Feminism and Moral Relativism

Tuesday, August 10, 2010
It seems like this topic has been coming up in my life quite a bit lately. During my Global Studies class at DU this summer, the subject of multiculturalism and moral relativism was very much a topic of discussion, and I also recently finished Nomad, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is a former Muslim and a political activist, especially as it relates to Muslim women.

The two sides of the argument appear to be that either we owe non-judgmental cultural respect to non-enlightened societies,* or we owe the members of those societies, especially women, the benefit of a more liberal way of life to include the core principles of the enlightenment.

People much smarter than I have debated this issue, of course, and they don't seem to have come to any hard and fast conclusion. And yet, even if I'm not as smart as the heavy-hitters in this debate, I have a vested interest in feminism, and it seems that if I self-identify as such then I have a moral obligation to decide how I wish to approach this question and act accordingly.

From my point of view, I have an ethical dilemma here. I value self-determination, both for individuals and for societies. My expression of that value is that I tend to abhor the paternalistic assumption that the west needs to "educate" other cultures on the "right" way to conduct their governments, their culture, their religious belief. Such self-involved snobbery has led to some pretty barbarous behavior in the past, and I'm not sure we have an historical leg to stand on when we try to justify it.

Competing with this value is the fact that I don't think certain cultural aspects of tribal and Islamic societies can be justified on any level. Genital mutilation, for example. I really don't care if this practice is rationalized as a cultural norm, a religious obligation, whatever - I don't think it can be ethically justified, and the young girls who are subject to this practice deserve protection. Genital mutilation is just a single aspect of female subjugation in traditional tribal and Muslim societies, of course, and from my point of view, none of it can be rationalized away.

I have to admit that most religious practices, restrictions and dogma strike me as equally ridiculous. Because that's the case, I try not to comment on specific practices of specific creeds, unless it's particularly egregious or pertains to secular law. To be honest, it's mostly because I have the luxury of not caring - I live in a liberalized society protected by the Establishment Clause.

But the one value that trumps the others, and the one value on which other freedoms are built, is that of free expression. So, even when I don't care about what others choose to believe in a religious context, I do care about whether or not those people have the opportunity to speak freely without the threat of violence. It seems evident that such expression is not really permitted in many tribal and traditional Muslim cultures, which means the women in those cultures are doubly damned - not only are they subjugated to men, they're not allowed to complain about it, either.

That's not okay with me. And the fact that it's not okay with me means that my decision regarding multiculturalism and moral relativism is pretty much made. I do believe there are some absolute ethical guidelines associated with the way individuals interact with others, and with their government. Those guidelines should not be based on belief, which is a chimera in most cultures, but should be ethically defensible using logic. If a belief system (such as the aspects of Islam that permit the subjugation of women and the destruction of infidels for the crime of not agreeing with you) cannot be justified on that basis, then perhaps Ayaan Hirsi Ali is correct, and it's past time for the opening of the Muslim and tribal mind and the liberalization of those societies.

After all, if a belief system has to threaten (and carry out) violence in order to protect its status quo in the marketplace of ideas, how defensible can it be on an intellectual and ethical level?


__________
*In this context, non-enlightened societies are defined as those who do not embrace the values and mores of post-enlightenment western societies such as personal determination, responsibility and freedom; free expression; the reservation of violence as the sole province of the state; enabling the ownership of personal property, etc.

12 comments:

Steve Buchheit said...

The best cure is economic independence. In those societies that have women gaining in economic stance, birth rates are dropping and so are draconian restrictions and requirements on those women. It's not a quick fix, but then cultural change never is. It sucks that it goes too slow.

Janiece said...

Steve, I agree. It's one of the reasons I do a lot of micro-lending to women via Kiva.

The other telling thing (I believe) is education. In societies where girls are routinely educated, they tend to do better. In part because of the economic security that comes from education, but also because education tends to open the mind to new ideas.

Rachael said...

I think if we look at it ethically, basic human rights should always, always trump cultural identity. And if you agree with that, it really clears up most of the conflicts. If women are people (and we are) and deserve basic human rights (which we do) and obtain these rights (which we damnwell should) then I have a feeling a lot of the more cringe inducing misogynist cultural stuff would dry up and blow away.

The area I'm actually finding most interesting in this intersection are things like the veil, where there isn't immediate harm to the women involved.

Janiece said...

Rachael, you make a very good point about human rights trumping cultural identity.

But then, I have a irrational ladybrain, so of course I think womenfolk are deserving of human rights.

Which, incidently, includes the right to wear a veil if I so choose, provided it doesn't result in a safety or security issue (such as in airports). The fact that I would never, ever so choose is kind of beside the point, IMO. Like with feminism is general, it's not my job to make those decisions for other self-aware, educated women.

Rachael said...

Don't be silly, Janiece. We women are made of sand. We don't have feelings. XD


Yeah, the thing with the veil is on my mind because of it getting banned in France. I can totally understand making it a security issue, but there's just something cringe-inducing about framing a government telling women what they're allowed to wear as "freeing them from oppression." Or something. I guess it's easier to go after a symbol than attack the root cause, which is (omg!) women being held back from exercising their full human rights.

Eric said...

Well, dammit, it's awfully hard to say something profound and enlightening when everybody has already covered it.

What all'y'all said.

偉曹琬 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janiece said...

*TONG*

Vagabond said...

Keep in mind, Janiece, the most of the abhorrent practices one hears of are not mandated in the Quran, they are rather mandated by the tribal culture. The Quran, and by extension, Islam, does not encourage mutilation, prohibit being active in the workplace, deny inheritance or encourage (or even mention) honor killings. These practices are cultural adjuncts to a religious framework, much the same as Christians have justified the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! . . . oops, sorry), witch burnings and pogroms. Those were all cultural add-ons that were never mandated or even suggested by scriptural sources.

In other words, the practitioners of these acts are barbarians who, despite their loud preaching, are not supported in their actions by the core beliefs of their religion. Sort of like middle eastern Fred Phelps. There are many examples of liberalized Muslim societies that don't mess around with barbarism and hate.

bredi - a doughy, yeasty protector of the republic and master of the force.

Janiece said...

Vagabond, your points are why I specified "traditional tribal" societies in my remarks. I just didn't have time to detail them all due to my per-feshion-al training this week.

Thanks for point them out!

Tom said...

Janiece, while reading this I couldn't help but start thinking about all this in a "First Contact/Prime Directive" way. Aside from the inbuilt "assumption of superiority", which isn't where I want to go, what else can we use?

How should we treat the members of an alien society which seems to treat it members "wrongly"? How much should we meddle in such a society until we understand it thoroughly. What if it was a matriarchal sociaty that treated it's male members badly.

How much of "our" technology, which could include our ideas of individual freedom and societal responsibility, should we transfer to an alien society that doesn't have those kinds of ideas. The Prime Directive says none. Don't meddle, don't transfer technology.

I could see "lack of religion" as a technology that would be transferable in some circumstances, and that could give one part of an alien society an advantage. Do we have the right to mess with another society's religion?

You're causing me to think about things in new ways. Stop it!

Janiece said...

Tom, your comments are well taken, but to me, the principles of the "prime directive" would apply to alien civilizations - not human ones. As noted earlier in this thread, I think it's fair to posit that Human Rights should apply to ALL humans, foreign culture or no.