The violent protests in the Middle East and in countries like India over the awful “Innocence of Muslims” film have shown one thing – there’s a huge divide between the West and the East in terms of culture and freedom of expression. More specifically, there’s a huge difference between the US and the rest of the world. In the US, people ignore or peacefully protest anything offensive and the government doesn’t ban stuff or arrest people for expressing themselves no matter how insulting, derogatory, hateful or offensive. And no matter which religion they piss off.
A lot of people like Shashi Tharoor claim that this is “just an example of different cultures’. While it’s legal to be offensive in the US, it’s not legal elsewhere. He gives the example of how women can take their tops off on some beaches in the world and draw no comment whereas the same act in other places would lead to dire consequences. Here is the video. Note that it’s incorrectly labelled as “US double standards”. Tharoor says no such thing.
I think we have to realize that some cultures are better than others. Not merely different, but better. A country where women can take their tops off and not face consequences is better in that regard than a country where they cannot. Why? Because it’s one less thing to keep track of. It’s one less thing that can break the peace. It’s one less restriction with no ill effects. You get the same peace and serenity with fewer restrictions! Isn’t that better and not merely “different”?
People like Tharoor hide behind cultural relativism and say “Well, that’s not how it’s done here”, somehow implying that the two cultures are on an equal footing. Like apples and oranges. By framing it in these terms, they abdicate all responsibility of trying to change the situation and improve it. After all, if you admit that your culture is worse then you have to do something. If you say it’s “different”, then you can just sit on the status quo and even feel good about some acquired sense of identity.
It’s political correctness and nothing more that makes us shy from telling the truth. Certain habits are indeed cultural. Some people in the far east eat with chopsticks. That’s just a different way of doing things. Neither better nor worse. No ethical implications. But freedom of speech is not ethically neutral. Freedom itself is not neutral. When the Arab countries mistreat women, it’s not “just their culture”. It’s wrong. Rights and freedoms are universal to all humans because in the end we are born alone and we die in our own arms. No one comes with us when we die. It’s something we experience uniquely by ourselves no matter how many people are around us.
In the end, nothing is more important than the freedoms of the individual. “Society” is a myth. An artificial construct that we need to get rid of.
Some may interpret this as saying that I hate India and love “developed” countries like the US. Nothing of the sort. I love India – which is why I spend energy and effort wanting it to become better. If I disliked India I wouldn’t bother coming back and trying to change people’s mindsets. We’re still a young country – 60 years isn’t much. Considering that we’re doing ok. But we need something to work towards and the first step is to admit that there are other cultures better than ours. Only then can we improve.