"Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs."
— Rhetoric by Charles James Napier (attributed), 1843, during his governorship in British India
Cultural relativism can be depicted in many ways, making it come across as a good, neutral or bad thing. When a character argues that Culture Justifies Anything, the relativism is at its lowest and nastiest, and sometimes also at its most hilarious.
This nastiest form of cultural relativism is to honor people's "right" to be murdered, raped, and subjected to any kind of horror against their will. A "right" they get burdened with for belonging to a certain culture... or even simply because their abuser belongs to a certain culture, regardless of whether they have any connection to it themselves.
This trope is about someone directly or indirectly using "culture" as a way of trying to get themselves or someone else off the hook for truly heinous acts or structures — either justifying the crime with a reference to culture, or insisting that the case should not be properly investigated out of respect for the culture.
Things only get worse when this trope is combined with Positive Discrimination, leading to the Double Standard whereby Western culture has to evolve with the times but other cultures must be unconditionally respected, and any Western attempt to "correct" another culture is viewed as arrogant imperialism. This time-honored liberal dilemma can be seen in the late 1980s controversy over the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, or in modern America whenever, say, non-Hispanic white evangelical Christians are mocked for their "reactionary" beliefs, while black, Hispanic, and Asian evangelicals are patronized for theirs.
Note that the claim that "Culture Justifies Anything" is usually done by a character, not by the narrator. The character being portrayed as wrong is still a straight example, not a subversion. For this trope to come into effect, it must be clear that the setting or at least the author treat the act thus defended as morally questionable at best. Otherwise it's merely Your Normal Is Our Taboo. If the setting in general agrees with the objectionable act, this trope does not have to be used, since the act is simply considered normal and doesn't have to be defended by reference to culture. If the trope is used anyway, its purpose might be to highlight the Deliberate Values Dissonance.
For good, neutral and neutralish forms of cultural relativism, see instead Good Versus Good, Both Sides Have a Point and Blue and Orange Morality. Compare Agree to Disagree, Appeal to Inherent Nature. Contrast Against My Religion, where someone is sticking to his values in a honorable manner. Nobody Ever Complained Before is when apparently this has never caused a major disagreement that the culturee remembers.
When the Arabian Fables join Fabletown in Fables, they are told they will have to free their slaves. The Arabian Fables object, claiming that slave ownership is part of their culture. King Cole then says that Fabletown will honor their custom of owning slaves, if they agree to honor Fabletown's custom of executing slaveholders. The Arabian Fables agree to free their slaves.
In Top 10, after the alien porn star M'Rrgla Qualz is arrested for beheading several prostitutes to eat their pineal glands, her lawyer tries to use this as a defense, alleging that this is part of her species life-cycle and citing some alien laws. Captain Traynor remains unconvinced and says that, alien laws notwithstanding, eating people's brains is still a crime by Neopolis' laws.
In the Gor novels, the author goes out of his way to point out that Gor is a different planet and that earthly cultural values thus do not apply. This includes the fact that pretty much everything is presented as being "of Gor", to the point where it can get really annoying to read about how the sheep of Gor graze the plains of Gor to produce the wool of Gor.
In one amusing bit of exposition in an early novel, the author says that on Gor, certain Earth prejudices simply don't exist. He then goes on to list various Gorean prejudices that don't exist on Earth. "The Gorean finds just as many reasons for hating his neighbor as the Earthman. It is only that his reasons are different."
In Guards! Guards!, the watchmen uses this as an excuse not to try to break up the brawls that regularly erupt in dwarf bars, believing this behavior to be their 'ethnic folkways'. The truth is, dwarfs go wild in Ankh-Morpork specifically because they're away from the harsh discipline and austerity of dwarf mines. The rookie, himself an honorary dwarf, is able to get them to stop by reminding them of their poor old white-bearded mothers back home.
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale ends with a satirical epilogue set long after the rest of the book, in which a historian gives a talk at an academic conference about the events of the story. The historian cautions his scholarly audience against passing judgment on the unbelievably misogynistic, racist, theocratic No Woman's Land of Gilead — it's a different culture with its own standards, after all! — and even cracks a few jokes about the horrific sex slavery Gileadean women were kept in.
In Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery", the lottery is constantly defended with such statements as "It's tradition." A particularly horrific example in that the characters use this defense not on outsiders but on themselves—even they can't explain why they go through this brutal ritual every year, except for a vague assertion that it's connected to a good harvest, but it's so ingrained in their culture that they carry it out regardless.
In Alastair ReynoldsThe Prefect, this is taken to an extreme in the "Glitter Band", an anarchist collection of space habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone, where the only guaranteed right is the right to vote. The individual habitats are free to vote and institute whatever laws they like, and thus have specialized into extremes, with some attempting to become utopias, while others became "voluntary tyrannies".
