Is Respect for Culture Good for Women?
Platform address by Dr. Joseph Chuman, May 4, 2014
It is a well-worn cliché that we can look at the glass as half full or as half empty. What is true for the smaller experiences we encounter in our daily lives is also true for the long march of history.
It is easy for us who are politically astute and socially aware to easily adopt the perspective that the glass containing the career of humankind has been half empty. We can readily lament the state of our society and despair over the future. I know that I am certainly capable of this, and I do not feel that it is a virtue to deny hard realities or attempt to buy our happiness at the expense of ignorance. I personally cannot abide Pollyannas. Besides, I argue that without a critique of the problems and foibles of our current situation, we will never have the tools by which to correct them.
At the same time, I don’t hold to a viewpoint that nothing can ever be good. Life and reality is a complex mix of the good and the bad, of tragedy and hope, of social stagnation and political progress.
This morning I want to err on the side of the progressive and the positive. An adage invoked by Martin Luther King, which is much beloved by our current president, says “the arc of morality is long, but it bends toward justice.” A case can be made for that. When we look at all the violence that convulses so many places in our contemporary world, it is hard to believe that there are fewer wars raging today than there were 50 years ago at the height of the Cold War. In his highly acclaimed book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker applies rigorous research to demonstrate that through the millennia humankind has become progressively less violent. Your chances today, he argues, of being a victim of violence is far smaller than it was in biblical times, the ancient world, medieval Europe and the early modern period, eras in which tribal violence, gory mutilations, child abuse and extermination of native peoples was far greater than it is today. The Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, who is on a mission to end world poverty, which he feels is indubitably possible, documents that up until about the year 1800, humankind had not experienced any economic growth. Virtually everyone worldwide was poor. In one statistic, the average income per person in Western Europe in 1820 was about 90 percent of the average income of Africa today. Today, of course, there are huge gaps in wealth, with billions living in destitution, but billions of people living comfortable lifestyles that would have been simply unimaginable 200 years ago.
If we look at humanity through these very large and sweeping indicators, the glass is indeed half full and, according to these researchers, growing fuller.
The indicator I want to focus on is not the broad sweep of human history, but the much more modest temporal frame of my own lifetime. I was born in March 1948 and so I am 66 years old. Since the time of my birth, I argue there have been extraordinary changes in the social and political landscape that I think we don’t recognize or appreciate as much as we can and should. But given my own outlook, I believe that reality is complex, and though I want to document what I think has been remarkable social and political progress in one domain, I also want to point to what I think has been a related problem that has been generated ironically by that very progress. But I will get to that later.
For lack of a better term, the good news I want to examine is what we can appropriately call the “human rights revolution.” To clarify what I mean, let’s look at what characterized society 66 years ago, especially for large swaths of the American population. None of what I will state should imply that the progress we have experienced is complete and that we don’t have a long way to go.
Let’s start with the status of women. My own mother, who was born in 1913, seven years before women achieved the right to vote in federal elections, was the rare woman to have attained a college education. She was a Hunter graduate, class of 1933. In that era my mom could have looked forward to a career as a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary and not much else. Perhaps because it was the Depression and because it was very much the social norm of the time, my mother did nothing professionally with her college degree and devoted her life to being a full-time homemaker, spouse and mother, raising my brother and me. It is hard to believe that in the 1960s in some jurisdictions, wives still needed their husband’s permission to open their own bank accounts. But such was the subordinate status of women, confined as they were to the domestic sphere.
While a glass ceiling still exists in the corporate world and in other venues, women are severely under-represented in major political offices, sexist attitudes and behaviors abound, and the egalitarian marriage is still far off, when it comes to college, women have long surpassed men in attaining bachelor’s degrees. Today, 32% of American women have BA’s and more women than men are enrolled in America’s medical schools and law schools. Educationally, men have become the endangered gender. Needless to say, my current college students have no experiential sense of what the world was like in my mother’s time, and only the sketchiest awareness of the amazing achievements of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s. Though there is a long way to go, the world my mother was born into compared to my granddaughters’ world reflects a difference of equality and opportunity of simply revolutionary proportions.
