Johann Hari makes the argument that we have the right to stand up for the rights of those in other cultures without fear that we are not “multicultural” enough:
Should you shut up about human rights abuses because they are happening far away, to people you don’t know, who have a different culture or colour or creed? There is now a growing movement across the world saying that, yes, empathy should be cauterised at national borders. The world is carved into cultures, and they should not try to comment critically on each other. Instead, they should be “respectful.” You can criticise Your Own Kind, but not Foreigners, because they are unbridgeably different to you. This claim is now made by a strange coalition stretching from the Israeli government to African dictators to Western multiculturalists – and they are trying to give it the force of law.
Whenever I write articles supporting the rights of Muslim women or African gays or Iranian trade unionists, I get a pepper-spray of critics claiming I am being “imperialist”. It’s not “your culture”. You’re not Muslim, or African or Iranian. Stick to your own kind. These arguments usually come from people who consider themselves to be liberal, and would be astonished to discover they are using the same arguments as the Israeli right and the Honduran junta.
But this view exaggerates cultural differences. When delegates from all over the world came together in the wake of the Holocaust to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they thought there would be a massive and irreconcilable row about how to define them. It didn’t happen. People everywhere, it turned out, want the same basic rights – and in every culture, there remain thugs who will try to take those rights away.
The differences between cultures are less significant than what we share. No human being wants to be tortured. No human being wants to be starved. No human being wants to be imprisoned without trial or reason. Even in cultures where these acts are normalised by some, the victims still scream and beg for it to stop. In the moment the torture begins, or the cell door slams shut, the cultural difference disappears, and the basic human desire for dignity and safety is all that remains. It is universal. It is never the “culture” of a torture victim to want the torture to continue.
So who are we to talk about Israel or Ethiopia or Honduras? We are humans, like them. Just as people there can – and should – oppose our Government’s crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should oppose their governments’ crimes against innocent people. It’s called solidarity. It’s one of the few things that can help the people of Gaza, or the women of Ethiopia, or the dissidents of Honduras now. Instead of sealing ourselves away behind cultural borders, we need more ships carrying hope to suffering strangers.