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Adam Williams

POL2PID Political Ideas and Ideologies
Exam Essays

The promotion of human rights in societies lacking an individual rights

tradition represents a form of cultural imperialism. Discuss.

In the Western world, much of human rights discourse is taken for granted by its
citizens. This regime of human rights has been implemented by the United Nations,
and is now considered to be customary international law, but its philosophical roots
are decidedly Western. Many developing countries believe that these rights are
imposed upon them through a form of cultural imperialism by West, and that they
are incompatible with their own cultural and political systems. This essay will focus
upon China, which has been the focus of much modern academic content in this
For China, the argument against strict enforcement of human rights is based in
economics. Accession to a rigid (at least doctrinally) system of individual human
rights would limit their ability to maintain relationships with strategic partners which
hold significant resources and growing markets. Cuba and Venezuela, Sudan and
Iran, are examples of states with which China sees as critical to their need for
constant growth through market development and resource accumulation (Halper,
2010, pp. 138-140). To many in the West, the cry of cultural imperialism simply
allows a moral high ground that would otherwise be unavailable in defending
oneself against claims of human rights abuse. It also allows China to maintain its

strategic advantages against the United States and other Western powers. Having
raised a very large number its citizens from poverty in a short period of time, is it
still fair to criticize so harshly a regime that uses political repression against its
citizens? Certainly for those who believe very strongly in a universal aspect of
human rights; all men and women receive certain freedoms and protections without
exception. But it is not reasonable to deny China credit for the rapid development of
their nation, at least insofar as it has benefited the living standards (and through
those the important freedoms laid down in Articles 3 and 25 of the United
Declaration of Human Rights that pertain to security and dignity, and a standard of
living) of many their citizens. China maintains that these economic rights are the
most important to developing their citizens. On one hand, the Chinese argument
that the West has sought to extend its own norms to a culture that does not believe
that strongly in the relative worth of the individual over the state has some merit.
According to some it may also be legitimated by the fact that it does not stand to
benefit greatly from such a view (and in fact has used these constraints to bolster
massive growth, resulting in positive outcomes for its citizens), in that this would
limit its ability to maintain relationships with strategically important states that are
guilty of their own human rights abuse. On the other, many would argue that it is
not right to suppress the rights of some citizens for the benefit of the many, and
that this leads down a very morally ambiguous path towards a politics of ends
which justify the means.
It has been noted that some international institutions such as NGOs that act as
purveyors of the regime of Universal Human Rights may in fact risk their impartiality
by being unable to separate Western value judgements from their beliefs about
human rights. Rights regarding freedom from slavery, execution, torture, and

soforth, may be universally applicable - so the argument goes but some rights to
religious and cultural freedom, sexuality and gender freedoms, and rights to private
property can be considered an imposition upon cultures by post-colonial and
imperial force (Foley, 2009). This line of reasoning raises some questions however,
such as definitions of slavery. Certainly many women would object to being
subjected to forcible sex or servitude not considered rape or slavery due to
observance of (typically mens) religious freedoms, even where it may be
considered culturally acceptable. A certain moral relativism must take place in
accepting such claims, even if there is truth in the notion that these are
predominantly Western viewpoints being used to judge foreign cultures.
The normalization of a regime of individual human rights based on predominantly
Western views as a standard for the international community has been (and will
likely continue to be) problematic. Some states such as China have benefited
greatly through their association with states long considered human rights
abusers, and maintain that this has fueled growth and allowed them to provide the
economic security which they believe is most important to the development of their
citizenry. It is impossible to argue for or against this type of thinking without making
value judgements. Others have warned of the dangers of losing impartiality by
attempting to maintain the moral high ground. In short, the argument over cultural
imperialism is far from finished, despite fervent belief in the moral high ground on
both sides.
Are multicultural policies compatible with the nationalist goal of political
unity? Why/Why not?

