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Human Rights, West and Other Cultures

As a person who’s raised by the culture of East, and has been living in places where the western culture is dominant; this week, I wanted to write on a totally different topic than I usually do… We all live in different parts of the world. No doubt that there are Turkish people in every single country across the world. Being said that, I’d like to think, discuss and elaborate on the following simple question — with referring to one of the greatest Harvard Business Review articles  I’ve recently read, Universalism and the West: Should what is true for Western societies must be true for the other societies in today’s world?

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled they are accepted as today’s one of the most universal subjects. In his article, Werner Daum concentrates on the concept of universalism and cultural relativism considering human rights and believes that “true” varies culture to culture, tribe to tribe. In Universalism and the West, Daum sees three basic differences between the West and other cultures in the matter of human rights: Individualism, cultural meaning of death and social security.


The first difference Daum sees between the West and other cultures is the idea of individualism. In comparison to many other cultures in the world, western cultures tend to emphasize the individual. Western cultures in the modern world are often considered to be amongst the most individualistic cultures in the world. So the West has a greater extent than other cultures granted autonomy to individuals and they have a greater freedom to decide for themselves how to live best without interference from governmental or other authorities. In other cultures the situation is significantly different. While individual decisions are in the foreground in the West, in other cultures the essential idea is to have a group decision that directly serves to society’s benefits.  Freedom to choose the person you want to marry is actually a right of every single person on the earth. But varying cultures cannot reconcile at the same point. For example, while you can arbitrarily choose a person that you want to marry, in other cultures a girl’s father makes this decision for his child, because he thinks that his decision is more important than his child’s decision since it serves as the benefit of that particular society.


The second difference Daum mentions between the West and other cultures is social security. Social security primarily refers to a social insurance program providing social protection, or protection against socially recognized conditions, including poverty, old age, disability, unemployment and others. In the West, government holds this responsibility and takes care of its people. Unlike the West, in other cultures; social safety is a community’s, tribe’s, family’s, mosque’s or synagogue’s duty and you need to share something with your society in order to be a part of that society which provides you the social safety you need. For instance, what you share with your society could be your religion. In several tribes in the East, religion has the same function with what social security does in the West. The point is that you are a part of this safety net as long as you share some basic values with your community such as religion.  Freedom of religion is generally considered to be able to change religion or not to follow any religion. It is perceived by many nations and people to be a fundamental human right. In contrast if you wish to leave your religion, you may always be free to choose to have a difference in opinion with your society as long as you accept not to have any social safety net that protects you.

The third difference Daum considers is the cultural meaning of death. Death can have different impacts on people from different societies. As the author points out; in Western societies, if a mother, who has only one or two children, loses her child for any reason, it presumably causes a deep depression on that mother. On the other side of an African family, child mortality is such a normal thing, with the rate of 30 percent. So, a loss of the children would have completely different effects on these two mothers of Eastern and Western societies. In addition, a death issue in Eastern world is so different than a death issue in Western society. Even we think about it independently from religious reasons, he/she is a part of a larger society that will survive even though it loses a person, a very small part of it that will not affect the maintenance of the society. So as we can see, society’s benefit comes before the benefit of individual. Daum also focuses on the genocide that occurred in Cambodia. While Western communities want a tribunal, Cambodian people and its government opposed and tried to postpone the demand of Western communities. [Because they were taught by the Buddhist teaching and it says that even though it is for the sake of vengeance], death of people just increases the negative karma and Cambodians wished to remove the bad memories as soon as possible and keep living. Apparently, death of millions would affect us so deeper than it affect the Cambodian people.

Long story in short, it is hard to believe that there could be universal human rights. The basic differences between West and other cultures; such as the cultural meaning of death, social security and individualism makes it almost impossible to mention about universal human rights in today’s world since there are so many different cultures and every culture has its own “true”.


Image source:

Uğur İnanç

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