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Over My Shoulder #38: Yael Tamir, “Siding with the Underdogs” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Yael Tamir’s essay, Siding with the Underdogs, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, an anthology based on the title essay by Susan Moller Okin.

Why do group rights serve best the interests of those members of society who are powerful and conservative? To begin with, the notion of group rights as it is often used in the current debate presupposes that the group is a unified agent. Rights are bestowed upon the group in order to preserve its tradition and defend its interests. Identifying the tradition and the interests of the group becomes a precondition for realizing these rights. Consequently, internal schisms and disagreements are perceived as a threat to the ability of the group to protect its rights. Group leaders are therefore motivated to foster unanimity, or at least an appearance of unanimity, even at the cost of internal oppression.

Attempts to achieve unanimity are particularly dangerous in those communities which lack formal, democratic decision-making processes. Under such circumstances it is the elderly of the tribe, members of councils of sages, who determine the groups’ norms and interests. Members of such bodies are commonly men, who endorse a rather orthodox point of view. Social norms and institutions place these individuals within a dominant position, and group rights consolidate this position even further. Granting nondemocratic communities group rights thus amounts to siding with the privileged and the powerful against those who are powerless, oppressed, and marginalized, with the traditionalists (often even the reactionary) against the nonconformists, the reformers, and the dissenters.

The conservative nature of group rights is reinforced by the justifications adduced in their defense. The group is granted rights in order to preserve its culture, language, tradition. These are described, by most defenders of group rights, in nostalgic, nonrealistic terms. They are depicted as authentic, unique, even natural. Those who attempt to consolidate the conservative way of doing things are therefore portrayed as loyal defenders of the group, those who strive for social transformation and cultural reformers are perceived as agents of assimilation who betray the group and its tradition. The former are depicted as virtuous individuals who dedicate themselves to the common good; the latter are suspected of being motivated by narrow self-interest—of giving priority to short-term preferences for personal comfort and prosperity over long-term commitments to the welfare of the community.

Agents of social and cultural change are portrayed as feeble-minded individuals who are tempted by the material affluence of the surrounding society, as those who sell their soul to an external devil in exchange for some glittering beads. It therefore seems legitimate to criticize, scorn, even persecute them. This is the fate of Reform Jews who are often portrayed by the Orthodox establishment as irresponsible, weak-minded, pleasure-seeking individuals who wish to escape the burden of Judaism in order to adopt a less demanding lifestyle. Reform Jews, Orthodox argue, are swayed by the external (and superficial) beauty of Christian architecture and ceremonies. The reforms they offer are seen as grounded in mimicry, as an attempt to be like the Gentiles rather than as a call to reevaluate Judaism and offer ways in which it can answer the needs and challenges of modernity. Reform Judaism is therefore portrayed as a threat to the survival of Judaism rather than as an attempt to save it.

The use of the term survival in the context of the debate over group rights is common, yet alarming. It misdescribes what is at stake, intensifying the cost of change and fostering the belief that any violation of social and religious norms, any reform of traditional institutions and the group’s customary ways of life, endangers its existence and must therefore be rejected.

Moreover, it intentionally obscures the distinction between two kinds of communal destruction: the first results from external pressures exhorted by nonmembers; the second, from the desire of members of the community. It is clear why we ought to protect a community and its members in cases of the first kind, but should we protect a community also against the preferences of its own members? Is it just, or desirable, to allow those who aspire to preserve the communal tradition—often members of the dominant and privileged elite—to force others who have grown indifferent or even hostile to this tradition to adhere to that tradition?

Obviously, defenders of group rights who use the term survival to denote cultural continuity tend to give priority to this end over and above individual rights. Charles Taylor’s discussion of the Canadian case demonstrates this order of priorities: It is axiomatic for the Quebec government that the survival and flourishing of French culture in Quebec is a good …. It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it …. Policies aimed at survival actively seek to create members of the community, for instance, in their assuring that future generations continue to identify as French speakers.

It should be clear by now that in the Canadian case, as well as in the debate between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, the term survival refers not to the actual survival of the community or its members but to the survival of the traditional way of life. It is used to justify the taking of extreme measures, including disregard for individual rights and forceful suspension of internal criticism, for the sake of preventing change. But is there a reason to prevent a particular way of life from undergoing change? Should one protect a community against cultural revisions or reforms, even radical ones, if these are accepted by its members? The answer to the above question depends on the motivations one may have for protecting cultures or traditions.

An approach that is grounded in the right of individuals to pursue their lives the way they see fit must support individuals who wish to reform their tradition and change their lifestyle as much as it ought to support individuals who wish to retain their traditional way of life. It must be attentive to the kind of life plans individuals adopt and pursue, without prejuding in favor of conservative options. It should therefore defend individuals against pressures to conform and protect their choices to reform their tradition or even exit the community altogether. The opposite is true for an approach that is motivated by the desire to defend endangered cultures. Such an approach must favor conservative forces over reformist ones, even at the price of harming some individual interests. Obviously multiculturalism that is grounded in the former approach is friendly to feminism, while that which is grounded in the latter is not.

—Yael Tamir (1999), Siding with the Underdogs, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

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