A few months ago a friend and I got into a heated debate about religion. Actually it spiralled out of the realm of debate and into an argument. I told him he was being a leftist version of Pat Robertson – bestowing his grand wisdom on the masses. He countered that at some point the middle was not an acceptable seat, some things were wrong and people have to take a stand.


I was uneasy with that idea. My thoughts on life and liberty have always been to live and let live as long as your living doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s quality of life. So if you believe in Jesus or Buddha or Osugun or whoever…I support that right. It stems from my need for others not to dictate to me how I should pray, look, eat, or live.


But my friend had a point. Eventually the water gets murky and you either have to swim all the way out or you have to retreat to shore in order to see what is going on. This gets complicated in a world full of different cultures and norms. I’ve never wanted to be associated with the “America knows best” camp. If nothing else, my time in South Africa taught me that sometimes things are done differently for very good reasons.


But sometimes cultural differences and another person’s rights clash. And once again South Africa emerges as an example in the sparks that fly.


There has been an ongoing rape trial against the ex deputy president of the ANC. He is accused of  raping an AIDS activist and friend of the family in his home.


Until this week he maintained that it was consensual sex, that she came on to him. But in a twist, he took the stand this week and used “traditional Zulu values” to prove his innocence. He claimed that she was wearing a skirt that showed her knees and exposed her thighs when she sat down and that that was an invitation to his Zulu maleness. Moreover, he declared it would have been culturally insensitive (“tantamount to rape” was the reported phrase) to refuse her.


And I don’t know. Maybe it is Zulu tradition. I’m not Zulu, who am I to say? And looking at the protesters – some women – burning not his face in effigy but his accuser, dancing and celebrating him, and I feel the pull of deep waters or stable shores. My friend is right in one way, I have to decide what is appropriate for me to endorse and support. I have to speak out against things that I deem wrong. But I was right too. Deciding and speaking out makes him, makes me, Pat Robertson.


Granted our views are probably more widely accepted – at least here in the US – but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t assumed the role of moral police dictating what is best/right/appropriate for people very different from us.


A long time ago I read an article that was talking about the anti- female genitalia mutilation campaign spearheaded by western women. There was one quote, by no means a majority or statistically viable proof – only a single quote that has stayed with me, it begged that western women would let them fight the battle in their own way. She said that we were compromising their own initiatives because the men viewed this change in ideas as western propaganda instead of a cultural change from the inside.


Of course the question becomes, when is silent too silent. Rwanda, Sudan, the holocaust…we were silent and evil things transpired…of course in Australia, with the lost generation(s) of aboriginal children stolen to “better” them…the intervention, the idea that outsiders knew best, mandated kidnappings that have had heinous results.


Who are we to decide…who are we not to…?

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