Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It’s Fundamental

I know this is going to come as a surprise, but I’ve decided it’s time to come out of the closet. I’m a fundamentalist. I’ve been a fundamentalist for years, ever since I first heard a student tell me that we had no right to judge the Nazis because we weren’t there. After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “Do you really think you had to be there to argue there’s something wrong with gassing thousands of people on the grounds that they were born to Jewish parents?” “Yes,” she said to me. “You can’t judge a person until you understand his culture.”

Right then and there I became a fundamentalist. I put together a course in “Cultural Relativism,” specifically questioning the notion that moralitity could be relative, and that led ultimately to my seminar in ethics, which I offered some sixteen times, if I remember correctly.

Some students objected to the open-ended nature of the course. They wanted answers. A Christian fundamentalist friend of mine also questioned my methods. “I hope you’re teaching them some solid values,” she said to me. “No,” I answered. “That’s not my job.” I saw my job as laying before them all I could see of the world’s approaches to ethics, crossing time and space from Confucianism and all the religious ethical codes through rationalism to modern professional ethics, and raising discussions in order to give students the tools to think and talk about how to look at a situation ethically.

I was never relativistic about it. I always let people know, especially if they asked directly, how I felt about things, while at the same time I worked hard not to intimidate them and make them agree before they’d had a chance to reach the conclusions I reached through their own devices. On occasion, they differed markedly from me on ethical issues, and I always took pleasure in finding somebody who had strength in their convictions. In that sense, I was a relativist.

However they ended up, the young people I spent my days with almost invariably used relativism as a starting point. I think this was largely because they are new to many of their own convictions, and more than anything else, they want to be left alone to explore and follow their own hunches. Some, like the religious fundamentalists currently holding sway in this country, would like to have moral certainty packaged for them, but far more see certainties as anathema. They fear if they come down too strong on the morality of any issue, it won’t be long before somebody is poking around in their lives with rules they’d rather do without.

At first, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. “Do you believe we have the right to tell people in other countries what to do?” “Certainly not.” “Do you believe if they sell their daughters into prostitution we should call it a local custom and leave it alone?”

You’d be surprised how many people would say yes at first. You could then ask them why. And they’d say it was because “it’s their custom.” “The custom of the people selling? Or the custom of the people being sold?” How did you reach your conclusion about who “they” are? And off you’d go with a very lively discussion.

Issues which will bring a young relativist up short are not hard to find. There are folk somewhere in the world still throwing babies into fires to make it rain. Customs requiring a rape victim to marry her rapist for the honor of the family. Female circumcision. Sooner or later, if you pile these examples on, cracks will form in their resolve. “Well you and I may not like it, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to stop it.”

OK, I’d ask them. What if a 9-year-old girl living next door to you came knocking on your door at 3 in the morning crying and begging you to take her in. Her mother wants to send her back to Sudan to be circumcized and she has been in Japan long enough to see this as brutal and dangerous. What do you do? Send her back to her mother?

This kind of confrontation would sober up a bunch of jokesters in a hurry. Even the cool cats would start squirming, the ones who said with the greatest confidence that we all ought to mind our own business.

“Yes,” the right of a parent is greater than the right of a stranger to the family to impose his or her own values on a person.” These were powerful teaching moments, because you had the material you needed to launch into the question of a hierarchy of values, and that hierarchy helped you recognize the complexity almost always involved in reaching a conclusion.

Sometimes, probably not often enough, we would reach a consensus about what is “right” but not about how we might go about acting on it. “Yes, I know what the right thing is to do, but that doesn’t mean I have the right or the will to do it!” And that would open yet another door into the complexity of the ethics of an issue, whether you could hide behind the cost of being ethical.

The longer I did this, the more of a fundamentalist I became. And maybe I ought to tell you now what I mean by fundamentalist. I mean that in the end, in the conflict between those who would like to use their instincts, their “hearts,” to reach a conclusion about what’s right, and those who believe reason should always prevail – and in the conflict between those who reason one way and those who reason another, sooner or later you realize you’re at the point where you have to take your stand. The fundies do it by citing Scripture. “All I know is what the Bible says.” Some will then concede there are conflicting rules in the Bible; the most stone-headed of the bunch will walk away at this point with some kind of, “Well, if you approached it prayerfully, you’d know how to read the scripture.” At which point the rationalists usually wish it was OK to carry and use guns. On fundamentalists.

I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to human rights. I say that without blushing because I think you still have to reason and negotiate about just what those are and how best to further them in any given situation. But that’s not the same thing as saying anything goes, according to your “culture” or some other intellectually lazy excuse.

