Justifying oppression: Pitfalls such as cultural chauvinism and cultural separatism

When a person want to treat another person in a way that someone might consider objectionable, a justification is needed. In modern society, the most basic justification is freedom of choice combined with consent. “We are both okay with this, we are adults who know what we are doing, so mind your own business”.

There are many cases in which one can argue about how free a choice really is. That can be a good discussion. There is lot to be said about a person’s socionomic situation, access to knowledge, and so on. These arguments never really invalidate the principles of consent and freedom of choice. On the contrary, they build on them.

However. When there is obviously no consent (at least not any meaningful consent) and no freedom of choice, people will still come up with justifications. Often based on categorization. “I am an X, thus it is okay for me to behave this way. She is a Y, thus it is okay to treat her this way.”

For example, a man who is sexually harassing a woman might argue that he is a (heterosexual) man, and that his victim is a woman. Often adding some pseudoscience or low quality theology arguments for why evolution or his scripture of choice make his behavior okay. Another example, a mother who hit her children may invoke her ethnicity or religion. Please note that these examples have nothing to with sexual orientation, gender, evolution, religion or ethnicity. Instead, they are all about using these categorizations as excuses for abusive behavior.

A new problem arises when we accept these excuses. When such categories are given the power to oppress, the need arises to oppress against them.

The man who forces himself upon a woman would not want to be forced upon in the same way. And thus he becomes very afraid of gay men. If it is a valid argument that a man must impose his sexuality upon others because he gets horny, then this apply to gay men as well. Thus the heterosexual man need to somehow limit the justification to his own kind, so that he don’t gime men license to treat him the way he treats women. Cue the arguments about homosexuality being “unnatural” or whatever.

Hardly anyone would accept treating children in ways that he consider to be abusive. Thus, the more ethnicity or religion is accepted as justification for treating children in ways that would otherwise be unacceptable, the harder it becomes to accept other cultures and religions. Where we should have had “This behavior is okay because it isn’t harmful, while that behavior harmful and thus not okay”, we instead get “this behavior is okay, because it is accepted in the culture I happened to grow up in, while that behavior belongs to another culture and is thus not okay.”

There is a third option, of course: Deny the very basis for human rights – deny the fact that we are all humans who all share the same basic needs and all deserve the same human respect and consideration. If you make such a denial, you can proudly proclaim for example that only white people (or people born in Europe/USA have the right to grow up free and healthy with good education and everything. A right to grow up to freely participate in democracy and freedom of speech. While people who are born in developing countries, or are simply not white, have a cultural right to be beaten, genitally mutilated, getting an education that teaches that science and human rights are the lies of devil-worshippers. A right to grow up to be the property of the local dictatorship, a right to be “protected from heresy and blasphemy” or whatever.

These three options can be called:

1. Humanism. Seeing to the needs and rights of each human being. Embracing cultural diversity, but without letting one’s own cultural background or any other culture justify abusive and/or oppressive practices.

2. Cultural chauvinism. Seeing one culture of choice as the one true culture. The traditions of this culture must not be questioned. On the contrary, the very idea that this society could be improved is taken as an insult. In sharp contrasts, other cultures are seen as bad. Inherently bad, not merely having some baggage and some customs that need to be modernized. It is all us versus them.

3. Cultural separatism. Cherished by right-wing extremists as well as left-wing extreme cultural relativists, cultural separatism tells us that cultures are “separate but equal”, and that each culture has some kind of ownership over each human who lives in or comes from a country or group identified with that culture.

Cultural chauvinism and cultural separatism are very similar to each other. While the humanistic viewpoint understands that all living cultures are always changing and developing, undergoing constant renegotiation, chauvinism and separatism both see cultures as monoliths. They both put cultures on a pedestal while denying the rights or even existence of the individual – at least outside their own culture. They both identify “other cultures” with social patterns they would never accept for themselves. The main difference is that when they say that people in other cultures deserve to be mistreated, the cultural chauvinism mean “deserve” in a negative sense (they had it coming for not denouncing their background in favor of mine) while the cultural separatism mean it in a positive sense (they ought to be proud of their culture and embrace whatever it gives them). In other words, cultural chauvinism and cultural separatism are both destructive. We need to stay clear of both of them.