When I was child, we knew that gays existed, but gays were deeply closeted. Homosexuality was explained to me as a child by my father as a mental illness, which was a status validated by the medical establishment. I was warned to keep my distance. In briefest terms, in the 1950s, homosexuality was an evil that dare not speak its name, and gays were fated to live agonizing double and self-denying lives, as many struggled to pass as straight, to the point often of marrying and having children. Added to that was the perpetual fear of being blackmailed and exposed in a world that was profoundly hostile and condemnatory of variations in sexual orientation.
Since the Stonewall Riot of June 1969—historically the blink of an eye—homosexuality has become increasingly normative in popular culture and has gained increased acceptance in large swaths of American society, though this acceptance is regional, excludes major subcultures and is by no means universal. But we do have a growing acceptance of gay marriage.
I have no doubt that the very concept of gay marriage would not only have been odious to previous generations, it would have been incomprehensible. My father, again, was an Old World, European man who didn’t come to this country until he was in his 40s, and never truly assimilated to American mores and American culture. He died in 1969. But I am quite sure that if he were to return now to learn that homosexuals can marry each other, the idea would seem as bizarre to him as a six-headed, green-eyed alien from outer space. He simply would be unable to assimilate the concept. It would make no sense. In his language, it would have been totally and utterly “mishugganah.” That is, crazy. Yet, here we are, in a world in which gays assertively express their full humanity and are on their way to transforming and widening our understanding of gender and the nature of human relations. And I think we are all better off for it.
There was a time, when I was child, in which to suffer a physical or mental disability was a source of deep social shame. Disabled people, whether children or grown-ups, were sequestered at home and kept out of sight. They did not want to be seen and we did not want to have to look at them. Maybe it was too discomforting.
It was a little before my time, but I am sure that there are people in this room who well recall the fact that Franklin Roosevelt, who as a polio survivor could not walk, was shielded from the public. When he appeared in public making speeches, he had to be lifted up by assistants and could only stand by grasping onto handrails that as much as possible were kept from public view. I teach human rights at Hunter College at what is the Roosevelt Public Policy Center on east 65th Street, two adjoining brownstones owned by Roosevelt’s mother, where Franklin occasionally resided. In the building are two elevators, one used by the public, the other the size of a small closet, especially fitted to accommodate Roosevelt in his wheelchair and no one else. It was, again, an effort to privatize his disability and keep it out of view.
Today, of course, we have laws requiring the construction of facilities, whether ramps adjoining stairs leading to buildings, curb cuts to accommodate wheelchairs, elevators retrofitted to some subway stations, and many other accoutrements to enable those with disabilities to live a public and as barrier-free life as possible. When we expanded this building in 1979, we were required to expand our bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs and ensure a ramp leading to the main entrance.
Years ago, in one of my human rights classes at Columbia, I had a student who was badly hearing-impaired. In that class, sitting opposite him at this long table, was a university-appointed signer, who translated my lectures and other conversation in the class so that this student could take full advantage of this educational opportunity. Columbia University did not provide this service because it wanted to be nice. It did as a matter of law, because it was this student’s right to be provided with that service in order to leverage equality in the classroom. Again, we still have far to go, I think especially regarding the rights of the mentally ill, but the inclusion into society of those who were kept just a few decades ago behind closed doors and had their full potential stunted by social prejudice is dramatically changing.
Perhaps the greatest revolution of all has been achieved in matters of race. And this journey, I recognize, is known to varying degrees by all. The history of racism in America has been long and extremely ugly. Beyond hundreds of years of slavery, we have had a century of legal segregation in the American South, sustained not only by law but by intimidation and fear. It is a history of institutionalized and persistent humiliation, degradation, oppression, hatred and violence foisted on America’s black population. Though I don’t think it has as broadly and deeply been impressed upon our historical consciousness as it needs to be, between the Civil War and the 1950s, it is estimated that more than 5,000 African-Americans had been lynched. Often men would be pulled from their homes, accused of looking at a white woman in the wrong way, and hanged from a tree with hundreds of their drunken fellow white townspeople picnicking and partying underneath the swaying corpse. One could not seek protection from the police, because the local law enforcement agent himself could be moonlighting as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Jim Crow era of legal segregation was America’s apartheid—separate schools, segregated businesses, restaurants, hotels, bathrooms, buses, drinking fountains—all sustained in great measure by contrivances to keep blacks from voting, and neutralizing their political power and economic opportunity. We sometimes forget that Washington DC, our nation’s capital, was a Southern, segregated city. On the rare occasion that a black diplomat came from an African country or Haiti to meet with an official at the State Department, he had to sleep at night at some segregated, fourth-rate, flea bag hotel. The reality of racial segregation was not only violent and cruel. It was also absurd. It was the American disgrace in the eyes of the rest of the world.
