Ethics, Culture and Mormons

Ryan Day

As a student of anthropology, questions of culture and especially the acceptance of the traditions of other cultures are always in the forefront of my mind. As an “anthropologist” I have been taught to take a culturally relative viewpoint towards the customs and traditions of other peoples; that is, to accept that those customs and traditions, strange though they may seem to me, are the very important cultural makeup of those peoples, and therefore are important.
When I read the news–which I do far less than I would like to admit–I am always on the lookout for stories that have to do with cultures other than my own. I’d like to say that that is the anthropologist in me, and I would even go as far as saying that most other anthropologists–or anthropology students–do the same. Such is the nature of the discipline, I suppose. The most recent news that happened to catch my eye was of the Fundamentalist Mormon compound that was raided in Eldorado, Tex. According to CNN, the police received a distressed phone call from a 16-year-old girl who claimed that she had been the victim of sexual and physical abuse on the ranch, prompting law enforcement to search the entirety of the ranch. They also removed all women and children from the ranch, and they now in protective custody.
This culture, that of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, though living in the same country as myself, struck me as one completely different than my own. Even more, it struck me as a culture that I cannot understand, as I am not a part of it and have no academic or personal background in the subject. This clean plate provided a starting point for me.
Ethically, this means that all traits of such a culture are to be understood as important within their own cultural sphere and viewed with relativity and without bias. This is where the ethical dilemma begins. In “American” culture, we are socialized to believe that any sexual relationship with a child under a certain age is wrong. The exact age varies from person to person, and it even varies legally from state to state. As a part of a group deemed “Americans,” we are en-culturated with numerous ideas that conflict strongly with the cultural traits being brought out by the case against FDLS. Court documents released from the FDLS case claim that girls as young as 13 were being forced into marriage and sexual activity with much older men. Sometimes these marriages involved polygamy.
Of course, the anthropologist in me thinks differently. Cultures are not the same, and who is to say that American culture is the “right” culture? What even constitutes “right” culture? Quite frankly, I do not think that such a thing exists. In a world where everyone lives differently, there can be no fixed truth. To even suggest such a thing is ethnocentric. This line of thinking brings me to cultural relativity. In anthropology, this is the norm. For example, anthropologists that study gang culture often hear about gang violence, another trait that is considered wrong by the general “American” culture. Still, wrong as it may seem within their own cultural construct, they take a stance of cultural relativity, opting to understand the culture rather than condemn it.
By now, some people may be offended by what I am suggesting-cultural relativity towards the FLDS culture–but let me be clear. I am by no means firm on this subject myself. As I stated before, this is an ethical dilemma for me, and I can certainly understand an argument against the sort of ethical relativity that I have mentioned. I do hope, however, that some of you can look at this in a different light and see the members of the FLDS community as people with different beliefs from yourselves, as opposed to the monsters that they are made out to be in the media.