Multiculturalism has always been at odds with nationalist belief, but the nationalist
argument regarding the political and national disunity it causes is not as strong as it
appears at first glance.
Multiculturalism has become a repeated and sustained political point of attack
(predominantly) from the right-wing within Australia and many other countries. It is
assumed that national unity (such as it exists) will be fractured by foreign
immigration and the promulgation of their alien cultural norms. It is also assumed
that this will eventually damage the political unity of the nation, leading to the
introduction of cultural norms that will harm those already living there by
oppressing the majority opinion. These concerns, while often based in the rational
(and at times irrational) fear response against the unknown, are sometimes
confused and misguided.
In the case of Australia, arguing that national unity will be harmed by the
introduction of foreign people and culture rests on fairly unsound foundations. First,
that national unity is a really existing concept shared within the minds of all
Australian citizens. Given the political and cultural diversity that has existed since
very early on within Australia, this leads to some concerning preconditions for
acceptance of the argument. Exactly which Australians are we discussing when we
construct our picture of the other? White Australians with Christian values
(disconcertingly typical, though rarely discussed openly for fear of the reprimand of
being named racist)? Early Chinese, German, Irish, or English settlers that have
existed within the country from early in its conception as a modern nation-state? Or
ought we make the distinction on political grounds? Perhaps we are to assume that
national unity rests on the shoulders only of good Monarchists, or Republicans, or
those of a rightward political bent? Second, the assumption must be that this

national unity will invariably be harmed by foreign influence, a claim that is equally
specious. It relies on the belief that foreign culture is typically incompatible to that
of Australias current citizenry. Here we can make an allowance, since certainly
some cultural norms regarding religious freedom, the rights of women and nonheteronormative citizens, are carried by those immigrating to the country. This fear
has risen considerably in recent years given the increase in migration by Muslim
peoples (Soutphommasane, 2013), though it is often surrounded by misinformation
and knee-jerk bigotry when it is discussed in the public sphere. Nevertheless, many
foreign citizens surely immigrate to Australia specifically because they wish to be
part of a country with a perceived culture of welcoming and open-mindedness. The
national unity argument rests on some questionable and at times disturbing
assumptions regarding who or what is truly representative of Australian national
Political unity is the other consideration usually discussed by nationalist elements.
The argument is that the political harmony and thus legislative even-handedness of the country will be adversely affected, leading to the (in more hot-headed
assessments) persecution of existing nationals by outsiders based on religion,
cultural recognition, or some other category. In more hysterical assessments, some
fear outright repression by other forms of cultural law, such as the Sharia law of
Islamic peoples (which is again often misrepresented and conflated) as it takes
precedence within Australian legal systems. This is one assumed outcome of
allowing recognition and equality of foreign cultures. Respect for people of foreign
cultures is conflated with the acceptance of more distasteful social mores, such as
female genital mutilation. Certainly there are outlier cases (that are used to fuel the
politics of fear) of this happening within Australia, but it is certainly disallowed by

law and punished as such when it is discovered. Again, there is an assumption here
of an already existing political unity. This is rarely ever the case in a developed
democracy which favors political pluralism and varieties of viewpoints (DiLorenzo,
2014). This argument offers a false option; political unity is unlikely to be truly
harmed, since it is in itself a misnomer.
Nationalist arguments against multicultural policies are often misguided. The belief
that national unity can be truly crystallized into a definite form and used as a
yardstick to measure the damage done by immigration and multicultural policies is
specious at best. Arguments in defense of political unity are often equally
misguided, though some can be rationalized through fear of foreign cultures. These
fall short of logical quality in assuming that there is a unified political culture within
any democratic state. Nationalist arguments against multiculturalism are unlikely to
go away any time soon, though many of them rest on unsound reasoning.

DiLorenzo, T., 2014. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 June 2016].
Foley, C., 2009. The Guardian. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 June 2016].
Halper, S., 2010. The Beijing Consensus. New York: Basic Books.

Kinzer, S., 2010. The Guardian. [Online]

Available at:
[Accessed 6 June 2016].
Soutphommasane, W. 1. J. 2. 2., 2013. ABC Radio National. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 6 June 2016].