We now have a black president in the White House, which is quite an amazing achievement, but as we all know, as if we needed the headlines from this past week to prove it, de facto racism is still very much with us. But legal segregation, through the glorious struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, is consigned to the past, though there have been despicable efforts to resurrect at least an element of it by reestablishing voter-restriction laws, which have had such an ugly history.
I think it would be correct to say that the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century was the great movement that inspired and gave rise to those movements for equality that came after it—the women’s movement, the gay rights movement and the movement for the greater enfranchisement for people with disabilities. It was the crowning liberating achievement of the 20th century, just as the abolitionist, suffragist and labor movements were in the 19th. In my view, these progressive movements, based on freedom and equality, reflect what is best in the American character, in American values and are the high points of American history. America at its best.
My point in rehearsing this dynamic of American history is to underscore what I have referred to as the human rights revolution of the past 60 years. What I mean is that we have taken the founding principle that “all men are created equal” and we have been able to progressively widen the circle of inclusion to invite into the circle of humanity groups that have been historically marginalized, disempowered, oppressed and rendered invisible—that is, profoundly unequal, whether they be African-American, women, gays, the disabled and other groups I haven’t mentioned. By widening the circle and inviting them to greater recognition and enfranchisement in American life, we have more fully recognized and affirmed their fundamental humanity and their dignity. They are part of us and are no longer marginalized, powerless and invisible. This has been a great achievement, a phenomenal transformation, all taking place within a single lifetime.
But I want to pose a question: Where did this modern human-rights revolution came from? What are the dynamics that inspired it and set it in motion? Undoubtedly, historians can provide many different answers to this question, because no great historical event can have a single cause. We usually assume, chauvinists that we are, that all important things start in America, and they spread from the United States to other parts of the world. This assumption is especially true when we are talking about such values as freedom and rights.
But this time, I do not think so. If we assume that the Civil Rights movement was the first of these postwar movements toward equality and inclusion, I think that at least in part it was inspired by a movement beyond our shores, or at least given an impetus that came from elsewhere.
There is a telling line from Martin Luther King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, that I think is among the most beautiful and compelling pieces of prose of the 20th century. In the “Letter From the Birmingham Jail,” King says as part of his polemic, “We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” Then he says, “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” That is a very telling line.
That one line opens the door to a broader insight. This is what I mean. From 1492 until the 1960s, Europe colonized the world. This age of imperialism included the economic exploitation of resources, slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. In the 20th century France, Portugal, Belgium, and to a lesser degree Spain and Germany had colonies in Asia and Africa. And of course, the British Empire ruled what seemed like half the world. The adage was that “the sun never set on British soil.” Before the 1950s, only four countries in all of Africa were independent.
And then in the late 1940s, the voiceless, exploited peoples of Africa and Asia began to demand their independence and the movement toward decolonization had begun. In 1947, Britain lost India, the “jewel in the crown of the empire” to independence, under the incredible leadership of Mohandas Gandhi, and the West began to realize that the death knell had been sounded on centuries of political imperialism. By the 1970s, virtually every colonized country in the world had become independent and self-governing, and thereby could claim a seat at the table with their former colonial masters.
My point here is, referring to Martin Luther King’s insight I noted a moment ago, is that it may be at least partially correct to see the American Civil Rights movement as inspired by and as a counterpart to the international movement toward decolonization. Just as the nations of Africa and Asia were seeking their independence from their colonial overlords, so blacks in the American South were seeking freedom and equality in a region of the United States in which they were treated as exploited, oppressed, voiceless and without equality. In short, the Civil Rights movement was our decolonization movement as far as African-Americans were concerned. As I am implying, all of this is suggestive of an advance for human rights, and reflects what has been best about America.
