Grant Rants

I get feedback: Moral relativism and other silly ideas edition

- October 4th, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

A few days ago I wrote an editorial about IKEA’s decision to pretend women are invisible by removing them from the version of their catalogue in Saudi Arabia, a c0untry where women are treated mostly like chattel. Women cannot vote, get a job, or even open a bank account without the permission of a man. So to avoid offending Saudi sensibilities, IKEA digitally erased women from their catalogue. Starbucks has also gone down this road.

I find it appalling that a western company would, in the name of its singular pursuit of profit (which is all corporations exist to do) would contribute to the repression of women in the middle east. It appears, however, that not all of you share this view.

Consider the feedback from the Standard reader who goes by the handle “howdydo2″ who believes that while we might not like how women are treated in Saudi Arabia or some other middle eastern country, we have to accept and respect those nations’ cultural decisions:

not that i’m a fan of ikea, but unfortunately you have to respect other countries way of life. If you don’t like it, don’t live there. If you don’t live there, don’t tell them how to live

and again:

then don’t live there. For some reason western society thinks it is the only cultural way and should trump all. This is not the case, while i don’t agree with that countries view of women and culture, that is how it has been for hundreds of years and even to this present day. If you don’t like it, don’t live there

and again:

that is just it.. WESTERN free society, this is not the case over there and it is not your place to tell them how to live, think and feel. That country has its own culture, and it isn’t ours.

and finally:

“i still stand by my stance that it is not our place in “western society” to dictate how other countries should operate and what is “culturally acceptable”. Thanks to western society we have destroyed the nuclear family, dad goes to work, mom takes care of the kids and house. Now both me and my wife have to work, mind you we still live comfortably for today’s standards, i would prefer my wife (or I, it doesn’t matter to me as long as one spouse is at home and one works) could stay home and take care of the home and children. No, instead families have to look at early daycare, nursery schools, jk/sk, etc, IF they can afford it. Its all ass-backwards.”

The argument here is basically that a) all cultural activities are relative. What is good for us, is good for us and what is good for them is good for them. And we cannot criticize or question the cultural activities of others and b) since we are not perfect, what right do we have to be critical of others.

Nonsense.

Much of what I am about to say, in the interest of disclosure, is influenced by Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape.” A good overview of his central ideas can be seen in his recent TED talk and it is well worth your time to watch it:

Firstly, howdydo2′s primary point is, I think, ignoring some critical facts. First, the idea that because a cultural has been doing something for hundreds of years is not an argument in it’s defense, nor does it suggest some manner of moral and ethical equivalence to any other point of view. I mean, if a culture was keeping slaves for hundreds of years, do we therefore shrug our shoulders and say “well that is what is good for them, even if we don’t like it?”

Are we to say the Taliban’s brutal suppression of women when they ruled Afghanistan is “ok” because, well, that is their culture? Or you know, this bit of the burning stupid?

Further, howdydo2 is not asking the question Harris asks. What does voluntary mean in a society where if a woman fails to act in a fashion that the men who run her society approve can be brutally punished, even killed? How is that “voluntary?” How is that person “choosing” to live in such a fashion? What howdydo2 and those who subscribe to this kind of cultural relativism don’t seem to grasp is that the women in this cultures don’t have a meaningful choice to make. It’s not even an option. So the entire argument of “that is their culture and if they don’t like it they shouldn’t live there” is hopelessly naive.

Finally, this sort of talk ultimately says that questions of human suffering are ultimately unanswerable and are all relative to their cultural context. We think the subjection of women is bad, the Saudi’s do not and there is no way to determine which is superior. Nonsense. Either the values of freedom and equality, the bedrock of our democracies in the west, have an intrinsic value or they do not. Either freedom, education, and the right the choose are things worth fighting for and promoting or they are not. Either democracy is superior to a tyranny or it is not. To claim that all points of view are equal is to say that nothing we value is worth very much at all.

No, as Harris points out, there are basic questions about human suffering and flourishing that HAVE answers. There may be multiple answers, but we can say with some certainty that women having no lives save for that which their owners men allow is not a path to such flourishing. Moreover, IKEA and Starbucks and other corporations, by lowering themselves to embrace the cultural (and sometimes violent) misogyny of Saudi Arabia in the pursuit of greater profits are therefore endorsing those cultural practices. In other words, when IKEA erases women from its Saudi catalogue, it is saying treating women like pets is OK. And by doing so, IKEA was contributing to the suffering of women in that country.

