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Oct 03 2012

Binding, cutting, stitching

Seen Half the Sky? It’s pretty good, not surprisingly. One thing I liked is that they specifically took on cultural relativism, and said no thank you. Sheryl WuDunn made a point that I often raise, because it illustrates the issue very well – but she could make it even better, because of her grandmother. Her grandmother had bound feet. She simply said that, and that said she’s delighted that that particular “cultural” item is dead and gone.

It took force to make it dead and gone, you know. The commies did it. The commies forced that cultural tradition to die out, by forcing people to stop breaking all the bones in their daughters’ feet. How cruel and coercive of them, yes?

The show was quite graphic about FGM – about how fucking horrible it is for the little girls it’s done to. There’s no anaesthetic – it’s just slice slice slice. Then their legs are tied together and they’re left to lie still for a week, with no food so that they won’t crap on themselves.

And then they die in childbirth, because the whole thing fucks up the process. Obviously. It’s all sewn tightly together with just one tiny hole to let the urine and blood out. This does not aid childbirth. It doesn’t matter, because women are expendable.

36 comments

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  1. 1
    sunny

    You are obviously not respecting their “Otherness”.

  2. 2
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    sunny,

    You must mean their tradition. Because traditions never change and should be preserved forever and ever no matter how many people they harm.

    Is it very noticeable how much I hate when people use tradition as a trump card, and they usually do when it comes to things like FGM?

  3. 3
    Rebekah

    You are both wrong. Footbinding was clearly just an Orientalist construct imposed upon the Chinese to validate racist Western imperialism. We are the real perpetrators.

  4. 4
    iknklast

    And the British insisted that Hindus not throw widows on the pyres of their dead husbands. Westerners obviously have no respect at all for other cultures. We fail to recognize that it is much more liberating for the woman to be burned alive than to live a full life (of course, since they often lock up widows in a living death, maybe there’s something to that, but…)

  5. 5
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Ok, this has been happening in comment sections of most posts lately. Conquerors banning things that should be banned doesn’t erase the fact that they very often do try their best to destroy the culture of the land. And that banning things that should be banned is used as an excuse for destroying the whole culture.

    So, saying this

    Westerners obviously have no respect at all for other cultures.

    sarcastically, as if it were completely absurd is… absurd.

    But that’s nuance and context. I really wouldn’t want to rain on your* parade with things like that.

    *you = Rebekah and iknklast, but I’m sure more will come

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes but we kind of know that (right?)…while the relativist cringe is not such a rare thing.

  7. 7
    Rebekah

    “…as an excuse for destroying the whole culture.”

    And here we go…

    For starters if Western imperialism was bent on “destroying the whole culture” then they did a right awful job at it time and again. The history of Westerners in the Americas with Amerindian groups is not the entire history of imperialism. I say that because I find there is a lot of myopic American parochialism here at FTB, especially when discussing Islam and Christianity.

    The British Empire for example had no policy whatsoever of destroying Hinduism, but you know who did? The Islamic invaders of South Asia, who celebrated their massacres and temple destructions in still extant histories. The way Arab norms have been imposed and normalised throughout much of the Muslim world over the centuries, an-going process due to Saudi money, is a glaring example of cultural imperialism, but one I NEVER see mentioned by the ‘anti-imperialist’ crowd.

    The strident ‘blame the West’ crowd tends to become blind or know-nothing in the face of such non-Western forces. Han China has been the most sustained imperialistic civilisation in human history, yet here you are crying about Western evils in article highlighting non-Western ones.

    This change the subject to Christianity, change the subject to the West, etc. are really just manifestations of Western narcissism, an irony totally lost on the people trying to disrupt discussions of non-Western human rights abuses and other failings.

  8. 8
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    I don’t know, I don’t think either is as rare as it should be.

    It’s not exactly uncommon that people go from [awful practice] -> those people are all savages -> destroy.

