Like most people who’ve studied philosophy, I went through a period of wrestling with the issue of cultural relativism: how can I say my cultural norms are good, and your cultural norms are repugnant?
A brief study of the issue of female genital mutilation resolved that problem for me – there are cultural practices that are simply indefensible and should be stamped out by all means possible, just like a species’ general right to exist can be waived in a case such as smallpox.
And for all their faults – and Third World criticisms about their lack of attention to rights such as food and housing are legitimate – the United Nations human rights framework is a pretty good place to start in making value judgments.
But cultural relativism has taken hold in surprising quarters, including it would seem, the Northern Territory in Australia, where a 55-year-old tribal elder who anally raped and bashed a 14-year-old girl, who had been “promised” to him when she was just four years old, was given a jail term of one month. (Although the fact that the Territory’s white culture is extremely masculo-centric might also, I can’t but feel, have something to do with this.)
This was on the grounds that he apparently didn’t know he was doing anything wrong under Australian law, and was merely following cultural norms.
Some of the background to this, as I understand it. A number of the tribal groups in the Territory have a tradition of very young girls being promised as wives to senior men in the tribe, and given to them at a very young age. I’ve seen explanations for this along the lines that this was a harsh, arid, unforgiving environment, and only experienced hunters were likely to be able to support a family. Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t. It is not, of course, true now.
The only good news is that someone has stepped in as the poor girl’s advocate and is trying to have the sentence increased, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.