Un-civilized, Un-democratic, Un-relativist

Have you heard the news?  Uganda is no longer a civilized nation!

At least, that’s the take of the Washington Post, which (rightly) denounced a bill in front of Uganda’s parliament that would give a life sentence to “serial” homosexuals, imprison people who “aid and abet” homosexuality, and require citizens to report homosexual activity to the police as putting the country “beyond the pale of civilized nations.”

There are many easy points to make about this bill, all of which I considered including in an earlier, much longer, rant-tastic version of this post.  I could, for example, poke fun at the Ugandan pastor playing gay porn to his congregation, or join The Post in attacking Uganda’s backward and un-enlightened ways.  I might also point out the degree of hypocrisy in our collective outrage, given both the treatment of gays in our country and that the U.S. gives $23 billion in foreign aid and trade concessions to 24 countries that ban homosexuality each year (according to some quick research on the US Statistics Bureau website).  The easiest way to score lefty outrage points is to blame this bill on a group of American evangelicals, who last year delivered seminars on the threat of homosexuality to Uganda.  (Now, these same individuals are feigning surprise that some Ugandans actually took them seriously and followed their bigotry to its logical conclusion.)

While blaming this situation on American right-wing nut-jobs is convenient, though, it’s probably dishonest.  A poll taken in 2007 suggested that 95% of Ugandans support criminalization and see homosexuality as a serious threat to their society—a statistic with jibes with my own experience talking to Ugandans while I was there.  Sadly, history suggests people are fully able to come to homophobia and discrimination on their own.  I think we Westerners are giving ourselves too much credit by claiming that the entire situation is caused by a few outsiders giving seminars, and not from deep-seated human tendencies to exclusion and scapegoating that plague literally any society.

All of this has me thinking about the role of democracy and participation in development.  Self-determination and relativism are widely celebrated in the development community as the remedy to the cultural imperialism of past interventions by the West in Africa.  Ugandan leaders have tapped into this same discourse of democracy as they have defended themselves against Western pressure to shelve the anti-homosexuality bill.  Uganda is far from a democratic nation, but there are still plenty of reasons to think that this bill is, in some perverted sense, the will of the people.

I guess, for me, this is an unpleasant reminder that, as much as I like the idea of letting people set their own priorities, sometimes people set priorities for themselves that are really stupid.  As problematic as it is for me to say this, I simply can’t bring myself to be relativistic on an issue like this, all my training aside.  I am unabashed in condemning homophobia in my own country and even in some others (like the U.K.), so why should I be scared to do so in Uganda?  If I do so, am I just another imperialist imposing my Western version of morality?  And if I lack the moral clarity to pass judgment on something as basic as this, should I really be in the business of trying to ‘develop’ places anyway?

– – – – –

Jukebox: Tiger Army – Sea of Fire

3 thoughts on “Un-civilized, Un-democratic, Un-relativist

  1. I know nothing about development, but I think that where people are dying, being tortured, having their health put at risk, things are different. That goes for executing gay people (or really anyone), female genital mutilation, and other outright human rights violations.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree. But I brought it up in class and you’d be amazed by how uncomfortable people were with the idea of condemning it! The West has such a complicated history that people who are aware of it tend to be extremely tentative about condemning anything that happens there – to a fault, I would argue.

      1. That blows my mind. Frankly, I’d seriously reconsider the amount of respect I have for someone who lacks enough conviction to condemn imprisoning (much less executing) people for being different. When it comes to your beliefs about human rights, I can’t really see how you could believe something was dead wrong here and yet could be okay somewhere else. I mean really, grow a spine (not you, I mean your hypothetical classmates).

        Of course, its also wrong to force other people conform to your beliefs. So I don’t think there’s a conflict between believing in self-determination and setting some limits on relativism. I guess the hard part is figuring out how to convince without forcing.

        But then, I don’t really know; I’m the wrong kind of scientist 🙂

        P.S. Are development types relativist about relativism? I mean, it is okay for other cultures to impose their beliefs on us, provided they don’t believe in relativism?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s