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Support basic human rights

Letter to the Editor | Thursday, October 2, 2003

I was both disturbed and disappointed by Katy Kemnetz’s Oct. 1 letter. Specifically, Kemnetz seems to be promoting cultural relativism, which is basically the idea that there is no single “truth,” and that the relevance of one’s moral standards completely depends on the society in which one is living. She fails to recognize the dangers inherent in such a theory.

Evidence of why her position is problematic abounds in Kemnetz’s letter. She describes “civilizational differences” as the reason why Westerners object to Hindu women (supposedly) committing suicide after being widowed or why “the Maasi tribes … cut their women so that they feel no pleasure during sex.” By portraying these situations as merely a failure to see eye-to-eye, she regrettably undermines the great injustices that they entail.

If a Hindu woman does not throw herself onto her deceased husband’s funeral pyre willingly, in many places she will be forced into the flames. This isn’t a cute cultural discrepancy; this is murder, and it should outrage the ethical conscience of people worldwide. And Kemnetz’s depiction of so-called “cutting” is a flowery allusion to the despicable practice of female genital mutilation. I am unwilling to accept such a gross violation of human rights on the grounds that I don’t understand Tanzanian society.

I am repelled by the idea of a mono-cultural world, and I agree that we would be mistaken in thinking that all societies should adopt the American perspective on all issues.

However, there are still basic principles of human rights that must transcend all nations. The intrinsic dignity of humankind cannot be denied simply because different parts of the globe chose to express their artistic, culinary, or religious sentiments in varying ways. This is the universal “natural law” of which Locke spoke, which we are obliged to support, not only as Catholics but also as morally decent fellow human beings.

Kristen Nugentjunioroff-campusSept. 30