  9. 9
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    I didn’t say a word about Muslims.

  10. 10
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    The history of Westerners in the Americas with Amerindian groups is not the entire history of imperialism.

    Which of course means it’s completely irrelevant and shouldn’t be mentioned when we can talk about Islam.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    We’re not really talking about Islam in particular in this thread are we? Footbinding isn’t Islamic. And Half the Sky turns a harsh light on Hinduism, for instance, though without actually saying so explicitly. The caste system does not come out looking good.

  12. 12
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    I don’t think anything can make the caste system look good.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Well no!

    I don’t think I knew though that there’s a sub-caste of prostitutes. It makes you want to strangle people. They’re not allowed to escape.

  14. 14
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Unless I manage to find it online, I won’t be able to see the film.

    I didn’t know that there was a (sub)caste of prostitutes. *rage*
    I found this short video about Nepal’s hereditary prostitutes, also trapped in the caste system. (here)

    There’s probably more to read, but it’s getting a bit late to look for it tonight.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    It is online, Beatrice, for the next week. PBS, Half the Sky.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    The caste system and prostitutes part centered on a woman called Umri Basu, who works with them and gets girls into school. There was one girl who was being taken out of school and back to their village by her parents, where it seemed all but certain she would be sold. Basu tried and tried to talk them out of it, but no. (One chilling bit where she pointed out to the mother…”Your grandfather lived off your grandmother’s earnings, how can you be sure he won’t live off your daughter’s?” The daughter is 14.)

  17. 17
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Thanks!

    I usually can’t watch things from American stations online, but I hope I’ll be able to watch this one. I’ll at least try.

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Wo! Hold the phone. After I wrote that I went to Twitter to read Simon Singh’s tweets, and on the way saw a tweet from someone I followed after watching Half the Sky – pointing to an update by Umri Basu. That girl, Monisha, is back in school.

    http://www.halftheskymovement.org/blog/entry/urmi-update-on-monisha-and-sushmita

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    Sometimes I really like social media.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    Rebekah

    “I didn’t say a word about Muslims.”

    But you did critically respond to a comment on imperialism towards Hindus. I brought up Islam (and China) to show how selective and self-absorbed much of the ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric really is. I see you provide no counter facts or argument, merely a borderline non sequitur statement. I notice you do not stamp your feet and announce: I didn’t say a word about China.

    “Which of course means it’s completely irrelevant and shouldn’t be mentioned when we can talk about Islam.”

    The fact you write such a childish bit of hyperbole really just underscores again that you cannot respond to the actual points I raise. In fact your defensiveness shows you know precisely the American parochialism to which I refer and the way it limits debate on religion.

    You are the one who chose to come here and respond in a huffy manner about the much deserved lampooning of postmodernist/postdtructuralist attitudes towards non-Western human rights abuses. The need of people like you ‘remind’ us of Western wrongs is a disruptive tactic that ultimately serves to hamper would should be an uncontroversial condemnation.

  22. 22
    Rebekah

    “We’re not really talking about Islam in particular in this thread are we? Footbinding isn’t Islamic”

    You raised the issue of FGM yourself. There is an significant correlation between practice of FGM and Islam, not absolute of course, but a significant majority of FGM victims are Muslims and the practice is explicitly condoned by some schools of Islamic thought.

    Further once the general issue of cultural imperialism gets raised, not including Islamic or Han Chinese imperialism is intellectually insupportable. Far too though often the far left gets away with painting imperialism, racism, etc. as almost exclusively Western faults.

  23. 23
    noellemorris

    One thing I liked is that they specifically took on cultural relativism, and said no thank you.

