11 November 2008

Condoning Savagery - "Cultural Imperialism" Part 1

I know I should leave the poor boy alone, but I read another fatuous and idiotic claim in a Johann Hari article I would otherwise have agreed with. Listing various ways in which Muslim women are subjugated by Muslim men (acid attacks, genital cutting, denial of education, purdah and so on), he claims:
We ask nervously: isn’t it just their culture that women are treated differently? Isn’t it a form of cultural imperialism to condemn these practices?
Who asks nervously? Or rather, after nervously asking said questions, who actually answers “yes” and goes round shaking a tin for Battery Acid to Bangladesh and Scissors to Somalia? As far as I know, pretty much nobody. It’s a ridiculous point of view. So ridiculous in fact that I’d never come across anyone who held it. And I actively seek out ridiculous points of view as a hobby.

Anyway, taking FGC as an example I went through ten pages of google results, searching for "cultural imperialism" ("female circumcision" OR "genital mutilation" OR "genital cutting"). I did manage to find Hari’s question, a conference by the American Anthropological Association, but I had a lot of trouble finding the answer he was clearly expecting. For example, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 results were strongly opposed to FGC, usually campaigning against it, but cautious as to how their campaigns would be perceived by locals and how this would affect their success rate. And this is an entirely legitimate concern. Expressing one of our cultural values – female circumcision is bad – purely in terms of other cultural values – sexual equality, human rights, sexual liberation, children’s rights and so on – is basically a circular argument. This is further undermined by our prior history of forcing Africans to give up what we considered savage and uncivilised, such as their religion and language, and the use of racist, imperialist language such as “barbaric” and “uncivilised”. Taking "cultural imperialism" into account is just a sensible PR strategy.

There were also a few articles/discussions on problematic Western cultural perspectives in theory and in Norway, but again, no real liberal hand-wringing. A couple made interesting comparisons between FGC and cultural practices in the West. While this one claimed that the large moral distinction between male and female genital cutting was a Western construct, and this one compared FGC to Western aesthetic practices, neither endorsed FGC or condemned efforts to eradicate it, and the second quite openly opposed it.

In the same category, doing both, comes Germaine Greer’s controversial assertion that:
“Looked at in its full context the criminalization of FGM can be seen to be what African nationalists since Jomo Kenyatta have been calling it, an attack on cultural identity[...]
“One man's beautification is another man's mutilation[...]
“If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?”
Naturally, this received an angry, idiotic and downright dishonest reception. Firstly the important caveats – “what nationalists have been calling”, “can be seen to be” – were removed. Secondly, her assertions themselves were clearly not read in much detail – the discussion of an adult (“woman”) voluntarily (“right”, “have her genitalia operated on”) undergoing a procedure becomes transformed to coercion of infants (“forcible clitoridectomy of an eight-year-old girl”) . And particularly tellingly, the statement was pretty much universally read as condoning mutilation rather than criticising beautification. I don't know if these people have heard of Dr. Greer, but this is exactly the opposite of what I'd expect from her.

I did find three genuine accusations of “cultural imperialism” being levelled at the anti-FGC campaign by fellow Westerners. The first one comes from a Confucian obsessed with traditions, and who I’m not sure actually knows what female circumcision is. However the other two deal with the subject quite interestingly. Neither, however, give “cultural imperialism” as a reason to oppose eradicating FGC. “Cultural imperialism” merely describes our skewed perspective, while challenging the various Western myths surrounding the practice. Worth a read, if you have time.

This gives us one. One person, and not your typical woolly liberal, who believes we should avoid imperialistically forcing our culture on Africans by stopping them mutilating their little girls. Something’s obviously wrong here. Lots of people, and semi-intelligent ones at that, wailing about how nobody’s willing to stop savages from chopping up their womenfolk because it would be “cultural imperialism”, yet hardly anybody actually expressing that viewpoint. By the same token, I doubt we’ll find many Guardianistas woollily condoning acid attacks or shootings at girls’ schools in the same way. What we clearly have here is a straw man, and apparently a fairly convincing one.

He has his purposes. Remember these imaginary ivory-tower liberals are the same ones that believe in planning permission for megamosques, allowing the veil and not liberating Iraq to smithereens. Vague and racially-charged associations weight debate towards imposing our culture in other ways. Opposition to real imperialist attitudes is then easier to sidestep and the racist myths that often drive and justify Western colonialism are easier to disseminate. The perception that a group of people are brutal savages towards their women makes it far easier to believe that they are inept savages towards their economies, and it is therefore easier to justify exploitative economic policies, not to mention military interventions. And, of course, as Germaine Greer points out,
Silence about male mutilation in our own countries combines nicely with noisiness on female mutilation in other countries to reinforce our notions of cultural superiority.

So we get to feel smug to boot.

This idea of not forcing our beliefs on other cultures is also less a quality of the hesitant, overeducated left than it is of the aggresively ignorant right, especially when it in any way suits their financial interest. Have a look at this BBC Have Your Say thread on child labour in India if you don’t belive me:
“once again the loony left try to take over a thread!...its a very different culture but you INSIST that YOU impose your values on them!!.”
“Here's an idea: let's stop imposing *our* idea of 'ethics' on other countries for a while.”
“Typical of the BBC and the Islington liberal elite to be outraged by this. Why should you force your standards on other cultures.”
“Ethics mean different things to different people. As previously mentioned, children were once in full time employment in the UK and nobody batted an eyelid. While we may think it is wrong, who are we to impose our beliefs on another culture?”

What I find particularly fascinating, however, is the reluctance of us Western liberals to examine our own perspectives when a particularly emotive issue comes up, and the venom we reserve for anyone who says something that sounds a bit like agreeing with whatever it is we object to. The more important the issue, the less inclined we are to try and understand criticism, and the more we stereotype the opposition. Some people, of course (provided I get enough readers to make plurals), are going to be very upset by this article and assume I wholeheartedly approve of female genital mutilation and see anyone who doesn’t as a modern-day Rudyard Kipling. They’re idiots. Nobody thinks that.

Part 2