Saturday, June 6, 2009

Feminism, culturism and group rights

The late Susan Moller Okin was an academic who argued that multiculturalism hurts feminism. This was great. In doing so she largely argued against Will Kymlicka’s arguments for legally protecting minority’s cultural rights such as that to have polygamy. Some of the points Okin makes are useful to culturists in their arguments. And, from a culturist perspective Okin makes some major missteps. But, overall, her pointing out that multiculturalism is bad for women constitutes a significant contribution to culturist literature.

Kymlicka argues that we should protect liberal non-western minority cultures inside the West. Kymlicka supports Sharia law. Astoundingly, for an academic, Okin, notes that no other cultures are as liberal to women as the West. From women’s vantage point, every granting of indigenous rights is a slap in the face of feminism. Okin notes the slippery slope from valuing cultures in education to granting group rights. And she successfully argues the culturist point that Kymlicka and multiculturalists underestimate diversity and the West’s uniqueness.

Kymlicka wants traditional cultures to be able to have separate cultural laws and autonomy within the West. He would, however, still allow violations of individual liberties to still be taken to State courts. This is how he proposes to square western rights with illiberal cultures’ practices. Okin counters that Kymlicka underestimates the division between the private and the public. A culture indeed may not discriminate against a woman’s ability to vote, but much of her oppression takes place in the private sphere. A Muslim girl being pressured to leave 10th grade in order to marry her cousin may not have the wherewithal to go to the majority cultures’ court. If we note that not all rights are public, we understand that public law may not protect the individual rights of women in illiberal subcultures. This will be doubly true if we grant the diverse cultures group rights protections.

Within the debate we hear about girls torn between the demeaning and limiting messages they get at home and the feminist messages at school. Okin implies, but does not state, that feminist teaching could be a great wedge by which to attack multiculturalism. But she wants to use feminism to undermine all cultural restrictions, western and non-western alike. She argues that we need a universal sisterhood to attack multiculturalism. Kymlicka argues for cultural rights due to the uses the psychological benefits of having a “rich and secure cultural structure, with special language and history.” Neither he nor Okin consider using the advanced condition of women in the West as a source of common identity and meaning. This would be the culturist strategy.

Culturism does not advocate basing our actions on the universal ideal of humans liberated from their context in the way that Okin does. She decries Orthodox Jews for typecasting boys and girls. But having studied Jewish history will increase these youths ability to communicate with other westerners. Some subcultures are more compatible with western culture than others. And, more importantly, we live in a particular western culture that has been cultivated for well over two thousand years. We should not strive to release people from our own cultural limits and guidance in the name of universal ideals. The desire to go universal leads to the alienation in the West that feeds multiculturalism. Feminists should not attack the West for having had cultural ideals, they should celebrate feminist history as western and western history as feminist.

Okin has done a great job in attacking the fallacies of multiculturalism and highlighting a how feminist the West is. But her desire to protect refugees of gender discrimination undermines our sovereignty. It fails to recognize how real cultural diversity is. Her idea of universal sisterhood fails to take the viability of illiberal cultures seriously. It also overestimates our viability. If people in other nations want to become more feminist, I welcome it. But in the meantime, we can better protect feminism by celebrating and protecting the West than by undermining our pride and culture by arguing for universal sisterhoods’ war on all cultural structures. But, besides having taken a universalist stance that erodes our group pride and sovereignty, Okin has done a great service by pointing out that multiculturalism can be bad for feminism.
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