Does Culture Matter?

Human Rights Dialogue 1.11 (Summer 1998) "Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia"

June 5, 1998

I may seem to be an outsider to this dialogue between Americans and East Asians, but the fact that I am here is in itself significant in many respects. I feel, as an African and as a Sudanese, that what happens in the United States and in Asia is relevant to what happens in my part of the world. Also, my concerns are global; I do not see myself as merely a Sudanese Muslim from the northern part of my country, with all the implications of that, but as a global citizen and scholar who tries to make a difference with what I say.

What is implicit in the question, Does culture matter, is not whether or not culture is relevant, but rather the problematic of culture’s relevance. This is what I would like to highlight. In particular, I would like to underscore the notion that globalization is not a power-neutral process. To me, as an African, globalization is a vehicle of current power relations. It facilitates the process of power and the impact of power; it does not mediate the forces of power. So when we speak about globalization, we should not assume that it is necessarily benevolent, progressive, or enlightened. It is what we make of it because it signifies our ability to affect each other in our economic, political, security, and other concerns.

Culture matters to globalization, to economic and social rights, and to civil and political rights because the very idea of rights is a cultural construct. It is not a culturally neutral concept to begin with, and its normative content is also culturally conditioned. The institutions for implementing rights are culturally embedded. Both the force and appeal of rights and the resistance to that appeal are culturally imprinted. The problematic of culture’s relevance is precisely that paradox: that the notion of rights is a cultural construct while its counterforces are also culturally embedded.

We should appreciate by now that questions of cultural difference are relevant to human rights concerns in Western as well as non-Western societies. However, because culture is often presented as peculiar to non-Western societies, we tend to deal with it in relation to those societies. For example, I am a Muslim from northern Sudan. We obviously have human rights problems regarding women, religious minorities, and so on. But I suggest to you that culture is integral to human rights problems in the United States, in Washington, D.C., on this street as we sit here two blocks away from the homeless population of Dupont Circle. American resistance to economic and social rights as human rights is a cultural construct. We should not focus on non-Western societies as culturally problematic, but instead should think in terms of how that problematic manifests itself in every society. We have to take culture seriously, so that what we say at these meetings and what we do as human rights activists has resonance, relevance, and efficacy in producing changes in our respective societies.

In order that Vitit Muntarbhorn’s shopping list not remain a wish list, we must think of how to build a political constituency for our agenda, and of why human rights activism in our communities is marginalized. We lack resonance in our communities because we are perceived as representing an alien cultural construct, so-called human rights. We should be raising questions about who speaks for culture, whose vision and definition of the boundaries of the normative content hold, and what the policy implications of human rights are. The premise here is that cultural norms and institutions are not only open to change over time, they are also subject to differing interpretations at any given point in time. In fact, American culture, to the extent that one can speak of any national culture, is being contested at this very moment.

The debate about culture and its relevance is about agency, it is about representation, it is about legitimacy—and none of these is a foregone conclusion. Civil and political rights are integral to any claim about the relevance of culture, because the very people who speak in the name of a culture need the concept of civil and political rights in order to defend their right to speak for their culture. The interdependence is crucial; every claim that is made on behalf of a culture is embedded in a claim about civil and political rights. Violations of civil and political rights in the name of culture are indefensible. The question of Asian values is not whether there are Asian values or what their relevance is to human rights in the abstract; rather, it is whose understanding of Asian values is taken seriously.

One of the challenges before us is how the human rights movement is to cope with culture. What I have seen, among both activists and scholars, is a reticence to engage the cultural issue because of a fear of opening the door to relativism. Because of an inability to articulate a counter cultural argument to the hegemony of Islamic fundamentalism or of Asian values (or our governments’ versions of them), we avoid the whole issue. But in doing so we are conceding our inability to relate to our cultures and communities meaningfully in order to transform the thinking about what the culture stands for and what the cultural priorities and issues are. In the final analysis, there is no alternative to reconciling elements of our respective cultures with human rights norms.

Some of my colleagues and I are attempting to promote a dual process of internal cultural discourse and cross-cultural dialogue. Civil and political rights are vital because they create the space in which this debate can occur, but even with these rights there are still structural impediments to dialogue, such as language, access to communications, lack of resources, and political strife and civil unrest, reflecting a variety of dependencies—economic, military, security, and others. Unless we are able to address these structural and root causes of human rights violations we will continue chasing violations after the fact and we will be unable to have an effective dialogue, either internally or internationally, about human rights. One of the main challenges before us is to minimize those structural impediments, while expanding the scope of what we can do. Otherwise, the human rights paradigm becomes a logical extension of other forms of hegemony by legitimizing the status quo.

We tend to think of cultures as being bound to locality, either regional or national. But we do see emerging—and maybe this is a product of globalization—other kinds of cultures, such as the so-called rising global business culture, technology cultures, and security cultures, which are crossing borders. These are transnational cultures in the sense that they are made up of people who share a set of values, who subscribe to certain institutions, so that you find Southeast Asians, East Asians, North Americans, and Europeans in a sense sharing these cultures.

Why not a human rights culture? The notion of culture is contestable and subject to change. We can think of horizontal and vertical cultural constructs, so that while we are rooted in our local communities, we are also sharing values and institutions and dynamics globally. In that sense, I think there is every possibility and every hope that by promoting this human rights culture and translating it to resonate within our communities we can make the difference that turns our shopping list of recommendations into a reality.