Cultural Imperialism

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.”

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2 thoughts on “Cultural Imperialism

  1. I’ve mixed feelings about this. I’ll try to explain.

    [1] – violence against women in the respect of their being women is wrong. I think you’re right to handle this in an objective way.

    [2] – however I think the analysis is slightly off, the problem isn’t cultural disparity, that seems to me a concern here, where I am, in Europe, and indeed in the US, which is taken as reason to both re-enforce our sense of ideological distinction [and thereby to convince ourselves of our right to power] and to explain the tremendous inequality which exists throughout the developing world [even that title is itself a little presumptuous]. By this I mean that if you’re a Muslim living in the Middle East you do think that it is possible for you to live as a Muslim and treat women fairly and justly. You see no inherent contradiction.

    [3] – by framing the theme in the context of cultural differences as expressive of differences of value you already set up the basis for unavoidable conflict – that is the conclusion that the ill-treatment of women in given contexts throughout the Middle East is expressive of an ideological stance on the part of Islamic or Middle Eastern culture itself toward women which differentiates it from other cultures with more correct approaches.

    [4] – this leads to your conclusion that certain issues have to be taken at the very least as if they were objective – meaning that you would advocate that cultures are autonomous up to a point, after which their difference becomes unacceptable and has to be opposed in an organised manner.

    [5] – the latter is a seemingly unavoidable conclusion UNLESS you do away with the notion of cultures operating on the basis of different values all together [you argue that their difference as cultures is not in fact to do with values] and instead posit that all cultures in order even to survive as what they are embody in some sense the same basic moral attitudes. Which would collapse what I think is a very dangerous discussion on our part, int he West, about the protection of our ‘fragile’ and ‘unique’ values and the way this discussion is insidiously linked in to the perpetuation and legitimization of inequality.

    []6 – of course this results in a more serious question – what is the source of this maltreatment of women if not rooted in culture? Well I would argue that it is rooted in the experience of inequality itself – this is most certainly what draws some Muslims toward a radicalizing of their identity as Muslims. This seems more reasonable to me, it inverts the norm for this kind of discussion and is far more challenging for those of us with power – instead of the ‘Islamic world’ being bad because of what it believes [because it is not like us] it rather invests in bad practices because the situation it is itself in is bad [and we are in some respect responsible].

    [7] – similarly misconceptions promoted within the ‘Islamic world’ [I don’t like that term because it promotes the idea of some sort of fundamental ideological/cultural divide] also attribute their experience of discrimination as rooted in our ideological stance – whereas in reality there isn’t an ideological divide so much as an economic/political divide.

    [8] – I’m opposed to the term gender equality myself – it implies that an outside force needs to maintain a state of balance between two separate, self-sufficient entities ‘the genders’ and it puts forward a picture of the past that I don’t think is in fact accurate, of systematic injustice toward women organised and enforced by men which is then subsequently challenged by women. That historical narrative seems to me as loose with history as the ‘Enlightenment’ myth.

    What do you think?

  2. Excellent conversation and thanks for the comments on my piece. I think the key here is the concept of imposing cultural values on others. Cultural critique in and of itself is not imperialistic but when you add it to the coercive power of a state and the presumed superiority of one’s culture over others, that is a different story. I’m also at a place where good intentions do not relieve me of the responsibility to be as critical of myself as I am of others. For example, I should shot loudly as you say that violence against women and girls is wrong if that is what I believe while also holding myself accountable for biases that may be mixed up in my responses to such violence. In my experience my motives are rarely completely pure given the racist socialization that I’ve been subjected to in the United States.

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