But I invoke the movement for decolonization because it leads me, at long last, into discussion of a problem in the human-rights movement that has repercussion here in the United States and much more so around the world. As I mentioned at the beginning, even political progress can generate complexities and problems.
The problem I want to briefly describe has to do with relationship of the movement for decolonization and the equal status of women. As noted, it was this movement for decolonization that inspired other movements, even if indirectly, including in the 1960s and ‘70s the feminist movement for women’s equality. But the decolonization movement set in motion another human-rights trend, which makes the equality of women problematic.
With the growing independence of previously colonized people came a growing appreciation by the West of the sins that it had committed in the pursuit of its imperialistic conquests, of the people destroyed and of local cultures that were thoroughly disrespected, and in many cases, obliterated. In our own country, think of the fate of Native Americans who were forcibly taken off reservations, sent to Anglo schools to be educated and then sent back home. Once arriving, many did not know who they were, never assimilated sufficiently to become identified with white Americans, and now were unable to fully identify with their native culture. Culturally such people ended up neither here nor there, with consequences that have been very destructive.
But the movement toward self-governance did something else. It enabled previously colonized and suppressed people to recover their own cultures and express them with pride. Especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, which was built on the framework of competing ideologies, loyalty and politics these days centers more and more on one’s ethnicity and culture. People are now more aware of their ethnic identities and they are more prone to express their politics through their ethnic identities as they take greater pride in their cultures, which are often religiously based. This is true whether one is a Serb, a Sikh, an Israeli Jew, a Sioux Indian, a French speaking Quebecois, a Sunni Arab, a Muslim from India, a Tibetan, a Russian in the Ukraine, or a Christian evangelical in America. One can multiply this list many times. There are thousands of ethnic groups around the world. Ethnic and cultural pride is in.
As a result of this dual trend of growing appreciation of cultures and a desire coming from the West to respect the integrity of minority cultures in the non-Western world in particular, there has been a growing respect for what we might call “group rights.” Individuals have rights, to be sure. But there is a growing awareness that cultural and ethnic groups, usually minorities, also have rights. In fact the rights of groups to preserve their cultural values and cultural integrity are a growing part of the human-rights movement, which itself is growing, expanding and evolving.
To give you an example, if members of the Navaho tribe as a group do not have a right to speak their own language, then given the pressures that this minority faces, their language in time will disappear. Hence, the Navahos now have the right to be taught their language in their public schools on their reservations.
This growing respect for group and cultural rights has created around the world demands for what we might call “limited autonomy,” giving special rights to minority groups. So, in Spain, the Basque Provinces and Catalonia enjoy special privileges, with a great deal of autonomy and self-governance. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have autonomy within the larger United Kingdom. Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region of Iraq. Greenland is an autonomous region as an overseas territory of Denmark, and Canada a few decades ago gave a million square miles of its Northwest Territories to 20,000 native Canadians, to be governed locally rather than from Ottawa, as had been true the past. And if one takes another look at our neighbor to the north, the Province of Quebec has a special status in the Canadian federation to preserve the distinctive French character of the province. Among other things, in Quebec every sign in every store if written in English and French has to have French displayed as the predominant language. This law pertains to no other province.
Limited autonomy takes many forms. Here in the United States, the fact that religious communities can run their own schools, so that we have Catholic schools, Jewish yeshivas and evangelical academies, is a type of limited autonomy as far as it goes. Education in the United States is compulsory until the age of 16. But not if you are Amish. If you are a member of the Amish community, you can quit school at 14. But only if you are Amish. And one of my favorite examples of group rights extended to minorities involves a dispute that took place in my favorite West Side institution. In 1906, the Museum of Natural History obtained from Oregon what is known as the Willamette meteorite. It is one of the museum’s most prized artifacts. In 1999, a confederation of Oregon Indian tribes claimed that the Willamette meteorite is a scared religious object, that the Museum had stolen it, and they wanted their meteorite back. The museum failed to return it, and the Native Americans sued. Eventually, an agreement was worked out, whereby on one day of the year the lobby of planetarium, where the meteorite is displayed, is closed to the public, and members of the Oregon tribes come to the museum to perform their religious rites centered on the meteorite.
