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Between Romantic and Barbarian Orientalism

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

This post generally deals with the difficulty of making value judgments that are balanced and accurate. Particularly considering communities and groups one does not belong to.

I want to recognize that the situation for women in most of the Arab world is objectively oppressive and is vastly unequal in relation to men. At the same time I want to recognize that descriptions of the region as backwards can be Orientalist and themselves unhelpful and degrading to those who live in it. There is a balance between romanticizing and demonizing the other that is important to trace. So while Arab countries have laws that discriminate against women, to say that Islam or Arab culture is the problem is to go to the end of demonization. On the other hand to ignore that this is the case at present is to go to the romanticization end. It seems that demonization and romanticization both lie in generalization. But not all generalization falls into either end. It is tricky to try to formulate a method by which to avoid both extremes without saying that we should judge on a case by case basis. One good way is to play with scale. To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply takes the observation of Muslim groups in democratic countries and democratic groups in Muslim countries to debunk.

But what about value claims. Something like “wearing the veil is wrong”. The referent is Western values in this case and applies to others, that is the forcing of others to take action as directed by external edict. This is true regardless of whether the actor is oppressing another. So to tell Saddam or the Turks to give more freedom to the Kurds is such an imposition regardless of whether the Kurds themselves are oppressed. The question is whether there is a logical way or a rule to distinguish situations in which these statements may be beneficial or acceptable and others when they are not.

The balance seems to necessarily lie with more description and less generalization. Even though generalization and conceptualization are necessary for theory formation and understanding there are some concepts that correspond to a certain reality better than others. I say certain reality because all concepts find their root in a reality of some sort, but reality is vast and continuous and sense making divides it into parts. So conceptualization, generalization, and simplification are necessary.  The reality of female circumcision coexists with one in which not all Muslims practice it, but the focus of simplification and observation differ.

It just seems that there is no real way to make a general argument of how to judge one statement or another and that such statements must always be taken on a case by case basis.

Open ended…

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