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"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."—Charles James Napier (attributed), during his governorship in British India
Cultural relativism can be depicted in many ways, making it come across as a good, neutral or bad thing. When a character argues that Culture Justifies Anything, the relativism is at its lowest and nastiest, and sometimes also at its most hilarious.
This nastiest form of cultural relativism is to honour people's "right" to be murdered, raped, and subjected to any kind of horror against their will. A "right" they get burdened with for belonging to a certain culture... or even simply because their abuser belongs to a certain culture, never mind that they have no connection to it themselves.
This trope is about someone directly or indirectly using "culture" as a way of trying to get themselves or someone else off the hook for truly heinous acts or structures -- either justifying the crime with a reference to culture, or insisting that the case should not be properly investigated out of respect for the culture.
Note that the claim that "Culture Justifies Anything" is usually done by a character, not by the narrator. The character being portrayed as wrong is still a straight example, not a subversion. For this trope to come into effect, it must be clear that the setting or at least the author treat the act thus defended as morally questionable at best. Otherwise it's merely Your Normal Is Our Taboo. If the setting in general agrees with the objectionable act, this trope does not have to be used, since the act is simply considered normal and doesn't have to be defended by reference to culture. If the trope is used anyway, it's purpose might be to highlight the Deliberate Values Dissonance.
For good, neutral and neutralish forms of cultural relativism, see instead Good Versus Good, Both Sides Have a Point and Blue and Orange Morality. Compare Agree to Disagree. Contrast Against My Religion, where someone is sticking to his values in a honorable manner.
No Real Life Examples, Please - this is not the place for that eternal flamewar.
- When the Arabian Fables join Fabletown in Fables, they are told they will have to free their slaves. The Arabian Fables object, claiming that slave ownership is part of their culture. King Cole then says that Fabletown will honour their custom of owning slaves, if they agree to honour Fabletown's custom of executing slaveholders. The Arabian Fables agree to free their slaves.
- In the Gor novels, the author goes out of his way to point out that Gor is a different planet and that earthly cultural values thus doesn't apply. This include the fact that pretty much everything is presented as being "of Gor", to the point where it can get really annoying to read about how the sheep of Gor grazes the plains of Gor to produce the wool of Gor.
- In one amusing bit of exposition in an early novel, the author says that on Gor, certain Earth prejudices simply don't exist. He then goes on to list various Gorean prejudices that don't exist on Earth. "The Gorean finds just as many reasons for hating his neighbour as the Earthman. It is only that his reasons are different."
- Sideshow by Sheri S. Tepper takes place on a planet with a whole bunch of tiny states, each of which tends to have some abhorrent custom like baby-sacrificing. The protagonists start out working for the Enforcers, whose job it is to maintain the cultural diversity of the planet.
- In Guards Guards, the watchmen uses this as an excuse not to try to break up the brawls that regularly erupt in dwarf bars, believing this behavior to be their 'ethnic folkways'. The truth is, dwarfs go wild in Ankh-Morpork specifically because they're away from the harsh discipline and austerity of dwarf mines. The rookie, himself an honorary dwarf, is able to get them to stop by reminding them of their poor mothers back home.
- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale ends with a satirical epilogue set long after the rest of the book, in which a historian gives a talk at an academic conference about the events of the story. The historian cautions his scholarly audience against passing judgment on the unbelievably misogynistic, racist, theocratic No Woman's Land of Gilead -- it's a different culture with its own standards, after all! -- and even cracks a few jokes about the horrific sex slavery Gileadean women were kept in.
- In Alastair Reynold's The Prefect, this is taken to an extreme in the "Glitter Band", an anarchist collection of space habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone, where the only guaranteed right is the right to vote. The individual habitats are free to vote and institute whatever laws they like, and thus have specialized into extremes, with some attempting to become utopias, while others became "voluntary tyrannies".
- In Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery, the lottery is constantly defended with such statements as "It's tradition." A particularly horrific example in that the characters use this defense not on outsiders but on themselves--even they can't explain why they go through this brutal ritual every year, but it's so ingrained in their culture that they carry it out regardless.