    A couple of points:

    1) Cultural relativism does not equal moral relativism. It is a methodological tool, used when studying cultures, which attempts to reduce ethnocentrism. We can’t begin to understand a culture unless we understand it on its own terms first. It does not mean we have to accept all cultural practices as moral. To use a fairly benign example: Prior to Franz Boas’ groundbreaking research of Native Indian languages, linguists and European philologists regarded American languages as “deficient”: they were “missing” case systems, “missing” sounds, and their languages were deficient because they “alternated” vowel sounds “at random”. In other words, they were applying what was normal for European (especially Indo-European and Romance languages) and applying those standards to American languages, the epitome of ethnocentrism. Boas, in an essay called “On Alternating Sounds”, addressed this last point, and laid the groundwork for phonemics by reversing the focus onto the native languages themselves, and their speakers’ perceptions of that language. Languages differ in the sounds they consider important enough to distinguish different words. For example, English distinguishes between [g] and [k], but many languages do not; inversely, the distinction between an aspirated [t] and an unaspirated one is barely noticeable to us, but is vital to understanding Hindi. So it is with native languages’ vowels: where Europeans saw different sounds, their speakers saw the same vowel. Without putting this cultural relativism into practice, these linguistic systems (or any language, for that matter) were not fully understood.
    So it is with any aspect of culture. Knowing why people in a culture themselves believe that FGM or foot binding or whatever else is a good idea and, even more importantly, how it fits into the surrounding cultural milieu, is not only important for full academic understanding, it’s necessary if we as a species are going to have effective tactics to counteract them.

    2) We as a society, as a species, have got to stop seeing things in black and white. Yes, FGM and foot binding are horrible and deplorable practices. Yes, we should work tirelessly to stop them. But to have a blanket statement that essentially says, cultural relativism is shit, we should all be ethnocentric because clearly, those other people are doing it wrong? That’s not very effective. That’s essentially what your misuse of the phrase “cultural relativism” ultimately boils down to. It’s cultural imperialism, an unwillingness to see other cultures as anything but a monolithically evil entity which must be civilized as soon as possible. It’s what the British did in India, Australia, South Africa — pretty much everywhere they colonized. Sure, they got rid of a lot of deplorable practices while they colonized. But it also led them to regard the original inhabitants as subhuman and ALL of their practices as inferior. Which led to several mass murders (the Amritsar massacre in India, several Bloody Sunday massacres in Ireland, among many others), suppression of non-Anglican belief systems (I realize we’re all atheists here, but freedom of conscience is a basic fundamental right), and many other injustices. Similar ethnocentrism among the Dutch, Belgians, Americans, Chinese (communist and otherwise), Japanese, and other “imperialist” nations led to other horrific human rights violations. Ignoring cultural relativism completely is actually a great way to perpetuate social injustices worldwide.

  24. 24
    LeftSidePositive

    @23–I don’t think anyone here (and by here I mean, as far as I know, ALL of FTB) has actually said that an entire culture can be dismissed as “a monolithically evil entity.” What I have actually seen is the looking at specific cultural PRACTICES and saying why those are wrong on the specific merits of the practice itself.

  25. 25
    Bob-B

    I wonder how religious types can justify FGM. They appear to be committed to the claim that God gave little girls genitalia which are seriously wrong and therefore need to be rectified by human beings. Why would God do that? Is he having a laugh? Or what?

  26. 26
    Ysanne

    Beatrice, you could try a tunneling site, e.g. Tunlr.

  27. 27
    dirigible.

    “Cultural relativism does not equal moral relativism.”

    It does, but only in practice.

    “to have a blanket statement that essentially says, cultural relativism is shit, we should all be ethnocentric ”

    You are essentially saying that whatever someone does as a result of their “culture” is something we should actively support, so I don’t see why you would have a problem with that if it was even remotely true.

    We should all oppose the ethnocentrism of cultural relativism.

  28. 28
    Select

    Conquerors banning things that should be banned doesn’t erase the fact that they very often do try their best to destroy the culture of the land. And that banning things that should be banned is used as an excuse for destroying the whole culture.

    I’ve absolutely no qualms about saying that western culture is superior to all others.

