Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Respecting Culture, or Sanctioning Oppression? Part 2

My piece two weeks ago sparked a number of interesting responses, and I feel that I need to clarify some aspects and also expand the arguments that I laid out.

Judging by the reactions, I must have conveyed the impression that there isn’t much wrong with American culture. In fact I feel there’s a lot wrong. For example, American laws and attitudes towards gays are extremely oppressive and immoral. The fact that we have allowed our prejudices to deny gays basic human rights, such as serving openly in the military or to enter into civil unions and even marry, is simply indefensible. There are no legitimate reasons for these restrictions on their personal liberty (for an earlier discussion on this issue click here).

On a more general note, the main point I was trying to make is that there are some human rights that are non-negotiable: rights that no society can deny based on the supposition that doing so goes against their “culture.” This is most exemplified with respect to women’s rights. A huge portion of the world has laws and customs that are extremely oppressive to women that are often considered “cultural.” Saying that these aspects of culture are oppressive is not ethnocentric or culturally imperialistic; it’s simply stating a fact. A common rejoinder is to ask who am I to say what is right and wrong. It is not my personal opinion that is the standard here; it is the standard of Universal Human Rights that has existed for almost 60 years. These rights (while incomplete) have been accepted by virtually every nation on Earth, and they lay out the fundamental principles of human decency that transcend culture.

Let me clear that when I state that there are certain universal values that transcend culture I am talking about a relatively small set. There is plenty of room in our global society for people to worship whatever gods or god they want to (or don’t want to), to speak various languages, to create various forms of art, celebrate different holidays, or to foster different types of political institutions; I am not calling for uniformity across cultures. What I am saying is that there is a universal set of principles that is greater than any single culture. The fact that this has become controversial for many on the Left demonstrates how liberalism has lost its moral foundation.

The Left used to be the champion of universal principles and civil rights, and was instrumental in the formation of the United Nations. Left-of-center politicians throughout the better part of the 20th century were unfailing in their commitment to liberty and freedom, and weren’t afraid to say so. These days, however, under the blanket of postmodernism the Left suffers from a severe case of moral relativism that is paralyzing the movement. It boggles my mind that many on the Left take tolerance to such an extreme that they are afraid to call oppression when they see it.

It is wrong to require women to cover their entire bodies and walk behind men.

It is wrong to deny women legal rights.

It is wrong when women aren’t allowed access to contraception.

It is wrong when women are not educated.

It is wrong when religion teaches hatred against gays.

It is wrong to have a caste society that deems certain members of the public “untouchables.”

Female genital mutilation is WRONG.

And the list goes on.

The American people, while largely tolerant, do not trust politicians or political parties that don’t have a core set of values that they hold dear under all circumstances. As the Left has retreated from making strong moral judgments we have seen this vacuum filled by the Right, who have now appropriated almost all of the moral rhetoric that used to define the Left. By ceding this moral ground, the Left has done an incredible disservice by allowing morality to be defined in a one-sided manner largely on religious terms (as evidence of this see what the new Pope has to say about tradition and relativism). Secular humanist ideals, which are responsible for so much of the progress in American society, have now given way to a political correctness that is counter-productive and a rightful source of ridicule.

If the Left is to revive itself it needs desperately to regain its moral bearings. This doesn’t mean being arrogant or elitist, but returning to the principles that the Left traditionally stood for. (Doesn’t somebody out there wish Kerry had forcefully stated that all the gay-bashing that took place during the last election cycle was wrong, and that America is great because it has always expanded civil rights, not restricted them?)

It is easy to look back in time and feel morally superior when comparing ourselves to slave owners, or to those who didn’t believe women should have the right to vote. What is much more difficult (and important) is to ask ourselves what people in the future are going to chastise us for. When will we take off the moral blinders that prevent us from seeing the oppression in our status quo? The Left used to be capable of this essential task, but it has lost its way in a sea of self-doubt, insecurity, and relativism. America and the world will be better when the Left can regain its moral compass.

J.S.

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