Amal Dorai G mischaracterizes my letter from last week. Far from saying that we should accommodate the intolerance of other cultures, I was posing a question — how do we reconcile our liberal society (here I use “liberal” in its classical sense) with respect for multicultural diversity, when some of our own values, such as respect for the rights of homosexuals, conflict with those of other cultures? Do we dare to assert the superiority of civilized Western liberalism over the medieval puritanism which still persists in some parts of the world today? Dorai seems to think so, and his letter suggests that it is ridiculous to think otherwise — he believes it is “ludicrous” to accommodate another culture’s bigotry.
However, appropriate limits to multiculturalism are not as obvious to our friends in Europe and Canada. According to the BBC, the Canadian government, flouting free speech rights, brought writer Mark Steyn before a human rights tribunal for writings which were critical of Islam (as if boorishness is on par with, say, genocide). In the UK, Islamic Sharia law courts, where the laws of evidence are more lenient, now operate as an alternative to the legitimate courts of the British government, according to The Telegraph, undoubtedly encouraged by the climate fostered by idealists such as the ruling Labour Party, which had insisted for many years that their country is “multicultural.” In Germany, the judge of a German court cited the Koran in rejecting a Moroccan woman’s petition for an accelerated divorce due to domestic violence and death threats from her husband, according to the International Herald Tribune. While mainstream Muslim leaders, to their credit, swiftly condemned the ruling, the apparent alacrity with which the judge subordinated German legal principles to the Koran illustrates the paralysis of justice which could result from permitting cultural accommodation to become too ingrained. In France, philosopher Jean-Francois Revel has commented that the institutional reluctance to teach French to immigrant children in French schools has stunted the upward mobility of these immigrants, causing resentment which sometimes boils over into the youth riots we have witnessed in recent years. Homosexuals, in particular, comprise one group which has much to fear from the growing Islamization of Europe. In the Netherlands, attacks on gays have increased in recent years, mostly perpetrated by Moroccan youths, according to Radio Netherlands. In Iran, Sharia law calls for the execution of homosexuals. It may be ridiculous now to think that something like that could happen in western Europe, but such changes do not occur suddenly, and we only notice too late when things have gone too far, just as a frog submerged in a pot of cold water does not jump out of the pot if the water is brought gradually to a boil.
It is because other Western countries have served in the past as bellwethers of trends in our own society that the eagerness in the American academy to embrace other cultures concerns me, and compelled me to ask in my earlier letter how far we are willing to go to pat ourselves on the back for being so culturally sensitive. Is the Committee on Discipline denying justice to the Sloan LGBT group out of deference to Krasnoslobodtsev’s upbringing in a foreign culture, in the same manner in which the German judge cited the Koran in ruling against the Moroccan woman? Due to the committee’s secrecy, I can only speculate, but MIT would not invite such speculation if it weren’t for other examples of accommodation: the speaking invitation extended by the school of HASS to a known Holocaust denier, the serious consideration given to a diversity GIR at the expense of core science classes, just to name some of the memorable ones from my time at the Institute. Of course, a few data points do not make a trend, but should caution us to be more conscious of our Western liberal values, lest we lose sight of them when we venture beyond our cultural comfort zones as part of normal college life. We should also guard ourselves against the use of our own tolerance against us.
Even if you believe that Krasnoslobodtsev can be defended on the grounds that he did not know any better because he is from a foreign country, he did know better, if Sloan LGBT’s published reproduction of his e-mail is accurate. His opening line was, “I don’t care what you do among yourselves, and I am not going to teach you how to live.” Clearly, he grasps our libertine outlook towards gays, but instead of finishing with a simple request to be excluded from future mailings, he threatens members of the group with violence. Why did he not restrain himself, knowing as he must that his action would be condemned? His personal lack of inhibition could certainly be a factor. Others might blame conservatives in this country for undermining the teachings of more enlightened progressives, though I’m skeptical of that view since even the most hard-line of mainstream American religious conservatives now call for love of the sinner but condemnation of the sin. Given that Krasnoslobodtsev veers into an aside which takes on a nearly didactic tone when he writes, “in [redacted], beating gays is encouraged by vast majority of people because they insult society and nature,” he may actually have thought, perhaps unwittingly, having internalized the diversity rhetoric which pervades MIT, that the recipients of his e-mail would excuse his remarks because he grew up in “[redacted].” Multiculturalism may have emboldened Krasnoslobodtsev just as it emboldens radical clerics, who, according to the DC gay publication Metro Weekly, have declared entire neighborhoods to be under Islamic jurisdiction in France, Britain, Denmark and Belgium.
Wong is a member of the Class of 2007.