THE BLOG

Not Better or Worse, Just Different

12/07/2008 09:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are group of people out there called cultural relativists. No need to name names, you know who you are. Cultural relativists believe it is inappropriate to judge the behavior engaged in by members of other cultures. That's us, being smug and superior. You can't do that. The right way to think about the behavior of other cultures is this:

It's not better.

It's not worse.

It's just different.

These people are not entirely around the bend. Some people are not at all tolerant of the behavior of people from other places. That's where words like, "primitive" come from.

You're in another country:

"The toilet paper here is so scratchy. How primitive."

You've heard stuff like that, probably worse. It's not very nice. Sure, sometimes it's tough not to judge the behavior of people from other cultures - they eat monkeys or something - but cut them some slack. Some of us eat snails.

I'd say we're getting better at being tolerant of the behavior of people from other cultures. But you know what we're in no way tolerant of?

The behavior of people from other times.

There are people out there -- often the same people who demand that we be tolerant of the behavior of the people from other cultures -- who despise the behavior of people from other times. Totally dismissive. Explanations? Forget it.

"But here's why they did that."

"We don't want to know."

Six word summary: "The behavior in other times? Terrible."

I say, not so fast.

Sure, some old time stuff was unforgivably disgusting. Slavery? Say no more.

But what about, say, women stuff? The inequality. Equally unforgivable? Well...

My view. You don't have to agree. Just think about it. It won't kill you.

Before 1900, a vast percentage of families, I read it was like ninety per cent, lived in rural communities, primarily on farms. Back then, the farm family was more than a family, it was an economic unit. Family members worked together, each member shouldering the tasks they were best suited for.

Now, we can't be sure here. The people are all dead, so we can't ask them what it was like. But just imagine.

Do you really think there were farm women, baking bread or doing the laundry, looking wistfully out the window toward the fields and thinking,

"Gee, I wish I could plow."

Maybe a few women did. The really strong women. And it was unfair that they weren't allowed to. But for most women, it wasn't an issue. It isn't like some farm jobs were better than others; they were all terrible. You just did what you did. And whatever that was contributed meaningfully to the economic betterment of the family.

Only men voted. From an equality standpoint, not so good. Quoting the great movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan:

"Pipples is pipples."

Women are "pipples." Women get to vote.

But give the "equality standpoint" a rest for a moment, and consider things from an economic standpoint. How many women, whose very existence depended on the success of the enterprise of which they were an integral component, would have voted against the interests of the family farm?

Do you think, maybe, none?

It was one vote per family unit. Was it fair that only men got to vote? No. But it's extremely unlikely that any the woman's vote have been any different from her mate's. What else could they do?

"I voted against the farm."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I never voted before."

Okay. Here's the turnaround.

Everything changed with the move to the city.

Immigration to the city restructured the entire arrangement. Maybe the kids put in a couple of hours in the store after school, or they contributed to a family "pool" of money, but the family as a distinct economic unit completely disappeared. No more family members working together, each member shouldering the tasks they were best suited for.

With the old arrangement out the window, all bets were off.

Working outside the family unit, individuals in the city began to demand -- and had every right to expect -- individual rights. And justice required that the same rights be given to everyone. Equal rights under the law. Equal pay. Equal treatment in the workplace. And so it went.

There's this movie, based on a book of the same name, which I can't remember, where a character in it said,

"The past is another country. They do things different there."

The farm system was another country.

They did things different there.

Not better.

Not worse.

Just different.

Earl Pomerantz's blog can be reached at earlpomerantz.blogspot.com