March 6, 1999


When One Culture's Custom Is Another's Taboo

 

By BARBARA CROSSETTE

 

In Maine, a refugee from Afghanistan was seen kissing the penis of his baby boy, a traditional expression of love by this father. To his neighbors and the police, it was child abuse, and his son was taken away.

In Seattle, a hospital tried to invent a harmless female circumcision procedure to satisfy conservative Somali parents wanting to keep an African practice alive in their community. The idea got buried in criticism from an outraged public.

How do democratic, pluralistic societies like the United States, based on religious and cultural tolerance, respond to customs and rituals that may be repellent to the majority? As new groups of immigrants from Asia and Africa are added to the demographic mix in the United States, Canada and Europe, balancing cultural variety with mainstream values is becoming more and more tricky.

Many American citizens now confront the issue of whether any branch of government should have the power to intervene in the most intimate details of family life.

"I think we are torn," said Richard Shweder, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago and a leading advocate of the broadest tolerance for cultural differences. "It's a great dilemma right now that's coming up again about how we're going to deal with diversity in the United States and what it means to be an American."

Anthropologists have waded deeply into this debate, which is increasingly engaging scholars across academia, as well as social workers, lawyers and judges who deal with new cultural dimensions in immigration and asylum. Some, like Shweder, argue for fundamental changes in American laws, if necessary, to accommodate almost any practice accepted as valid in a radically different society if it can be demonstrated to have some social or cultural good.

For example, although Shweder and others would strongly oppose importing such practices as India's immolation of widows, they defend other controversial practices, including the common African ritual that opponents call female genital mutilation, which usually involves removing the clitoris, at a minimum. They say that it is no more harmful than male circumcision, and should be accommodated, not deemed criminal, as it is now in the United States and several European countries.

At the Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, a professor who specializes in family and school issues, said that intolerance often arises when the behavior of immigrants seems to be "nonmodern, nonscientific and nonrational." She cites as an example the practice of "coining" among Cambodians, where hot objects may be pressed on a child's forehead or back as cures for various maladies, leaving alarming welts that for teachers and social workers set off warnings of child abuse.

Americans are more than happy to accept new immigrants when their traditions seem to reinforce mainstream ideals. There are few cultural critics of the family values, work ethic or dedication to education found among many East Asians, for example.

But going more than half way to tolerate what look like disturbing cultural practices unsettles some historians, aid experts, economists and others with experience in developing societies. Such relativism, they say, undermines the very notion of progress. What's more, it raises the question of how far acceptance can go before there is no core American culture, no shared values left.

Many years of living in a variety of cultures, said Urban Jonsson, a Swede who directs the U.N. children's fund, UNICEF, in sub-Saharan Africa, has led him to conclude that there is "a global moral minimum," which he has heard articulated by Asian Buddhists and African thinkers as well as by Western human rights advocates.

"There is a nonethnocentric global morality," he said, and scholars would be better occupied looking for it rather than denying it. "I am upset by the anthropological interest in mystifying what we have already demystified. All cultures have their bad and good things."

Murder was a legitimate form of expression in Europe centuries ago when honor was involved, Jonsson points out. Those days may be gone in most places, but in Afghanistan, a wronged family may demand the death penalty and carry it out themselves with official blessing. Does that restore it to respectability in the 21st century?

Scholars like Shweder are wary of attempts to catalog "good" and "bad" societies or practices. Working with the Social Science Research Council in New York and supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, he helped formed a group of about 15 legal and cultural experts to investigate how American law affects ethnic customs among African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American immigrants.

A statement of purpose written by the working group, headed by Shweder and Ms. Minow, says that it intends to explore how to react to "official attempts to force compliance with the cultural and legal norms of American middle-class life.

"Despite our pluralistic ideals, something very much like a cultural un-American activities list seems to have begun circulating among powerful representatives and enforcers of mainstream culture," the group says in its statement. "Among the ethnic minority activities at risk of being dubbed 'un-American' are the use of disciplinary techniques such as shaming and physical punishment, parent/child co-sleeping arrangements, rituals of group identity and ceremonies of initiation involving scarification, piercing and genital alterations, arranged marriage, polygamy, the segregation of gender roles, bilingualism and foreign language use and many more."

Some sociologists and anthropologists on this behavioral frontier argue that American laws and welfare services have often left immigrants terrified of the intrusive power of government. The Afghan father in Maine who lost his son to the well-meaning social services, backed by a lower court, did not prevail until the matter reached the state Supreme Court, which researched the family's cultural heritage and decided in its favor -- while making clear that this was an exceptional case, not a precedent.

Spanking, puberty rites, animal sacrifices, enforced dress codes, leaving children unattended at home and sometimes the use of narcotics have all been portrayed as acceptable cultural practices. But who can claim to be culturally beyond the prevailing laws and why?

Ms. Minow said that issues of cultural practice were appearing in more law school curriculums as Americans experience the largest wave of immigration since the 1880-1920 era. "Immigration is now becoming a mainstream subject," she said. "There is also definitely a revival of interest in law schools in religion," including a study of the relation of beliefs to social practices and legal constraints.

Some of the leading thinkers in this debate will discuss the issue at a conference at Harvard in April on the relationship between culture and progress.

"If you believe that there is such a thing as a successful society and an unsuccessful society," said Lawrence Harrison, a conference panelist, "then you have to draw some conclusions about what makes for a better society."

Mr. Harrison, who wrote "Underdevelopment as a State of Mind" (Harvard) and "Who Prospers?" (Basic Books), said he believed there were universal yearnings for "progress" and that to refrain from judging every practice out there ignored those aspirations.

Paradoxically, while some Americans want judgment-free considerations of immigrants' practices and traditional rituals in the countries they come from, asylum seekers from those same countries are turning up at American airports begging to escape from tribal rites in the name of human rights. Immigration lawyers and judges are thus drawn into a debate that is less and less theoretical.

Mr. Jonsson of Unicef, whose wife is from Tanzania, says he has had to confront cultural relativism every day for years in the third world. He is outraged by suggestions that the industrial nations should be asked to bend their laws and social norms, especially on the genital cutting of girls, which Unicef opposes.

He labels those who would condemn many in the third world to practices they may desperately want to avoid as "immoral and unscientific." In their academic towers, Mr. Jonsson said, cultural relativists become "partners of the tormentors."

Jessica Neuwirth, an international lawyer who is director of Equality Now, a New York-based organization aiding women's groups in the developing world and immigrant women in this country, asks why the practices that cultural relativists want to condone so often involve women: how they dress, what they own, where they go, how their bodies can be used.

"Culture is male-patrolled in the way that it is created and transmitted," she said. "People who control culture tend to be the people in power, and who constitutes that group is important. Until we can break through that, we can't take the measure of what is really representative."

Other voices are often not being heard or are silenced. "People forget that inside every culture, there is a whole spectrum of ideas and values," she said. "There may be women in another culture who defend the practice of female genital mutilation, but in the same culture there will be women who oppose the practice. And men, too."

 

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company