- Published on Monday, 23 May 2011 07:19
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 5989
Sometimes in life, we have a choice of one thing or the other - not a range of choices - just choose this or that. For example, agreeing to help someone or not; believing in a god or not; tolerate a behaviour or not; speak out against a wrong or not etc. Many religions teach that morality is absolute - Catholics are taught that an action is either right or wrong. For example, abortion is always wrong no matter the circumstances. One version of Islam teaches that all Christians are infidels and should be killed. Other religions teach that morality is relative - abortion is OK sometimes, killing in self-defence is allowed but not murder etc. - and that is a saner judgement. But when considering cultures, there are many moral values that are defined by the culture. However, if you compare cultures, there are values and moral preferences that are mutually exclusive - you can't have one and also have the other.
Even if we want to, we can't blend or compromise or harmonise or take a little from this culture and a little from that and come up with an acceptable new, blended, merged culture. Having one set of values simply rules out the other, period.
For example: In Canada, the politicians have chosen multiculturalism with reasonable and desirable goals of tolerance and understanding. But this often clashes with equally reasonable and desirable goals of preventing harm to others, criticising unjust laws, customs and traditions, and exposing exploitation and oppression. These practices are often entrenched in unfair, cruel, punitive and destructive institutions. Sometimes those institutions, practices and customs come from undeveloped countries, and then attempts of westerners to reform or abolish them will conflict with the goal of not being a cultural imperialist or self-righteous or intolerant. And then one has to choose.
So what exactly is culture? If we say that women shouldn't be murdered by their fathers and brothers for, e.g., resisting an arranged marriage, only to be told that that's their culture and it's arrogant to judge other cultures by Western standards, then we should ask: what do you mean 'their culture'? Whose culture? And what follows from that? Is it the culture of the women who are murdered? Or is it only the culture of the men doing the murdering. Why should a culture that includes murdering people be privileged?
In fact it's quite strange that people intending to support the oppressed often actually side with oppressors in the name of multiculturalism. A great many practices could be put in the box 'their culture'. Dowry murders, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, slavery, child labour, drafting children into armies, the caste system, beating and sexually abusing and withholding wages from domestic servants especially immigrants, Sharia law, fatwas, suttee. These are all part of someone's 'culture', as murder is a murderer's culture and rape is a rapist's. But why validate only the perpetrators? Have the women, servants, slaves, child soldiers, Dalits (untouchables), ten-year-old carpet weavers in these cultures ever even had the opportunity to decide what their culture might be?
And this is where the hard choice comes in, where the competing values have to be sorted out. One can decide that tolerance and cultural pluralism trump all other values, and so turn a blind eye to suffering and oppression that have tradition as their underpinning, or one can decide that murder, torture, mutilation, systematic sexual or caste or racial discrimination, slavery, child exploitation, are wrong, wrong everywhere, universally wrong, and not to be tolerated.
Originally published on this site in August 2009