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Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Cultural Imperialism


The Professor presents the question of why we don't get worked up about run-of-the-mill culturally-approved barbarity against women, when we stage rallies about other terrible things, and answers: "Because elites around the world see American culture as a more immediate threat to their power than Islamic fundamentalism."

I don't think that's quite it. I think a large part of it -- at least within the academic (and, by extension, journalistic) sphere -- is due to the trendy notion of cultural and conceptual imperialism. In other words, who are we to say it's wrong when a father in England kills his daughter for being seen with a boy? His culture (Pakistani) supports it, and, if we say it's wrong, we're saying his culture is wrong and ours is better. Only orientalists and imperialists will say that their enlightened western culture is better than an eastern culture! (Everyone knows, of course, that enlightened eastern cultures are much better.) One of my professors, an immigrant from India, states as a matter of course that wife-beating's fine when you're in India, although it's not liked so much here. Nobody else seems to mind this!

This view, that honour-killings, wife-beating, female infanticide, court-ordered rape, and so forth, are all acceptable if they're in a culture that finds those things acceptable, is shockingly widespread among certain western groups. I first came across it in an exercise on tolerance at Harvard (as part of an "awareness week" meeting, not a mandatory diversity-training session), where students were asked to stand on different sides of the room depending on their answer (from an ethical standpoint, not a legal one). "2 consenting unrelated same-sex adults want to be in a sexual relationship; is that ok?" Pretty much everyone goes to the yes side. "A 65-year-old and a 16-year-old want to get married; is that ok?" Somewhat fewer. "A man and two women say they want to be in a sexual relationship; is that ok?" A Mormon friend heads over to join the yes-crowd. "A woman wants to go back to her abusive lover; is that ok?" Since we're at a seminar on the evils of domestic violence, especially within same-sex relationships, almost everyone goes over to no. "A man is beating his wife in accordance with a cultural/religious system they both belong to; is that ok?" And I (along with, as far as I could tell, the moderator reading the questions) was shocked to see a number of classmates stride confidently over to yes!

So, Prof. Reynolds, I'd say that it's not a relatively greater fear of America that colors these beliefs; rather, it's a fear of being labelled "intolerant," should they point out that the culturally-approved nature of a practice does not automatically make it acceptable!

UPDATE: I see via The Independent that Trevor Phillips of England is talking about the same thing:
He also criticised social workers who failed to intervene in the case of Victoria Climbie, an eight-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast who died in 2000 after months of abuse and neglect by her great aunt and her great aunt's boyfriend. The inquiry into Victoria's death heard that social workers believed the girl's fear of her great aunt was part of her African culture, which emphasised respect for elders.

"There is no aspect of African culture that demands that we turn a blind eye to the degradation and murder of a human being," Mr Phillips said.
For all Mr. Phillips' apparent tendency to cause more racial problems than he solves, I'd say he's got it just about right this time.

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