He was arrested at 13. Now Saudi Arabia wants to execute him
Cultural sensitivity. Multiculturalism, the recognition of the legitimacy of different cultures and cultural practices, the acceptance of those cultures and practices different from one’s own, the celebration of cultures; all of this is good until it isn’t.
I was asked several months ago to edit a volume of a journal and I agreed to do so if I were allowed to call for articles that would serve the cause of cultural criticism, investigations into the effects of culture on real human beings as they live their lives under the influence of culture. I wrote a very long call for papers that was meant to serve as the lead article of the edition. I tried to encourage writers to think more deeply than I think most do about the real consequences of culture on human beings and their societies and I did emphasize my preference for articles that would investigate the negative effects of culture. I had read in and knew there to be thousands of articles celebrating the goodness of culture and calling upon people to excuse some of the problematic aspects of cultures other than their own.
I knew that those involved in multiculturalism as an academic area of study were very much prone to find ways to be supportive of culture, defenders of cultural diversity and the acceptance of cultures and cultural practices because that is what the field of study called upon them to do, this because multicultural studies came into being as a response to cross cultural ignorance and the prevalence of sociocentric beliefs and attitudes, particularly in the “advanced” western societies—culturally valued beliefs and attitudes, by the way—that were so terribly biased as to allow for the ill-treatment of those whose cultural beliefs and practices were different. Slavery and genocide had historically been made justifiable by the inculcation of cultural beliefs that made others lesser and so worthless as to excuse their exploitation, mutilation, torture, and execution.
The multicultural movement sprung from truly humane motives and a good amount of the work that came of multicultural studies served to change the way in which cultural, as an aspect of the human condition, was treated. Acceptance of difference was what it encouraged and greater acceptance of difference did take place.
At some point, the question has to arise as to what, within the broad range of cultural belief and cultural practice is unacceptable. No one willing to be properly open minded and humane could deny that there exist beliefs that led to and excuse practices that were patently wrong, patently inhumane.
The papers I received for the journal failed to address the question I asked, failed to examine with depth and blunt honesty the problematic nature of culture. I, in my call, had made the claim that culture is constraining and a force for conformity. I said that it caused most human beings to kept from discovering their own minds, disallowed the quest for the development of unique individual perspectives, this for the sake of the preservation of the culture, to indemnify culture from the kind of criticism that could expose faults and lead to positive change.
I have never advocated against any movement aimed at improving intercultural understanding, that worked to ensure fair treatment of all no matter what the beliefs held are or the behavior those beliefs inspired, or adherents enforced. Fair treatment, though, I have always believed, is treatment of individuals as individuals who deserve respect for who they are as individuals, this meaning that any act that impedes their development as individuals, that deprives them of individual freedom, particularly freedom of mind, must be understood to be inhumane. There is much that is approved and sanctioned by culture that is exactly this and, if the process of humanization that Paulo Freire speaks of is to be allowed to go on and change the world for the better, than honest discussion of culture needs to take place even if this is offensive to some, particularly those using cultural to do harm to others.