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Liberals and cultural relativism

Discussion in 'BBS Hangout: Debate & Discussion' started by finalsbound, Aug 30, 2010.

  1. finalsbound

    finalsbound Contributing Member

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    http://www.bigquestionsonline.com/columns/susan-jacoby/multiculturalism-and-its-discontents

    Multiculturalism and Its Discontents
    Why are liberals excusing religious abuses on grounds of cultural relativism?


    [​IMG]
    Ayaan Hirsi Ali surrounded by bodyguards at The Hague


    By Susan Jacoby
    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    I am an atheist with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect. And I find myself in a lonely place in relation to many liberals, political and religious, because I cannot accept a multiculturalism that tends to excuse, under the rubric of “tolerance,” religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.

    The latest example of the Left’s blind spot on this issue is the antagonism of so many liberal reviewers toward Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent memoir, Nomad. The Somali-born Hirsi Ali immigrated to the United States in 2006 after her close friend, the Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh, was murdered by a radical Islamist. Hirsi Ali still needs bodyguards because of frequent death threats.

    She was educated as a child in Muslim schools, subjected to genital mutilation, and broke with her family when she refused to consent to an arranged marriage. She first settled in Holland, where she worked as a Somali-Dutch interpreter, and her convictions about violence in many (though not, she emphasizes, all) Muslim families are rooted in her work with immigrants as well as her own upbringing. Yet Nicholas D. Kristof, reviewing Nomad for the New York Times Book Review, writes that “I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Hirsi Ali’s family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: 'I love you.'"

    I was startled by this patronizing comment, because I admire Kristof for being one of the few male columnists who writes frequently about violence against women. Somehow, “I love you” isn’t the first thing that would come to mind if I were being held down by female relatives while my ****oris was maimed or if my father told me I had to marry a stranger.

    As a journalist, I have heard many similar observations from professors of religious and multicultural studies. Some have even suggested that dissidents like Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie have exaggerated the threats against them in order to promote their books. Such slanderous statements are invariably followed by, “This is off the record, you understand.”

    I do not agree with everything Hirsi Ali has to say — about Islam or the United States — but I strongly agree with the essential point she makes in Nomad:

    Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting: All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. A culture that celebrates femininity and considers women to be the masters of their own lives is better than a culture that mutilates girls’ genitals and confines them behind walls and veils or flogs and stones them for falling in love. . . . The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better. (italics in the original)

    It is understandable that American liberals, and particularly religious liberals, are wary of anyone who makes negative public judgments about other faiths. There is a long history of disrespect for various minority cultures and religions in America, although the Constitution and the First Amendment — products of Enlightenment secularism and Enlightenment-influenced religion — have (usually) stopped the disrespect from turning into bloodshed..

    But it is one thing to recognize the legal right of all Americans to believe whatever they want and quite another to maintain that all belief systems are compatible with democracy. In a free society, religion should be no more immune to criticism than atheism, and the First Amendment does not give anyone carte blanche to violate secular law in the name of faith. This crucial distinction applies to all religions, not only to Islam.

    In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness for violating state labor laws by requiring children to distribute religious literature at night. The Court declared: “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable diseases, or the latter to ill health or death. . . . Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow [that] they are free . . . to make martyrs of their children.”

    In recent decades, state and federal courts have cited Prince in taking a much harder line against parents who deny standard, life-saving medical treatment to their children out of religious conviction. Similarly, polygamous religious sects do not have the right to force their minor daughters into “celestial marriage.” And parents may not physically abuse their children because their religion sanctions corporal punishment.

    Furthermore, the fact that some traditional religious and cultural practices are technically legal does not make them right. An 80-year-old friend of mine — a woman of forceful intellect who used to teach Renaissance history — now lives in a Florida retirement community where many of the part-time staff are teenaged children of recent Afghan immigrants. When my friend saw one of her favorite young Afghan-American women — a high school senior — weeping in the dining room, she asked what was wrong. “Oh, madam professor,” the girl replied, “my father has arranged for me to meet my future husband. He is 40 years old, and the wedding will take place in six months. I wanted so much to go to college, and this will not be permitted.”

    My friend replied gently, “You know, Yasmin, you don’t have to marry anyone in this country because your parents say so. There are organizations to help girls like you think these things through. There are college scholarships. I can give you the names of people to talk to.” Another resident of this community sharply reproved my friend, saying, “We have no right to interfere with her culture, her religion, her family,”

    Wrong. This type of “interference” — telling a troubled young woman that she has choices other than an arranged marriage — is exactly what a true liberal ought to be doing. The idea that someone should ignore the tears of a 17-year-old who says she is being pushed to give up her education is utterly perverse.

