Friday, August 26, 2016

Thinking About Critique

Harold Pollack posted a heart-breaking photo on his blog from in which a child bride is in tears as she is forced into the hands of her bride-to-be.  He writes that
We sometimes hear the argument: Who are you outsiders to criticize someone else’s culture? One answer can be seen in the picture below. The women most intimately affected often object.
The photo is indeed deeply saddening.

Political correctness is complicated, and often gets reduced to an easy caricature (which ironically is used as a blunt weapon to shut down debate).  But one of its key elements is the notion that we all have cultural baggage and biases, that we each have relative social privileges based on our gender, sexual, racial, income, education, etc. histories, and that we should be cognizant of this. The whole movement rose out of a long, slow cultural transformation - reaching its pinnacle in the civil rights movement - in which social inequality and prejudice was understood to be a function of cultural assumptions borne out of ignorance and exploitation (women not having the vote gave men more power, blacks and minorities having to do menial labor gave white more power, and thus the relationship was exploitative).

It's obviously much more complex, and I feel like I am merely stating the obvious here, but to the degree that political correctness is lamented, I feel there is an obvious historical ignorance at work.  Ironically, those who despise political correctness are often the same people who feel that these imbalanced power relationships no longer exist and so the need for critical self-awareness is unnecessary, however the act of being self-critical is the very thing which prevents these cultural inequalities and exploitative relationships from developing in the first place!  The basic truth of historical discrimination is how it was so often less about a top-down explicit, rational, logical oppression, but rather an unconscious, bottom-up acceptance of traditional assumptions and views that went unexamined, and to the extent that they were, they were rationalized and justified post-hoc.

Obviously, self-awareness can be taken to extremes, and become neurotic.  It can also be used as an unfair, ad-hominem, bludgeon to scold those whose opinions you disagree with.  But the basic idea that we should A)Acknowledge our historical tendency of prejudice, B) Acknowledge that it could be a factor in our thinking at any time presently, and C) Spend a little time thinking before we speak, I think is perfectly reasonable.

That said, specific matters of cultural analysis are complex.  At issue here - what kinds of issues might come up in the discussion of child-brides in an outsider culture, I personally am rather unfamiliar with the terrain of cultural criticism on both sides of the moral/cultural relativity fence.   The photographer sheds some light in an interview.   But I do know there are good arguments on both sides.  On the one hand, a crying young girl being forced to marry (and assumedly be raped by her groom), is despicable.  On the other, there is a long history of (white) Westerners' outrage at such practices being amplified and intensified not merely by the act itself but by it as a rationalization of self-superiority through a dehumanization of the other.  An example of this closer to home might be the outrage at black wayward youths and characterization of them as "thugs" - a word that too easily erases the obvious social conditions from which the behavior arises).

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