Teaching Cultural Relativism Through Media Literacy

As a teacher in the information age, I believe it’s important to layer media literacy into my courses. The access today’s students have to limitless information via the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. It is unprecedented to have the aggregate of human knowledge at our fingertips. However, as we have seen over the last few years, the Internet has also made it easy to spread both dis- and misinformation. My primary goal as a college educator is to teach students to find and evaluate information, think critically about it, and draw accurate conclusions. This must include teaching students to navigate the information they find online, especially regarding current events.

During my time teaching an introductory gender studies class at Santa Ana Community College, France’s then-recent prohibition on burkinis was in the news. I took the opportunity to tie this current event into a lesson on cultural relativism and power differences. We were reading Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn as part of the department’s shared curriculum. The book offers a broad survey of some of the most dire circumstances of women around the world, and while the information is important, it is occasionally presented paternalistically and without needed cultural relativism. Additionally, parts of the book discuss the specific forms of oppression that face women in the Muslim world. I knew based on the demographics of my class and my discussions with them that most had never met a Muslim person, and I was concerned that without addressing this issue, the book might reify some stereotypes of Muslim women as disempowered victims.

For the crux of the lesson, I chose a video from CNN (unfortunately no longer available) in which two Muslim women were invited on the program to debate whether or not it was appropriate to ban certain religious forms of dress in a secular Western democracy. One woman, a hijabi herself, argued that ordering Muslim women to remove their coverings was the same sort of policing of women’s bodies that is a symptom of rape culture. The other woman argued that religious practices rooted in patriarchy should not be welcome in a secular society that aspires to equality.

Before sharing the video with my students, I provided context that I knew they would need in order to understand the debate. I shared the relevant text from the Quran and briefly explained why showing modesty before God is important in Islam. I posed some questions for the students to think about while they watched. In particular, I suggested that they think about what an equivalent conversation about women’s dress in the West might be like. Just after the video, I had students turn and talk to a partner about what surprised them in the video and which arguments were most convincing to them. I find that having students discuss a topic with a partner just before a whole class discussion primes the pump for more thoughtful contributions.

Book Cover for Half the Sky

In the classroom discussion, I let the day’s learning outcomes guide the conversation. I wanted students to be able to apply the idea of cultural relativism not just to Half the Sky, but also to media they consume in their daily life outside the classroom. They should understand that these sorts of debates on 24/7 news stations often set up false equivalencies. Ostensibly, in a debate, two sides of an argument are presented equally. However, to offer another example, a debate about climate change between a climate scientist and a scientist who is in the tiny minority of climate change deniers does not provide a balanced representation of the issue as scientists understand it. This kind of equality obscures equity. Likewise, presenting the burkini ban conflict as a debate between Muslim women is disingenuous when the number of Muslim women who support such bans are a tiny minority.

These are the sorts of questions that guided our discussion: Who has the power to define what forms of dress are appropriate for women? What message is CNN sending when they represent the issue of burqa bans as a debate between two Muslim women? Whose ideas are amplified and whose are depreciated? After spending some time discussing the CNN video, I asked students to connect these lessons to their reading. When you read Half the Sky, who has the power to define women’s problems and offer solutions? How are women’s voices represented in this book? Eventually we came to the final question, which tied that day’s lesson to larger questions in the course. What kind of balance do you think is appropriate when it comes to using cultural relativism and fighting for women’s rights? Who should get to decide where the line is?

While this particular lesson grew out of a specific assigned reading for a gender studies course and a specific current event, this framework could be easily adapted to other contexts. This lesson could be used in any course that covers the ways in which power structures determine public narratives. For the purposes of teaching cultural anthropology, this lesson could be used in an introductory course to teach cultural relativism, or in higher level courses that deal with the anthropology of gender or the anthropology of Islam. With some tweaking, the basic structure of the lesson could be used to teach other topical areas as well. I recommend looking for current events that link to the subject matter at hand. For example, if I were designing a lesson based on this framework to use this fall, I would look to the recent news about Colin Kaepernick becoming the new face of Nike’s latest ad campaign, and news about the NFL police brutality protests in general. I would share the video linked above with the class, in which two sports analysts debate the NFL protests, and pose these sorts of questions: Is this group really as homogeneous as the first speaker says? What power dynamics are obscured by presenting this debate as “black and white folk talking together” about this topic? Whose viewpoint comes across most strongly and why?


Teaching Resource Contributed By: Mindy Wynn Tauberg, Graduate Student, University of California, Irvine.

Mindy Wynn Tauberg is a doctoral student studying Muslim-Jewish interfaith activism in Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the ways activists use personal narrative to build connections across communities in conflict. In 2016 Mindy participated in the California Community College Internship Program, and the following year she completed UC Irvine’s Pedagogical Fellowship. Mindy holds an MA in Elementary Inclusive Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.