Where do we draw the line as to culturally acceptable and unacceptable behavior?

My-Big-Fat-American-Gypsy-WeddingMy sister has been watching My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding on Netflix.  She was describing to me an American subculture that few of us even know about, let alone think about.  As she described it, I felt as if she was describing an acid-colored version of a Regency romance set in early 19th century England.

According to my sister, the gypsies marry when they the girls are quite young (with the girls’ age at the time of the wedding hovering around 15).  Although social occasions such as dances are commonplace, girls and boys are never allowed to be together unchaperoned and it’s entirely possible for a girl to reach the altar without even having kissed her future husband.

The girls must be virgins when they marry, even though my sister says that they dress exactly like hookers during the courting phase.  The boys are expected to get sexual experience with non-gypsy girls.

This social structure considers housewifely virtues the highest calling for a girl, so they are taken out of school when they’re still very young.  They then settle down to a life of housekeeping and baby-making.  Meanwhile, the men, who are also usually high school drop-outs make their living in itinerant trades.  A profitable one is, apparently, selling paving services door to door.  Working hard, they can make as much as $10,000 a week — which is a good thing because the gypsy culture is very image oriented.  A wedding dress 6 feet across covered with crystals is commonplace.

As my sister was regaling me with this information, she said that she felt terribly sorry for the girls, because they had to cut short their education and are consigned to a life of domestic drudgery.  I understood what she meant, but I said “That’s their culture.  They don’t consider it a waste to be a somewhat educated homemaker.”

And with those words, I crashed right into cultural relativism.  If I think my culture is the best — with girls having the same academic and professional opportunities as men — why am I willing to let these American gypsy girls get herded into marital servitude?  And if that’s something I’m good with, why does it bug me when Muslim families swath their daughters in burqas?  The first I greet with a resigned shrug; the second with a frisson of fear and distaste.

I was struggling to figure out where the lines exist for me, and came up with two principles.  First, it depends if a moral absolute is concerned.  When 19th century Indian wives were forced by culture to climb upon their husbands’ funeral pyres, that was culturally sanctioned murder.  Lord William Bentinck was correct to end it on his watch.  A moral country cannot allow its female citizens to be murdered — something that makes honor killings beyond the pale too.  Taking a girl out of school to get married may be a waste of a good mind or promising talent, but education is not a moral imperative; it’s a cultural luxury.

Second, I’m more upset about differing cultures if I feel they pose a risk to me.  Unlike the gypsies, who keep themselves to themselves, my feeling when I see a Muslim man with his burqa-clad wife or daughter is that he’s eying me and my daughter as future burqa wearers.  While mine may be a tolerant culture, his is a conquering one, and there’s no doubt that he and his co-religionists think the world would be a better place if women and girls came neatly packaged in burlap.

Are there bright lines here that I’m missing or more nuanced arguments I could/should be making?  Please let me know.

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. Eidolon says

    It’s a bit sad to hear you say that focusing on one’s family is a waste for a woman. It seems like a very valuable calling to me.
    But aside from that, I would say that the primary difference is whether you’re compelled by state action or by state-sanctioned/ignored violence to go along with societal expectations or whether it’s just managed by shaming, ostracism and other non-official mechanisms. It’s not optional to wear a burqa in many countries, whereas the worst that would happen to one of these women is that they might be ostracized from their family or group if they don’t follow those rules. To me, there’s a big difference between “people will dislike me or think I’m weird if I do this” and “I may be arrested and/or people will beat, rape or kill me if I do this and the state won’t stop it or prosecute them.”

  2. Libby says

    In addition to posing a risk to you (or me), I would also say the difference is that this Gypsy culture doesn’t post a risk to the girls’ lives, either. I’m totally guessing here, but I don’t recall seeing any stories about Gypsy honor killings or Gypsy stonings, etc. I would also guess that this show exaggerates the culture for ratings, just as those Jersey Shore & “Real Housewife” (and all the rest) people play it up for the camera.

  3. shirleyelizabeth says

    Why are the boys “expected” to find sexual experience before marriage if virginity is prized?
    I’m with Eidolon. I get really ticked by the people that think religions and parents that put expectations upon kids are horrible for it, but are just fine with government coercion.

