April 6, 2005

Respecting Culture, or Sanctioning Oppression?

It’s a common complaint that Americans are obnoxious and disrespectful travelers, blazing into foreign lands with our T-shirts and jeans, talking loud, and demanding Budweiser. Anyone who travels knows there is some truth to this stereotype, even if it’s somewhat exaggerated. The phenomenon begs the questions: How should we approach other cultures (even on our own soil), and what does respecting them actually entail?

This may sound simple, but it’s far from it.

This is because these days the word “culture” is often used to stymie debate or critical thinking. As soon as someone declares that something is an element of their culture (or religion), it is somehow automatically immune from criticism. The problem is, however, that the root of culture is “cult,” and many elements of people’s culture (including our own) are unjust and oppressive; little more than the product of centuries of prejudice, ignorance, and subjugation. When people speak of culture they tend to perceive of it as the product of historical consensus; in fact, prevailing traditions have often been enforced through coercion, violence, and the persecution of minorities. For example, slavery was part of American culture for hundreds of years, and so was segregation in the South until relatively recently. The oppression of women has been an integral aspect of cultures throughout the world for even longer.

The first moral of this story, therefore, is that cultures should be subjected to the same types of critiques and assessments as all other aspects of society. We should all hasten the day when cultures are not treated as “sacred cows,” but are defended based on reason, rationality, and their contribution to global well-being. At the same time, the moral relativism that is inherent in using any single “culture” as a standard for human decency should give way to universal codes of human rights. Saying that it is one’s culture to oppress women is simply not acceptable; neither is hating homosexuals, regardless of its cultural context.

Needless to say, confronting oppression that is endemic to long-standing cultural traditions is extremely difficult, and the potential exists for alternative forms of elitism to arise. For example, many instances of genocide have occurred at least in part due to one culture’s feeling that it had a duty to change or wipe out the members of an inferior culture. In addition, sometimes oppression has become so deep-rooted within certain cultures that the oppressed defend their oppressors; this was the case with some African slaves, and is the case today with many Muslim women who argue in favor of the fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran.

The essential point is that an uncritical acceptance of culture as something fixed-in-stone acts to perpetuate the status quo, and often allows oppression to proceed unchallenged.

Looked at from this perspective, it’s good that Americans sometimes make people feel uncomfortable through their expressions of personal freedom and individuality. Human progress rarely comes without ruffling some feathers. Sometimes discomfort and unease can lead to questioning, dialogue, and an expansion of one’s world view. Other times, however, these emotions can lead to distrust, fear, and other reactionary tendencies. Therefore, it’s important to proceed with caution and try to be as sensitive as possible when confronting people with other worldviews.

It is no doubt a difficult balance to strike between respecting culture and yet not tacitly sanctioning oppression. For me personally, my inclination is always to err on the side of offending someone if it means pointing out something that is unjust and immoral. In general, we should all look forward to the day when oppressive forces can no longer hide behind their “culture.”

*For an excellent program on a Muslim woman who is struggling against the oppressive elements of Islamic culture click here.

Jason Scorse