For the last few years, there has been a lot of debate about cultural relativism. Often in the form of being for or against. But relativity of culture should not be seen as an either-or. It should be seen as a sliding scale. Having too much cultural relativism is dangerous. It may land us in the cultural separatist position, or otherwise make us blind to oppression within other communities than our own. Having too little cultural relativism is also dangerous. It may land us in the cultural chauvinism position, or otherwise help us to produce bad answers to questions we don’t understand. It may encourage is to be blind to problems within our own culture as well as to partially or completely misinterpret problems in other cultures.

Cultures do not have any existence of their own. They exist within human beings and between human beings. A culture is a kind of relationship. A big relationship with many participants, who are constantly renegotiating the terms of their participation. Customs and traditions always change over time. The exceptions are cultures that are dead-and-no-longer-practiced, as well as cultures that are held stagnant by force – often as a tool to uphold a dictatorship. Saudi Arabia is a good example of the later.
A culture can be of any size, and it can be more or less intertwined with other cultures of various kinds. Cultures that are not national are sometimes called subcultures. But this term has become misleading over the last few decades, since these “subcultures” have gone global. Many of them have members in almost every country in the world.

A week ago, I saw a fictional example of a very small culture. The movie “Dogtooth” features a very small culture in the form of one single family that has chosen to seclude itself from the surrounding world. More to the point, the parents has chosen to seclude their children from the outside world, taking every precaution to stop them from being a part of society. Their behavior is very abusive, in the sense that it harms the children on many levels. And also in the sense that withholding knowledge of alternative perspectives is a kind of dishonesty that can be seen as abusive in itself.

However, their way of treating their children is entirely within the cultural norms of the little culture the adults have made for themselves. Or the husband has made for himself. It is indicated that the wife may also be a victim. In either case, a completely relativist viewpoint has no honest way of condemning what goes on in this family. Their culture, their norms. Their children have a right to be kept in the context that they grew up in.

Later that same day I visited an interesting seminar on interfaith dialogue. One of the speakers presented a thought experiment. What if a Christian baby and a Muslim baby are swapped by mistake at the hospital? By pure chance, the child that was about to grow up as a Muslim would grow up to be a Christian instead, and vice versa. My spontaneous reaction was that wait a minute, how can a little baby have a certain faith at all? How can you say that a newborn baby is a Christian or a Muslim?? She was right, of course. Because religions have more in common with ethnicity than it does with scientific theories.

Science is about facts. Religion is, to a very large extent, about belonging to a social group. When you consider a certain scientific theory to be true, it is because you see that evidence supports it. When you belong to a certain religion, it is usually because you were born into it. If you joined it, you dud so because you wanted to belong to this group or because you had a very special emotional/spiritual experience.

The speaker didn’t mention that throughout the history of Europe, variants of her thought-experiment has been used to confiscate the children of Jewish families: “What if the child was actually a Christian, one of us?” However, she did mention that she is Jewish. So she might have had this background in mind. Her own conclusion, much wiser than the one of the medieval Christians, was that we shouldn’t have such strict barriers between “us” and “them”. You are who you are, but you could just as well have been one of them. This is the way to go, really. Breaking down the barriers rather than building them up.

This doesn’t mean that we have to stop belonging to various groups. Two other good things she said about dialogue was that it is about taking turns listening, not just taking turns talking… and that it is about understanding each other, not about becoming each other.
Your identities of culture and religion and whatever… Keep them or discard them, whichever suits your mind and life best. If you do keep them, keep them updated. Don’t misuse them to diminish yourself or oppress others. Don’t let others chain you to outdated norms, just because it is their interpretation of your identity and of what it means to belong to your group.


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