I follow a number of fringe conservative pages on Facebook just to revel in the absurdity of some of the things they share. One particular image that was shared caught my attention: a political cartoon that demonstrates the hypocrisy among certain progressives who champion LGBT rights while simultaneously defending Islam, a religion notorious for its repression of women and LGBT people. Though the cartoon is ridiculous, I think it sparks an interesting debate.
While I’m very culturally liberal, I think there’s an inherent contradiction within certain strands of multiculturalism. On the one hand, progressives argue that, in a free society, people should be able to practice their own traditions and hold their own diverse set of beliefs. On the other hand, when certain people—read, conservatives—hold beliefs that run counter to mainstream political thought, progressives freak out and label them as backward and repressive.
Nowhere is this contradiction clearer than the tension between Islam and LGBT rights. Progressives are generally silent when confronted with the fact that many majority-Muslim states like Saudi Arabia have horrendous records on LGBT rights, routinely ignoring them and actively persecuting LGBT individuals. When fundamentalist Muslims from those states that hold those beliefs arrive in the U.S., progressives welcome them with open arms and act as if being a religious minority in this country gives them immunity from criticism. But when conservatives that disapprove of same-sex marriage and transgender bathroom access laws espouse their beliefs with less fervor, progressives call them bigots.
What also baffles me is that many of the same progressives that want to “cleanse” society of such bigots are perfectly okay with allowing repressive regimes to fester and spread those same ideas in other parts of the world, and actively oppose any attempt to spread Western values of liberty and equality to those regions because they view it as democracy promotion, colonialism, or cultural genocide. These progressives ascribe to cultural relativism, the idea that, when external and internal understandings of activities or beliefs, diverge, privilege should be given to culturally internal judgments. In other words, each individual culture has the right to make its own judgments on issues, and it’s wrong to force our judgments on other cultures.
To cultural relativists, what is abhorrent to our “Western” eyes may not be so in other cultures. Take, for example, female circumcision, a practice that sounds awful to us but is carried out in a number of Asian and North-Central African countries as a rite of passage for young women. Cultural relativists would say that those cultures should continue to be allowed to practice female circumcision even in the face of opposition by the international human rights regime.
The issue with cultural relativism is twofold. First, within cultures, certain people may still feel oppressed by cultural practices or norms but cannot voluntarily leave to due economic or social obstacles. For example, many young girls in central Africa are coerced into female circumcision with the threat of being shunned for breaking with tradition and have nowhere else to turn. Second, why is “Western” moral hegemony any worse than cultural moral hegemony? We shouldn’t stop battling oppression, crimes against humanity, and violations of human rights just because the victims of those horrible acts live in societies that hold different cultural values. We shouldn’t stop fighting for equality just because it’s a Western ideal that other societies might not hold in high regard.
Of course, we must be careful not to turn universalism into an excuse for endless interventionism, regime change, or global crusades of morality. We should also respect other cultures’ right to differences in interpretation and implementation of various human rights, but we should do so within a shared universal framework that respects liberty and equality.
At this point, I feel obligated to issue a disclaimer. I believe that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, that many are moderate and can easily assimilate into a liberal democratic society, and that the U.S. should do far more to take in properly vetted Syrian refugees. Sam wrote an excellent piece on the subject of Islam and democracy a while back and concluded “Islam is…uniquely suited to democracy.” I’ve also panned many evangelical Christians for being closed minded. Additionally, I firmly believe in marriage equality and support full LGBT rights.
But hypocrisy must be called out. Progressives cannot continue to criticize conservatives for the same problems they ignore within other cultures they celebrate.