Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.

-C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Rejection of Multiculturalism?

As is often the case, a post over at Echidne got me thinking. She riffed on the possible punitive qualities of rape that come to light when considering the gang rape of Mukthar Mai.

But it's still punishment. The debates about whether rape is sex or violence or both seldom address the possibility that there might be a touch of punitiveness about rape, a desire to remind the victim of the limits that she or he has crossed by going out/dressing a certain way/being in a certain place.

In Mukthar's case, this was actual punishment doled out by the village elders. The cultural traditions at play here are explicitly complicit (there has to be a better way to say that) in the crime. On a similar note, Glenn Reynolds linked to this item about an American aid worker being pelted with stones when she tried to breastfeed her child:


U2 frontman BONO was horrified during a visit to Ethiopia, when he saw local women pelting a breast-feeding aid worker with stones.

The American woman was oblivious of the offence she was causing, and had to escape the angry onslaught from female Muslims who had no qualms about injuring her or her baby.

The anecdote Glenn cites here is curious in that it is another instance where cultural sensitivity seems to trump common sense. The woman and other aid workers were essentially apologizing for having provoked an attack. I’d be surprised if many liberals, who, after having heard only the non-violent parts of this story, and even though very much in favor of public breastfeeding, did not feel some sympathy towards the validity of a foreign culture that disapproved. Add the violence done to the breastfeeder, though, and, for me at least, the importance of preserving a culture that would condone the stoning of a woman and her baby sort of falls away. But why would it have seemed acceptable without the violence? Isn’t violence towards and oppression of women already contained in such a culture? Our standards are pretty low if it takes a public stoning to sway our opinion.

Advocating for more cultural imperialism will probably not win many supporters on the left. For the most part we’re the ones arguing for the preservation and co-existence of traditional customs within our society. But then again, southerners who lived through the Civil War, heck maybe even some still today, might have told you that ending slavery was cultural imperialism. I have yet to meet a liberal who is sorry for that projection of moral superiority. But getting back to the gang rape in Pakistan, if a culture is so inherently misogynistic that not only does it provide an environment for rape to occur but in fact, officially approves and encourages such behavior, what is left to do but to reject the validity of that culture wholesale? If part of the job of preventing rape is dismantling the structures in which it thrives, then traditions and cultures that do that very thing must be discarded. In other words, it appears from this scenario that liberals might have to place a value judgment on whether certain cultural traditions are compatible with a modern society. The dilemma is not really a matter of “which one to choose.” When faced with the choice of preserving cultural traditions or preventing oppression, most liberals would put greater value on preventing oppression. To me the dilemma isn’t a choice, but simply how to reevaluate the importance and the utility of cultural sensitivity.

But to reject culture, who decides? For Pakistani immigrants in the US, the village council would not have the same authority, but the community structures that would have publicly approved rape back home might simply supply safe haven for it here. One could probably raise the objection, “But why only foreign cultures? Couldn’t the same things be said of our own American culture?” I’d answer simply because it is easier to spot what is unacceptable in foreign cultures rather than our own. Also, it’s not like we don’t try to root out the unacceptable elements in our own culture. Unfortunately, the prospect of looking inward, at least in the form of the desire to be “politically correct,” to find these prejudices within ourselves does not always meet with the best success. Maybe we could try a little harder, but I think we do try. In any case, are our own failures looking inward any reason to refrain from continuing to look outward? I suppose this line of reasoning could logically extend to cultures where suicide bombing is more or less accepted. The same choice presents itself. At what point must a value judgment be placed on a culture in the interest of preventing institutionalized violence and oppression? I find myself in unfamiliar territory. When I start thinking of political correctness as a domestic form of cultural imperialism, and I’m perfectly OK with that, I know it’s time to stop.

r@d@r said...

if a culture is so inherently misogynistic that not only does it provide an environment for rape to occur but in fact, officially approves and encourages such behavior, what is left to do but to reject the validity of that culture wholesale?

i respect your heartfelt and sincere effort to figure out this problem, but i have some misgivings about the directions you go in your argument. if we were to turn that same absolutist lense on ourselves, we would have to reject the validity of our own culture wholesale, many times over. i'm thinking of quite a number of things, but the fact that we find it completely supportable to deny healthcare to children who can't pay for it is a good example.

the fact is that all cultures contain certain mores which are almost universally abhorrent. some cultures find our eating habits profoundly morally abhorrent. some cultures also feel we value human life less than others. where is the consistency when we feel such intense moral outrage at suicide bombers, and yet repeatedly drop cluster bombs and napalm on women and children? and, some could argue, this is a uniquely american pastime. but every culture has its nauseating, slimy underbelly. if we are to come from a position of righteous indignation at other cultures, we'd better have a pretty fucking nicely manicured back yard. and we just don't.

i think institutionalized misogyny is evil too. i think stoning people is wrong. i think all capital punishment is wrong, whether it's by tribal elders, mobs, or governments. what is it about lethal injections that make them somehow "better" than using a rock?

i just don't feel comfortable setting my own culture as the moral standard that the entire rest of the world be judged by. it is that attitude that makes states feel that they can embark on unilateral preemptive warfare. which i think both you and i agree is universally abhorrent.

Horatio said...

Yeah, I agree I sort of glossed over the whole "our backyard" part of it. My brief mention doesn't do justice to all the slimy things our culture does. Maybe I'm just going for the lowhanging fruit here? Like if a village council decrees that a woman be gangraped? Realistically, we could never stamp out all culturally accepted injustice, but maybe we can just make sure the ones that remain are actually the underbelly, rather than a fabulous coat of colorful stripes.

Protagoras said...

Hmmm. I'm a liberal, and I have no reluctance to criticize other cultures when I think they're wrong. However, I do not do that with the authority of my culture, as I think my culture is wrong about quite a number of things as well. You seem to recognize that most liberals condemn much about their own cultures. I hope you're wrong to imply that most of them are unlike me in being unwilling to examine others in the same ways.

This blog is based on a true story.