What's all this cultural relativism about then?

Gillian Gibbons is freed and the Sudanese Government hasn’t made any contribution to the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion and that followers of Islam are not all fanatics ready to take umbrage at the slightest slur to their religion.

In the UK, it has been pleasing to see that the majority of people commenting, irrespective of their religion or lack thereof have been appalled by the actions of the Sudanese government; at all points there were choices both around the interpretation of the offence and the law and at every point the Sudanese establishment chose the most extreme action.

There has been though, throughout this, whether on BBC comments, Blogs or Any Answers a significant minority of people who have suggested that Gillian Gibbons only had herself to blame, as she should have known the law. She was in fact naive.

I think there is an enormous difference between causing offence and invoking the displeasure or irritation of whoever has been offending (and therefore being marked out as someone you wouldn’t want to spend time with) and being put in prison or lashed for it. The naming of a teddy bear does no physical harm to anybody.

I’m pretty much an atheist and don’t have much time for religion, but I’ve no real interest in going around deliberately causing offence to other people for the sake of it; I think that’s a waste of time, energy and just not very nice. But I believe passionately in free speech and therefore in my right to cause offence without being punished by a state for it.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience where, as an acutely left handed person, I am in danger of causing offence every time I go to the Middle East and without realising it pick up my bread to scoop up some food with my left hand. This is really, really bad table manners; I mean I might as well start picking my nose at the table (in fact, it’s much, much worse than that…but I don’t want to put you off your dinner). Should I be lashed or sent to prison because I have, with no malicious intention broken, in Meral Ece’s words, ‘a few of the cultural 'rules' we learn to live with’,? Sure, don’t invite me to dinner again, suggest I use a knife and fork rather than my hand (as people have) or just tell me plainly not to use my left hand (as an ex-fiancé’s brother once decreed), explain to me the error of my ways, but please don’t send me to prison for it!

Another analogy: this time looking the young woman the other week in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being in the company of a man she wasn’t related to ahead of being gang raped. Now, she is a Saudi, not just a visiting teacher, she surely knew the law? Do we all then sit back, fold our hands on our laps and say: ‘Well, she knew what the law was…how naïve of her!’. No, we don’t, because we know that her punishment under that law is an infringement of human rights, just as the response to Gillian Gibbons was by no means reasonable or just a harmless cultural difference. I make this point not out of a lack of respect for the rule of law in a given country but out of my greater respect for human rights.

Perhaps if Gillian Gibbons had got the lashings she was at risk of, instead of a very short prison sentence and pardon, then not as many people would have found it so easy to slip back into an ‘oh, well, it’s different there’ mentality; but remember it’s not just western primary school teachers that have no freedom of speech or apostasy in Sudan, is it?

Lots of people, from all religions or none know and understand this, I am sure, but lets not forget that human rights are for everybody, absolute and not subject to cultural relativism.


Gorilla Bananas said...
20 Dec 2007, 13:40:00

The left hand is used to clean the poo-hole in that part of the world.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
2 Jan 2008, 20:39:00

Why thank you, gorilla bananas; I was hoping that inference would do the trick! But hey!:-)

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