I’ve been struggling with an essay about “energy
medicine” for the past few weeks. After starting and stopping several times I
began to wonder what the problem was. I had more than enough material, plenty of
personal experience with the subject matter and those who practice in this way.
But every time I put something together I found that it sounded too harsh, even
unfair in its assessment and conclusion. I was more concerned with the tone of
my writing than usual, and I couldn’t seem to get past that.
Then I read something that explained my hesitation. It was
about the development of cultural relativism in the
early part of the twentieth century. Cultural relativism was intended to omit
prejudice and emotion in the investigation of other cultures. Prior to its use
anthropologists typically described all foreign social structures with
pejorative terms. They used words such as quaint, backward, primitive or savage.
Fortunately, relativism raised cultural anthropology from biased emotionality to
judgment-free understanding and it allowed an appreciation for the healthy
diversity of human cultural evolution.
But relativism was misapplied somewhere along the
line, and by that I mean it was used when discussing medical systems. Instead of
being evaluated as a way of increasing health and longevity, medical practice
was treated as if it merely reflected another cultural difference, like the way
people combed their hair. How well it aided the culture’s functioning and
cohesiveness became far more important than its effectiveness in relation to
mortality rates, life spans, cure rates and general misery. In fact, things like
that were not discussed when a description of the specific practice of
healthcare was provided. Not by a cultural relativist, anyway.
Consider this from Wallace Sampson’s essay, “This
disconnect persists despite scientific data about modern biomedicine’s obvious
objective benefits. Worthless and harmful traditional remedies are rationalized
as being just “different,” “alternative,” “traditional,”
“unorthodox.” Acupuncture, for example, is rationalized by saying “if it
has worked for three thousand years, there must be something to it.” But
“worked” is never quantitatively defined. …Cultural relativism results in
(a) peculiar blindness to folkways’ untoward consequences in favor of
“nonjudgmental” description. Reluctance to criticize another culture’s
medical system through fear of appearing insensitive is now a form of political
correctness-a straightjacket of niceness. Traditional-healing advocates demand
niceness on threat of accused bias” (emphasis mine). *
Having read this, my fear of sounding like some sort of
unreasonable bigot eased quite a bit. I also realized why so many bright and
otherwise thoughtful people in my profession never said anything publicly about
“alternative” practices taking place right beside them. Their fear of
appearing culturally insensitive is justified given the turn toward relativism
that our society has taken. I should probably say here that there is a
difference between making fun of any given tradition or practice and critically
examining its consequences. The former, while tempting to be sure, gets us
nowhere. My point is that cultural relativism is perfectly appropriate when
describing the presence of something like family life or initiation rites, but
when we examine the usefulness of medical tradition and theory we must not
forget that the validity of any given practice is rooted in natural laws and
principles that are true no matter where you happen to be in the universe, and
no matter what you might “believe” to the contrary.
So. Get ready. I’ve decided not to let the rules of relativism affect what I’ve got to say about the various “energy medicine” practices I’ve seen proliferate in my profession the past few years. As usual, understanding the origins of my fearful hesitation to do so earlier has helped me move ahead. I hope that there are others in therapy that will come to feel the same way and, finally, speak out.
* The Braid of Alternative Medicine by Wallace Sampson in Science Meets Alternative Medicine (Prometheus Books 2000)