The Ethics of Human Rights (19): The Universality of Human Rights vs. the Importance of Culture

Is it appropriate, desirable and coherent to impose human rights law and norms on cultures when these cultures have adopted norms and practices that violate human rights? Such an imposition would clearly upset and perhaps even destroy cultural arrangements and traditions, something which would in turn have numerous adverse consequences for people’s well-being and sense of identity (not to mention the consequences for human diversity, humanity’s heritage etc.). Add to that the likelihood that “imposition” usually means “violence”, and you can rest your case.

Or can you? Is it really a no-brainer that culture should by definition have priority and preferential treatment compared to the universality of human rights? I’m very receptive to the requirements of culture and I accept that cultural imperialism and neocolonialism are real problems. But I also believe that the culture-universality problem is contaminated by a long list of mistakes and misunderstandings, making the choice between culture and universality a lot less obvious. Here’s a short list:

  • Cultures need human rights. Especially in today’s multicultural world, cultures need freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc. in order to survive. Sacrificing human rights on the altar of culture ultimately means sacrificing culture as well. So cultures at least have a strategic reason to adopt human rights, even if this means giving up certain of their more cruel and barbaric practices and norms.
  • Cultures change. With or without the prodding of human rights activists, governments or international institutions. So why not promote change in the good direction, meaning in the direction of human rights? Cultures are not, and should not be, untouchable. Changing parts of them – i.e. certain norms and practices – doesn’t necessarily mean destroying them.
  • “Culture” is often a tool in the hands of oppressors. They are all too willing to dress up their tyranny in the clothes of culture, giving themselves an aura of respectability and inevitability. Many of the rights violations that are supposedly “cultural” are nothing of the sort.
  • Cultures aren’t monolithic. They are complicated and self-contradictory. While some elements of a culture generate rights violations, other elements of the same culture prohibit those violations. In fact, most if not all cultures have elements that can back up human rights protection, although often this is implicit rather than explicit. Giving priority to elements of a culture that violate human rights is just one specific interpretation of a culture, and possibly a self-interested one if it’s done by those in power. When human rights and culture contradict each other, often the problem can be solved, not by ditching human rights but by favoring another interpretation of the culture. In the words of Charles Taylor, different cultures will travel different routes to the same goal of universality of rights, each culture finding within itself the resources to justify and ground human rights.
  • Linked to this: who can decide what is a truly cultural practice or norm? Ideally it’s the people making up the culture, not some self-interested spokesperson. The people, however, rarely if ever get to decide this. One can assume that, if they would be able to decide, they wouldn’t favor an interpretation that harms their rights. Also, and importantly, if they would be allowed to decide, they would need human rights to do so.
  • An assumption of those granting automatic priority to culture is that imposing something on a culture, or coercing a culture to evolve in a certain direction, is by definition wrong. They assume that this is a dogma of post-colonialism. However, nobody worries about coercion of domestic practices that violate the law, not even if these practices can justifiably be labeled as “cultural”. We don’t allow “mafia culture” to flourish, or certain violent forms of macho culture or whatever. States pride themselves on the uniform application of domestic law, no matter how diverse their citizenry. And international human rights law is law as well, and also merits uniform application. Why is coercion in one case allowed but not in the other? By the way: many authoritarian countries that claim the right to violate human rights as a means to protect “their” culture (or what they claim is their culture) impose a dominant culture domestically at the expense of minority cultures.
  • The charge of cultural imperialism and the analogy with colonialism imply that human rights advocacy equals the attempt to impose western culture on the rest of the world. That human rights promotion is cultural export, a crusade or a holy war. However, human rights aren’t western rights, not by a long shot. The West violates human rights just as much as anyone else. And other cultures can find human rights within their traditions. Unlike the crusades, human rights promotion doesn’t attempt to impose a worldview, a morality or a religion. If it imposes something, it imposes diversity and plurality.
  • Finally, their is the relativity of relativism. If all values are based on culture and there are no universal values that can take precedence, than that’s true as well of cultural relativism. Why would the rule that all culture can decide for themselves be the only universal and non-cultural rule?

Limiting Free Speech (5): Pornography

First of all, whatever we think of pornography, we should admit that it is a kind of speech, just as cross-burning, flag-burning, hate speech etc., and hence it is at least possible that it falls under the protection of the right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has at different occasions decided that pornography should be protected under the First Amendment:

There are two types of pornography that receive no First Amendment protection ’97 obscenity and child pornography. The First Amendment generally protects pornography that does not fall into one of these two categories. (source)

Other jurisdictions have also protected pornography.

Violence IN pornography

The quote above already indicates that an overall protection of pornography widely defined is not acceptable and that certain limits on the freedom of speech of pornographers are possible. According to the rules set forth in the introductory post of this series a right can be limited if it violates other rights or the rights or others. This is obviously the case of any child pornography or pornography in which violence or force is used against the participants, such as certain kinds of extreme sadomasochistic porn.

Another reason why there can be force and violence in pornography is human trafficking. Many girls are forced to participate in porn movies because they are victims of human trafficking. They are modern slaves in the sex industry.

Violence BECAUSE OF pornography

There is still some discussion in the scientific community as to whether pornography, and especially hardcore and violent pornography, promotes sexual violence in society. This is not easy to establish because the interactions of mass media and human behavior are complex. If pornography promotes sexual violence, we have another justification for limiting its distribution.

