The Dark Side of Cultural Traditions

Most would agree that it is important to respect difference and diversity in culture but is this always practicable or even desirable?
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Cultural respect and preservation is important or so I’ve long argued and many others seem to agree. However, whilst I still hold to that principle, I have found my feelings increasingly challenged. What is disturbing me is that I am continually confronted by examples of cultural practice that are so far outside my own acculturation that I cannot respect them. In fact, the more objective that I try to be, the less inclined I am to accept that these practices should be accepted at all, let alone respected.

The obscene actions of the pseudo Islamic organisation: ISIS or DAESCH have horrified much of the World. Not only do atheists, agnostics and other religions condemn this group but the majority of Muslims have condemned it and consider its interpretation of Islam as false.

There is a general belief in the sanctity of human life that crosses cultures and in that respect, at least, not many rational and reasonable people of whatever faith, race or ethnicity would condone the murders perpetrated by this group. Neither would many, if any, condone the sexual slavery, rape, abductions and abuse, which is committed by this group with apparent impunity and psychopathic lack of conscience.

These killings and assaults are clearly the worst characteristic of this group but there are other cultural assaults – although not directly harmful of human beings – that are as culturally unacceptable such as the destruction of ancient temples in Palmyra, Syria. The killing and assault of people is obviously horrendous but I would suggest that there is a way in which the destruction of heritage buildings and artefacts is not much less tragic.

Cultures, like humanity itself, evolve over time. Their nature is carried by oral and written language and by the monuments, structures and artefacts created by a people’s forebears. Attacking such heritage is surely an attack upon the very heart of the culture it reflects. That attack also reflects the culture of those carrying it out. Which one then should we respect? Is it possible to respect them both when they so contradict one another?

“On either side of a potentially violent conflict, an opportunity exists to exercise compassion and diminish fear based on recognition of each other’s humanity. Without such recognition, fear fuelled by uninformed assumptions, cultural prejudice, desperation to meet basic human needs, or the panicked uncertainty of the moment explodes into violence.”

(Aberjhani. Splendid Literarium: a treasure of stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays.)

Today I was confronted with another horrific example of what I would classify as depraved culture. I received an email from a member of Amnesty International reporting the actions of a community council in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Two sisters are being punished for their brother eloping with a married woman from a dominant caste family. Their punishment, as prescribed by the non-elected, all-male village council, is to be gang-raped, their faces blackened, and then paraded naked around the village. One of the sisters is 23 years old. (You can petition against this obscene action here.)

I don’t know that I need comment further on this horror. I can’t imagine that anyone who is taking the time to read this article or visit this site would, for even a second, consider this an acceptable action.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence and assault on women is commonplace in our World. The extent of sexual violence against women manifests itself in such practices as Female Genital Mutilation; childhood marriage; right of a husband to rape his wife; prevention of abortion; domestic violence; date rape; demeaning characterisation based on physical characteristics or dress.

Cultural factors, including religion, are in my opinion by far the major causation for women being subject to such abuse.

The cultural traits and mores that underpin the abuse of women are not confined to any specific part of the World. They are not, as some would argue, simply the product of under-developed or more primitive cultures. Certainly, some practices are less common in the modern industrialised world but the difference is qualitative, not of a lesser dimension.

In Australia, whilst most other crime has reduced over the last 3 years, sexual violence has increased. Campus rape is common in the United States and most commonly covered up and offenders rarely prosecuted and even more rarely convicted. Gang rape and even public sexual assault is commonplace in India. Degrading images of women manifest in magazines, film, video and online sites in the Western world. Some religions openly chastise women who seek to terminate unwanted, even uninvited pregnancy and clinics and medical practitioners are not unusually threatened and harassed, as well as their patients.

The litany of examples is too great to list here but even a casual scanning of the news media or a look at national crime and social statistics will provide ample evidence of the reality to which I write.

That these are cultural caused practices may be arguable but I suggest that it is hard to see a more reasonable explanation. We know that many religions consistently represents “God” as male. We know that many churches still don’t allow the ordination of women. We know that traditionally women have been second in receipt of education and in some places that situation remains. We know that the vast majority of world political leaders, military commanders, chief executive officers and such are male. We know that women are commonly paid less for the same work as men. We know that historically, women have been seen as chattels and in some places continue to be treated as such.

This patriarchal element to culture is brazen. In some countries and societies it is being significantly challenged but even in those places, the relative proportions of women in authority compared with their proportion of the population remains skewed very much against them. There are many problematic results of this patriarchal strain that run across and through the many cultures of our world. Not least is the continued sexual abuse of women, even by educated men who should be able to rise above their acculturation and exercise rational and considered restraint over any inherent instinct or teaching that supports aggressive, violent, or sexually reprehensible behaviour.

In brief and simple words what I’m inadequately attempting to say is that yes, we should respect cultural differences and we should preserve cultural heritage but that respect has to be conditional and fulfil higher moral principles than those dictated by one half of the population. It must also fulfill principles of basic human rights, regardless of religious or cultural dogma that would dictate otherwise. Yes, I am prepared to accept and respect different forms of belief and worship and dress and song and ritual, in so far as it goes. The line for me, however, must be drawn when a form of cultural expression or behaviour transgresses principles of individual human dignity, expectation of safe passage through life, barring the exigencies of illness or accident, and equitable access to freedom of self realisation and expression. The sanctity of life, it goes without saying, should underpin all of that.

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive. (Mahatma Gandhi)

"The Spade" by Roger Hawcroft
Roger Hawcroft

Roger is an online activist & library consultant living in Queensland, Australia. Roger has a diverse work background in both public and private sectors and large and small organisations. Her has degrees in teaching and library & information science. Roger is keen to contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society. Roger feels that his own struggle with an autism spectrum disorder have given him awareness of the difficulties & stigma that is the lot of the disadvantaged every where. He is particularly interested in social justice and human rights and in reversing the trend towards "blaming the victim" in society.
One Comment
  • Avatar
    Patrick Day
    6 April 2018 at 5:37 pm
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    Like you thinking here…except for one thing. You have “the sanctity of life” as a somewhat absolute that must be protected, yet you seem to defend abortion? It is impossible to “be for” the sanctity of life” and be for abortion at the same time. If you really….I mean really demand sanctity of life as non-negotiable then you must be be against abortion. The objective reality of abortion is that a human life (granted that human life is in an early stage of its development, but it is fully human life) is being destroyed, killed. For what crime must the unborn have its life ended?

    I would be interested to hear your response
    P. Day
    Minnesota USA

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