Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Total Cultural Relativism - A Moral Dead End?

For some time, France has been seriously considering making the wearing of the burka illegal (see, for example, 'Huffington Post'), with a recent TNS Sofres/Logica poll (Reuters) indicating that 33% would like a complete ban and 31% a ban relating only yo public spaces.

At a lunch, and with no wine flowing, the issue seemed one to consider in some detail - particularly Australia, a major migration destination since WW2, is a diverse multi-cultural society.

The debate revolved round the rights of individuals and groups within larger groups.

We reached an easy consensus that clitoridectomy (or female genital cutting) particularly when practised on under-aged girls (as it is in 28 African countries) seemed to violate some universal human right above considerations of cultural relativism.

We then thought about culturally specific law and associated punishment for offence. And explored, in particular, spearing of the guilty metered out by affected families in traditional aboriginal communities. And came to the view that here, within a single country, there should be equality before the law. For fairness, corporal punishment, if not proscribed by the law of the country, should not be a possibility for some sections of the populace. The Law Reform Commission of Western Australia makes a relevant point here ...

'Under Australian law there is a clear separation between legal matters and religious, social or moral standards.'

Again, there seemed some violate of a universal human right.

We then moved away from strictly moral considerations.

And kicked around the notion of polygamy in a society where the practice is not permitted by law, thinking firstly about the context of migration. The issue has come up in this country when migrants wish to emigrate with several wives. France, after Algerian independence in 1960, sensibly allowed official recognition of multiple spouses for the migrating generation, but not for subsequent ones.

At the extreme other end of the spectrum to all these considerations might be the (probably) uncontentious 'issue' of culturally indicated footwear - not much debate around clogs, sneakers, leather shoes, boots, whatever ... !

In the middle, lies the difficult territory of burkas and our starting point.

For us, the issue revolved around security and the arguments commonly constructed as the repression of women.

In this post-9/11 world, individual identification is required in many public contexts. It can be argued that the burka could be worn in public and there could be women at all places where identification was necessary. Equality for all of course would require that anyone, if they choose, be able to cover up.

The repression of women argument is a tricky one, and we finally seemed to feel it should be a matter of individual choice. Of course there may be cultural pressures to act in certain traditional ways. And I'm aware of how many ways in which I am not too unwillingly coerced into various socially-approved behaviours. But then again I have real choice in the matter.

What are your thoughts guys?

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