The weight of evidence is accumulating that intensive exposure to soft-core pornography desensitises men’s attitude to rape, increases sexual callousness and shifts their preferences towards hard-core pornography. Similarly, the evidence is now strong that exposure to violent pornography increases men’s acceptance of rape myths and of violence against women. It also increases men’s tendencies to be aggressive towards women and is correlated with the reported incidence of rape. Many sex offenders claim they used pornography to stimulate themselves before committing their crimes. (source)

In Australia, the federal government has tended to relax its controls on pornography since 1970. Different states have, however, implemented these changes to varying extents and, as a result, have unwittingly conducted an interesting experiment on the effect of pornography. Queensland, the most conservative state, has maintained the strictest controls on pornography and has a comparatively low rate of rape reports. By contrast, South Australia, the most liberal state in relation to pornography, has seen escalating reports of rape since the early 1970s:

Businesses spend billions of dollars on advertising, in the belief that media can and do have an effect on human behaviour. We support and encourage the arts, in the belief that novels, films and such have the capacity to uplift and enhance human society; in other words, that the arts have a capacity to influence people. Yet we are expected to believe that the increasing tide of pornography does not affect attitudes to women. (source)

The image of women in pornography

One reason why porn can cause violence in society is the image of women that is created through pornography. In some porn, rape is explicitly legitimized, but in all kinds of porn women are depicted as constantly and immediately available for sex. We can assume that long term consumption of porn from an early age onwards, creates the opinion that it is not necessary for men to establish whether a female partner consents to having sex since porn tells them that such consent is automatic. In real life, of course, this is not the case and hence there will be rape.

Porn also objectifies women. It turns women into objects of sexual desire and sexual use. Objectification of women is of course not limited to pornography. Advertising also regularly uses women as means or tools or objects. The objectification of women means dehumanization. And there are more things you can do to a non-human than to a human. Objectification therefore can promote violence against women. To the extent that is does, we have another justification for restrictions on pornography.

Moreover, pornography shapes and reinforces a male-dominant view of sexuality and of gender relations. It’s not far-fetched to claim that pornography contributes to gender discrimination, machismo, sexism, paternalism etc.

All this is the case not only for violent porn but for porn in general and could therefore justify restrictions on non-violent porn.

Different kinds of restrictions

There are different kinds of pornography, different circumstances in which it is distributed, and different people respond differently to pornography. So restrictions on pornography may differ according to circumstances. People with a history of sexual violence are more obvious targets of a ban on the use of hardcore and violent porn than other people. Young people, for the reasons given above, may have more restrictions, including non-violent porn. Pornography in a library is not the same thing as pornography on the streets…

Soft porn or “artistic porn” should be treated differently. An all-out ban on all kinds of pornography would be just as unwise as an all-out protection. Many classic works of art would have to be forbidden if no pornography were allowed. We have to admit that porn can be art and art can be pornographic.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (3): Violence

(please read part 1 and part 2 first)

The philosophers are the only ones who know the value and superiority of theoretical life. The rest will only appreciate their efforts once they are successful. This is an effort on the part of Plato to justify the use of force. Ordinary people will not strive autonomously or voluntarily towards a theoretical life because they do not understand the value of such a life. They will have to be forced (e.g. educated, moderated etc.). An emotional and materialist way of life must be prohibited. The leaders must not follow the desires of the people – as they do in a democracy – but on the contrary suppress these desires.

People have to be coerced. They must be taught the value of theoretical life. Their intellect must be stimulated, and their passions moderated. Censorship is therefore important. Art which stimulates the passions and desires must be prohibited. Art must be rational instead of emotional. Plato did not appreciate the art and mythology of his time, because they depicted the gods with the same shortcomings as man. Art must give the right example (Christianity and communism later followed in Plato’s footsteps).

However, Plato wanted to avoid physical force. He believes that truth is better than force and also better than persuasion based on opinions and argumentation. Self-evident truth forces the mind to accept it, but this force is quite different from physical force and it is more persuasive than opinions based on arguments.

The question is whether physical force can always be avoided. First, though, Plato wants to try the transmission of truth by way of education. He even proposed to take away the children from their families in order to insulate them from the bad habits of the ordinary people. A kind of tabula rasa. The purpose of education is to mold people according to the image or the model of the philosopher, to make a new man. If it is impossible to have a tabula rasa by means of forced adoption, then the old habits must first be taught away before new habits can be imprinted.

However, this is already a very violent form of education. Moreover, not everybody is adequate material for the fabrication of a philosopher. What happens with those people who turn out to be somewhat different from the plan? The best that can happen to them is hard discipline; the worst is elimination. They may be a bad example to the rest. Elimination either directly or through eugenics and arranged marriages.

The Platonic ideal is a society of people who lead a thinking life, who know the eternal truths and disregard the changing appearances, the desires of the body and the cycles of natural necessity. But it is not democratic to force one vision of the good life on all citizens. In a democracy, people must be free to choose their own good life. If we force them to lead a particular kind of life we enslave them, even if we think that it is for their own good and that later they will thank us for it.

And after we enslave them, we run into the problem of those people who are not able to live up to the model. Plato believes that the power of thinking can overcome the body and that this power can be developed and trained. Every human being has the power of thinking and the capacity to develop this power in such a way that it is correctly balanced with other powers such as emotions, ambitions etc.

But Plato admits that this training and discipline may sometimes be unsuccessful. The mind may not be able to gain a position of superiority with regard to other, more bodily faculties and desires. Some people will never be strong enough to fight the beast in them, not even with extreme discipline in a dictatorial state led by philosophers with an iron hand. The one who, in the eyes of Plato, was the best master of the beast in himself and hence the example to us all, was Socrates. By refusing to escape after having been condemned to death, he showed the undisciplined democrats how to live beyond desire, the ultimate desire being the wish to live.

Parts 1, 2 and 4