    Peter the Great recognised that fact and had to literally drag many of Russia’s backward elite kicking and screaming into the enlightenment.

    He shaved off their beards, forced them into more modern clothing and open institutes of science and higher learning.

    And I really don’t miss the Aztecs with their ‘ceromonial’ sacrifices and all.

  29. 29
    Bill Openthalt

    Show me one culture that is based on equality (gender, race, age), atheism and science and I will happily declare it superior to our current Western culture.

    We come from far, and we’ve got far to go, but it’s a lot better than any other culture humanity has produced.

  30. 30
    Ophelia Benson

    @ 23 – well it may have started as a methodological tool, but it hasn’t remained that and only that. It’s become a principle, which is sometimes harmful. Not always, but sometimes.

  31. 31
    johnthedrunkard

    A genuine multiculturalism, rather than the cultish anti-rational pseudomovement that uses the name, would offer immediate benefit to every group by providing a critical outside view of its practices.

    Smashing feet, burning widows, butchering the genitals of girls (OR boys), witch hunts (in Nigeria OR Germany). All NOT GOOD THINGS. Anything which stops these things has accomplished a mitzvah.

    Imbalance of power, the inevitable economic and political inequality that imperialism, or dictatorship, cause, is another Not Good Thing. A Not Good Thing to be considered and dealt with on its own terms and not used as a rhetorical trick to justify barbarism.

  32. 32
    noellemorris

    You are essentially saying that whatever someone does as a result of their “culture” is something we should actively support, so I don’t see why you would have a problem with that if it was even remotely true.

    I did not say that at all. In fact, I specifically said cultural relativism “does not mean we have to accept all cultural practices as moral.”

    We should all oppose the ethnocentrism of cultural relativism.

    That doesn’t even make sense. You’re saying that the process of viewing a culture the way they view themselves is a way of viewing our own culture as superior? That’s a logical impossibility, and frankly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

    I’ve absolutely no qualms about saying that western culture is superior to all others.

    Peter the Great recognised that fact and had to literally drag many of Russia’s backward elite kicking and screaming into the enlightenment.

    He shaved off their beards, forced them into more modern clothing and open institutes of science and higher learning.

    And I really don’t miss the Aztecs with their ‘ceromonial’ sacrifices and all.

    You’re cherry-picking to an insane degree here. Anyone who has studied history, anthropology, archaeology, etc, knows that Western civilization is also fraught with deplorable, barbaric, and perverse practices. It’s interesting that you mention Aztec sacrifices; I once read an anthropological piece that compared the Aztec practice of human sacrifice to ensure the rising of the sun with our current practice of capital punishment as a means to deterring murderers. Both bloodthirsty practices, both as equally as useful for ensuring what proponents say they do. And again, I mention all the atrocities committed by the British and other colonizers — how does that behavior fit into your ideas of Western superiority?

    Show me one culture that is based on equality (gender, race, age), atheism and science and I will happily declare it superior to our current Western culture.

    We come from far, and we’ve got far to go, but it’s a lot better than any other culture humanity has produced.

    The funny thing about this? Egalitarian communities have been in existence for over 100,000 years. In fact, small hunter-gatherer societies were far more equal in terms of gender equality (there was sexual division of labor, to be sure, but men’s contributions weren’t overly valued) than any post-agricultural one, ours included. While they differed in their treatment of other groups, still, there were far fewer of the trappings of “civilization”, in which inequality is inherent. I highly doubt any postindustrial society will ever have the levels of equality that hunter-gatherer societies do (or did, because nation-states have a nasty way of destroying their way of life), simply because a society of our technological advancement pretty much depends on stratification and unequal access to resources. Not saying that these societies are perfect (superstition abounds, for example, and science is pretty well nonexistent), but as far as equality goes, they’re a lot better than what we have in the West.

