Justifying the murder and abuse of women

Conrad and I stand accused of “cutural snobbery” in a post everyone should read, regarding Conrad’s account and my reaction to the sickening story of a Palestinian woman murdering her own daughter because the daughter refused to commit suicide after her brothers raped and impregnated her.

This post lives up to all my worst fears: that there are people out there, obviously well educated and bright, who can rationalize barbarism and excuse the most sickening crimes under the mantra, “It’s a cultural thing.”

While I personally grieve at the death of the child, I believe that the mother is equally a victim of social conventions and beliefs. Richard calls this ‘hard-wired irrationalism’ here; but what is rationality to begin with? It would probably — but I make no assumptions/presumptions here — have been entirely rational in the mind of the mother to have killed the daughter, in order to, as the article mentions, protect the rest of her family.

He then looks at the factors justifying what the mother did: if she had not murdered her own daughter, perhaps the religious community would have reacted with violence to the family. Perhaps, in her mind, she would have been disgraced in the eyes of God. And, of course, these beliefs were inculcated in the mother and the family as Truths, passed down from generations to generations (a point I make in my own post).

Therefore, the writer concludes, Conrad and I are guilty of “the crime of demeaning other cultures and societies by virtue of one’s own ignorance, and self-righteous bloody enthusiasm.”

Yikes. Where to begin?

It’s getting late, so I’ll try to be succinct. Let’s look at the argument of inculcation, that in their culture there was nothing wrong with what the mother did, and to her it was actually quite appropriate. That was what she was taught.

So do we just shrug and say, “Oh, I see; it was something she was taught as part of her culture” and then let it go? I say no. Let’s look at another example of inculcation. For generations in the South, it was okay to lynch “niggers” and treat them as half-citizens or worse. It was okay; gramma taught us they are like animals and if you don’t hold them in line, who knows what they’ll do? It truly was a cultural phenomenon dating back centuries.

So what? It was still evil. By making a lot of noise about it, by passing and enforcing laws against it, by putting it under the spotlight, the problem has improved from one generation to the next. Yeah, big problems still linger, but only the most demented racists believe today that it’s fine and dandy to lynch innocent black people.

Much of the space in this blog is used to criticize the Chinese government. Its actions, too, are steeped in cultural tradition. That doesn’t make them right and it certainly doesn’t mean that they are above criticism. As I said in the original post, evil is evil, and most of us know it. Many in China know that what the government is doing is wrong, and they risk going to jail every day to let people know about it.

And the poor murdered girl — she knew what her mother wanted her to do was wrong and evil. She wept and she fought. If it had been so deeply inculcated as the right thing to do, why didn’t she just grab the knife and cheerfully slice her own throat? She knew it was an act of evil. [Update: I didn’t express this point clearly so let’s strike it for now.]

I am not saying everyone should adopt Western culture and convert to Christianity (to paraphrase Ann Coulter). After living in Central America, North America, Europe and Asia, I can pretty safely say that most people, no matter their culture, have a fairly similar definition of evil. Not exactly the same by any means, but there are fundamental standards of human decency.

Once you deny that, once you invalidate those standards, you can pardon and justify even the most unconscionable act. In fact, that’s just what the blogger has done.

As a liberal, I find it frustrating that there is a whole school of liberal thought that, through its “cultural sensitivity” can excuse and justify murder, torture and just about any type of deranged behaviour imaginable. While I agree we must always consider and respect the culture of others, we can’t let this become a blanket excuse for acts that all of us know are simply wrong.

UPDATE: If you made it this far, you must read Conrad’s rebuttal. Needless to say, his response is more pointed and, ahem, outspoken than my own.

The Discussion: 4 Comments


A response to the responses thus far: 1. There is no ‘mantra’ of ‘cultural relativism’ being recited here. There is an argument being put forth that is situated within the Western paradigm of rights, that attempts to consider how the…

November 23, 2003 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

A Moral Pygmy

The blog Pureasthedriven accuses me of “cultural snobbery” for my reaction here to the despicable murder, by a Palestinian mother,

November 24, 2003 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

Pure as the driven snow is anything but. Cheers to you and Conrad.

November 24, 2003 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Richard – you make an excellent point that I think too many people never get to, or don’t see its significance:

“[T]hat most people, no matter their culture, have a fairly similar definition of evil. Not exactly the same by any means, but there are fundamental standards of human decency.”

It has been my “philosophical quest” if you will, for the last couple years to take this idea to the table when dealing with US-China issues. Of course, the point is, it should be on the table between any two civilizationly unique cultures.

If we can look at the natural principles or human rights embedded in different cultures and recognize that different cultures may have different priorities of these rights, both sides can learn a ton. Of course usually, we tend to see our counterpart having nothing in common and we demonize their stance on certain fundamental rights.

But you’ve nailed it here, there are core values at the heart of these different rights, and the cultural argument doesn’t hold up when you get down to it on some issues. I’ll have to expound this on my own space, as Im not really getting to the point succinctly.


November 25, 2003 @ 6:04 am | Comment

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