Culture first or is it all relative?

On his way to England where he has been banished, Hamlet encounters a captain who tells him that the Norwegian army is riding to fight the Poles. Hamlet asks about the conflict, and he is told that both sides will fight over “a little patch of land / That hath in it no profit but the name” (IV.iv.98–99).

Hamlet is moved that soldiers will be asked to fight a bloody war over something so insignificant. He marvels that humanity can be violent for so little gain, based on their relationship to the country in which they were born.

This leads me to consider wars and conflicts, and then to wonder whether it is ever right to adhere to cultural beliefs first – and put human rights second. I am inclined to think not. Let’s take a few more extreme examples: female genital mutilation (FGM); terrorism; child soldiers.

The following, about comments about FGM made by well-known feminist Germaine Greer – a writer many of whose other works and positions I have a lot of time for, is from this archived BBC article.

In her recent book, The Whole Woman, Ms Greer argued that attempts to outlaw the practice amounted to “an attack on cultural identity”, adding: “One man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.”

She said that women should have the right to undergo genital mutilation as a form of “self-decoration” and posed the question: “If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?”

Ms Greer is suggesting that we Westerners should not involve ourselves in other cultures’ businesses. Are we not meddling by imposing our views and values on another cultural group whose practises stem from tradition?

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 13: Germaine Greer on stage during a media call at the NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre on March 13, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images)

For me, the answer lies in the well-being of girls themselves, as they are cut and stitched, often under their mother’s guidance, in the belief that it will make them more marriageable, and more acceptable to men. Often girls’ wounds become infected; often huge complications occur at childbirth or even before, in the marriage bed where male pleasure is paramount.

Patriarchal societies often, sometimes subtly and sometimes brutally, influence what women will do with their bodies. Their compliance is expected as members of their society and to refuse could render them outcasts. They may not even have the opportunity to be aware that another option outside the societal norm exists.

Patriarchal societies, whether in Somalia, Australia or the UK, need to be challenged where women’s human rights are threatened and where women themselves are treated as currency, as pawns, or as victims. Does anyone seriously believe that other cultures’ practices are more important than women’s rights and safety?

With reference to child soldiers, War Child, the charity for Children affected by war, tells us that:

  • There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today.
  • It is estimated that 40% of all child soldiers are girls. They are often used as non-combatant ‘wives’ (sex slaves) of the male combatants.
  • Child soldiers are recruited by government forces as well as rebel groups.
Who remembers Kony 2012, the consciousness-raising viral video that promoted awareness about Joesph Kony, a War Lord and the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a paramilitary organisation based in Eastern Africa known to kidnap children for use as child soldiers.

Children may be recruited  by a state or non-state armed group. They are deployed as fighters, cooks, suicide bombers, human shields, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes. It would be difficult for anyone to argue that the culture in which these children live has precedence over their right to be children.  Surely no one, regardless of their culture or heritage, has the right to make decisions which will endanger children’s lives and threaten their futures.

Another pertinent example is terrorism. Awareness about it is currently and constantly seeping its way into our collective consciousness but there are still people who excuse acts of terrorism, often coming close to suggesting that it is a cultural norm to express one’s views through violence. Their suggestion is that it is a natural reaction to racism or to Western foreign policy. The implication is that terrorists know no better than to commit atrocities and this somehow excuses their behaviour and gives them the right to take lives and threaten freedom.

Listen to George Galloway, an egregious example of this tendency, talking about 9/11. “Those aeroplanes on 9/11,” he says, “emerged out of a swamp of hatred, created by us.” Whatever your views are on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq following 9/11, the idea that the West is responsible because we have somehow angered and provoked people to terrorism and we reap what we sow is to show great disrespect for all the innocent human lives lost in such attacks.

Unfortunately, this tendency is alive and well in some sections of left wing politics. The tweet below was sent by the Stop the War Coalition, a left wing anti-war umbrella group, before the bodies of the dead in Paris were even cold, and was deleted shortly after people complained that it was offensive and misguided.


The problem with this mindset, anchored in cultural relativism, is that, at its core, it expects no better of certain people than to commit terror, or in the desire to blame Western foreign policy it unintentionally minimises the responsibility of the perpetrators of terror. You can no more hold responsible the authors of the Treaty of Versailles for the crimes of the Nazi regime than you can hold responsible Western foreign policy or provocative cartoonists for the crimes of those who spread terror in the name of Islam.

It is always wrong to blame all Muslims or Islam as a religion for atrocities committed in its name. It is also wrong to expect nothing better from Muslims (or any other group) than to justify their views and values through extreme and violent actions: the majority are peaceful and purposeful in their worship, and would never become involved in such acts.

Western society has not always covered itself in glory in terms of human rights: lengthy involvement in slavery, wars and imperialist rule cannot be airbrushed from our history, but change is possible if we do not accept that violence is the way to achieve progress. Tradition should not get in the way of human rights or an individual’s comfort or right to choose.

The story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the consequences to her and to Theo Van Gogh demonstrates what can happen when people dare to speak out. Ali’s courage and escape from oppression are contrasted sharply with the ensuing behaviour of those who believed themselves to have the right to make judgments about her choices.


If we in other countries where we have better human rights cannot bring ourselves to stand up for other humans, are we not guilty of what some have aptly termed ‘the racism of low expectations’?

People from both left and right fall into this trap. Rightly and properly, the left recognises the brutality and the shameful history that we ought to associate with all kinds of old imperialism practised by Britain and many other European nations.

However, to view democracy, liberty or human rights as distinctly Western values being spread and imposed is to fail to grasp the fundamental tenet of any 21st Century liberalism worthy of the name: liberty, human rights and self-governance are universal values, so any lefty who makes excuses for governments beyond ‘the West’ that deny and abuse these rights are, in a way, the successors of the old imperialists. Hoarding human rights and democracy in the West would not only hinder global progress, but would also prevent individuals who are at the receiving end of abuse from having the opportunity to improve their lives and change their situations.

At the same time, people on the right too often see culture as immutable and fixed. Twinned with the conservative desire to cling on to many regressive and outdated aspects of our own culture is a pessimistic propensity to see what is regressive and outdated in other cultures as unchangeable.

I find it difficult to justify war even when it seems that there is no alternative, and I am against aggression. I also consider myself to be politically left-of-centre. But I am concerned about the safety of the individual and I believe every person should be protected from violence and oppression as a human right, whatever their society, culture or continent.

culture cartoon

I will leave the last comment to the brilliant Nick Cohen who, as ever, encapsulates the worst of these relativists in cleverly chosen words:

The apologias from some liberals are so comprehensive that they must also support radical Islam in their hearts. Far leftists have to head to the far right because there is simply nowhere else for them to go now that the revolutionary guerrillas and communist regimes of the twentieth century are history. A love of violence and hatred of their own societies – well merited or otherwise – leads them to conclude that any killer of Americans is better than none.


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