The title belies how small the point I want to make is. There is a tension on the Left in the Western world about imposing our values — specifically, in this case, about gender equity — on the rest of the world. One of the strongest values imbued by this particular outlook on the world is a deep sense of intellectual humility about the values we adopt through being socialized in a given culture. With that in mind, it is hard to make a claim like ‘the way we want to see society organized with regard to gender is objectively ideal, for all peoples in all societies (and at all times).’ It is difficult to critique other cultures for not following our standards, even when the harm is clear.
Reading an article about Malala Yousufzai, the young woman activist who was shot in Pakistan for trying to secure equal rights to education for girls, the following paragraph stood out to me:
Is it possible to engage in advocacy on behalf of women and girls in the so-called Muslim world without falling into the trap of perpetuating racial/religious stereotypes? Can we engage in cross-cultural critique (violence against women is wrong regardless of culture or belief) while avoiding cultural imperialism (our approach to women is the “superior” way)? What might that look like?
This captures the tension very well in my opinion, but I find myself questioning the value of intellectual humility in this case. There are few things that I am sure enough about to claim that they are truths that apply to people in vastly different cultural contexts, but gender equity is one of them. It seems to me like the author of the above article is trying to draw such a fine line that it disappears. Arguing that violence against women is wrong regardless of cultural context is saying that ‘our’ approach to women — to the extent that our approach is intolerant of violence towards women — is the objectively superior way. When it comes to the dignity and physical, emotional, and mental well-being of over half the population of the world, I believe that we have an obligation to shout as loud as we can that this is a value we believe in, and we do not believe that it is relative to our specific context.
Building and sustaining cordial relationships with people across the world is a worthy goal, one that should drive us in the privileged West to behave differently to the rest of the world than we have since the advent of the West (for argument’s sake, ancient Rome). However, there must be principles that we will not compromise on in the face of maintaining an unsavoury alliance, no matter the material gains that such a friendship brings. As Pirkei Avot teaches us: “Nittai of Arbel said: Distance yourself from a bad neighbour, Do not befriend a wicked person, And do not despair of punishment” (1:7). In the Mishna, I think that the punishment being referred to is exactly what we stand to lose from standing by our principles and allying ourselves with like-minded people (and groups of people), not focusing on wealth or public opinion.
Cultural imperialism crosses a line when a country pressures another to behave as they wish for the selfish benefit of the first country. When, instead of self-interest, the health and prosperity of the weakest in society is what drives such actions, I see them as virtuous, principled actions, and not as cultural imperialism — what the author above called “cultural critique.”