Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Freedom as a Cultural Universal

By Thomas Kochman - 07.09.2009

In both his Cairo and Russia speeches and in his news conference reacting to the government suppression of freedom of assembly in Iran, President Obama proposed the view that rights to free assembly and free speech are “universal”, not simply “American” values.

As a political strategy this approach is brilliant insofar as it allows the President to establish and promote \”America\’s interest in democratic governments that protect the rights of their people,\” without appearing to interfere in the sovereign right of all nations to govern as they see fit.

But thinking about freedom and human rights as “universal” does make us wonder how these values would express themselves in countries whose social and political history and culture are so markedly different from ours.

Most cultures around the world are authoritarian. Men govern in patriarchal societies much the same way they do in their families: by demanding first and foremost personal loyalty and obedience. Official benevolence and fairness may occur in those societies but develop at the discretion of authoritarian men in power not at the discretion of free self-determining individuals.

So what form will freedom take in fledgling democracies like Iraq, Russia and Iran whose cultural orientation is still predominantly tribal or authoritarian? Will it ultimately become an ongoing dialogue of dissent with the government or ruling party and its people? Or will it be simply getting rid of one \”iron fist\” and replacing it with another?

Maybe what has to change for democracy and individual freedom to succeed is for people to get rid of the authoritarian, or for that matter, anti-authoritarian personality, within themselves.

Otherwise,as one Russian writer said talking about the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the democratic impulse and push during the late Yeltsin years and again with Vladimir Putin, \”We hoped things would turn out differently. But they turned out as always.\” 


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