Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Problem with universal.

Those of us who stayed current over the summer will remember French President Sarkozy’s successful drive to ban full-face Islamic veils. Sarkozy cited human rights and national security as the impetus for this controversial legislation.

As the debate in France heated up I was surprised to learn that of the relatively few women in France wearing the veil, none interviewed were in support of Sarkozy’s efforts. Rather, they maintained their religious freedom was being violated and vowed to remain veiled, legal or not.

The idea of a universal human right is inherently ignorant and intolerant of the plurality of our global society. Veiled women in France have lost the right to express their faith over the assumption the veil is a violation of women’s rights.

Each society has its accepted norms and taboos. Human rights groups around the world condemn our use of capital punishment in Amercia and yet it remains a widely accepted use of punishment. The Chinese practice of one-child families and selective abortion seems abhorrent but serves a purpose that has seen China through great economic growth.

To quote Stan Marsh, “I get it now, I don’t get it.” The idea of universal condemns our planet to a monotonous societal existence. What we see as a gross violation of human rights has been cultured by our upbringing and the values our society taught us. All peoples have a ‘social contract’ and the burden lays on individual societies to regulate violations of their own sacred rights, not a universal doctrine that confines Earth to the views of philosophers and humanitarians who fail to account for economic, social and political rights as well.


  1. While it may be true that each culture constructs its own ‘social contract’ is that to say that each contract is as good as the next? If there isn’t, then there is no way to judge another culture’s practice. Without some foundational human rights that transcend culture, there is no justification for condemning genital mutilation, or viewing women as property. Would you say that it is acceptable for these practices to continue simply because ‘they have their culture and we have ours’?

  2. This question has also plagued me for some time. It's not enough to say that "that's their society, and if it works for them and no one's upset, then let them be." In agreement with Ben, there has to be some sort of transcendent, universal idea of fundamental human rights. However, where do we begin to decide (and who gets to decide, at that) what is universally defined as an undeniable human right? If the question is answerable, I'd venture to say that it would have to examine the most basic notions of a universal morality before moving on to determine what rights can be universally applied to humans.

  3. Who gets to dictate what we can or cannot do in a government. While I agree that it is wrong that women in some cases are veiled as property, but if they choose to wear it, it is of their own free will. Should the government on a large scale direct us to abandon all religious symbols for a sense of secular good, we must question what more will become banned, anti-government symbols anything that could be related to terrorism, anything with curse words and profanity, when do this issue infringe on the human right to determine our lives. Where does a country like France stop in promoting this politically correct society?

  4. The UDHR states explicitly that freedom of religion and religious practice is a right guaranteed to all humans; "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." The Islamic viel is just this-- a manifestation of Islamic religion and tradition.

    But the issue is not so simple. Like Rush suggests, this brings up the question as to when and where it is appropriate to impose human rights on a another culture or society that sees things differently. In banning the veil, the intent is to free Islamic women from opression. But does it also not violate thier freedom of religious expression?

    If we say that the veil is their culture, so its ok, what do we say about some of the cultural norms in other countries? Disallowing women to vote? Female genitail mutilation? How far is too far, and do we have the "right" to determine that for a culture which concieves of human rights differently than our own?

  5. This is a very interesting topic. I agree with several of the previous comments pointing out that there are certainly some rights that should be applied universally while others are more suited to exist (or not exist) in certain cultures. However, the issues discussed in this post also raise the questions of who gets to define oppression and whether or not it can still be considered oppression if it is participated in willingly. There are certainly some cases in which the answer is easy, but the fact that the supposed oppression tied to the veils applies only to the women that wear them makes things a little less clear. To what extent can we force someone to not allow him/herself to be "oppressed" and who gets to decide what is "oppressive"?

  6. Perry makes a good point. At what point do we call someone or group of people 'oppressed'? One might say that women are exercising their 'free-will' in choosing to wear the veil. However, if these women are not educated and get their beliefs exclusively from fathers/husbands, are they really free?

    Also, to reference back to the original post, I don't think that "The idea of universal condemns our planet to a monotonous societal existence." There are many ways of expressing oneself and one's culture that are within the basic foundation of human rights. Food is a good example of this.

  7. To all, our opinions are as biased by the thoughts of Western academics and our unique upbringings as the fathers/husbands of these Muslim women. Your inability to acknowledge that humanitarianism itself is a school of thought and does not encompass one concrete idea is the same as these women's choice to wear the veil. You do not question your logic as they do not question theirs. With all things in life their are anomalies, genital mutilation and food are two examples of these - few concepts are bulletproof. I would rather live in a world with no universal doctrines, than the one that has seen the repeatedly failed utilization of humanitarian principles time and again (Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan-precisely because we failed to recognize the uniqueness of each situation and carried out similar operations across continents, languages and starkly different cultures).

  8. I’m not sure if you are addressing me in the post above, but I will respond for the position in support of universals. First of all, I at least acknowledge my own perspective as one of many possible perspectives. I also constantly question my own reasoning and position, but I agree with you that many do not engage in this process. I think it is important for everyone, critics and supporters alike, to evaluate and analyze cultural practices. However, this does not mean that a policy of ‘anything goes’ is acceptable. Along the lines of the reading for next Tuesday in Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, there must be some basis that we can all agree on. Donnelly makes the distinction between concept, interpretation, and implementation, saying that the concept is universal while the interpretation and implementation may be cultural.
    Perhaps more importantly, you put food preferences in the same category as genital mutilation. Are you saying that both are equally culturally justified? If so, how do you justify such relativism? An appeal to the empirical failure of attempts to implement such a system cannot justify such claims about normativity. Is a failure to implement a system somewhere necessarily a failure in the system itself, or could it simply be an indication that the people implementing the system were not sensitive to the contextual particulars of the society in which the system was being implemented?


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