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Western Cultural Imperialism

Western Cultural Imperialism

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Published by Christopher Carrico

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Published by: Christopher Carrico on Dec 02, 2010
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WESTERN CULTURAL IMPERIALISM IN NEO-COLONIAL SOCIETIESBy Christopher Carricohttp://ccarrico.wordpress.com Originally published in
Stabroek News
, History This Week, 8 July, 2010From the point of view of history and anthropology, there are many sad ironies in the currentdebates in Guyana and in many other formerly colonial societies over 
cultural relativism
versusnotions of 
universal human rights
. Cultural relativism, a concept that emerged fromanthropology during the early twentieth century, was an idea that was meant to counteract theracist ideas about cultural evolution that formed the dominant European worldview of the time.In a cynical inversion of the spirit of this idea, cultural relativism is today invoked to defendoppressive cultural institutions, and to suppress struggles for freedom. One of the great ironies isthat traditions that were imposed upon non-European societies through the violent process of colonialism are today thought of in neo-colonial societies as µtraditional values¶ to be defendedagainst the onslaught of Western µcultural imperialism.¶ Current debates surrounding gender roles and sexual orientation provide us with clear examples of these processes.Throughout the colonial era, Western European Christendom propagated its strongly held beliefsabout the naturalness of a particular kind of patriarchal family structure. These beliefs includedideas about the moral superiority of their culturally specific forms of marriage, about theinferiority of women to men, and about the right and necessity of the use of physical violence inthe discipline of children. Western European Christendom also propagated its particular beliefsabout the nature of sexual morality ± what kinds of behaviours were moral and what kinds of  behaviours were sinful.The culturally specific ideas about marriage and sexuality that European colonizing societiesconsidered to be universal were frequently at odds with the values of the societies that Europeanssubjected to colonialism. Male dominance in gender relations, for example, was a culturalcharacteristic that was absent in many parts of the world, such as in hunting and gatheringsocieties and many other non-state based societies in the Americas, in Australia, in the PacificIslands, in some parts of Africa and Asia, etc. The idea that parents have an absolute authorityover their children was also an alien notion to many societies, as can still be sometimeswitnessed in Guyana¶s Amerindian communities where youth were often allowed remarkableautonomy in deciding how to conduct their lives on a day-to-day basis.European ideas about sexual morality were also quite at odds with the beliefs held in thesocieties that they colonized. The incredible diversity that is found in human culture regardingideas about sexual morality is a phenomenon that appalled and frustrated European Christian
 
missionaries as they attempted, against all odds, to make universal ideas about sexual moralitythat emerged out of specific historical and cultural conditions that were neither universal nor timeless and unchanging.Even the most superficial examination of the institution of marriage shows us how misguidedEuropean Christians were about the universality of their ideas. Most people are familiar with thefact that there are many societies that allowed the practice of polygyny (a man having multiplewives) and that this was a practice that was of particular concern to missionaries in many parts of the world. What fewer people are aware of is the fact that polyandry (a woman having multiplehusbands) was also a reality ± one that was more deeply disturbing to European Christians than polygyny. Tibet, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka are places where institutions of polyandry have been well documented ethnographically. The large and powerful Nair (or Nayar) caste of India¶sMalabar Coast, for instance, had families that were matrilineal (one¶s name, property, andlineage were only inherited through the female line) and women had multiple husbands.Polyandry was noted by observers of indentured Indian labourers who were brought to BritishGuiana, particularly because of the high ratio of men to women in the population that was brought here as labourers.The notion that marriage is universally a relationship between a man and a woman (or men andwomen) is also one that does not bear closer scrutiny. Africa happens to be a continent wherewe find good ethnographic documentation of same-sex marriage. In some parts of Africa, thereare certain conditions under which it is considered acceptable for a woman to have a femaleµhusband¶. Traditions of taking on female husbands have been found in West Africa, and there isindication that some of these traditions have survived in the African diaspora in the West Indies(in Suriname, for instance). In the Sudan, as well, in the Nuer society, where wealth is normallyinherited through a male lineage, a family with no sons may ask a daughter to take on the role of a son, take a bride, and be the inheritor of the wealth of the patrilineage.In a number of Amerindian societies, in both North and South America, the
berdache
played asignificant role. The
berdache
was biologically male, but took on the mannerisms and behaviours, and did the work that was normally associated with women. Often they marriedmen, and carried out the tasks and played the roles normally associated with wives. In someAmerindian societies, women also sometimes played the role of men. Sometimes these werewomen who were adept at the tasks normally associated with men (such as hunting or warfare)and these women took other women as wives.Other than within the context of marriage, male-male sexual relations play an important role inadult socialization in some societies. This was clearly true from the historical evidence we haveof ancient Greek and Roman societies, but these were by no means isolated or anomalouscultural examples. Anthropologist Evans-Pritchard¶s research among the Azande of the AfricanSudan showed that when young Azande warriors left their homes during adolescence, theyshared residence and had sexual relations with adult male warriors who paid bridewealth for 
 
them, and were responsible for their initiation as warriors. The normal progression of Azandemale sexuality was from young male brides, to adult male warriors, to retired warriors whomarried women and fathered children.In certain areas of Papua New Guinea, ritualized male homosexuality takes on the mostubiquitous form found in any societies. Male homosexual relations are nearly universal in thesesocieties, and male sexual relations with women come with an elaborate set of taboos, areconsidered to be particularly risky and dangerous, and are considered as a kind of µnecessaryevil¶ that is only appropriate for the purposes of biological reproduction. What anthropologistGilbert Herdt called µritualized homosexuality¶ has been found in around 50 tribes in Papua NewGuinea. In some of these groups, only oral sex is performed, with anal intercourse beingconsidered unclean, while other of these societies have no taboo against anal sex.Papua New Guinea gives us an example of same-sex sexuality where the characteristics of theopposite sex are not taken on by its participants. But there are also examples of persons who are biologically of one sex take on the characteristic of another sex, but do not engage inhomosexual acts. In India, there are examples of transvestitism (dressing in the clothes of andtaking on the characteristics of the opposite sex) that are associated with celibacy rather thanwith homosexuality. In some cases, men dedicate themselves to particular goddesses, dressthemselves in women¶s clothes, and take vows of celibacy for periods of time as performances of dedication to that goddess. There are also men who are devotees of the god Krishna who rituallydress themselves in saris and pray to be reborn as one of Krishna¶s wives.When child abuse, homophobia, domestic violence, patriarchy within the family, etc. aredeclared to be µour values¶ to be defended against the onslaught of µWestern culturalimperialism¶ in neo-colonial society, the great irony is that Western cultural imperialism hasoften been partially responsible in making these behaviours, springing from bigotry andchauvinism, into rampant problems in the first place. None of these problems are exclusive to,or originate from, the Western European colonial traditions. Patriarchy, and all of the violenceagainst women and children that is used to keep it in place, certainly is much older than theEuropean colonial era. Many anthropologists have noted that the oppression of women seems tohave emerged at the same time as, and to be a part of the same processes as, the rise of classstratified and state based societies. This means that patriarchy is a problem that is severalmillennia old, and probably existed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China before it was ever a problem in most of Europe. But as I noted above, patriarchal institutions were by no meansuniversal before the colonial era, and there were always spaces of resistance and alternativetraditions even within societies where the dominant traditions were extremely patriarchal (as inmany parts of India).When oppression is defended as a part of tradition, those are traditions that need to bechallenged. Traditions are neither monolithic, nor all equally worth preserving, nor are they of some unchanging
essence
that defines what it means to be a member of a culture for all of time.

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