I think a significant portion of the left leans toward some form of moral equivalency or cultural relativism when it comes to gender issues in the West and in non-Western countries. Even feminists who are sharply critical of women's oppression in Third World countries often feel the need to throw in annoying disclaimers about how we really aren't much better.
Well, this very issue is a topic of some heated debate right now over at Feministe, Protein Wisdom, and John Cole. (Hat tip: Richard Bennett.) At Feministe, Jill put up an item about Rania al-Baz, the Saudi television presenter who went public as a victim of domestic violence after her husband tried to beat her to death. She quotes from an article in Salon.com:
“The crucial thing,” says Baz, “is that the structure of society — the fact that a woman cannot drive or travel without authorization, for example — gives a special sense of strength to the man. And this strength is directly connected to the violence. It creates a sense of immunity, that he can do whatever he wants, without sanction. The core issue is not the violence itself, it is this immunity for men, the idea that men can do what they like. It is the society of which the violence is an expression.”Jill comments:
Sounds like grade-A patriarchy-blaming. And she’d be right.
It’s too easy to read a story like this and respond, “Wow, they sure are backwards over there in Saudi Arabia,” thus exoticising domestic crimes and excusing yourself (ourselves) from any ownership over this society, which also tacitly excuses violence against women. Yes, women in the United States have far more resources than Saudi women when trying to escape abusive situations, and the cult of silence around such violence has had holes poked in it here. For that, we can all thank feminism. But to claim that the cultural ills which promote and allow intimate partner violence exist there and not here is delusional to the point of being dangerous.
Some commenters, among them bloggers Jeff Goldstein of ProteinWisdom and Karol of AlarmingNews, took issue with Jill's statement as an instance of the liberal habit of trying to balance any criticism of other countries with a disclaimer that things are bad here too. This prompted some vitriolic responses from others, including Chris Clarke and Pandagon's Amanda Marcotte. Jill's defenders point out that her criticism of America was simply a brief acknowledgment of our own problem with domestic violence, coming at the end of a fairly long post about the abuse of women in Saudi Arabia, and that Jill explicitly rejects an equation between the situation of women here and there.
I think Jeff Goldstein is right on target (despite his self-defeating use of some unfortunate language in the comments thread at Chris Clarke's site). In fact, the placement of the comment about domestic violence in America at the end of Jill's post — in the concluding paragraph, not a footnote — has the effect of shifting the focus from the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia to the "cultural ills" that afflict women in America. If she had wanted merely to acknowledge that we have problems too, why not say, "Yes, America has problems with domestic violence and gender inequality, too, but to even compare them to the abuse and oppression of women in America is delusional to the point of being obscene"? The way her post is written, its main point ends up being: Let's not feel too superior to those Saudis.
Well, I, like Karol, will take the easy way out and say: "Wow, they sure are backwards over there in Saudi Arabia." I will also say that the claim that our society "tacitly excuses violence against women" is utter and complete nonsense. For one thing, patriarchy in America was always tempered by chivalry which regards striking a woman as vile and unmanly. The very first code of laws passed in the American colonies prohibited the "bodily correction" of wives by husbands; according to feminist historian Elizabeth Pleck, penalties for wife-beaters ranged from public "shaming" in church to fines to lashes.
It is quite true that, as Pleck demonstrates, the response to domestic violence in America was often hampered by the priority given to family privacy and family stability. But today, domestic violence — at least, the abuse of women by men — is one of the most widely discussed and deplored social ills in America. (If these are mere "holes" poked in a "cult of silence," I'm not sure what kind of attention Jill would consider adequate.) Indeed, in recent years it has been surrounded by wild exaggerations, with the media uncritically repeating such transparently bogus claims as "domestic abuse causes more injuries to women in America than car accidents, rapes and muggings combined." (In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, all kinds of violence combined account for about 5% of women's emergency room visits, compared to 18% for car accidents.)
What's more, while there are undoubtedly still instances in which the plight of abused women is dangerously neglected by the authorities, the War on Domestic Violence has led to excesses of its own. (For more on this, see here and here.) A few years ago in my home state of New Jersey, a judge openly declared, at a training seminar for municipal court judges, that "your job is not to become concerned about the constitutional rights of the man that you're violating as you grant a restraining order" because "they have declared domestic violence to be an evil in our society, so we don't have to worry about the rights." And another interesting example: In 1996, when the New York State Assembly was working on legislation toughening penalties for misdemeanor assault on a family member, some lawmakers tried to extend this measure to all assaults. The sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, was adamantly opposed to this change: "The whole purpose of my bill is to single out domestic violence," he told the New York Times. "I don't want the world to think we're treating stranger assaults the same way as domestic assaults."