That is unacceptable.

Categories: Isn't it absurd?, News, politics, religion

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5 comments

  1. howdydo2 says:

    “Are we to say the Taliban’s brutal suppression of women when they ruled Afghanistan is “ok” because, well, that is their culture? Or you know, this bit of the burning stupid?”

    so instead Grant you are O.K. with North America (western society) invading a country, bombing it, destroying most of its civilization, executing its leaders/politicians, and then picking out who should become the new leader of said country and monitor their every move and action, basically become a shadow dictator of that country in a sense.

    You want to argue another countries culture, where do we draw the line? Do we stop with women’s rights?, what about children? maybe we should tell them their religion is not acceptable either and ban that? Oh and how they dress too, covering themselves is so old testament, they should wear thongs and booty shorts. It goes on and on, but where do we draw the line?

    • grant.lafleche says:

      Well to start with, the war in Afghanistan isn’t the issue, although removing the Taliban from power was a very, very good thing.

      Also you did not watch the Sam Harris video, did you? Answers your questions to a considerable degree.

      To your point, however, where is the line drawn? That is an easy question to answer. No one is advocating, as you weirdly seem to think, telling women in another country how to dress. Women should be free to wear whatever they wish, be it booty shorts or a veil. The point you are not getting here is that in most middle eastern countries, there is no choice. It’s cover up or be punished and that punishment is severe, usually employing extreme violence. In some of those countries, that involves the use of battery acid to the face or outright executions.

      So where do we draw the line? We draw the line by saying that people should be free to live and express themselves as they like. If a woman wants to wear a veil she can. If not, she doesn’t have to. We draw the line by saying the state doesn’t get to punish people for what they wear. Imprisoning, beating or killing a women for how she chooses to dress, or denying her the right to make a living or drive a car, is unacceptable. You have to choose whether you will have the fortitude to say that.

      No one is talking about banning a religion or telling women and children what to wear. I am saying the EXACT opposite of what you are, incorrectly, saying I am putting forward. I am saying we don’t turn a blind eye to the subjection of women, honour killing, blasphemy laws and the like. People suffering, often greatly, because of these things. And we ought not to be silent when western corporations contribute to this suffering by (sometimes tacitly ) endorsing it.

      The entire problem with your line of thinking, with the notion of cultural relativism where pretty much everything is ok, is that you have chosen to turn a blind eye to human suffering. Women are treated by chattel? Not a problem because it’s “their culture.” This is unacceptable. Either the values of freedom and equality are intrinsically important or they are not. You have to chose what position you want to take.

      I also find it odd that you think by pointing out where the west may have something wrong, that means we cannot work to defend the rights of women aboard. It’s a fairly naive point of view, particularly when, for all our faults, our society treats women in a vastly better way than in the middle east. Pointing out where we stumble doesn’t change the fact that you are directly saying its ok for a woman who be trodden upon in the middle east and excuse that view by advocating a cultural relativism in which any atrocity can be excused.

      • grant.lafleche says:

        I will also repeat the question I posed above to you: are you saying we should say nothing when the Taliban or like group murders women for the imagined slight of not covering up enough, or daring to be an independent human being who can act without being controlled by a male “guardian”? Will you say that the way the Taliban, treats women is simply wrong?

  2. Your writing gives me hope that things are changing. I remember years and years ago listening to Barbara Frum on As It Happens talking to someone about the plight of the women in Afghanistan. No schooling, no health care. It took us long enough to get there and then we abandoned those women and girls when our troops left.

    Anyway I look forward to your ‘rants’!

    And thanks for including the Ted video. He speaks the truth.

    I have just discovered your online blog but I’m having trouble reading it. I can’t figure out how to get rid of the advertising on the right side of the screen. It covers about 1/4 of your text. Is there another site I can go to or is there a way to disable to sidebar advertising?

    • grant.lafleche says:

      Thank you for the comments Francie.

      What are you using to view the site? I’m told if you are using something like an ipad you may need to turn it to see it.

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