    Finally, it is a politically strategic error as well as a form of moral blindness for liberals to push people like Hirsi Ali into the eager arms of the political Right. She is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and that alone is enough to make her a pariah to many liberals. Her thinking has clearly been influenced by the narrow prism of her colleagues — she is under the mistaken impression, for example, that most American feminists are indifferent to universal human rights — but liberals ought to be asking themselves why they never reached out to her.

    AEI was, in fact, the only American think tank to offer Hirsi Ali a job when she needed one badly. Several years ago, I made repeated inquiries at the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress about this issue and was stonewalled by their press aides. Panderers to the multicultural gods, in foundations and academia, often assert that religiously sanctioned violence against women and other human rights violations are matters of “tribe and culture, not religion.” But what is more central than religion to most of the world's cultures?

    This muddled thinking allows the American religious and political Right to misrepresent itself as the chief defender of Enlightenment values. More important, reflexive liberal multiculturalism fails every child being denied, in the name of faith and family, full access to the promise of this nation.


    ----------------------


    This isn't a benchmark commentary on the issue, but I do think it raises a debate that's very relevant right now...there seems to be a divide between the tolerant "live and let live" liberals and the ones who want modernization at the cost of others' cultures. I think the author's examples are kind of weak, but then again I am ignorant regarding most religious cultures outside American Christianity. I think a lot of ultraconservatives/tea party supporters (like my parents) talk all day about the "backwardness" of other cultures, without acknowledging that Western culture didn't always give women the rights they have now...that social progress has been more of a "secular vs. religious" thing than a "western vs. eastern religion" thing... Thoughts on the article?
     
  2. Ubiquitin

    Ubiquitin Contributing Member
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  3. rockbox

    rockbox Around before clutchcity.com

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    I totally agree but I then again I think organized religion is stupid.
     
  4. AroundTheWorld

    AroundTheWorld Insufferable 98er
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    Great article, thanks for posting. It describes some of the posters on this board very well.

    Hirsi Ali is a hero, a very brave woman.
     
  5. justtxyank

    justtxyank Contributing Member

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    Fascinating article, thanks for posting it. I disagree that social progress in America has been a secular vs religious thing though. There have been religious leaders are the forefront of every social battle. The great thing about Western culture is that while it is not perfect, it has shown the ability to improve itself over time.
     
  6. Mathloom

    Mathloom Shameless Optimist
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    Agree with the author. Impressed that she's able to distinguish culture from religion, something many in this thread will undoubtedly be unable to do.

    I've been wondering if culture is actually a threat to our development as humans. It is, by definition, the act of doing something which is popular now or was popular in the past. Why are we holding on to the past instead of learning lessons as they come and go? Maybe arranged marriages were useful at some point in history, who the F knows, but why keep doing it? Just evaluate the variables and see if it makes sense in the here and NOW. It's illogical to assume that the variables have NOT changed.

    What good is culture? What do you gain from it?

    I'm not necessarily promoting cultural cleansing (or whatever you want to call it) but I think we should logically be on course to merge the best part of different cultures with each other, with the ultimate goal being one culture. Anything to re-establish culture or define differences more clearly is very irritating to me.

    Like the author, there are some cultural things which I can not respect. Genital mutilation, arranged/forced marriage, wife-beating, male dominance. It's all unethical and I won't let it slide under the umbrella of "respect other people's cultures."

    Hell, part of 'people respecting other people's culture' is having a culture that is respectable. Why don't we start with that.
     
  7. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member

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    1st let's start with
    What are Universal Human Rights?

    Western Idealogy is based in the I before the WE.
    Meaning the Individual is more important than the group.
    Alot of other cultures are not so individualistic.

    I think saying that is WRONG is . .well . .wrong.
    You are basically saying. . WE ARE RIGHT YOU ARE WRONG
    My values, thoughts and opinions are not only better than yours but more valuable.
    What I beleive is important. . what you beleive not so much.

    The Western Gods preaching down to the lowly 'third world' countries and religions.

    Rocket River
     
  8. Qball

    Qball Contributing Member

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    Oh I sooooo agree :grin: .
     
