Saturday, May 09, 2009

Line in the sand

No, a thousand times no.

Hasibullah Sadiqi is on trial in Ottawa for shooting his sister and her fiancé in what is being described as an "honour killing." And it appears that the defence team will concede that he indeed shot the couple, but argue provocation.

This cannot stand, any more than a similar defence for Christian parents who beat their children to death because they think God told them to.

In the latter case, one might argue insanity. In the former, it appears that the defence counsel will argue culture. From the article in the
Ottawa Citizen:

Although Sadiqi came to Canada when he was very young, he had a "profound attachment" to his heritage, which shaped his views of relationships between men and women, [Crown Attorney Mark] Moors said. The Crown intends to lead expert testimony regarding honour killings, he said.

The defence will not dispute the fact that Sadiqi was responsible for the killings. Natasha Calvinho, one of Sadiqi's lawyers, told the jury that the case centres on the classification of the homicides.

She and the rest of the defence team, it appears, would like to get the charge bumped down to manslaughter. Perhaps we should all be grateful that they aren't arguing for an outright acquittal.

The phrase "cultural relativism" is poorly understood, and is often badly misused by anthropological illiterates to mean "anything goes, so long as it's what a group of people has always done before, or decides to do now." Such commentators should take Anthropology 101. Cultural relativism is about understanding other lifeways (I don't like the word "culture" much, as I indicate below): it is an epistemological approach, not a moral one.

Briefly stated, it is an attempt to understand other lifeways on their own terms, rather than through the lens of our own. It was pioneered by Franz Boas as a refreshing alternative to earlier classificatory methodologies (I'm thinking Lewis Henry Morgan here), containing the notion of cultural evolution and heavily overlayed with imperial assumption: "their present is our past; our present is their future."

Understanding, however, does not imply condonation; or else, for example, we would look at the Third Reich as an instance of cultural expression (which of course it was) and proceed to excuse the Holocaust as simply "what Germans did."

I use that reductio for two reasons. First, to indicate the gulf that actually exists between cultural relativism and moral relativism. And secondly, to make the point that there is no such thing as a culture, in the sense of a bounded whole, a thing in itself, some kind of essence. Of course Nazism is what some Germans did; others fought against it, and still others were indifferent. "Cultures" are made up of people and their interactions and their symbology and their relations to "the environment." (I prefer to see humans as a part of the environment, not apart from "it.") Hence they are always in flux, cannot be pinned down, and in fact do not exist apart from the people who live them.

Obviously it is important to understand the significance of honour killings; how such a notion arises, and why, in the lifeways of groups of people. But it is equally important to oppose them, as, no doubt, sundry members of those "cultures" do as well--a key point, I think.

In Canada such things have remained somewhat abstract until recently. We are a nation of laws, or so many of us believe, and that, as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reminds us, includes the notion that we are equal before the law. Yes, there are wrinkles--aboriginal sentencing circles, for example, which, as a form of restorative justice, mesh uneasily with the practice if not the concept of law--but we hold to the principle of equality, even if only as an ideal.

Enter people whose lifeways are different, sometimes significantly so. They come to our territory--and eventually become part of the "our"--under a sort of contractual understanding. They gain opportunities, a new life, a new home; in return, they offer ideas, energy, participation--and they give up practices that the citizens of their new country consider abhorrent, and against which laws are passed. If they transgress, they are treated the same as any other citizen.

That's the theory.

But things fall apart just as soon as we begin to argue that those who have joined our polity should be judged by the standards of the one from which they have come. This has nothing to do with the ossified notion of "multiculturalism": we're talking public policy. It is improper in the extreme to claim some kind of special consideration for the perpetrator of a brutal crime because, despite being socialized in this country, he has some attachment to an "Afghan heritage." Even leaving aside the latter phantasm--all Afghans do not support honour killings, after all--the notion of applying differing standards on the basis of "culture" is deeply disturbing.

It is not the eventual outcome of the trial that concerns me here. It is that such a defence is even permitted, based as it is upon patently false notions and premises. What's next--the defence of necessity in a case of bride-burning? I shall be following this case with interest, and not a little anxiety.

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