Menstrual Huts Aren’t So Bad, or Why Cultural Relativism Drives Me Crazy

tin tin said
Relevant. From MooreToons.

What Life is Like When Getting Your Period Means You Are Shunned – Jezebel

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.


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.

us slaveryWhen 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.

Why Paintball is Awesome

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 10.53.27 AMLast weekend, I shot little balls full of multi-colored goo at people I don’t personally know.

There was lots of screaming, and shouting, and ducking behind obstacles and convenient hiding places. In other words, I was playing paintball, a practice more commonly associated with twelve year old boys and emotionally frustrated rednecks than with young journalists with an interest in social issues.

Turns out I love it.

This all started when I went to visit my friend Eli’s paintball range to fly a camera-drone over some unobstructed turf.

Perhaps I should explain: I do indeed possess a small consumer-range camera drone, and I do indeed require lots of empty space to fly it over, lest I run afoul of strict FAA regulations that frown upon that kind of behavior. Let’s move on.

I was flying, with the assistance of Eli, when he suggested that I try playing paintball. I’d already driven there and I was in a pretty good frame of mind, what with the sudden arrival of both spring and some modicum of expertise with a camera drone. So I agreed to try paintball.

Yes, it's really called "woodsball."
Yes, it’s really called “woodsball.”

I was outfitted with a large black hoodie, as well as a full-length facial mask that resembles the sort of thing that a plague doctor might wear during the Dark Ages. Professional players wear more protective equipment than these rather basic remedies, but it’s really all you need: paintball pellets will sting like a bitch when they hit your tender exposed flesh, but won’t actually cause permanent injury. (The same can’t be said about your eyeballs, which is why everyone wears the face mask at all times within the range).

I was then handed an air-powered gun, with a battery-powered tumbler on top that takes in the paintballs. They’re ejected with extreme prejudice when you pull the trigger. You don’t pull the trigger like that of a normal gun, where you do it once and with great intention and purpose. Instead, you toggle your fingers on a paintball trigger really rapidly, like when you’re tapping on a desk and expectantly waiting for somebody. “Spray and pray” is an effective technique in this sort of game.

“Try it out,” Eli said, and I walked over to a small target range that looked exactly like a lesser Jackson Pollack painting. It took me a few minutes to pick up the toggling motion, but once I did, I was merrily pinging targets with extreme prejudice.

“She’s a killing machine,” Eli’s brother said, approvingly.

Then I went to actually play. The paintball range is set in a huge stand of eucalyptus trees, outfitted with blinds and hiding places and brush, allowing you to lurk and pick off the unsuspecting. The Delia family has outfitted the place with a number of forts that resemble something right out of a National Historic Site brochure about doughty pioneers. Players can take over these forts than protect them against the opposing team. This is considered extra fun.

The players, almost all dudes (a shock!), were outfitted in tactical-looking protective gear and baggy clothing. The baggy clothing is strategic — it helps cushion the blow if you do get hit. “You can always tell the sharks because they have nice guns,” Eli’s brother pointed out.

Some of them had decorative face shields painted with skulls or fangs, or other appropriately aggressive items. One guy had added rainbow-colored feathers to his. Ages ranged from 10 to pushing 60 among the immediate paintball warriors, with most clustering in that fuzzy range of adolescence from 13 to mid—twenties.

As paintball players will point out, there’s an instructional purpose to the soft-tissue trauma of getting whomped with a paintball pellet: it motivates you to get a lot better at paintball.

Paintballs_greenPaintball isn’t real warfare, but as it turns out, the adrenaline rush you get isn’t too far off from the real rush of having angry people spew hot lead at you at close quarters. Police and the military use paintball as both training and recreation.

That’s why I loved it, I’m pretty sure. I’ve spent the past three years living in places where crossing the street can become an exciting exercise in existential terror. A week where I don’t find my heart thumping with the exultant pleasure of continuing existence after escaping yet another run-in with the Death Angel (in the guise of, say, a tuk tuk) is one that feels somewhat muted and colorless of late.

Coming from a Southeast Asian metropolis with limited rule of law to the manicured and aggressively safe climes of Palo Alto and Stanford is enough to give anyone in their right mind whiplash. If you’re me, it mostly makes you unusually pissy.

Paintball fills that emotional gap. All of the adrenaline and aggression. Absolutely no risk of being run over by a drunk in a 4-Runner in broad daylight, as would be my likely undoing in Phnom Penh.

I spent the rest of the weekend after my stint at the paintball range in an unusually cheery mood — smiling at random motorists on the freeway (whom I usually consider rat-bastards), being unusually pleasant to skeezy old guys at the bar, waiting in lines with much more patience than I can usually muster

Paintball, in my mind and in the mind of others, is usually associated with libertarians — the kind of people who want to corner you somewhere and talk about the Gold Standard in increasingly agitated tones. This being California, Paintball Jungle is a lot less about Apocalypse Prepping, and a lot more about having a good time pretending to be engaged in urban warfare.

“I only allow positive people here,” said Eli’s dad to me, the founder of the place and a former international paintball star. And indeed, he was right: most everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

I’m glad I tried paintball – it’s the happiest kind of bloodlust.

If you want to try it out yourself, come to Paintball Jungle in Vallejo. It’s near the Wine Country, too. Imagine what kind of weekend you could have.

Not in New Orleans, But Listening to This

I would like to inform you that if you are in New Orleans right now, I think you suck. Anyway, here’s a blog post that is just my playlist tonight — which would be an utterly pedestrian and slightly drippy night in Palo Alto. One re-evaluates one’s life choices.

Can’t get away without this one.

Did I ever tell you about the time I was buying lip gloss in a Bangkok convenience store, and I was hot and tired and didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and I plunked down my baht on the counter and suddenly there’s this song playing?

There was no great epiphany but it was a moment.

This is a very alligators-and-doing bad things song. As one is supposed to be doing when living a full and complete and joyful life.

I believe this is the only Iko Iko rendition allowed by civilized humans.

If I left Big Freedia out of this, you’d be allowed to viciously beat me with a crawfish made of foam.

Puppets and a drum machine. All you need.

Hot 8 Brass Band would like to assist you with your sexual healing.

If you were in New Orleans in 2010 and have a memory, this song will evoke strange memories of champagne, screaming, and quite possibly, lighting a car or two on fire.

Explaining Mardi Gras Indians to the un-enlightened is another problem. This is because the general public knows not how to live.

Speaking of: Super Sunday in 2013. If you think the US has no native culture, I’m afraid you have just been misled by strip malls and the tender ministrations of Ross Douthat. Come into the light, slowly.

Really just all boils down to this: