Category — Cultural Relativism And its Discontents
Hits and Misses from Early Flamenco Forums
Note from 2014: Seventeen years ago, in a discussion about cultural customs including Gypsy customs, I wrote this post bearing on human rights and, not unrelated, the distribution of wealth right here:
Subj: Re: Roots and “Real Flamenco”
Date: Mon, May 12, 1997 11:59 AM EDT
A member brought up a hot topic with this post dealing with the idea of progress and its conflict with tradition.
Today this issue usually centers on the Islamic/Western confrontation. Yet that high-profile power struggle is really a mirror for many other aspects of the same issue — like genital mutilation in Africa, or (the member’s example from the NY Times) the status of New Guinea tribeswomen as objects.
Many of us in the “civilized West” assume we have the proper moral view of all this. For example, I recently spoke to an old leftist who was proud of his wife’s work with women’s groups in Israel — both Moslem and Jewish — to strengthen women’s rights that are not strongly rooted in either tradition.
I asked if we had a God-given duty to meddle in other people’s business. He said “What’s right is right. Anywhere. Anytime.”
I think he’s correct, in fact. But it should be recognized that this attitude can generate some unexpected and possibly negative results as well as the desired positive results.
The absolute convictions we tend to share about, say, women’s rights, were simply non-existent right here in New York City — never mind Papua New Guinea — less than thirty years ago. There’s been a vast attitudinal shift on that issue since my wife Kristin and I marched/strolled in the first Women’s Liberation Day Parade in 1970, pushing my infant daughter in a stroller and listening to the outraged taunts of male and female onlookers.
Now, though, we may be too quick to condemn those who’ve taken too long to catch onto this new truth. Or to condemn entire other cultures who “just don’t get it” — who refuse to appreciate our new truths even thirty years after Betty Friedan and others reveal them. (The Times article on the New Guinea tribe that’s having trouble with the concept mentioned that thirty years ago, they thought they were the only people in the whole world, and that their way was therefore the only way in the whole world.)
Yes, I think we are morally obliged to support and defend human rights, even if it entails the tragic loss of unique cultural traditions that may have had great social, economic or survival value in the past, and may still have some value.
I hope that we don’t get too carried away, though. Because sometimes our high-minded anger reflects a subtle conviction that our basic way of life is superior.
In fact, many of the “primitive” people whose egalitarian kinship systems we disdain would be horrified by our strange custom, in which wealth beyond imagining is concentrated in the hands of a few while countless others have no hope of owning the tiniest fraction of such riches. It would be interesting if we Westerners could get indignant about that particular bit of injustice; instead we support and foster it worldwide.
We tell other cultures how to behave toward women, but don’t seem to question our representatives from the World Bank who insist that these women, and men and children, remain permanently impoverished to pay off interest on debts incurred by their rulers in purchasing our weapons to further oppress them.
Yes — by our lights, some Gypsies may have a problem about the role of women in their “archaic” culture. But the Gypsies also have another pressing problem: most people and most governments want to get rid of them and their archaic culture completely, and don’t care very much how this is accomplished. We shouldn’t let some unfashionable and perhaps unfair Gypsy customs serve to justify the actions that are constantly taken against them.
We all have our own ugly and abusive customs to correct. And the more power we have, the more imperative it is to look at our own failings first.
February 5, 2014 No Comments