Yes, we can talk about this
Posted: Tue, 03 Sep 2013 by Meg Wallace
London's National Theatre recently hosted a debate about Freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam called Can we talk about this? The opening line was a question to the audience, "Are you morally superior to the Taliban?"
Anne Marie Waters, who was present, wrote in a blog that "very few people in the audience raised their hand to say they were."
This response, demonstrates a misconceived attempt to be seen as tolerant and 'multiculturalist'. People could not bring themselves to say their views are morally preferable to a group that, Waters points out, "denies women medical treatment, imprisons them in their homes, allows domestic violence, and executes people by stoning for having a private life or the audacity to not believe in God."
They fear being labelled, racist, 'Islamophobic', or discriminating against religion. Rather, they adopt a stance that treats all moral views generated by culture or religion as equally valid ('cultural relativism'). They confuse the distinction between the right to think as you want, and the right to act as you want.
It is generally disregarded that a global code of moral values has been established, and accepted by almost every nation in the world − the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). By acceding to this Declaration, over 190 nations have agreed to honour the principles of individual autonomy, equality, security, freedom of thought, belief, expression and association, subject to the norms of democratic government. In its statement of rights that apply, regardless of nationality, race, gender and social standing, the Declaration sets a morally accepted standard of behaviour for all individuals.
It has no place for cultural relativism, which leads to tolerance of cruel and inhumane practice in the name of 'culture', as if culture is the single source of moral acceptability.
Over 170 nations have signed the International Convention on Human Rights (ICCPR), turning the political rights set out in the UDHR into a binding agreement.
While individuals may practice their internal, illiberal beliefs in private, governments have undertaken to ensure their recognition of the political rights of everyone else, even within the same family, church or any other organisation. The trouble is, not one of these nations fully accedes to their promise.
Why were the UDHR and ICCPR adopted? Because it was globally agreed that the principles they enshrine are the most effective (albeit imperfect) means of promoting the well-being of humankind. They were considered superior to other moral and political principles, and therefore superior to cultural mores that did not work for the same ends.
At the very least, this is what has been formally decreed by the nations of the world. So holding that moral and political practices that promote this end are superior to others is neither unduly discriminatory or racist, but invokes a globally accepted 'superior' standard of living.
There is now a global inter-connectedness to the extent that indigenous people themselves often resort to the language of human rights to protect their culture from further unwanted encroachment.
Cultural relativism is a flawed basis for acceptance of others' values, as acceptance is based solely on the expression of those values by others, rather than on the worth of the values themselves. If, for example, clerics justify (or condone) certain action, say, female 'circumcision' (which is in effect genital mutilation) because it is tradition, or simply decreed by some 'authority' as mandated or acceptable, this reasoning is not sufficient to establish a general moral value that cannot be criticised.
However, if their reason is to prevent some harm to society in general, regardless of its religious beliefs, the argument goes to the content of the value espoused. We must be able to "