The Cult of Tolerance
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The Cult of Tolerance

The Cult of Tolerance

We can start with some thought experiments. Suppose that you are an explorer and you come across a tribe of cannibals in the forest you are visiting. Should you respect the custom of the locals and let them go about their business or should you try to talk these people out of this barbaric practice and, if that fails, stop them by force? Should you, in other words, leave them alone or should you intervene? This is roughly a choice between adopting an interventionist and an isolationist policy. In this particular case, it seems that the only defensible course of action is to intervene. We should not leave them alone. Cannibalism is wrong, and we have a duty to prevent it if we can.

But suppose now that, in pursuing this interventionist route, the cannibals complain that you are interfering with their way of life. It is arrogant, they say, for you to suppose that your Western, anti- cannibalist values are superior to their pro-cannibalist values. By intervening, you fail to recognize their autonomy, and you impose your values onto others. Since such acts assume the superiority of one’s own set of values, they are paternalistic and fail to show others respect.

The above example is fictional, but it exaggerates a problem that is real in modern society. Although we are not explorers, we inhabit an increasingly globalized and interconnected world. We thus frequently come into contact with people whose values and shared practices are as foreign to us as those of the cannibal tribe. When such practices are harmless, there is no objection to simply letting people do what they wish. But when such practices are, by our lights, open to moral criticism, we are torn between the choice we face in the thought experiment. On the one hand we feel obliged to intervene to prevent what we perceive as atrocities. On the other, we want to respect other people’s way of life, and indeed we are sometimes reminded to mind our own business when we pursue interventionist policies.

The first aim of this article is to point out that in these situations, we in the West are biased in favor of isolationist policies. Modern society, with its emphasis on the autonomy of individuals, tends to unthinkingly apply the same autonomy-first philosophy to groups as well. When the value of autonomy is placed on groups and not on individuals, the consequence is that we sacrifice important moral values for the sake of showing other cultures and communities respect. We should therefore reconsider our general support for isolationist policies. The second aim, in this article, is to suggest that we should be more open to pursuing interventionist policies.

The kind of problem we have been describing is sharply manifested in the context of gender equality. Such cases arise when we interact with people from religious traditions or cultural backgrounds that do not share our commitment to (or at least our understanding of) gender-equal norms. When we confront, for instance, immigrant communities that defend polygamy, female genital mutilation, or unequal inheritance arrangements on the grounds that such practices are essential to their cultural identity, an uneasy tension emerges between our commitment to gender equality and our commitment to multicultural tolerance. In such cases, we are made to decide between respecting the autonomy of these groups and imposing our moral standards onto those who defend sexist practices under the auspices of their cultural heritage.

Perhaps the most striking example of the Western bias against intervention is a 2007 German court case. The case involves a German Muslim woman in an abusive relationship, whose request for a speedy divorce was rejected by the judge on the grounds that – and this is quote from the judge: “in [her] cultural background […] it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against

the wife”.1The intention of this judge is no doubt well-meaning – trying as she was to respect cultural differences, but the ruling is morally horrific. In a confused affirmation of cultural tolerance, the judge sided with a physically abusive spouse. By permitting such acts, she is, in an important way, complicit in perpetuating domestic violence, since offenders now see that they can get away with such crimes as long as abusive practices are permitted by their culture. It sets a repugnant legal precedent according to which domestic violence is acceptable if it is sanctioned by the offender’s religious or cultural tradition.

Countless other such cases exist.2The above example involves an institutional sanction of gender- based violence, but other, non-political organizations are also inclined to take the view that in such conflicts of values, non-interventionist policies are to be preferred. In Saudi Arabia for instance, companies such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks conform to local customs by maintaining segregated seating zones for men and women, where the “men’s sections are typically lavish, comfortable and up to Western standards, whereas the women’s or families’ sections are often run- down, neglected and, in the case of Starbucks, have no seats”.3These companies defend such arrangements by appealing, as we have come to expect, to the need to respect local customs. But in showing such respect they are complicit in perpetuating gender-based discrimination.

It is perhaps surprising that, given our otherwise vocal support for gender equality in the West, we should be so tolerant of oppressive and discriminatory practices when they are defended as “cultural”. If we truly believe that abused women have a right to divorce their husbands, or that it is wrong for seats in restaurants to be so arranged that only men are entitled to the good spots, then why do we tend to act as if we do not when we are presented with the “cultural” defense?

One reason, which has been gestured at, is our reluctance to impose our values onto others. We treat groups as if they were individuals, and suppose that it is a violation of their autonomy for us to act paternalistically. But the idea that groups have the same claim to autonomy as individuals is highly problematic. It first requires the assumption that members of the group all subscribe to the same set of values, such that the collective can be treated as a singular, coherent, deliberating agent. But this is never the case. Even when it comes to people who belong to the same group – the same religion, the same political party, and so on – they inevitably deviate from one another in the details of their beliefs and convictions. The result of respecting group rights as opposed to individual rights is thus that dissenting members of a given group are underrepresented, or not represented at all. Only the interests of the dominant majority are recognized. Thus the interests of women in gender-biased cultures are often neglected since they belong to groups that are led and represented by men.

Respecting group rights leads, absurdly, to the consequence that individual rights become ignored. The abused woman in the cited court case for example, was never asked whether she endorsed the cited Koranic passages. She simply had her beliefs interpreted for her by the judge.

The mistake of respecting the autonomy of groups consists in shifting the unit of moral concern from the individual to the group. We should not regard the Workers, the Hindus, the Teachers Union, or the Immigrants as units of moral concern whose “will” we should somehow take to be morally important. Only individual workers, individual Hindus, individual teachers, or individual

immigrants deserve to have their autonomy recognized. In deciding the legitimacy of a shared practice, the question we should ask ourselves is not whether gender biased practices are approved of by various cultures or religions in which they are practiced. The question we should ask is whether individual women consent to these practices. Our bias in favor of isolationist policies depends on the assumption that groups are entitled to claims of autonomy similar to those of the individual. But when we see that that is not the case, we should reconsider our knee-jerk resistance to interventionist policies.

When we clarify this distinction between groups and individuals, we can avoid much of the more difficult debate over the clash of civilizations or cultures. In my imagined cannibal case, we do not need to address the more substantive, first-order moral question over whether cannibalism is wrong. We can simply ask whether those who are being eaten can agree to such treatment, and not ask – as we tend to – whether the tribe as a whole affirm the legitimacy of the arrangement. In the case of the abused woman mentioned above, it is no longer necessary to regard it as an instance of Western vs. non-Western values. This is because the morally important question is not whether the non-Western culture to which the woman belongs approves of domestic violence. The morally important  question is whether the individual woman herself approves of such violence. Similarly in the case  of US fast food companies in Saudi Arabia, the question is not whether Saudi Arabian culture approves of seating arrangements in which women are less favorably placed. The question is whether individual Saudi women agree to being so treated.

The cultural defense poses a sizable barrier to the push for gender equality. It would, however, be remiss to end on a pessimistic note. Although the problems mentioned above are challenging, more and more have become aware of it, and more has been done to address the issue. In the 57th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women this year, the commission has urged specifically for states to “refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations” when it comes to eliminating violence against women.4It is too soon to tell if such “urging” will prove to be effective. But this is progress of sorts, given how pitifully shy our political institutions have been in the past when they were confronted with the cultural defense. An official recognition of the issue is at least the beginning of a much needed change.

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