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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Moral High Ground

Things going on this this country worry me.

Today it's the woman who was attacked, raped and jeered at by a mob at a minibus taxi terminal here in my home town. Her crime: she dared to wear a mini-skirt in public.

This, of course, reminds us of the woman who was similarly attacked by a mob in Kwazulu-Natal Province several months ago for daring to wear trousers in public.

This kind of thing makes me so sad, I struggle to write about it.

As a sceptic activist (it feels good to describe myself as such) and an atheist, I spend a lot of time reading and listening to folks who are experts in the behaviour of fundamentalist religious folks, especially the Muslims in the Middle-East and Christians in the USA. A key point that comes up from time to time in diatribes against those fundamentalists is the special social status of religion that they hide behind.

Specifically, these people believe that their religion should not be subject to analysis, should be exempt from any criticism and should be protected from any speech that may not be complimentary. This whole Mohammad cartoon story is a perfect example of this: these people feel that any disrespect shown towards their faith or their religious icons amounts to oppression, and must be fought.

This claim, that their religion should not be subject to critical analysis, is clearly an attempt at self-preservation. They must know that their beliefs cannot withstand rational scrutiny, and therefore should be protected from it. They'll continue to practice their religions (which they have every right to do) and sometimes even resort to enforcing outdated and cruel regulations that their ancient texts dictate (which is stupid). If anyone complains about it, they cry foul and reassert their immunity from examination and judgement.

While it should be perfectly harmless to allow them to make their little assertions as much as they like, it's not. Why not? Because we let them get away with it. We, as moderates, seculars, non-believers and apathetic people allow them to perpetuate this, and most of us actually back off, letting them get away with all sorts of things.

How does this relate to the mini-skirt lady? This is how.

Since the dawn of the New South Africa (TM) in 1994, there has been a very similar trend among the black citizens of our society. It started off, I believe, as an honest and well-meaning attempt at exchanging cultural norms and customs, with the intent to create a greater level of mutual understanding. Awesome.

I remember going to the early precursors of what we now call 'Diversity Training', and learning about simple cultural differences between my upbringing (based primarily on Western European customs) and the backgrounds of my black countrymen. It was genuinely interesting, covering things like eye-contact, hand-shaking and other simple things.

But this began what become, in retrospect, a pretty slippery slope. It quickly degenerated from "This is how we do it in my culture, just so you know." into "You have to respect this, because this is my culture."

A dangerous transition.

Out of an attempt to be accommodating, we whites (and presumably a whole lot of culturally moderate blacks) just said "Um, okay." and let them get away with it. That wasn't too bad when it was being used as an excuse to justify being late for work, or not addressing superiors with the proper respect. When it started being used as a justification for harmful, and even criminal acts, a line was crossed. But by then it was too late - the precedent had already been set.

When Jacob Zuma claimed that he hadn't raped that woman, because it was "his culture", we all caught a bit of a wake-up. But clearly it wasn't enough, because he got away with it. And now he's going to be our next president. Go us!

But it's getting worse. This excuse-mongering, coupled by the deplorable behaviour displayed by our "leaders" seems to have exacerbated the situation. Innocent citizens, going about their own business, are being attacked by their own peers for violating their fragile sensibilities.

And how do these mobs justify their behaviour? "It's our culture".

It shouldn't have to be said that if a cultural (or religious) practice is morally reprehensible, as this definitely is, then there can be no reasonable justification for it. These morons must, MUST, be brought to justice as a message to their compatriots: rational, civilised societies will not tolerate brutish, savage, barbaric behaviour. They are not compatible, and one must give.

I can only hope that it is indeed civilisation and reason that will win this struggle. It could too easily go the other way.