While this story sounds trivial, symbolically I believe it reflects the importance of the preservation of local, minority cultures. A hundred years ago these Native Americans wouldn’t have gotten a hearing, and their claims would have no doubt have been neglected. But no longer. Indeed, the United Nations has adopted declarations and convention requiring states to protect the cultures, religions, traditions and self-governance to varying degrees of indigenous peoples. And the Universal Declaration itself protects the right of the freedom of religion and the right to practice religion in community with others.
Most people would see the protection of historically oppressed minorities as a progressive advance, and so it is. But it is not problem-free. What I mean is that the preservation of local cultures often conflicts with the hard-won equality of women. Why so? The reason is that most, if not all, local cultures, including and especially religiously based cultures, are patriarchal. In other words, they are dominated by and privilege men over the equality of women.
As the world become more ethnically and cultural conscious, as it increasingly respects the integrity and rights of groups, this respects comes at the cost of women’s equality. It is as if the developing human-rights culture has two major trunks, each emerging out of a reaction against historic oppression, but ironically conflicting with each other.
In the United States and around the world, women have taken a giant step forward. But because of the emergence of group consciousness they have also taken a step back. The moral arc may bend toward justice, but it does not bend in a smooth curve. It bends in an inelegant zigzag, which doesn’t lend itself to quick and easy solutions.
An elaborate response to this clash of human rights would take another address. But let me conclude with a few thoughts that certainly need much further development. My own bias is that when the individual rights of women’s equality clash with culturally derived values that speak to the continuity of cultural traditions, but undercut women’s equality, that female equality must supersede the interest of local cultures. Equality should come first.
But this view is obviously not universally held, even by women. Indeed, there are women in traditional cultures who, when forced to choose between defending their equality or the integrity of their culture, which they perceive as threatened from the outside, will defend the culture and forgo their equality. For many, their very identity is tightly bound up in their cultural values and practices, whether they support women’s equality or don’t. I hope I am not being unfair, but I don’t think one needs to go further than women in segments of the orthodox Jewish community in Teaneck to see that very loyalty to group practice trump the value of gender equality. And I know you can find this response among conservative evangelical Christian women as well.
This is a conflict that exists worldwide and it will probably intensify as ethnicity, culture, group loyalties, and tribalism become increasingly more important as loci for political action and personal identities.
One thing is certain: It is not good enough for me merely to proclaim that women’s equality should come before group loyalties. The only way in which equality can be leveraged in more traditional cultures is for those who believe in it from the outside to find allies who also believe in it on the inside, whether they come from the Islamic world, African cultures, are Christian evangelicals or whatever. But for those who are deeply committed to the project, and many of the human-rights students I work with are, and who do really interesting things as human-rights activists in the developing world, their challenge is to become as familiar as possible with the cultures they are working in and their values.
Preaching the values of Western feminism, though appealing to Western ears, often seems like another form of imperialism to those who have suffered too long from Western imperialism. It is readily reputed and rejected. But if arguments for women’s equality can be made in a way that are culturally relevant to cultures not our own, then the possibilities for change open themselves up. The skill is to graft the value of equality onto the cultural values of those who are different. For no culture is static, and the equality of all people, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and gender is a value worth struggling for. Especially gender equality in a world in which women in so many ways—politically, economically, educationally and in terms of bodily security—remain oppressively unequal. But it takes patience, knowledge and respect for foreign cultures and an enduring sense of idealism to so this.
The moral arc is indeed very long, but as the last 60 years have shown, it does bend toward justice. Despite frustrations, obstacles and challenges, new and old, we need to keep our ideals before us and not despair of the task. So I tell my students when I allow a little bit of my Ethical Culture to seep into the classroom. However hard the road, we should not give up on the notion that the improvement of the human condition is indeed possible. In many ways the past has told us that it is. May it be so in the future.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.