Thursday, November 04, 2010

Cultural individualism and hand-picking traditions

Perhaps you've heard about the 10 year old that recently gave birth in Spain. If not, check out the link, or take in on faith when I tell you that she is Roma (Romanian gypsy), the father was 13, and they are no longer together.

In the Roma tradition, young women are "married off" to slightly older young men as soon as they hit puberty. Although the practice is not recognized nor condoned by the government, it is still an active cultural tradition for the roughly 1.5 million Roma.

People in Spain (and on facebook) are outraged that this ten year old gave birth. They are outraged that her mother is happy for her. Well, opinions are free and we can all have several if we like.

Some of the cultural traditions that Americans enjoy as a society include: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Black History Month, Breast Cancer Awareness month (and purchases of pink products), the 4th of July, baseball, football, and Mom's Apple Pie. Some less iconic cultural traditions include getting drunk on a 21st birthday, getting a driver's license at 16 (or 18 in some states), the high school prom, elaborate weddings with brides in virginal white dresses, regardless of whether or not they're actually virgins, frat parties, bachelor parties, and cars reflecting status. Some of those traditions don't really make a lot of sense -- such as getting slobbering drunk on a 21st birthday -- but it's a rite of passage in our culture, and who can tell us differently? No one, in part because we would pitch a hissy fit if anyone tried. The same goes for white wedding dresses. Have you ever heard a bride say "I can't wear white because I'm not a virgin!" Nope, although you might hear a very adamant and vocal defense of wearing white even though she bears little resemblance to Queen Victoria when the queen wore white. It's just one more detail that is part of our current culture that we cling to.

I'm not advocating ten year olds having sex and giving birth. But I am stating that if you accept cultural individualism then you need to accept all cultures, whether you agree with them or not. This ten year old was not raped, had consensual sex with someone close to her age, and was acting within the bounds of her culture and culture identity. Who are we to get outraged because we don't like those traditions! Maybe some Europeans think our mandated drinking age is ridiculous and that we should ditch the arbitrary age of 21, so that we might enjoy less drunk driving and less drunkenness in general. (They would have a point worth discussing, too). But before I take off on tangents about Prohibition and alcohol in this country, let's get back to the point.

Standing on a pedestal does not secure one's position nor superiority; the pedestal can be knocked out from underneath, or one can simply be knocked off.

Judging another culture for a human rights violation? That's understandable and worth investigating. Condemning one for traditions you don't agree with? That's a double-edged sword that can cut both ways. Next time you celebrate your traditions, ask yourself how you would feel if your neighbor told you you were wrong and tried to forcibly have your practices stopped.

Cultural individualism = what is right for a culture is indisputably right for that culture.