LGBT issues: Basic human rights trump religion and culture

Picture from the 2011 Capital Pride Parade - Dupont Circle - Washington, DC. (Wikimedia Commons)
Picture from the 2011 Capital Pride Parade – Dupont Circle – Washington, DC. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Dianne Skoll
LGBT Perspectives columnist

In an earlier column, LGBT Perspectives editor Jillian Page quoted a commenter on another site writing: “Do Africans have the right to choose their own destiny and
cultural values defined by Africans for Africans, or should we just swallow so-called Western values without question?”

Questions like this often come up. They boil down to “Shouldn’t you respect the rights of people in location XYZ to live according to their long-held and deeply-ingrained traditions?”

My answer to this question is: Maybe.

Almost everyone agrees that human beings have basic human rights. Even those who don’t agree pay lip service to the idea because they know that it’s no longer socially acceptable to deny it. Unfortunately, people who wish to deny rights to others have created a completely fake set of competing rights that they believe must be “balanced” against human rights. And these fake rights are stated as follows: Cultures and religions deserve as much freedom and respect as
individual human beings.

This is, of course, nonsensical.

A culture or a religion is not a living, breathing, feeling human being. It’s a set of traditions and beliefs, some of them good and some of them not so good. Just because a large set of people have a deeply-held philosophy, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize the philosophy. Those who claim to want to “balance” the so-called right to religious or cultural expression against legitimate human rights are simply setting up a false equivalence to undermine the real rights every human being innately has.

There’s a strange reluctance in the West to criticize non-Western ideas and beliefs. It’s a safe bet that most LGBT supporters in the West will have harsh words for fundamentalist Christians who promote homophobia. But when it comes to criticizing Judaism, Islam or other religions, there’s discomfort, even though Judaism in its traditional form is misogynistic and homophobic, and Islam is way up there for misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia. Traditional Indian culture has some pretty inhumane practices such as suttee, the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, and the cruel and brutal caste system.

What usually happens when these uncomfortable facts are pointed out is that defenders of these cultures (who incidentally probably do not actually agree with the worst of the practices, but simply get defensive when they think their traditions are being attacked) counter with the argument that Western society has plenty of problems of its own, and that we should fix our own problems first before hypocritically criticizing others.

Of course Western society has problems.  And it has had a brutal and violent history.  That does not mean that we shouldn’t be able to point out injustice wherever it occurs.  If perfection were required before one could demand improvement, we’d all be silent.

And of course Western cultural commentators are hypocritical. Hypocrisy and a flair for self-deception are part of the human condition. Most of us believe we’re smarter than the median, funnier than the median, more honest than the median, and more ethical than the median.  But again, if hypocrisy precluded calling for justice, we’d be living in silence.

Another tactic used by the defenders of questionable cultural practices is to pretend that one of their human rights has been violated — namely, the right not to be offended.  Well, sorry, but that isn’t actually a human right.  In fact, protection of freedom of expression depends critically on the right to offend, because
inoffensive expression does not require protection.

Back to the question. My one-word answer “maybe” is unsatisfying. So here’s a longer and better answer:

Yes, people have the right to practice their religions and express their cultural heritage to the extent that human rights and human dignity are respected. Those religious tenets and cultural practices that hurt, that degrade and that dehumanize are not OK.  And we should be unafraid to call them out.

****

“Let harmlessness be the keynote of your life.” — Alice Bailey

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