Let me give you an illustration. Friend Barbara sent me an article the other day about something that’s happening in Berlin. Large numbers of Turks and Kurds have settled in Germany, and in many cases they have formed a critical mass of folk in a given neighborhood which enables them to live more or less as they did before they left home. Many of these are rural uneducated people, the kind of people that have the most pressing reason for emigrating for work, and that maximizes the differences between them and their host culture in a modern Western nation.

The article tells of a court case in which three brothers were charged with the murder of their sister. She had been taken back to Turkey and forced to marry a cousin. Rebelling against this – she was, after all, by this time fully “German,” she ran away. The youngest of the brothers hunted her down and killed her. Result? A few years in jail. He’ll still be a young man when he gets out and will be received with honor in a society which credits him with being a man who carries on the best of community values. His older brothers, who made no secret of their enthusiastic approval of his actions, got off scot free. They couldn’t be held on accessory charges, so they provide the chief support group for younger brother and at the end of the day you’ve got a wonderful family unity, a very positive outcome of this murder.

My relativist-inclined students aren’t here now and I miss them. I’d like to hear what they’d have to say about what Germany should do. Those who took my seminar repeatedly would probably be inclined to agree with me that this is a deplorable situation, that men should not be allowed to walk away from a so-called “honor killing,” but what can we do? It’s their “culture”!

No. Wrong. No. Not to this fundamentalist.

Let me tell you what Germany should do. As a fundamentalist, I’m free to tell other people what’s right and what’s wrong and to shake my finger until they do the right thing.

Here’s the right thing.

Cut the crap about relativism. I heard a comedian on television last night make some remark about Germans marching and offing their enemies in concentration camps. Why do people laugh at that, I wonder, sixty years after the end of World War II. It’s a terrible burden, this guilt of their fathers they carry, and it’s made them do some dumb things. Like open the floodgates to any and all and make themselves vulnerable to abuse.

I’m as happy as anybody to see a pacifist Germany, but I was also happy to see them at long last sending troops to stop the latest European genocide in the former Yugoslavia. They are slowly but surely finding their courage to act as a modern democratic state which needs to apologize to no one, and less as a state that has to make up for past sins.

Germany won the war as much as the Allied Powers won the war. 1945 was the defeat of the militarists, but it was also the start of a very effective modern democracy founded on the values expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. I wish they’d act more like the winners they are, confident in their values, and unafraid to act on them inside German borders.

Germany today makes it illegal to advocate the things the Nazis advocated. They have laws we would find unconstitutional, laws we would call offensive to free speech. You can be a Nazi today in America – we just hope the silliness of it all will make you ineffective – but in Germany you don’t have the right. Fine. Given the living memory of fascism, I think they have a right to approach this differently.

But bending over backwards to allow space for other people once considered Untermenschen is just plain embarrassing. It comes across far less as generosity toward other people than as a lack of conviction that a woman has the right not to be owned by her father, brother, husband or any other man.

These are not notions to be debated in a classroom, not something to be negotiated each time a case comes up. These are part of a Grundgesetz – a (here’s the word) fundamental law of the land.

I know the story’s complex. I know the French have trouble making girls shower with other girls and come to school without headscarves. I know the Dutch have instruction for immigrants in which they inform them that they have to look at bare boobs on the beach and accept homosexual marriages as equal to heterosexual marriages because it is Dutch to do so. I know you look like an awful ass if you claim the right to do things the Dutch way in Holland but not the Kurdish way in Turkey or Iraq if that way includes killing women. But tough.

I know it is intellectually confusing to find yourself defending one code of ethics as superior to another simply because it’s your code of ethics. But it’s time we stopped thinking that a system in which people can live by a double standard (I’m a man, so I dictate to women; I’m white so I dictate to blacks; I’m Christian, so I dictate to Muslims) is as good as one in which people live by a universal standard (rules must be made collectively and democratically and they must apply to the lawmakers as well as the governed).

We need to admit we’re up against complexity here, that maybe we can negotiate the headscarves, but there will be no negotiation over honor killing.

Look, guys. You come to Germany, you kill your daughter, you are prosecuted to the full extent of the law as any other murderer.

It’s the law. (And if it isn’t, shame shame on me; I’ll fix that immediately!)

It’s fundamental.

P.S. There’s more – it’s an ongoing story. The woman’s name is Hatun Sürücü – you can see her picture, as long as they have it up, at . And when you’ve decided what Germany should do about this family, tell me what they should do about the kid. Turns out Hatun left an 8-year old boy. The authorities have taken him away from his family, but the family wants him back. Should they deport the family? All of them? On what grounds? On what grounds do they keep the kid in foster care?

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