Cultural Tyranny

The biggest danger to our rights today is not from government acting against the will of the majority but from government which has become the mere instrument of this majority…. Wrong will be done as much by an all-powerful people as by an all-powerful prince.

James Madison

When psychopaths and people with other dangerous personality disorders hold power, the result is political tyranny. Throughout history, political tyranny was pretty much the only form of government there was. Up until the United States Revolution that is. The American Revolution marked a real turning point in history because, for the first time ever, a people had the opportunity to design the system of government under which they would live. In drafting the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers deliberately set out to devise a new system of government that would replace tyranny and protect citizens from those in power.

The spread of democracy around the world signals the fact that progress is being made in wrestling power from the hands of pathologically disordered elites. In 1900, New Zealand was the only country with a government elected by all its adult citizens. Today there are around 117 electoral democracies in the world.  There is still much work to be done of course. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2012, only 15 percent of countries enjoy full democracy, and nearly a third of the world’s nations are still ruled by authoritarian regimes.

The Meaning of Cultural Tyranny

The Arab Spring is showing us, however, that the overthrow of political tyrants does not lead seamlessly to a well-functioning democracy. On the contrary, there are many countries today that are democracies in name, but where elections simply provide a cloak of respectability for corrupt, dysfunctional and violent regimes to continue to misgovern as before.

The Arab Spring also shows that the overthrow of political tyranny leaves a second form of tyranny largely intact – the tyranny of traditional culture. Women participated in the demonstrations against the dictators right across the region but, with the notable exception of Tunisia, women are struggling to assert their equal status in what remain deeply traditional societies. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, traditional values are still cited as an excuse to undermine human rights.

As the Nobel Prize Democracy Map points out, all countries in the world now claim they are democracies – with four exceptions. (Those exceptions are Saudi Arabia, Burma, Brunei and Vatican City). Apart from those four, every other country now pays lip service at least to the principle that a government only has legitimacy if it governs with the consent of the people. The same cannot be said of human rights. Governments the world over still argue that it is legitimate to force girls into early marriage and women into servitude to men, to imprison or even hang homosexuals, and to persecute minorities on the basis or their ethnicity or religious beliefs. They base their arguments on the premise that the traditional values held by the majority of their citizens overrides the human rights of the individuals being oppressed. And they get away with it because many of their citizens agree.

The tension between traditional values and human rights is one of the themes at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which will run in New York next month. Many of the films in the Festival document how traditional values devalue the lives of women, gay people, and people with disabilities.

The film Salma tells the story of a young Muslim girl in a south Indian village who was locked up by her family at 13 years of age, immediately after she had her first period. Her family forbad her from finishing her education and forced her into marriage against her will. That part of the story is unfortunately all too common in many parts of the world today. The remarkable part of Salma’s story was her determination to continue to express her humanity through her writing. The poetry she wrote during her 25-year confinement by her family has resulted in her becoming the most famous female poet in the Tamil language. The film Salma, while inspiring on the one hand, also serves to highlight the tragedy of so many girls the world over whose creativity and humanity is crushed by cultures which value traditional values over human rights.

Another film at the Festival, Born This Way, documents how four young gay and lesbians in Cameroon are also struggling to assert their humanity in the face of a culture that reviles them. With a population of 20 million, Cameroon imprisons more people simply for being gay than any other country in the world. If convicted, gay people face up to five years in prison.

Traditional Values and Human Rights

As with political tyranny, the psychological impact of cultural tyranny on the human psyche is profound. Freud was one of the first to explain how our psyche develops by internalising the thoughts and feelings of those around us. If we are brought up in a supportive environment, we are able to build up a healthy self-image by internalising the praise and validation of those around us. For people brought up in cultures which abhor them, however, such positive self-concepts are difficult to establish. This ‘internalisation of the oppressor’ as Paulo Freire called it, can be seen in how women and homosexuals in many parts of the world view themselves.

A recent study by Rachael Pierotti of the University of Michigan[1], looks at the attitudes of women in 26 different countries toward domestic violence. A survey presented women with five different scenarios for why a husband might hit his wife: (1) if she goes out without telling him, (2) if she neglects the children, (3) if she argues with him, (4) if she refuses to have sex with him, and (5) if she burns the food. Across a range of countries, including India, Kenya and Jordan, more than 50% of the women surveyed accepted at least one of the five scenarios as being valid grounds for their husbands to beat them. In Ethopia, over 80% of women accepted at least one of these scenarios as being a valid reason for them to be beaten.

Such self-denigration is common too among homosexuals who have been brought up in intensely homophobic environments. The following, written by a young Muslim man, shows how traditional values can leave many gay people hating their own nature:

‘I pray to Allah that I am dead for having these uncontrollable feelings, I do not want to be gay, I try to change, but all this seems to be beyond my capability. For many years I’ve prayed to Allah to correct me… If I ever commit an act with another man, should I not be killed? I must admit, I have, and I wish I am dead[2]

Democracy is about much more than elections. Elections, together with the checks and balances that deliver true accountability of governments to their people, can protect citizens against the tyranny of those in power. But democracy without the additional safeguard of human rights law leaves people vulnerable to the tyranny of their fellow citizens.

Martin Luther King understood well the tensions between human rights and traditional values, and it is clear which side he came down on. “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me,” he said, “but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”


[1] Rachael Pierotti, Increasing rejection of intimate partner violence, American Sociological Review, 78, 240, 2013

[2] Brian Whitaker, Unspeakable Love: Gay and lesbian life in the Middle East, Saqi Books, 2006:143


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