Sideshow by Sheri S. Tepper takes place on a planet with a whole bunch of tiny states, each of which tends to have some abhorrent custom like baby-sacrificing. The protagonists start out working for the Enforcers, whose job it is to maintain the cultural diversity of the planet.
In the Twilight series, it's implied at several points that because it's considered normal for vampires to drain humans of blood (as opposed to drinking animal blood, which only has the drawback of being slightly less tasty than human blood), they shouldn't be thought badly of for doing so. In some supplementary materials, it's hinted that Stephenie Meyer agrees with this.
Other Twilight vampires see humans as beef or poultry, it’s true. And it’s a hard viewpoint to resist—after all, vampires are physically and mentally superior to the nth degree. Their life spans measure in centuries and millenniums. Human lives are so short—sort of like fruit flies that only live a day in comparison. Humans die so easily, too, in their sleep, from tripping, from a tiny heart glitch, from a virus, from getting bumped a little too hard by a car. It’s sort of hard for an average vampire to take them seriously. They’re going to die soon anyway, right? (I know it might be difficult to step away from a human perspective and see it through their eyes. The question is, is it really wrong for them to see the world that way? Vampires are at the very pinnacle of the food chain. Should they feel bad about that? Or are they simply following the dictates of nature?)
Codex Alera has a lot of culture clash between the human Roman-based Alerans, the "savage" cannibalistic Marat, the Canim and the vaguely Yeti-like Icemen. For example, Alera freely practises slavery and is a hotbed of political intrigue, betrayal and backstabbing, while the Marat have no word for lying, are free from many of the more idiotic taboos, and are disgusted by the concept of slavery, yet have almost constant ritualised, fatal, wars between the tribes and eat their enemies alive. Needless to say, the cultural differences don't do anything to improve the Forever War in which Alera is involved with its various neighbours.
Fen in The Osmerian Conflict is of a race that is constantly seeking the best scientific outcome and self preservation. As a result in situations that are difficult to make based on emotions she frequently will point out that a statistical advantage is better and emotions are things that hinder or obstruct proper decision making to the point she willingly sacrifices people for the cause and when Sarah calls her out on it Fen simply replies that is simply how things are done in her world and no one is worse off because of it.
A sketch on Goodness Gracious Me features an Indian woman rushing into a women's shelter crying that her husband attacked her with a knife — and the (white) woman running the shelter feels she has to make sure that the guy's after her with a kitchen knife because he's a psycho, and not with a ceremonial knife as part of something ethnic, in which case it wouldn't be her place to interfere.
Another sketch was a parody of The Sooty Show in which Soo, now Sooty's widow, explained that she didn't feel she should be burned on his funeral pyre along with him (sati) because this custom is barbaric, despite being a cultural tradition. She ends up being stoned for adultery instead.
An episode of Star Trek: The Original Series featured the Enterprise crew running into a civilization of two planets that were locked in an eternal war. To limit the devastation and preserve their culture, both civilizations agreed to stop shooting real weapons and use giant, inter-linked computers to simulate shooting at each other. When the computers recorded "hits", it also listed who was "killed" by the "attack". Those "casualties" were then rounded up and sent to actual death chambers. The war rages, people die, but no actual damage to either world. At the episode's climax, the planet's top leader tries to trick the entire crew of the Enterprise into beaming off the ship because the computer recorded a "hit" on her. At the end of the episode, Kirk severs the radio link between the two planets, which brought down a threat of a war with real weapons and real destruction coming down on both worlds. Kirk leaves the planet saying that this could be the consequence, or they could negotiate a much needed peace.
Kirk additionally uses in-universe Fridge Logic to justify his decision: a real attack wouldn't have killed any more people than one of their ongoing simulated ones, but the real one would have destroyed most of the infrastructure which would have been needed to continue fighting. One way or another, he was stopping their war. He was also saving his crew - which more than justifies his action.
An episode of The Practice featured a couple taken to court because their son died and they could have saved him if they called for medical help but wouldn't because of their religion. The main characters did try to convince a jury to accept religion as an excuse to let the child die. Is there anyone surprised they lost that case?
The title character of the So Random! sketch "Olaf, fake foreign exchange student" uses this trope to get away with his excessive pranking.