    Seriously, this entire thread has been further proof of my belief that people need a basic education in cultural anthropology. It’s rather depressing that so-called critical thinkers wouldn’t have invested time in looking at cultures scientifically, instead of purely emotionally.

  33. 33
    Ophelia Benson

    Noelle – you’re mashing things together though. Different commenters say different things and have different views.

    From your first comment –

    But to have a blanket statement that essentially says, cultural relativism is shit, we should all be ethnocentric because clearly, those other people are doing it wrong? That’s not very effective. That’s essentially what your misuse of the phrase “cultural relativism” ultimately boils down to.

    Do you think that’s what I’m saying? Seriously? By “cultural relativism” in this context I mean the blanket, unthinking kind, not the methodological version you’re talking about. I’m certainly not saying we should all be ethnocentric. Can you point me to somewhere I’ve really said that, or something that implies it?

  34. 34
    Rebekah

    noelle is pretty much exposed as another muddled postmodernist/poststructuralist in her inability to grasp dirigible’s bon mot:

    “We should all oppose the ethnocentrism of cultural relativism.”

    Her response is painfully obtuse and she removes all doubt as to her intellectual immaturity with the needless flurry of hyperbole at the end.

    “That doesn’t even make sense. You’re saying that the process of viewing a culture the way they view themselves is a way of viewing our own culture as superior? That’s a logical impossibility, and frankly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

    “..frankly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

    People that use hyperbole and superlatives like that cannot and should not be taken seriously.

  35. 35
    noellemorris

    Ophelia:

    Perhaps you did not, and if I implied that you did, I apologize. Many of the other commenters, however, seem to have a less nuanced view of cultural relativism. (Apologies, also, for the mish-mash; I was trying to save everyone from multiple posts, but I suppose clarity has suffered. I don’t mean to imply that all of these people have identical viewpoints.)

    Rebekah:

    Rereading, I agree the hyperbole was over the top, and I withdraw it. The rest of my statement, however, still stands. Dirigible’s comment is nonsensical, as it rests on a flawed understanding of what cultural relativism means. I understand fully well what they are trying to say: moral relativism belittles other cultures because it creates a savage (them)/civilized (us) mentality. It is thus ethnocentric because it essentially suggests that the other is unable to change and is inherently inferior.
    Again, my point is that conflating moral relativism with cultural relativism does two things: 1) it misappropriates a valuable methodological tool for understanding human culture, and 2) it offers us no real alternative between ethnocentrism (our culture is superior to all others in every way) and complete moral relativism (all cultures are equally good). This is not a nuanced view.
    But feel free to attack me with your own hyperbole (I’m a “muddled postmodernist”? Really?), rather than addressing any of my points.

  36. 36
    Rebekah

    dirgible’s comment cuts through the nonsense of cultural relativism. All cultures are almost entirely ethnocentric. The one ironic exception is the West where self-criticism is a virtue, to the point that hating Western is a mark of right-thinking among certain leftists.

    Your entire thinking is caught in an immature dichotomy, which you reassert once again. It is compounded by the fact that one extreme, “our culture is superior to all others in every way”, more or less does not exist beyond a small segment of uneducated conservatives. Even the conservative politicians lampooned as having such views in the States, seldom do to that degree.

    What makes cultural/moral relativism dangerous is that it is embraced by journalists, academics and others whose voices are actually heard and have influence on our worldview. Their relativist views seep into discourse and turn what should be uncontroversial condemnation of FGM, slavery, stoning, etc. into actual debates at times.

    And as a methodological tool, simply following the basic scientific method (as in the linguistic studies you mentioned to start) or maintaining scholarly disinterest would achieve the same ends, if the scholar remains mindful of the problem of bias. Creating this construct of “cultural relativism” inevitably allows for a worldview of “moral relativism”.

    And you might want to look up the definition of “hyperbole”. I genuinely feel your thinking is muddled and rooted in postmodern/poststructuralist notions. You can call that an ad hominem if you wish, but it is not “hyperbole”.

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