Thursday, February 24, 2011

Judging Other Cultures

Bill Maher has become a target of a veritable barrage of critical posts, tweets, and articles because he said the following on his show recently:
Let me get to the other religion which is on my mind because I was more excited about the Arab revolution in the Middle East this week, before we heard the horrible news about Lara Logan and I looked at this: 94 journalists last year were killed - that's a lot - a 139 the year before.  You know it's forget when you see what we consider tv stars cause there are anchor men and anchor women over there; it's not a reality show.  This shit is really dangerous and we do not know the details of what happened there, but I think it's fair to say Muslim men have a bad attitude about women in general and I would just like to say to them, that you're never gonna have this revolution happen, unless there is also a sexual revolution that goes with it.
In the ensuing discussion with Tavis Smiley, Maher admitted that he is judging other cultures and defended his right to do so:
I am saying, I'm not prejudiced. That's pre- judging; I'm not pre-judging, I am judging. I'm judging. They're worse, what's wrong with just saying that? You're a cultural relativist; it's not relative. 
(You can watch the relevant part of the show, read the transcript and see the criticism that has been heaped on Maher as a result of these statements here.)

I'm not going to argue with the strange people who have chosen to see in Maher's words an apology for the kind of sexism that still exists in Western countries. Saying that something is bad can only mean that everything else is good only in a universe that is completely devoid of logic. What I find interesting is Maher's courage in leaving aside the fake pseudo-Liberal "tolerance" of everything that is different. A refusal to judge another culture (person, group, etc.) according to the same standards that one uses to judge oneself or one's own culture is not a sign of respect. It's a sign of a deep-seated condescension and an unabiding fear of otherness. 

I have no idea whether Maher is familiar with Žižek, but his closing statement in this discussion is very much in agreement with what the greatest living philosopher has to say about tolerance:
You know what, when you tolerate intolerance, you're not really being a liberal.
This statement could have easily come from Žižek himself.


Anonymous said...

Perfect post. I have seen all too many liberals get upset about events that occur somewhere close by and it appalls them, but they read about what women endure in, say, Saudi Arabia and they claim, "Well, that's just their culture." There's no consistency.

A lot of them artificially conflate the judging of other cultures done by fundies with any judging at all -- but it's a far stretch from saying that Muslims are innately evil (as the fundies do) to saying that treating women as chattel and slaves is terrible and should not be done.

I think it goes back to something we've talked about before -- no one has the right to keep another person in slavery, even if the slave claims they want to be there. At least, that's how I see it.

The stereotype of the spineless liberal is more than a stereotype. It's often quite true.


eric said...

I love Bill Maher. He probably would dislike Zizek, because Maher has no love for the radical left, either. It would be interesting to see Zizek on that show, though, if you can get past the accent and wild hand gestures!

Clarissa said...

The wild hand gestures and the passionate way of talking are part of our very Eastern European way of being. :-) I think they are lovely.

" it's a far stretch from saying that Muslims are innately evil (as the fundies do) to saying that treating women as chattel and slaves is terrible and should not be done"


Patrick said...

Excellent point. Differentiating the actions of the culture from the individual is not racist.

Of course, some people are incapable of separating the individual from the group, and toss all who think differently from themselves into a giant heap of "stupid people".

brittanyannwick said...

I've heard more conservatives dismiss human rights violations with a flip of the hand and "it's just their culture" than liberals. But many, on both sides of the aisle, go too far in judging them rightly for human rights violations, and proceed to call entire peoples barbaric, racial slurs, and posit that said people need to be wiped out. Or, as the case may be, invaded and force democracy on them.

In instances like these, you have to be careful in not crossing the line into racism.

I find it funny that Bill Maher rants about their need for a sexual revolution when the same is being fought so vehemently here in the States. Premarital sex? Oh noez! Sex education? *gasp* Vaccines to prevent cervical cancer? Why, that encourages people to have SEX!! (isn't sex horrible?)

It's especially hilarious (and by that, I mean headdesk-inducing, when one of our two major political parties seeks to return us to the stage at which (part of) the Middle East is at right now.

Anonymous said...

Brittany, good points. Fundies all over the world have much more in common than liberals have in common.

