Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Uncovering Cultural Dissent

Two Muslim women, Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa, have an editorial in the Washington Post objecting to persons wearing a hijab as expressions of cultural solidarity with Muslim women. It is perhaps a sign of the times that I initially assumed the objection would be on cultural appropriation grounds. But actually, Nomani and Arafa contend that demanding women wear a hijab (and the authors also object to the term) is an unduly restrictive interpretation of the Koran promoted by conservative Muslim groups in order to repress women. The solidaristic impulses of persons partaking in "World Hijab Day" are in effect promoting as authentic a particular conservative interpretation of Islam that is oppressive to women.

I'm obviously unqualified to weigh in on the theological debates. But the column raises some difficult questions regarding the project of cultural solidarity. There seem to be two main tacks one can take. On the one hand, one can affirm the rights of the culture as it is commonly presented. The problem is that this, in effect, means reifying the power of the dominant actors within a given culture, at the expense of dissidents promoting alternative views (this was a point raised by Timothy Burke when talking about "cultural appropriation, see also Madhavi Sunder's superb article Cultural Dissent for more on this). This, of course, is what the authors are objecting to: by treating the hijab as the quintessential requirement of what Islam requires out of women, "solidaristic" women act to marginalize feminist dissidents within Islam that reject the hijab's mandatory place within the faith.

The other approach some take is to look for particular elements within a culture whose values seem to be consonant with one's own, and stand with those persons. Most western feminists in their own lives would, of course, fervently reject any demand that they wear a head scarf or otherwise obscure their bodies in a particular way. So they would express solidarity with Muslim women by expressing solidarity with those women who (like Nomani and Arafa) are struggling for similar liberation from oppressive gender norms within their own culture. The problem with this strategy is that it feels quite a bit like cherry-picking. Indeed, it's not clear how it's a form of solidarity at all: one isn't actually interested in cultural rights qua cultural rights, but is taking an external set of value preferences and hoping that the culture converts to adopt them.

There are no doubt some who read that last paragraph and thought "so what?" But one of the motivating instincts behind respecting cultures qua cultures, at least to some degree, is a justified suspicion that we lack a sufficiently thick socio-historical understanding of the relevant norms of the culture so as to be confident in our appraisals of what their particular practices really "mean". "Anything sounds bad out of context," after all, and context is often lacking when one is gazing at a distant culture from afar. Couple that with lingering attitudinal biases which can color one's appraisals of the relevant culture and there are good reasons to be appropriately cautious about one's instincts. That goes double when somebody from the culture comes up and starts saying exactly what you want to hear about it. These worries -- and they are legitimate ones; they're a large part of why I think some form of "respect for culture" is important -- are I think what prompts folks to swing sharply to the other side and adopt an uncritical solidaristic position (which I also think is ultimately harmful and untenable).

So there is a real difficulty here, and one has to be judicious between taking others as they are and a sort of blind "solidarity" which ends up being a rote ratification of pre-existing power. Culture is as it does, and I tend to reject claims that Islam "really" does or "really" doesn't require the hijab (and I view claims about what "is" authentically Jewish or American or what have you in the same way). These things are contestable and are borne out by practice. As a liberal, it is important to me that people have the right to engage in these contestations, so I think we should be appropriately skeptical of simply jumping in to affirm one side of the debate over the other. Ultimately, I think we need to respect the right of dissidents to dissent, but also need to engage with cultures as they are and not assume that they are simply being outrageous when there seems to be a divergence from our own view. Cherry-picking is what gets us "I'm not racist, Herman Cain agrees with me" or "I'm not anti-Semitic, some of my best friends are JVP", and that's not really a satisfactory response. The point is that actually respecting cultures while respecting cultural dissidents is difficult work, that requires considerable intellectual adroitness beyond that which is often admitted by the pure "solidarity" model.


EW said...

Some of this reflects the problems of demonstrating “solidarity” rather than mere support.

In the US St. Patrick’s Day became a day for showing solidarity with Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, while Columbus Day became the Italian equivalent. These demonstrations arguably played an important social role during eras when Irish and Italian Americans faced great discrimination, and the act of asserting pride in this identity was subversive and counter-cultural. But it comes at a cost. Not all Irish wish to be associated with Catholicism and drinking; not all Italians wish to associate themselves with imperialism, conquest, and colonialism.

We might say the same of the Black Power Movement, with its aggrandizement of black men arguably at the expense of black women. We might say the same of the Gay Pride events which tended to celebrate a youthful and overtly promiscuous male culture, while sidelining more modest folk.

And arguably solidarity with Israel long implied solidarity with AIPAC and a rather hawkish stand regarding Palestinians and foreign policy.

But as Schraub notes, if we merely stand up for the aspects of some movement that we like while discarding the rest, can we really call it solidarity?
For most purposes, I don’t care. I think it makes sense to support what you support, and not to pretend to support what you don’t support. If that doesn’t meet someone’s concept of solidarity, so what?

But for broad political purposes, it may not make a lot of sense to attempt to parse these issues too closely. When someone organizes a parade, I can participate or not, but I won't participate to show general support while carrying a placard denoting all the points of disagreement I have with the organizers.

And this reflects the nature of culture in general: people differ, even when they arguably share a culture. The same Iranian who shouts “Death to America” at a rally may be wearing Nike shoes and revel in Americana. So the idea that some individual or group owns any aspect of a culture and can define its true purpose and use is a fiction.

If I take a yoga class, this may offend some Hindus sincerely – and may gratify other Hindus sincerely. I don’t mean to be unduly dismissive of either group’s reaction. But everything’s a trade-off. I make my choice, I acknowledge that I’m the one making the choice, and I move on.

Unknown said...

I don't understand this talk about respecting cultures. A "culture" is a group of (loosely) historically connected ideas. Ideas come and go, some are good for people, some cause atrocities. Why on earth would you respect them? Bear in mind that, if people had "respected the traditional culture" of the Southern American states, slavery could never have been abolished. Antisemitism was an important part of my grandparents' traditional culture, as it had been for their ancestors for two thousand years.

David Schraub said...

Jane: Surely there are bad cultural elements that have led to terrible atrocities (if I denied that, it wouldn't make sense to argue in favor of a right to cultural dissent). But it is equally clear that disrespect for (others') culture has had equally disastrous effects (consider European colonizers who saw the need to "civilize" natives whose cultures they viewed as savage). Respect for culture is another way of saying "respect for autonomy": that other polities and communities have a presumptive (perhaps rebuttable) right to structure themselves and their practices however they please, even if we don't find those practices to our tastes.

Less contentiously, it is clear that people value culture, they like being a part of cultural groups and they dislike it when these clusters of ideas and practices are threatened with obliteration. All else equal (and often all else is not equal), that seems like a valid entrant into our moral calculus.