Does a woman have the same right to appear topless on an international website on the Internet as on the sidewalks of New York? [Thanks to the BBC for this picture posted on
The issue is what rights prevail, individual rights (also properly known as human rights), social rights (which can equate to community standards), or cultural rights (often regulated by law, as in Thailand with the Ministry of Culture in charge)?
We live in a time of conflict over these issues. That’s why I think this is an important topic. I’ve been worried about this for a long time. It is at the heart of the marriage equality struggle, internet and news censorship in several lands close to where we live, and dress codes in Islamic and other religious contexts.
The BBC article on Facebook (June 4, 2014) clarified it for me. I think we can agree that the woman will get respect by rights activists in NYC for insisting that if men can walk outside topless, so should she. We might also agree that she should not try that here in Chiang Mai and neither should men. Not long ago I saw a policeman warn a topless tourist to put on his shirt, whereas up until the arrival of Europeans and Americans in Chiang Mai both men and women were often topless. Furthermore, it would be stupid and dangerous for a woman to go topless in Tehran. Context matters.
But why and how it matters also matters. In NYC, it seems to me, and throughout much of the USA, there is a big struggle going on to expand individual rights and reduce social controls and cultural norms and laws. That is what’s going on in the marriage revolution, of which the current gay right to marriage is probably the last battle. Individuals have already won the right to marry and divorce at will with hardly any interference from church or state. The church has even lost its monopoly on weddings, to say nothing about marriage as a social institution. The church may not agree with this liberty couples have won, but couples in the USA can ignore the church.
The same thing, I believe, is going on with regard to education. The state used to have total control, and even parochial (church-run) schools had little lee-way except to add classes on religion. Now just about anybody can run a school and just about anybody can home-school. You can teach whatever science or non-science you want. You can decide to do away with penmanship, or you can insist on cursive writing. You can choose what to teach students to read. Public schools (the US name for schools funded by taxes and open to the public) are just one option. The truant officer is no more. There is even a movement to limit access to these schools, beginning with non-registered immigrants and other non-residents. It’s clear to me that the end of this will leave decisions about schooling up to small social units, families or family fragments and individuals, and alliances of these social units.
The battles over pornography in the West are all but over. What’s left are skirmishes on other terms, children being exploited, for example, or graphic images subjected onto people unwilling to receive them, as was the issue in the BBC article mentioned above. For the most part, eroticism is free. But context matters.
In North America and much of Europe the debate has been decided. It was a long protracted battle ending in a widespread agreement that individual rights prevail. This is not universal, and there’s the rub.
We will not likely understand what Islam is all about until we see how it is built around the concept of society. In an Islamic context social rights will always trump individual rights. The controversy is how those Islamic societies function in relation to other societies. For example, how can a person opt out of the level of social control a community may exercise? Can an individual have a voice in such a matter as marriage? How does an Islamic community function inside a larger non-Islamic context?
We will misjudge China as long as we do not accept the extent to which the state will try to stay in charge, subjugating all component cultures (e.g. Tibet), controlling social units (including families; e.g. the “one child” policy), and keeping a leash on individuals. China’s emerging economic power will never replace the cultural energy that has empowered China since the Mongol Khans in the 12thcentury and the Hans of the 2nd century, and long before. China is not about to be dissolved into an international culture like soybeans into tofu.
Failure to relate appropriately to context leads to conflict. If humanity survives the impending environmental crisis, the cultural wars could be next. It’s a close race.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.