Which is to say, there's a much wider and more diverse range of beliefs under the liberal tent than under the fundie tent, no matter which religion they subscribe to.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame no one pointed out that Tavis Smiley openly supports and promotes the anti-semetic, anti-white, anti-gay black Muslim hate group Nation of Islam and it's founder Louis Farrakhan, yet he accused Maher of "demonizing Muslims"? Pot kettle black! Smiley also cited Malcolm X who's attitudes about women ane Jews were also very bigoted. Too bad no one called him out on his hypocrasy.
Smiley apparently just doesn't like whites who criticize "people of color".

Clarissa said...

I had no idea who this Tavis Smiley is, so thank you for clarifying, Anonymous!

eric said...

Smiley did start acting creepy toward the end fo the show. As far as the hand gesture thing...I had no idea! Cool!

Zizek would be perfect for the Colbert Report, since Colbert frequently interviews professional philosophers (amongst other intellectuals--writers, scientists, etc.). That would be fun!

Shedding Khawatir said...

The problem with this statement is not that it is judging other cultures, but that it lacks nuance and demonstrates Maher's ignorance of the culture he is judging. Since he mentions "revolution" and "over there" I'll assume he's talking about the Arab world, not to be confused with the Middle East. There is no doubt that "a bad attitude towards women" exists in the Arab world (and probably the rest of the world too). However, the problem is not "Muslim men", some of whom have bad attitudes towards women and some of whom don't. The problem is the bad attitudes shared by men and women, who are Muslim, and Christian, and Baha'i, and other religions (even a few Jews and atheists). By limiting his judgement to "Muslim men" (not all of whom deserve to be judged this way) Maher misses out on nuance as well as over 50% of the people whose attitudes can be blamed for the practices he's condemning. For example, while a woman may not rape another women, she may condone it or blame the victim, which in my opinion anyway is also a "bad attitude towards women".

KT said...

I agree totally with Maher, and the attitude is not limited to the arab world. Moslem men in Nigeria have similar attitudes. The religion needs an overhaul, or at least the people who swallow it.

Clarissa said...

Some cultures conduct genital mutilation on women while others don't.

Some cultures stone women and kill them for being raped while others don't.

Some cultures lead women on leashes and cover them up like things while others don't.

Making general statements about how "bad attitudes exist" is quite offensive.

Many cultures are completely barbaric in their attitude towards women. You can't compare American sexism with the kind that stones and burns women for having sex.

Shedding Khawatir said...

"Bad attitudes" is Maher's usage, I simply copied it. My preferred term for what I think he's referring to is sexual harassment, which includes, but is not limited to, rape. Female genital mutilation is a good illustration of my point. I'll go with the example of Egypt, since that's the one I'm most familiar with. Female circumcision occurs in Egypt, and the estimates are quite high for rural areas. It is a practice I think is abhorrent, but it is not simply a result of the "bad attitudes of Muslim men" towards women. It is practiced by both Muslims and Christians and usually carried out by women. It is a cultural practice that predates both religions. There are women and men of both religions who uphold this practice and women and men of both religions who condemn it. Condemning this practice is easy. Ascribing it to a religious tradition (Muslim, Christian) or national identity (Egyptian) is simply incorrect and leads to incorrect associations between practices, whatever your opinion of them, and collective identities. They simply don't match perfectly, and one should be careful to condemn the practice without condemning the identity in its place. This doesn't mean that one can't refer to the identity, or explore the relationship between identity and practice, but that one should do it in a nuanced and informed way. The same would go for praising a practice. Since I don't have experience with stoning, leashes and covering women like things and didn't mention American sexism, I'll leave that to others to explore.

Clarissa said...

You'll notice that I never mentioned religions. I only talk in terms of cultures. All organized religions are equally horrible, in my view, so I wouldn't waste time on parsing differences between them. Judaism, for example, treats women despicably.

For me this is not about any kind of religion. It's about cultures.

Shedding Khawatir said...

To clarify, the ascribing things to religions is a critique of Maher's statement, not your post, and one one of the reasons I think his statement should be critiqued. My critique of your post is that because his statement is confusing and ill-informed, you should find a better example of a good and brave cultural judgment to support your point, which I actually agree with. I am not a huge fan of organized religions either, but I do feel that it is too easy to blame them for cultural practices without looking deeper (as Maher does, not you).

Clarissa said...

I think Maher has done more than his fair share of ridiculing fanatical Christians in his brilliant documentary Religulous. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend. It's absolutely hilarious. he demonstrates that Christian fanaticism is the most dangerous thing in the world right now.