of nuclear weapons and the danger inherent in valuing a national purpose above a universal one.
I come away from these experiences with deep admiration for those in whatever walk of life who have been able to go beyond their backgrounds, their ideologies, even their personal limitations to contribute generously to us all. I have met many who have made this transition. Most of these are well educated and enlightened, able to understand and accept people as they are, concerned only that their own lives contribute to the future of others. They have been inducted by experience, their colleagues, and their communities into a universal culture that can serve us all.
So in the end, I find that it does make a difference what one believes and values. Some nations, some communities, make escape from the past an easier and more common task than do others. They offer the means to those living within them in the present to more quickly and fully emerge from the traditions and practices of the past. These traditions once served their communities well, but in the globalized world of today, they place unhealthy brakes on change, introduce divisiveness where there should be community, and place blinders on leaders and followers alike.
Relativism has its place in understanding, but not in living, life.
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