First series Doctor Who episode "The Aztecs" fell into this - Barbara, a 1960s history teacher, is mistaken for the reincarnation of an Aztec priest, and uses the clout this gives her to attempt to end human sacrifice. The Doctor is furious with her for doing this, as human sacrifice is their culture and changing it is imperialistic of her, to which Barbara holds that pointless murder is objectively wrong. Meanwhile, Ian has been taken to become a warrior and is being forced to fight someone to the death, which he understandably is not enthusiastic about - but he eventually accepts that it is part of the culture and kills a person. The eventual resolution is that Barbara's attempts to change the culture fail, driving them out of the time period and forcing the separation of the Doctor from his fiancée, and the Doctor seems to hold to this trope - but admits to her that he's strangely proud of Barbara for changing the mind of one Aztec about the morality of human sacrifice.
Elves are treated liked crap in the Dragon Age universe because, well, they're second-class citizens. It's okay to treat elves like second-class citizens because they're elves! The player has the option of treating elves as actual people (or playing as one in the first game, changing the relevant dialogue options accordingly), but this doesn't really have a great effect on the game world.
The Dalish elves try to pull this off themselves ("It's not magic, it's the Keeper's Art!"), but absolutely no-one goes for it. Even other elves find them extremely smug and annoying.
Batarians in Mass Effect practice slavery, which they view as a cultural right and an inextricable part of their caste system. Since slavery is condemned by nearly all Council races and illegal in Citadel space, batarians have claimed prejudice and oppression, severed official ties with the Citadel, and adopted an isolationist government. Council races have developed a cool and watchful attitude towards batarians, and batarians in turn retain simmering hostility and aggression towards Council races and humanity in particular for snatching up promising colony worlds that would have otherwise been open to them.
Of course, the fact that batarians regularly raid the colonies of other species and cultures for slaves — whom they then treat so badly that just seeing the after-effects drove a veteran military officer to insanity — really doesn't help their case any.
It's unclear what kind of difference there is between the "cultural" batarian slavery and what is done by the batarian raiders. After all, the batarians used to be a Citadel race required to adhere their conventions, but after splitting off the only batarians encountered outside their own space are criminals and extremist terrorists, so their actions may not reflect their culture as a whole. The batarians become much more sympathetic in Mass Effect 3 when you get meet more of their civilian population.
And, by 'more of the civilian population, it's meant 'refugees'...The Batarians were first on the Reaper's menu.
The Order of the Stick has BelkarBitterleaf defending his right to a cultural heritage of murder and evading the Detect Evil spell. Made funnier by the fact that the context make it quite obvious that he made up this "cultural heritage" on the spot.
Later echoed as an Ironic EchoBrick Joke, with Paladins hiding from an evil Theocracy using Belkar's old lead sheet to evade the "Detect Good" spell in the same way as Belkar used it to evade "Detect Evil", and whispering the same phrase as Belkar used to shout.
Played with several times in Homestuck, most notably in the conversations between John and Vriska. Vriska confesses that she's killed numerous people in her time, and that she's murdered one of her closest friends as well. John tries to be understanding to her explanation, but is still unnerved by the stories she tells. Finally Vriska gives up trying to rationalize her actions and insists that he can't understand, saying, "I know our races are completely different. And I really h8 the idea of you thinking worse of me 8ecause of this."
This exchange is something of a zig-zagged trope, since despite Vriska defending her morality with 'cultural differences', other trolls seem to find her actions reprehensible too - not because of the killing per se, but because of her Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. Part of Troll society is making strong alliances that can help you get ahead, and Vriska is constantly betraying those alliances.
It also helps that Troll culture only ended up the way it did because of Doc Scratch and The Condense manipulating everything from the shadows to make absolutely certain the trolls win their session.
John ends up hating Vriska after seeing her interacting with other Trolls shows him that Vriska is a dangerous and unpleasant person even by the standards of Troll society.
Derrick Comedy's "Foreigner" (apparently from some unspecified African country) wants to rape your daughter. Uh, is that right? Maybe he should rephrase that; he's still figuring out some of the finer points of the English language.
The Boomerang Bigot-style blog Stuff White People Like parodied this in its "Vegan/Vegetarianism" post, encouraging non-white friends of white vegetarians to use cultural relativism to guilt-trip them and win favors in return. "When the meal is over, tell them that your mom is very embarrassed, and that in your culture rejecting food is the equivalent of spitting on someone’s grave."
Discussed and defied in Futurama: Zoidberg challenges Fry to a form of Decapodian ritual combat, which by the rules of his society must end in one of their deaths. Fry wins the fight, but refuses to kill Zoidberg.
Fry: My fellow fish-monsters, far be it from me to question your stupid civilization or its dumb customs, but is squeezing each other's brains out with a giant nutcracker really going to solve anything?
Further subverted because the practice is only 18 years old, and the king himself refers to it as one of 'our crazy traditions' which he is sworn to uphold.