In the comments section of her post, as evidence that "we have these problems too," Jill writes:
Just look at what’s happened in New York in the past two weeks: The four-year-old girl who was found wandering around Queens crying for her mother has been on the front page of every tabloid paper. After not being able to track down her mom, police finally believe they’ve discovered her body in a Pennsylvania landfill — and her live-in boyfriend has admitted to killing her by suffocating her and then slitting her throat (and he had the audacity to claim that he suffocated her in self-defense, and then slit her throat to “open an airway”). That’s domestic violence, and it’s happening here.
But what does that prove? Where is the evidence that such violence is being "tacitly excused"? Obviously, to Jill and some of her posters, the mere fact of a man killing his girlriend shows patriarchal forces at work. But then what do we make of this horrible story of a woman basically torturing and beating her live-in boyfriend to death after he sold her computer to get money for drugs? Or the even more horrifying case of Soccoro Caro, the California housewife who murdered her three children, reportedly after numerous instances of physically abusing her husband? What do we make of gay men and lesbians who kill and abuse their partners? I'm sure you can still find instances, in some subcultures in America, of the belief that a man has to "keep his woman in line," using force if necessary. But we are not Saudi Arabia. We are not even more "liberal" Egypt, where according to a recent survey 86% of women ages 20 to 29 believe that a man is justified in beating his wife for a variety of offenses, from "talking back" to the husband to speaking to another man to refusing sex to spending too much money. It's not a difference in degree; it's a difference in kind.
Yes, we have gender issues that need to be addressed (some affecting women, some affecting men). But to even mention them in the same breath with the Saudi Arabias of the world is an insult — not so much to America as to the women who are victims of real patriarchy.
Update: Over at The Moderate Voice and The Debate Link, Jeff and other right-of-center bloggers who have criticized Jill's post as an example of knee-jerk leftist America-bashing are being accused of hypocrisy for failing to acknowledge a more recent post at Feministe, which discusses efforts to reform Colombia's harsh abortion laws with nary a reference to the battle over abortion rights in the United States, or to any American ills.
And the point is ... what? Left-wing feminists don't offer an "it's bad here too" disclaimer every single time they talk about the oppression of women in the Third World? Fine. But actually, the contrast between the two posts is interesting. Maybe the difference in approach is due partly to the fact that the oppression of women in traditional Islamic societies has become a conservative cause lately, with the plight of Muslim women invoked as a justification for U.S. intervention; so, when leftists talk about women's oppression in those countries, they want to be especially careful to avoid even seeming to validate "American imperialism." More broadly, radical/fundamentalist Islam right now is America's "Other," the them in "us vs. them." Maybe that's why talk of the mistreatment of women under fundamentalist Islamic regimes has to be accompanied (no, not always, but often enough) by disclaimers that are supposed to bring America down a peg: Can't allow those ugly Americans to feel culturally superior to the Other!
Update: David Schaub of The Debate Link replies. He thinks I take a somewhat slanted view of Jill's Feministe post, the bulk of which focuses on the terrible situation of women in Saudi Arabia. But then he has this to say, of my suggestion for how Jill could have mentioned America's own problem with domestic violence without appearing to fall into the moral equivalency trap:
Cathy's re-write would completely destroy Feministe's real point, which is that we shouldn't minimize our own abuse even while condemning the much worse abuse abroad. Cathy's wording would let us feel all superior about our abuse-response, which isn't a mindset likely to galvanize the masses toward true reform. It encourages political quiescence, the exact opposite of what we want here. So to propose it as a viable alternative only makes sense if the goal is to condemn Saudi Arabia and praise America, as oppose to condemn Saudi Arabia and not let America off the hook.
So David agrees that to "not let America off the hook" while condemning Saudi patriarchy is a part of Feministe's "real point." We simply disagree (respectfully, I hope!) on whether this is a good thing.
Let me make something clear. I'm not saying that we should simply pat ourselves on the back for being better than Saudi Arabia and decide that we need no further efforts to combat domestic abuse or gender inequality. If someone posted a story about a victim of domestic abuse who was badly let down by the system here in America, and then concluded by saying, "But hey, it's a lot worse Saudi Arabia!", I would find this absurd and offensive — not least because congratulating ourselves on being better than Saudi Arabia when it comes to the status of women is a bit like congratulating oneself for being a better husband than O.J. Simpson.
By the same token, I still believe that to bring up America's problems with domestic abuse in the context of a post about the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia — and to imply that the two have something in common — is terribly wrong-headed and insulting.