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.

Which trope for Egypt?

Stephen Colbert joked last week: “Egypt continues to be rocked by violent unrest in a major test not only of the power of Democracy, but of the American attention span.”

It’s a painfully astute observation.  While Egyptian protesters are still camped underneath tank treads in Tahrir Square — having decided that it’s ride or die, in so many words — America still seems to be working out its narrative. Now, as the national attention span fades, its becoming dangerously likely we’ll reach for and rely on the closest available trope to explain what’s going on, and to form opinions. Our most popular news outlets simply cannot cope with sustained complexity.

So which hackneyed narrative to adopt? Let’s take a look at our options.

  • “Mubarak is a friend of the U.S., let’s make sure there’s continuity and respect in the transition.”

Not even the staunchest Mubarak apologists think he’s got much gas left in him, but that doesn’t mean they support revolution — or democracy — in Egypt. This telling — adopted with patent hypocrisy by the likes of Dick Cheney, who sent us to war in Iraq on at least partly ideological grounds — purports to be a realist’s assessment of our national interests. (In fact, it’s a shortsighted perspective that is grounded in our myths about the region and the fear of the powerful of having things shaken up.)

It goes: Sure, Mubarak is no democratic leader, but he limited the spread of extremism with his strong rejection of Islamists. (In fact, Mubarak’s political repression probably promoted extremism by making it the only viable alternative, or by making it so that the only people willing to voice opposition were people with an extreme disposition.)

He is a reliable friend to Israel in the region, supporting the blockade against Gaza and showing that an Arab state can be at peace with Tel Aviv. (In fact, the veneer of stability that the Mubarak regime managed to slather over political fault lines with a San Andreas’s worth of potential energy probably only increased the likelihood of cataclysm — and made things more dangerous for everyone.)

He joined our invasion of Iraq in Gulf War I, and later, in the War on Terror, he helped us rendition suspects for interrogation. (In fact, it’s simply embarrassing that we’d be citing his hired-goon and proxy-torturer statuses as a reason for support.)

Further, we should be consistent in our support for our allies. (In fact, there is no basis for such an attitude toward foreign despots in American history — they’ve always been relationships of convenience.)

  • “Hey, I’m no Mubarak supporter, but allowing him to be chucked out now means throwing the Middle East into chaos.”

This is a corollary of the argument above. Implicitly, it’s grounded in the view that Arabs are unfit to govern themselves, though it’s masquerading as a vague concern about peace. The most obvious evidence to the contrary is that we currently have chaos in Egypt because of Mubarak, not to mention chaos throughout the Middle East, often as a result of other supposedly stability-enhancing American policies.

  • “This is a fight for universal ideals of human rights, enfranchisement, and liberal values. Today we are all Egyptians! Stick it to The Man!”

On the other extreme, this is, admittedly, the most attractive trope for people like me. For those of us raised on Rage Against the Machine, Tupac (“we might fight against each other, but I’ll promise you this/We’ll burn this [thing] down, you get us pissed”), Sublime, John Lennon, Bob Marley, sound bites from MLK and Malcolm X — I could go on — throwing Molotov cocktails in the streets against an evil authority figure is an enduring fantasy (which we love to listen to songs about). And it’s not that there is no truth to this perspective — there is much universal to relate to in the yearnings of the millions who took to Egyptian streets in the last two weeks.

But let’s not distort the uprising to support our own fantasies.

To wit, the dangers are the following: (1) While “we are all Egyptians” is a fine statement of solidarity, taken to its logical extreme it is practically not true. If the street protests go awry, we in the United States do not pay the price — we do not lose loved ones to violence or to prison if there’s a crackdown; we don’t stand to suffer materially if a group we don’t support emerges powerful. (These were points that the Code Pink members who unfurled a banner with their organization’s name on it in Tahrir Square last week apparently did not grasp very well.)

(2) Recognizing the universal aspects of the struggle should not come at the expense of whitewashing local politics — or become an excuse for not seeking to understand them. There is no place in the world where there is a simple choice between good and evil, and Egypt is of course no exception. There are factions amongst the protesters. Mubarak is not the only person in the government. The military has other-than-altruistic reasons for remaining neutral. To ignore these things is to misunderstand the situation. (3) The revolution is not what we want it to be about; it’s what the protesters want it to be about. (This was a mistake many Twitter observers of the Iranian demonstrations in 2009 made: some believed they were anti-Islamism, pro-America and -Israel protests, which had little if anything to do with why people took to the streets.) With factors (1) and (2) above in full force, it becomes easier to ignore the intricacies of protesters’ demands and imagine that they represent what we would like them to.

So let’s be moved by pictures of Christian and Muslim Egyptians rallying together against Mubarak, and by the sacrifices and determination of the protesters. But Americans also ought not to forget that this is a story about Egyptians, for once, taking charge of their own destiny. Let’s direct our petitioning to the government that represents us, rather than projecting facile narratives of triumph or fear onto events that are far enough away that we can ignore their nuance.

“Leave already, my hand hurts”