When Rights and Values Clash: Balancing Cultural Relativism and Equity

One of the most confounding challenges I have personally encountered is how to promote the values of equity and inclusion, while also recognizing and respecting differences in cultural perspectives.



A great example of this debate came up this past month as I was discussing use of the term latinx. Latinx was coined in the early 2000s as a gender-neutral term for someone of Hispanic descent, specifically referring to those who identify as gender fluid or non-binary. There has recently, however, been an outcry against the use of this term, because the term anglicizes the Spanish language. Telling another culture that their language isn't inclusive enough is problematic, particularly when the group in question is already marginalized in many ways.


This one example is part of a much larger conversation about how deeply cultural all of our beliefs and values are, including those which celebrate and acknowledge diversity. It is values which ultimately shape our policies, laws, and practices, so it's important that we understand what they are and how they differ.


For readers looking for a definitive answer to this paradox, I'm sorry to disappoint. This article doesn't have one. The truth is that I believe we all need to come to terms with what our values are and determine which ones we want to hold up and try to persuade others to recognize, and when we need to step back and recognize others' beliefs.


What I hope to express is a thoughtful analysis of the struggle that can help us have better dialogues with one another. Instead of launching back repeated volleys of righteous indignation, we might choose to engage one another as learners each trying to figure out this balance for ourselves.

Historic Context


This debate has been going on in the international political sphere for decades. Is there such thing as a truly universal list of human rights or values? How do we address cultural practices like genital mutilation and stoning? When is it ok to police the cultural values and practices of other groups?


Some would answer never, that every culture should be allowed to structure their own morals and values independent of outside influence. Cultural relativists argue that any suggestion of imposed values (including equity, diversity, and inclusion) is a form of neo-colonization.


Others would point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that has been ratified (in some form) by every country in the UN. They would argue that there is a clear list of agreed upon values that can and should be enforced throughout the world.


The truth is somewhat more complex. One must, for example, consider which countries were involved in creating these "universal" rights and how much power other countries had to refuse, not to mention whether or not they truly uphold these rights in their countries. However practices which takeaway freedoms and the very life of certain individuals are hard to justify within a "to each their own" policy, particularly when citizens from within these cultures cry out against the practices.


Which then returns us back to the question: are there any values, such as the sanctity of human life or dignity, which are universal? I prefer to believe that there are some universal values, but the nuances of how we achieve them differ greatly.

The Danger of Moral Superiority


Ok, so most of us probably aren't dealing with issues in our workplace like child marriage that are clear examples of where laws and values clash. But we do deal with cultural values and beliefs every day and we have very real policies and practices in place in our organizations attached to them. Notions of personal property, boundaries and space, consent, autonomy, communication... the list is endless.


The real danger is in believing that our values are simply the right ones. I want to highlight that this is NOT a political issue. Both parties in the US fall into the trap of moral superiority. When we approach others from a position of righteousness and indignance we assume the false narrative of universal truths. It allows for no compromise, no mistakes, no learning or growth, and no hope of changing minds.


Yet to fully embrace cultural relativism can be just as dangerous. If everyone's morals and values are equal, then no common culture or understanding is ever achieved. Organizations require shared culture just as societies do. To fight for our abilities to express ourselves differently can be in itself a contradiction, as the freedom of expression is not a universal value.

Practices for Everyday


What then, to do? To start, we can make sure that our policies and practices reflect a wide variety of values and perspectives from the beginning, and that we allow for people to speak up if they disagree. Have a rule against religious attire? How might you accommodate Muslim staff who value their right to cover themselves?


Decide what policies can and should be flexible and which (like sexual harassment or hiring discrimination) you wish to enforce. Be transparent about why it is a company value with all employees and acknowledge that you are applying it regardless of personal beliefs.


It's not an easy answer, and the choices are not always obvious. I think it comes down to choosing with intentionality and being able to elicit feedback as you go. If we can call one another "in" to the conversation, instead of calling each other "out," we can discuss these opposing values with candor and compassion.

As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.


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