By Nitin Madhav (USAID), exact source, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
One thing that has a big tendency to both annoy and to actually damage the World is the “It’s their culture” proclamation. There are real problems with it. Basically, this proclamation is often heard when trying to defend bigoted, racist, sexist or misogynist behaviour. Effectively we’re saying that people are entitled to their own culture, and the often horrific behaviour is simply the part of the culture, so we should all simply live with it.
Most often it is used when somebody tries to criticise actions of Islam extremists and/or treatment of women in Islam, but it’s not limited to this use. It’s also used to justify circumcision, or teaching that God created the Earth is six days in schools. However, it’s lately mostly used about Islam, so this post will continue in this tone.
First of all, when you use this argument, you’re applying the different standard to the people you’re saying this about. A standard which is less strict about women’s rights, for example, than we in the West are accustomed to. This in of itself is bad, as basically people who say things like “this is normal in their culture” are guilty of racism of low expectations. It comes down to “these brown people, we just expect this from them, we cannot hold them to the same standard as us”. Well, isn’t this a repulsive thing to think and say?
As the author Maajid Nawaz suggests, doing this also teaches members of these religions, groups, (whatever you apply it to) that they should be satisfied with current state of affairs and not try to make their lives or their ideas better. If you ever had a schoolteacher who had decided in advance that you won’t be interested in the subject s/he teaches, you might know what happens next. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not to say we westerners need to be teachers of the entire World but to try to offer an analogy.
Third, when we try to say that different cultures might have different notions of basic human rights and dignities, you’re effectively saying that the Human Rights we currently (more or less) agree on are arbitrary and that humanity just invented them out of thin air and that they have viable alternatives that should be entertained. Well, maybe some do, as human morality is changing and evolving, if for no other reason, then to keep up with latest advances in science, but there is a reason why Universal Declaration of Human Rights exists, for example.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris … as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights introduction on the UN website
These are the rules we humans as a species have come up with, together, based on our morality which has evolved together with our big brains and increase of our societies. They are based on trial and error, they are based on long history of attempts to create a society everyone would want to be a part of. These rules are clearly transcultural. They are not absolute laws for each country, but a set of principles multiple cultures agreed on. So, you cannot cry “imperialism” or something similar.
So, from this can potentially follow, (and could be strongly argued that it would indeed follow) that the oppressed in those “cultures” would also agree to these principles as well if they had any choice. As we all know, history is written by the winners, by the oppressors. We might occasionally get glimpses in what people really think when, for example, a Muslim woman moves to a country that is not ruled by Religion and is finally allowed to leave the house without the male escort or when The Iranian chess master was banned from national team for refusing to wear a headscarf. So, it is indeed very possible that people are actually not advocating “their” real culture, but the wishes of the oppressors. And you probably don’t to be in a position of aligning yourself with the oppressors or misogynists.
Nobody suggests speaking against Muslims per se, or Christians per se, but there’s absolutely no reason why religion cannot be criticised. All ideas should be open to criticism, otherwise what’s the point of free speech? Free speech cannot be diminished when ideas are questioned. By not speaking out against something we consider wrong or immoral, we are doing a disservice to the World, to the people most affected by this and also to ourselves.