  9. moestavern19

    moestavern19 Member

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    Well you can always bring the cultural differences argument into the spectrum and then you have to gauge what is barbarism to some is normal practice to others.

    As a human rights proponent, I would say I am strongly against policies (governmental or religious) that promote anything other than equal rights among race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

    It seems the treatment of women in Islamic countries is often put more under a microscope more because of general American distrust of Muslim culture, especially post 9/11, there are equally appalling atrocities being committed against women in third-world countries and in primal cultures in Africa. For instance I read an article a while back about a country in Africa where women are forced to gain huge amounts of weight. They are sent to "fat camps" basically to fatten them up to well over 300 pounds just because the men in that particular culture find obesity to be attractive.
     
  10. Mathloom

    Mathloom Shameless Optimist
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    Certainly, we should never cross the line when it comes to opinions.

    But we can definitely agree (for example) that genital mutilation should not be enforced, and that the only instances where they should happen is when a person chooses to go through it for some reason.

    We can definitely agree that beating another human is wrong. We can agree that punishing people who unjustly beat another person is a logical outcome.

    Where people will ultimately disagree is - is it better to be a pure capitalist or explore some socialist attributes as well? This is where we respecting another opinion is important.

    I think the ideal situation is that we protect what science proves to be true, and respect opinions on other stuff. If someone chooses to go against science, then that's their problem and their choice. You don't have to respect it, but you definitely have to accept it.
     
  11. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member

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    Progress must be slow and careful.
    a Free for all of moving on with the latest greatest social commentary
    could be disastrous. I personally think the social change away from corporeal punishment has a real result in lack of discipline in schools. Which leads to lower test scores and learning. which leads to higher crime.
    The thoughts on the results of the movement were never taken into account.


    BTW - Why is ONE CULTURE the ultimate goal? I seriously hope that is not the case.

    Rocket River
     
  12. pgabriel

    pgabriel Educated Negro

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    "DELORIS"

    sorry
     
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  13. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member

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    *WE* - me and you - might agree but there are obviously others do not.

    Question -
    If doing A is bad for the individual but good for the society . . do you do A?
    If doing B is bad for the society but good for the individual . . do you do B?

    Rocket River
     
  14. pgabriel

    pgabriel Educated Negro

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    I think we can all agree a 12 year old girl should not be held down while someone chops off her ****oris
     
  15. finalsbound

    finalsbound Contributing Member

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    I would argue that the religious leaders spearheading social issues are largely influenced by secularized religion...you see a lot of "progressive Christians" like MLK sparking change - moreso because he juxtaposes the inclusive themes of religion (do unto others...) with humanist/human rights issues...liberal Christianity at its core (or the frightening "social justice" version of Christianity, as Glenn Beck puts it). After all, we know that taking religious texts and following them verbatim does not lead to social progress...I'm sure Christian nations and cultures were a lot less kind to women before the doctrine was merged with secularism. It still hasn't even been a century since women were denied the right to vote, and hell, I still know of people in America who think a woman's place is submitting to her husband's commands. My point is, I think it's just a matter of time before Islam evolves similarly...clinging less to each word and command in the Qu'ran and fully embracing a culture that treats people with dignity and respect (though some may say this is a "watered down" version of religion). So I wonder, do we eventually take religious texts "less literally and less literally" til we only take seriously the "feel good" parts about tolerance, etc that basically mirror secular humanism? In a way I do think it's ultimately a secular vs. religious thing, even if the two coexist for awhile...am I making sense at all?
     
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  16. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member

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    WE - America and Americans / Western Living folx. . . maybe
    We - The whole world. . . obviously not

    Rocket River
     
  17. pgabriel

    pgabriel Educated Negro

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    but that's the whole point, just because they think its right doesn't mean I have to tolerate it.

    If you walked up on a girl getting her ****oris chopped in a brutal manner that leaves her crying in pain, you're gonna be cool because the people say its in the name of religion?
     
  18. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member

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    In Houston? probably not
    In a country they do that type of thing . . . i dunno.

    There is a movement in this country to stop male circumcision.
    Alot see it as a bit barbaric and unnecessary.

    Rocket River
     
  19. pgabriel

    pgabriel Educated Negro

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    if your values change because you're in another country, that's a bigger problem
     
  20. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member

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    My values of respecting other countries laws and cultures

    that never changes.

    You imposing YOU WILL everywhere you step . . that maybe a problem
    Can I come in your house and spank your kids? or tell you not to spank them?

    Rocket River
     

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