Multiculturalism and pluralism are in the news a lot these days. The reasons are mixed: Sometimes, it’s clear that we’re not working hard enough to make room for beliefs and identities different from our own; at other times, critics note that we can’t allow tolerance to override violations of what we believe are universal individual rights.
It’s a tricky balance, and it’s hard work on both the policy level and the human level. And it gets harder outside of places like Yale, where — frankly — most people believe nearly the same things. Here, inclusion and respect are the closest things we have to universal dogmas.
Multiculturalism in practice takes on many forms. Armenia, for instance, is sandwiched between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Yazidis, Kurds, Jews, Iranians, Russians and other groups have all lived peacefully as minority groups in the small mountainous republic. For their part, Armenians have also lived peacefully for centuries as minorities in Eastern European and Middle Eastern lands, despite vast differences in faith and culture.
That’s not the whole story, of course. History and political realities cause tensions. But where integration has succeeded, the similarities are common: melting language barriers, non-interference with the customs of minority groups and more anti-discrimination legislation regarding jobs and access to government institutions.
In America, our fluid ethnic and religious identity is both a model for the world and a challenge to navigate. But our reality has slowly come to more accurately resemble the commitment to individual rights and human dignity laid out at the founding — ideas that had been brewing for centuries, despite frequent hypocrisy in deeds. And the Obama administration’s global human rights agenda rests on using influence to empower cultures and peoples around the world to move away from conflict-stricken (and, in many cases, colonial) pasts. The eradication of preventable diseases, the defense of women’s rights, and building adequate supply infrastructures around are all top priorities.
Regardless of how you view the past, Western countries today are uniquely able to fulfill that role. Accusations of imperialism help remind us to respect cultural differences, but they can be unhelpful when considering the scope of human suffering and Western organizations’ financial capacity for change. It also means the U.S. and other countries need to make some awkward decisions and judgments about cultural practices or beliefs they don’t hold — but that may seriously threaten what we believe are universal human rights.
This past Thursday, activist Jaha Dukureh and women’s rights group Equality Now met with representatives from the White House and several federal agencies in D.C. to raise awareness about female genital mutilation, in which a woman’s sexual organs are mutilated or completely amputated. Dukureh’s petition on change.org has garnered over 200,000 signatures, yet the issue is unknown to many Americans.
Earlier this summer, President Obama spoke frankly about the FGM epidemic in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and around the world: “I think that’s a tradition that is barbaric and should be eliminated. Violence towards women — I don’t care for that tradition. I’m not interested in it. It needs to be eliminated.” That’s powerful language, but it’s not enough: While FGM is illegal in the U.S., unknown numbers of girls travel abroad every year with their families to undergo the procedure often under brutal conditions. Governments need joint initiatives to work with cultural groups to discourage this medically (and religiously) unnecessary practice, American doctors need guidelines for reporting and health agencies need new surveys to determine how many people are affected. One study conducted by Newsweek in 2000 found that 228,000 girls in the U.S. “lived with or were at risk of undergoing FGM.”
The FGM example, and others like it, makes clear that we can’t afford to be silent about human rights abuses just because they happen overseas. It’s not practical, because modern travel ensures that these abuses end up on our shores anyway. Nor is it morally responsible, when we’re often the only ones who can do something. That’s “we” in both a macro and micro sense: At Yale, more international service trips could focus on developing young women leaders abroad, instead of one-time infrastructure projects. Women in countless places still can’t conceive of the idea that they might run their societies someday. Getting this idea to them means a better future for them as individuals and their entire societies. Yalies can help make that happen.
The next few generations have the opportunity to finally get rid of some of the world’s ugliest diseases and social practices. But first, we’ve got to remember that human dignity always comes first — and to have the courage to act.
John Aroutiounian is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.