Friday, October 1, 2004

Thinking about cultural relativity

Pitcairn Island - midway between Peru and New Zealand in the South Pacific - is home to the descendents of the HMS Bounty mutineers and local Polynesians, with a fascinating history of British intervention and governance that continues to this day.

Of the less than 50 current residents, seven men (including the mayor) are now on trial for sexual abuse, ranging from indecent assault to the rape of a five-year-old girl. (via)

Now, here's the part that interests me: according to the BBC and the ABC, the charges stem from 1999, when an islander told a visiting British policewoman she had been sexually abused.

"Since then, new laws including a child protection act have been enacted and police and social workers have been sent to the island ... The defendants are expected to mount a defence based on a challenge to Britain's authority over the island."

But why focus on challenging British authority over their people?

"New Zealand prosecutors say there is an ingrained culture of using children for sex on Pitcairn [and] local women have argued the practice is an island tradition and consensual."

Fascinating. First of all, I don't know of any culture where it's acceptable to have sex with five-year-olds. But there are many cultures in which sexual activity begins much earlier than in Christian Anglo-Saxon traditions, and there is no reason to believe that Pitcairn is not one of them.

And so, leaving the case of the five-year-old aside, the real question here is who should be able to legislate the behaviours of the Pitcairners? Should it be a far-away people whose values and norms are based on different histories and situations? Or should it be the local people, with their intimate knowledge of centuries of life as one of the world's most isolated communities?

The history of imperialism and colonialism tells us that the conquering peoples most often impose their cultural norms on the conquered. Wars of independence - indeed all revolutionary acts - are fought not least because people want autonomy. They want to feel in charge of their own lives, want their own values to guide them.

When - if ever - do we get to impose universal morals or laws? And who gets to decide what they are?

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