Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"I try to be tolerant, but..."

Is a dangerous phrase, I know.

That said, I don't know what to do with traditions that I want to respect, but that treat women in ways I can't abide. (Actually, to me it feels like all traditions once treated women in ways I can't abide, some traditions are getting over it better than others. My culture is doing a better job of it than most.)

I am at a loss as to how to deal with it. I know an Arab guy whom I rarely see, luckily, who has a lot of ideas about women that I don't agree with. Whenever he lets loose with one of his little comments, I worry that to challenge him on it is sort of racist given his culture. But I can't help but think less of him. Maybe the assumption that his view comes from his background is itself racist.

My smart friend Pam was raised Baptist. When she came home from Sunday school and lectured her father that drinking alcohol was a sin, he would say “Believe everything but that.”

That’s what I want to say. “All cultures are equal, except when you get to the part about treating women as another species. Believe everything but that.”

Yet picking and choosing the cultural views that don’t clash too badly with my own doesn’t seem like a big improvement tolerance-wise.

This all comes to mind because of this article reminded me of one of his rants, although ironically it is by a Rabbi.

This is a serious reservation I have about teaching that all cultures are equally good. I want to believe that, but I look at how, for example, the Rabbi I've just linked to seems to think that mothers should hide breastfeeding from fathers as not to de-eroticize womens' breasts, and I know that in a lot of cultures these statements are perfectly reasonable.

It gave me pause to type "my culture is better at it than most" in the first paragraph, though I guess I tend to believe that other cultures do a better job on some things than my own culture does. But, perhaps for cultural reasons, those things are never things that are as important to me as some of the things like women's rights that I believe my own culture does a better job with. I don't want to believe that my culture's beliefs are superior to any other.

But what about when I do?

who is pretty sure she's missing something, but isn't sure what that thing is.


Epilonious said...

I'd say you're missing the idea that intolerance is Ok if it's your intolerance of their intolerance.

It's not like your condemning Arab guy for his thoughts... and really it just sounds like you want to say "I don't agree and you aren't convincing me" ... and there isn't anything wrong with that.

I don't even think it's particularly impolite as much as it is avoiding disingenuity: "wow, to me that idea seems incredibly fubar because [long list of reasons that blast apart the stereotypes on which bad assumptions are based]." I'd say it's just as racist to go "I can't reason logically about why that is a shitty way to treat women, because it's imbued in his culture and discussions about it are bound to be upsetting".

powderblue said...

This may be basically a repeat of epilonious’ point. We need to be respectful of others’ views, and the culture and traditions that support them, but that does not make them off-limits to criticism and appeals for change.

Culture and traditions are not fixed. They evolve, and generally for the better in my opinion. Over generations we humans get better, however slowly and unevenly, at applying “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and at enlarging the definition of “others.” How could some traditions not change as a result?

Coincidentally, and on the related topic of culture-supported cruelty, this quote was emailed to me today:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are anger and courage --
anger at the way things are; courage to see that they do not remain as
they are.” – St. Augustine

indrax said...

The use of reason has to trump the free search at some point, or it's all just pointless babble.

Anonymous said...

Why do you want to teach that "all cultures are equally good."?

Anonymous said...

I don't think tolerance means uncritical acceptance. Tolerance means making sure that criticism of other cultural viewpoints is based on understanding and reason.

Intolerance is just hating another culture or deeming it inferior because it is different. I don't see anything wrong however with criticizing practices and attitudes of other cultures if it is done intelligently and knowledgeably. We have to make value judgments.

PG said...

I think there are versions of every culture that are equally good (i.e. contribute just as well to human flourishing) depending on circumstances. For example, polygamy made sense in a situation where so many young men had died in war, and life was too primitive (based on upper body strength and other attributes inherent to men) for women alone to survive. So I have no time for the reactionary Christians who condemn Islam because Muhammad had multiple wives, including one who was an adolescent when they were married (Gandhi and his wife were married as children -- that doesn't mean they had sex, mind-in-the-gutter folks).

But I also have no time for Muslims who think that a family structure that made sense a thousand years ago still ought to be the way we live, and that anything that makes that structure seem stupid (women's education, independence, modern life generally) is a threat to be destroyed. I think traditions ought to fit to human beings, rather than cutting the people, Procrustes style, to fit the tradition.