Compromising on Universal Values: When is Enough, Enough?

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From covering up the naked statues of antiquity to apologising for feminist posters, at what point do we hold our ground and stand up for universal values?

The Independent Australian MP Cathy McGowan apologised to the Australian parliament for “inadvertently offending” a visiting delegation from Saudi Arabia after she handed a poster to Rebekha Sharkie in the chamber, with a woman as the subject, encouraging women to get involved in politics . The poster read, “Don’t get mad, get elected.”

Rebekha Sharkie and Cathy McGowan with the 1997 poster created to encourage women to run for a seat in Parliament. Picture: AAP

This was a relatively small incident that was barely commented on in the media, which slightly surprised me as usually incidents like this tend to generate a considerable amount of coverage, especially when one can frame it into a narrative about “the West” versus “Islam”. Nevertheless, I think it is disgraceful that a democratically elected member of parliament was in a situation where she had to ‘explain herself’ for something so innocuous because, apparently, it was in bad taste. It would be one thing if she were visiting Saudi Arabia where one could argue that politicians should begrudgingly tolerate the regressive gender norms, as individual grandstanding is purely symbolic, isn’t going to achieve anything concrete and won’t change the abhorrent condition of women in Saudi Arabia.

However, this does not mean that one must indulge these same regressive gender norms and customs in one’s own country, one’s own space, one’s own parliament. This is silly. It seems as if Western democracies who are taken in by the profit motive will do anything not to be perceived as offending the cultural sensibilities of our Saudi ‘friends’. This reminds me of a case a couple of years ago when Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was visiting Italy and an Italian museum covered up naked classical statues for his visit so as not be offensive. Hell, even Rouhani was slightly startled by this move, since he himself never asked for it, though he expressed gratitude that the Italians had taken his ‘feelings’ into consideration.

“It seems as if Western democracies who are taken in by the profit motive will do anything not to be perceived as offending the cultural sensibilities of our Saudi ‘friends’.”

We do not need to shed or conceal in embarrassment our own culture, or bend our political ideals, or capitulate on universal values, in order to be welcoming and hospitable to ‘foreigners’. And no, it’s not politically correct either; it’s condescending, self-degrading and it serves to contribute to this false dichotomy between ‘us’ and the ever different ‘other’.

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