- Ishboo from the TV sketch comedy All That.
- A sketch on Goodness Gracious Me features an Indian woman rushing into a women's shelter crying that her husband attacked her with a knife -- and the (white) woman running the shelter feels she has to make sure that the guy's after her with a kitchen knife because he's a psycho, and not with a ceremonial knife as part of something ethnic, in which case it wouldn't be her place to interfere.
- Another sketch was a parody of The Sooty Show in which Soo, now Sooty's widow, explained that she didn't feel she should be burned on his funeral pyre along with him (sati) because this custom is barbaric, despite being a cultural tradition. She ends up being stoned for adultery instead.
- An episode of Star Trek: The Original Series featured the Enterprise crew running into a civilization of two planets that were locked in an eternal war. To limit the devastation and preserve their culture, both civilizations agreed to stop shooting real weapons and use giant, inter-linked computers to simulate shooting at each other. When the computers recorded "hits", it also listed who was "killed" by the "attack". Those "casualties" were then rounded up and sent to actual death chambers. The war rages, people die, but no actual damage to either world. At the episode's climax, the planet's top leader tries to trick the entire crew of the Enterprise into beaming off the ship because the computer recorded a "hit" on her. At the end of the episode, Kirk severs the radio link between the two planets, which brought down a threat of a war with real weapons and real destruction coming down on both worlds. Kirk leaves the planet saying that this could be the consequence, or they could negotiate a much needed peace.
- An episode of The Practice featured a couple taken to court because their son died and they could have saved him if they called for medical help but wouldn't because of their religion. The main characters did try to convince a jury to accept religion as an excuse to let the child die. Is there anyone surprised they lost that case?
- Batarians in Mass Effect practice slavery, which they view as a cultural right and an inextricable part of their caste system. Since slavery is condemned by nearly all Council races and illegal in Citadel space, batarians have claimed prejudice and oppression, severed official ties with the Citadel, and adopted an isolationist government. Council races have developed a cool and watchful attitude towards batarians, and batarians in turn retain simmering hostility and aggression towards Council races and humanity in particular for snatching up promising colony worlds that would have otherwise been open to them.
- Elves are treated liked crap in the Dragon Age universe because, well, they're second-class citizens. It's okay to treat elves like second-class citizens because they're elves! The player has the option of treating elves as actual people, but this doesn't really have a great effect on the game world.
- The Order of the Stick has Belkar Bitterleaf defending his right to a cultural heritage of murder and evading the Detect Evil spell. Made funnier by the fact that the context make it quite obvious that he made up this "cultural heritage" on the spot.
- Played with several times in Homestuck, most notably in the conversations between John and Vriska. Vriska confesses that she's killed numerous people in her time, and that she's murdered one of her closest friends as well. John tries to be understanding to her explanation, but is still unnerved by the stories she tells. Finally Vriska gives up trying to rationalize her actions and insists that he can't understand, saying, "I know our races are completely different. And I really h8 the idea of you thinking worse of me 8ecause of this."
- This exchange is something of a zig-zagged trope, since despite Vriska defending her morality with 'cultural differences', other trolls seem to find her actions reprehensible too.
- One of Zinnia Jones' rants is about witchhunts in modern Congo and people who believe that it would be a crime against "freedom of religion" to stop them from literally burning children alive. Another rant is about a guy defending Uganda's "right" to execute people for being homosexual.
- Discussed and defied in Futurama: Zoidberg challenges Fry to a form of Decapodian ritual combat, which by the rules of his society must end in one of their deaths. Fry wins the fight, but refuses to kill Zoidberg.
Fry: My fellow fish-monsters, far be it from me to question your stupid civilization or its dumb customs, but is squeezing each other's brains out with a giant nutcracker really going to solve anything?
- Further subverted because the practice is only 18 years old, and the king himself refers to it as one of 'our crazy traditions' which he is sworn to uphold.