Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Stanford journalism professor Joel Brinkley takes us on a quick tour of the underside of what passes for civilization in much of the world and concludes that relativism, both cultural and moral, seems simply foolish when confronted with the barbaric cruelties imposed on women and children in some foreign climes.

The relativist wants to say that what's wrong for us is not necessarily wrong for others. We're not perfect, the relativist avers, nor are we in the position of God that we can pass judgment on other societies, but as I argued last week in the case of Bibi Aisha, to refuse to condemn cruelty and injustice is to dehumanize both ourselves and those who suffer. Injustice is wrong wherever it occurs. Cruelty is evil wherever it occurs. Anyone who can read the following excerpt from Brinkley's column and not agree with those claims is morally underdeveloped:
On her final full day in office, President Roza Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan became the first senior Kyrgyz official to forcefully denounce “bride kidnapping,” an entrenched custom in her Central Asian state.

“Bride kidnapping is a tradition of the Kyrgyz people,” she acknowledged as she was preparing to leave the presidential palace on Nov. 29. “But these crimes often force women to commit suicide.”

Young men kidnap about 15,000 girls each year, Otunbayeva said. They simply grab a girl walking down the street, stuff her in the car, kicking and screaming, and take her home. He may rape her – or not. Either way, after she’s locked up overnight in an unrelated man’s house, the girl is unfit to wed anyone else. Her family won’t permit her to come home. So she’s forced to marry her kidnapper.

No one keeps precise statistics, but estimates suggest that half of Kyrgyz wives are married in this way. The outgoing president urged her people to stop romanticizing bride kidnapping and inaugurated a month-long campaign to fight the practice.

Around the world, numerous nations cling to longstanding traditions that, to Western eyes, seem barbarous – or worse. Most of them victimize girls.

In Northwestern Thailand, I interviewed a woman, one of many, preparing to sell her 12-year-old daughter to traffickers who would force her into prostitution. The mother intended to use the trafficker’s payment for her daughter to buy a new refrigerator. “It’s our tradition,” she explained.

In Saudi Arabia, centuries-old religious convention allows middle-aged men to marry prepubescent girls – some as young as 7 or 8 years old.

Pakistani officials use gang rape as a government-sanctioned punishment.

In Cameroon “breast ironing” remains an honored custom. After their daughters reach puberty, mothers heat a flat rock in the fire and then press it forcefully onto each of her daughter’s breasts – burning away breast tissue, leaving them flat-chested so avaricious young men will leave them alone.

“Breast ironing has existed as long as Cameroon has existed,” gynecologist Sinou Tchana told the Inter Press news service. Women “told us that it was normal for them.”

If it’s “normal for them,” how should Western societies regard practices like these? Anthropology’s “cultural relativism” rule suggests that we should not judge other countries by the standards of our own society. But some acts are just too vile, and cultural courtesies don’t stop human-rights groups from wagging their fingers at these states.
Brinkley is right. We avoid passing a judgment on these behaviors because we've bought into the paralyzing fallacy that moral right and wrong are matters of personal taste, and just as we should not criticize those who choose to eat roast dog meat so too should we refrain from criticizing those who press hot rocks to little girls' chests, or perform clitorectomies on young women, or practice "honor" killings, or shake crying babies until they suffer brain damage, or hold babies in scalding hot water.

When we can no longer say that these things are wrong no matter where they're practiced we're no longer a sophisticated, civilized people. We're barbarians.