Column on Trumping Culture

Trumping Culture
Tibor R. Machan
Several acquaintances of mine have a tendency to explain or even justify what they say and do by reference to culture.  "In my culture we do this." So just hush about it already, even if by other, widely accepted standards the thinking and conduct are wrong.  
For example, some people, hailing from certain parts of the globe, believe in corporeal punishment of their kids, good and hard. Even minor infractions are treated with what by certain standards would be considered brutality.  But when this is protested, one often gets the response that, well, that is how things are done in the perpetrator’s culture and who is to say who is right.
I can speak here from personal experience.  My Hungarian father believed in beating me anytime he found what I said or did objectionable.  No, it wasn’t enough to try to persuade me of his stance, to defend his standards in the face of their being challenged. Nor was it sufficient to ground me or doc my allowance or something similarly mild. What he did is clench his fist and hit me in the face and wherever he thought it would hurt badly.  One time he brought home a plastic rod from an industrial exhibition with the triumphant exclamation that now, finally, he has something with which to beat me without having to hurt his own fists. 
There are stories like this in the histories of many families, of course, some more and some less severe.  But it goes further than that.  Many people today, at least in certain countries, consider various treatments of animals totally unacceptable.  Bull fighting, which is so closely linked to Latin culture, is denounced as wantonly cruel, nothing less.  Dog fighting, which has been in the news recently right here in America, is another case in point, or cock fighting just across the border many places in Mexico.  
In my case I finally ran away, on my 18th birthday, and despite trying to force me to come home from the high school I was attending, my father was rebuffed by the authorities–I was now of age and could do as I chose in this country.  And for me the abuse went so far as to make it worth embarking upon a life of my own, even in a brand new country where I was still quite a stranger.  For others, however, the cost-benefit calculation is more problematic–they may not be abused so badly as to make it worth their while to simply bolt and set off on their own.  It’s too risky, scary, so they will often stick around and put up with the culturally justified treatment.  Some battered wives know of this very well. 
What elements of a culture are, as it were, optional, which are over the top, unacceptable?  For animal rights activists bull fighting is over the top; for children’s rights activists beating a kid just will not cut it, no way.  What about vegetarianism?  Is it optional? Some think so and would certainly restrain anyone who would try to force others not to kill and eat animals.  Others have no tolerance for meat eating and would gladly force anyone to desist, never mind consent.
This isn’t the place to try to resolve any particular cultural conflict.  But it is possible to observe that the idea that something is justified by one’s culture is quite problematic.  Draconian measures of cruelty against women and dissidents are deployed in the name of this very dubious "justification" (or is it rationalization?).  Moreover, even those who like to invoke culture to justify their own thinking and conduct often do not accept this from others whose thinking and conduct they find detestable.  
The matter harks back all the way to ancient Greece where the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, were deeply concerned about what are matters that are subject to diverse treatments–maybe customs or methods of educating the young–and what cannot be left subject to such diversity–homicide, lying, slavery, and so on.  Their attempted solution was to find a common standards of human conduct in an understanding of human nature, something they held to be stable and thus transcending cultures.
The basic solution these thinkers–and many others throughout human history–proposed is that from an understanding that human beings are distinctive in the world by virtue of being able to reason, their conduct must conform to this fact, must be reasonable. That leaves room for a great deal of variety but it also precludes certain ways of acting.  Mostly it precludes the use of physical force among people to reach agreement or pseudo-cooperation.  Being civilized means using one’s reasoning ability to persuade others–or to be persuaded–of what is right.  The rest is barbaric.
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