Sunday, 14 June 2015

Cultural Norms are not an excuse for acting inhumanely, or illegally

Jenny McCartney in the Sunday Times commented on Mrs Justice Pauffley’s ruling that appears to allow children to be hit by parents, on “cultural grounds”.  The father concerned was also alleged to have beaten his wife horribly.  The mitigation, I believe it only applied in relation to beating his child, appears to be that “recently arrived immigrants” may had different cultural norms and that it takes time for them to adjust.  In this case I don’t believe the gentleman concerned had recently arrived on our shores, but even if he had, it made me wonder how long exactly after arriving in the UK was a person allowed in order to become familiar with, and to adjust to, our cultural norms?  And which aspects of British culture are immigrants expected to adopt (presumably not all since we are supposed to olive in a multi-cultural society)?

As a minimum surely people should abide by the law.  If the laws of this country mean beating your wife or your child is a crime, then so be it.  It matters not a jot that the perpetrator has just stepped off a plane from  half way round the world, because if you want to come and live in this country then you should accept the rule of our laws.  It is often said that ignorance of the law is no excuse, so why should it be any different for a new arrival  (though I suppose there could be mitigation of the punishment, and that is part of our justice system anyway).   Of course we also ought to enforce these laws, which is another issue.

We should also avoid calling our cultural "errors" for fear of being branded racist.  Trevor Philips in the Daily Mail, argued that making excuses for immigrants is not liberal, but racist; that liberals are afraid to challenge unacceptable behaviour by members of ethnic minorities for fear of being called racist, and that this is itself racist.  I applaud the the underlying tenet of the article, but this is nonsensical.  Racism means treating a person or persons unreasonably or unfairly purely on the basis of their race, or ethnicity. It is too much of a stretch to say that includes letting them get away with things that other members of society cannot.   The term  racist is used quite often enough by members of minority ethnic groups as an accusation against anyone and everyone who challenges cultural practices and even accuses them of wrongdoing (breaking the law).  This is enough abuse of the term without Mr Phillips piling on more.   I agree that there is something wrong if people look the other way, for fear of being accused of racism, but that is not itself racist.  For if fear of being called racist is racism in itself we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Take what in British culture we would regard as misogynistic behaviour for example.  Should we accept involuntary arranged marriages, women walking a respectful few feet behind their husbands, or religious texts that are use to justify restricting women’s participation in civil society (this is not anti- any particular religion by the way; it applies just as much to more conservative forms of all world religions).  I think the libertarian view is that if women choose of their own free will, and with all the information they need at their disposal,to follow a way of life that is different from our British cultural norms they should be allowed to do so. But is it really a free choice if the behaviour is a cultural norm?  Not many people voluntarily cut themselves off from family and community; it is so much easier just to “fit in”.  

Female modesty is interpreted differently by different cultures, although of course the rules in most cases were not set by women.   But while in most of Western Europe we are relaxed enough to allow people to dress the way they like (but not to take off all your clothes in public places, with the exception of a few parks in Germany, whether in a religiously sensitive location or not, idiotic western tourists to Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu please note), I think many people (OK, “UK or Irish  white” as one might tick on an ethnicity questionnaire) are still uncomfortable about dealing with someone who, say, covers their face in social or commercial situations (Lets be clear, wearing niqab or Burka is not a religious obligation, it is a cultural choice, or the majority of Muslim women in the world would be haram).

So should we allow people to cover their faces in public?  It is not illegal (except in France) so the answer must be yes, but only a qualified yes.  In our culture we generally think that if a person covers their face, it is to disguise their feelings, intent or identity.  Bandits cover their faces and bank clerks don’t have to deal with people in motorcycle helmets, while on a more personal level, facial expressions are part of the way we communicate.  So I don’t see why a judge should have to deal with a witness who covers her face, or why I should have to seek help from a local council official wearing a face mask.  But If I were to complain there would sure as eggs are eggs be a chorus accusing me of “racism” or perhaps “islamophobia”.

Of course the law also allows for free speech, but increasingly cultural, and religious (because as far as I am concerned this is also cultural) are considered areas where we should be sensitive to other people’s points of view.  We should be free to object to someone else’s culture or religion, and also to find someone else’s comments offensive, but not to take the law into our own hands or act belligerently or threateningly in response.  And anyway in the UK there are there are cultural norms like respect for others which surely go beyond the law. 

Is this not the most important aspect of our culture; if we can discuss our differences openly, without risk and, if you don’t think this is too old fashioned, with politeness and good manners, then there is no need to accuse or be accused of racism or cultural insensitivity.  And if you are so sensitive as to object to challenge or criticism  of your cultural or religious norms, then perhaps you should keep them private and not express your views in public space.  Unless they are illegal, like thrashing children or your spouse, in which case you should desist altogether.

No comments:

Post a Comment