A few thoughts on the “Why Do They Hate Us?” FP article, and the meaning of cultural relativism

I have little desire to wade into the shouting match that is taking place on Twitter and elsewhere over Egyptian activist’s Mona Eltahawy’s Foreign Policy article, “Why Do They Hate Us?”  which is a call for a revolt against oppression of women in the Middle East. But the debate around it is thought-provoking, so I wanted to offer a few bullet points of reaction.

  • I have an enormous amount of respect for all the heroic people, including Mona Eltahawy, who have put their bodies on the line (to quote my high school soccer coach) in the last year to resist oppression and overthrow despots. I cannot overstate this.
  • I also respect the anger she and many others feel over the absolutely abysmal state of women’s rights both in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. There is no excuse and no comfort for the violence, disrespect, and multifaceted brutality that women endure all over the world. I also agree with her that this is an urgent problem, and one that is deeply relevant to the question of meaningful revolution.
  • However, I am concerned that the concept of cultural relativism, which Eltahawy cautions us against, is being  abused and confused with moral relativism. Cultural relativism is a perspective of inquiry developed in anthropology that allows for the examination and explanation of attitudes, behavior, and artifacts in the cultural context in which they occur, rather than in a vacuum or in the context of the person doing the examining. Cultural relativism, in its original incarnation, doesn’t imply a moral perspective. And it is different from moral relativism — the idea that “there are no absolute or moral standards,” in the words of the Wikipedia article linked above. Cultural relativism does not require a suspension of moral judgment. For instance, it is possible to see violence — say, beating one’s partner — as immoral regardless of the context. But being culturally relative implies that understanding the causes and social and political meanings of that violence requires looking at it in the cultural context in which it takes place. On a practical level, if one wants to end violence, injustice, or other abuses that one considers immoral, the most effective intervention will likely be one that works within the cultural context.

    There are two ways in which people abuse the concept of cultural relativism. One, people claim that, for instance, violence is acceptable because it arises out of a particular culture. This is one thing Eltahawy criticizes. She writes, “You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman.” She refers to apologists for harm inflicted on others who cite cultural differences as an excuse.

    The second way to abuse cultural relativism is to misconstrue it as moral relativism, and that is one that I’m afraid Eltahawy leans toward. “Call out the hate for what it is,” she writes after describing the many horrendous crimes visited upon women in the Middle East. “Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips.”

    Rejecting cultural relativism as a straw-man foil is not an arcane rhetorical problem. Rather, it is precisely what facilitates the condemnation of an entire group of people based on specific social problems that are usually particular to time, place, economics, technology, and other factors that are not universally shared by a society. It views one culture (usually something Western) as superior to another.  Notions of backwardness versus progress, superiority versus inferiority, enlightenment versus darkness, and a nebulous “them” almost always accompany such condemnations. In the past, such condemnations have been used to justify a lot of bad stuff: slavery, colonialism, wars of aggression. The piece doesn’t do any of these things, but I suspect that, to the extent that its tone is consistent with polemics that have made such arguments (more hateful examples here: http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/women/), that is much of the reason that it has rankled so many people.
  • I am concerned that the pace and format of these kinds of debates that evolve on Twitter and blogs — on important subjects — means that people are increasingly hurling caricatures of arguments at each other rather than actual arguments; making a sport of debate rather than advancing actual change. Discussions around these kinds of pieces are unfolding so fast these days that it can feel like, if you don’t react immediately, you will never get a word in edgewise. This is not a very original concern, but I’ve seen a lot of sloppy responses to this essay, and between watching reactions to this and to the Kony 2012 debate, it seems like everyone is rushing to get their two cents in without waiting a little longer to put down a fin or a ten.
  • There have been some thoughtful responses, too. Max Fisher at The Atlantic writes about the need for context — and moves toward the kind of intelligent deployment of cultural relativism I’d like to see more of. See this passage: “The intersection of race and gender is tough to discuss candidly. If we want to understand why an Egyptian man beats his wife, it’s right and good to condemn him for doing it, but it’s not enough. We also have to discuss the bigger forces that are guiding him, even if that makes us uncomfortable because it feels like we’re excusing him. For decades, that conversation has gotten tripped up by issues of race and post-colonial relations that are always present but often too sensitive to address directly.”
  •  A final thought: hate, I think, can be an accurate description of an attitude or behavior, but it is rarely an underlying explanation.

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