A woman travels to Nepal to investigate the custom of chaupadi, wherein menstruating women are made to sleep in small, often-snake-infested huts. Even worse, women are at risk of being raped when they sleep in these isolated locations, and the stigma against menstruating women makes it hard for teenage girls to attend school.
She puts together a well-written piece about the chaupadi practice, which features numerous voices of young Nepalese women and social-rights activists who are working to ban the practice.
The piece is then re-run on Jezebel — and suddenly, the bloodhound like keening of cultural imperialists fills the air.
HOW DARE SHE TRAVEL TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY AND WRITE ABOUT IT FOR PEOPLE IN AMERICA. HOW DARE WE TELL THE NEPALESE HOW TO LIVE. MENSTRUAL HUTS AREN’T ANY OF OUR BUSINESS.
Yes, that’s right, folks: a comments section that features numerous women who likely identify as feminists, industriously attempting to justify snake-infested menstrual huts regularly targeted by rapists.
This, in a nutshell, gets at why the frothy Internet manifestation of cultural relativism simultaneously drives me nuts and amuses me. It’s a curious kind of bifurcated reasoning, whereupon a highly educated individual with certain notions of human rights attempts to show how non-racist and non-judgmental they are by coming out and defending Profound Cultural Practices.
Even when those Profound Cultural Practices involve, say, actual snake-infested menstrual huts.
It’s foolish logic, as anyone who’s devoted much time to the study of the Antebellum South can readily inform you. Southern slave owners considered it to be very much a part of their distinct, non-Yankee culture to own other people and — as one may recall — were willing to go to war over that right.
When viewed through the lens of popular cultural relativism however, one could well interpret the abolitionist movement as an attempt by culturally insensitive Yankees to impose their own, colonialist beliefs on the noble traditions of white plantation owners.
After all, said slave owners always claimed that their slaves were happy — just as some relativists will claim in the modern era that women are perfectly OK with being consigned to menstrual huts or having their genitalia snipped off, despite sundry voices very much to the contrary.
Indeed, my own genetic heritage is Southern and I’m almost certainly related to a slave owner or three. But I can’t say I spend much time lamenting the fact that my cultural predecessors were so cruelly deprived of the right — a right which they cared deeply about, and thought was justified in many cases!— to traffic in, demean, and utterly subjugate other human beings.
One also wonders where the cultural relativists are in relation to the recent unpleasantness visited upon Burma’s Muslim Rohingya by the Buddhist majority. Are not the Burman, Buddhist ethnic majority merely defending their identity and adhering to their customs by driving out and killing the people they call “Bangladeshis?” Who are we to judge?
And indeed, aren’t the people of Uganda merely expressing their cultural identity by outlawing homosexuality and actively persecuting gay people? Who are we to judge?
I’m willing to judge, and so, I suspect, are members of humanity from all across the world who have a basic sense of what human rights is, what it is permissible to visit upon another person. And I’m disinterested in excusing the murder, disenfranchisement, and abuse of innocent humans in the name of preserving some weak notion of “diversity.”
The human rights and comforts I’d wish for my neighbor two doors down in Palo Alto are the same rights I wish for a Nepalese woman or a Somali teenage boy. I remain unsure why others feel the need to draw geographical distinctions.
Further, this stream of cultural relativistic thought is, ironically, deeply patronizing to the very same cultures its adherents think they are defending.
It implies that these cultures are weak.
They are so very weak that eliminating a single facet of them — like female genital mutilation or menstrual huts, or what have you —will topple them over entirely. Human culture is more robust than that, and this gossamer fairy-wing interpretation of How Those Exotic People Live strikes me as rather insulting.
It ignores another important facet of human culture: it changes, morphs and percolates. But only in rare cases does it vanish entirely. The South’s distinctive culture, in its strangeness and music, persists despite the elimination of slavery. So too, the culture of the Western Nepalese will, I’d wager, continue on when the last menstrual hut is dismantled.
Perhaps some cultures really are that weak! a culturally relativist cheerleader might say in response — I’d like to imagine tapping away from a MacBook Air in a Starbucks, but we all have our fantasies.
Fine, then. I submit that a culture that crumbles into dust when some unabashedly cruel aspect of it is removed is not a culture worth preserving in the first place.