Friday, November 13, 2009

"Barbaric cultural practices"

I've been doing a little self-interrogation about my discomfort with the phrase quoted, from Jason Kenney's spanking-new Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship. (There's a fine spoof of the pamphlet here, although I'm not entirely opposed to its revised emphases, which include references to some of the darker chapters in our history.)

Here's what Kenney himself has to say:

We want to make sure that these people understand that multiculturalism doesn't create an excuse to engage in those barbaric cultural practices.

The practices he cites
--"honour" killings, genital mutilation, forced marriages--should certainly be illegal. Nor do I confuse cultural relativism (a method of inquiry) with moral relativism, a mistake too often made by anthropological illiterates. Understanding is one thing: condoning is quite another. To know all is not to forgive all.

So as a budding anthropologist, I nevertheless reject slavery, torture and genocide, all "cultural" imperatives at one time in the US, more recently in Germany, and today in Darfur.

But let's be wary of that tricky word "culture." The closer one examines it, the less meaningful it appears. In countries where genital mutilation is practised, there are also movements opposed to it--are they not part of the local "culture" as well? "Culture" is not determined by a majority vote, it changes ceaselessly, it absorbs and transforms elements of other cultures, and is absorbed and transformed by them. I'm one of those who finds the word "culture" more a hindrance than a help in anthropological inquiry.

Back, then, to the Kenney formulation and my unease with it. Am I bothered by his phrasing because I am reluctant to see other "cultures" judged by his absolute standards? Not precisely. It simply strikes me as at once too broad and too narrow. And like other initiatives from this government, there's a whiff of partisan politics in the air.

I could quibble about the word "barbaric," referring to an alleged stage of human cultural evolution in our inevitable progress to "civilization." No serious anthropologist takes that unilinear view any more: there's been a lot of water under the bridge since Lewis Henry Morgan. The term these days is simply pejorative, in any case. It means "bad," and "uncivilized," and carries with it connotations of cruelty and excess.

My teeth are always set on edge when someone uses phrases like "these people."* Who are those barbarians at our gates? Are all people from those "cultures" equally keen on stoning, amputations and "honour" killings? If so, why would they want to come to a relaxed, relatively liberal country like ours? I suggest that some, in fact most, of "these people do so at least in part to get away from practices that they abhor as much as native-born Canadians.

I admit that I'm speculating, and there are certainly well-publicized exceptions, but the implicit suggestion that all of "these people require Kenney's gentle civilizing touch is far too broad and one-dimensional. Worse, it perpetuates stereotypes, which by definition are over-generalizations about "these the "people" to whom Kenney is implicitly referring.

More troubling is the notion of "barbaric cultural practices." The problem with this phrasing is that "barbaric," on one level or another, seems to modify "cultural" as well as, or rather than, "practices." I'm not being pedantic here: dismissing entire cultures with a magnificent handwave as "barbaric" reduces the notion of "culture" to a handful of abhorrent practices carried out by some members of the culture in question. That's ethnocentric, and it plays into the boneheaded
hérouxvillisme that constitutes the bedrock of Conservative electoral support.

Stressing gender equality in Canada is a fine addition to the old citizenship guide, if a tad hypocritical on the government's part. Arguing that it's a cultural value--that "Canadian culture" is monolithic in this respect, or indeed in any other--is pushing things a bit, unless we want to argue that your average right-wing blogger and the "pro-life" movement are "unCanadian." But it's a useful injunction to immigrants (as well as to the native-born).

I only wish that Kenney had left it thus, rather than using his new guide as
yet another stick to beat "these certain "people" with. The dogwhistles, even for an old Dawg like me, are ear-shattering.

*CORRECTION: Two of my commenters--regular sparring partners "fergusrush" and "jimmy durante"-- are absolutely right: Kenney said "people," not "these people." Mea culpa, and I'm happy to correct the record. But to what "people" is Kenney referring? While he did not make the slip that I thought I had read, the dogwhistles sound just about as shrill--at least to me.

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