  4. galakitty says

    Perhaps the acid test should be this: what happens to a girl who wants to go down a different path? Is she killed? Ostracised? Shunned? Forced to go with the norm rather  than choosing her own way? Or is she allowed to be her own woman, to get an education or have a career or Marty who SHE wants, with her parents’ blessing or at least their acceptance?

  5. heather says

    Living in America, those Gypsy girls at least have a shot a breaking free if they want to and joining the mainstream culture.  I’m sure it would be hard, particularly if they are having children young, but it is more possible here than for a girl of the same age in various Arab countries.  

  6. Duchess of Austin says

    One of the problems I have with “women’s lib” is that feminists tend to look down on being a housewife and mother as something shameful.  Personally, I see the women’s movement as a net loss for women.  I lived through the formation of it and all the bra burnings in the 70s, and although women have more personal freedom now, we really haven’t achieved the type of equality with men that the feminists told us we needed, because….it doesn’t really exist.  Women still haven’t achieved financial parity with men, and there are plenty of glass ceilings still intact, yet we have lost a great deal. 
    We have lost romance.  We have lost the idea that women need to be protected and cherished as the givers of life.  We have lost the respect and admiration that we received from men, merely for being women, and in some ways, we have lost our own self respect.  Young women today don’t view young men as potential providers for their families, because the post-feminist culture has told them “we don’t need no stinkin’ husbands.”  Young men have been reduced to sperm donors, seen as unnecessary in their children’s lives because they’ve been replaced by one government program or another.  To me, this is a shameful byproduct of the feminist movement.
    I see the Gypsies as an anachronistic culture…a throwback, like the Amish, to a time when women were caregivers…..expected to be nothing more than wives and mothers, and there was nothing shameful in it.  The Gypsy culture has much in common with the Amish, too.  They don’t expect their children (both boys and girls) to have more than a rudimentary education, because Amish girls are also expected to become wives and mothers, and the boys to be farmers.  Gypsy culture expects the boys to become tradesmen, and the girls to be traditional wives and mothers.  Both thrive on tradition and keeping their cultures “pure,” i.e., untainted by the outside world.  Funny that they both refer to outsiders as the “English.”
    Just so you know, Book…that arab guy and his burkha clad women are not looking at you, a jew, as a potential subject.  They are looking at you, and your children, as potential dead bodies in the jihad.  To them, the only good Jew is a dead one.  Maybe that’s what gives you pause.  Just sayin’…

  7. says

    And what stops the Gypsy woman from getting an education on the net after she has kids and they are matured?
    You can have it all, but someone who raises a family like Bookworm can’t be educated if they aren’t educated first? That’s a Leftist conceit that is based upon indoctrinating livestock when they are young and vulnerable.

  8. jj says

    I would be really careful imposing morality.  Careful, probably, to the point where I wouldn’t do it at all, as long as it stopped short of running roughshod over other people, which is where Islam falls down.  The Muslims can do whatever they want, to themselves.  I will not care one way or the other, as long as they observe that caveat.  The problem arises because they are never able to keep coloring inside the lines, but find it necessary to spread their offal everywhere.  (Recognizing that it’s me who considers it offal, and an offense to anything smarter than Joe Biden.  They obviously don’t.  But still: do it to yourselves, boys, stay the $%$#! away from me and mine.)
    And even those moral “absolutes” you cite are, as a matter of history, not particularly absolute at all.  If a culture sanctions what you or I might regard as murder, well, then is it really murder?  Obviously not to them, and to their culture.  So, being honest, the deal seems to be: if it offends us, and we’re strong enough to put a stop to it, we claim a moral right to do so.  And we have indeed done so, (“we” being western civilization), and we have done so on more than one occasion.
    I find it regrettable that the first thing the Spanish did when they arrived in the new world was “convert” everybody to Catholicism – about the way the Muslims “converted” captured Crusaders to Islam –  and set the friars to cheerfully burning the records of thousands of years of Central and South American history.  God told ‘em to.  I’m Catholic too, and He told me and my brethren to kill all the Protestants in Northern Ireland, but you know: we don’t.  Outgrew that a couple of generations ago – at least in my family. Maybe we’re bigger than He is, or maybe just more tolerant.  (I certainly wouldn’t imply that we’re more moral!)  We wouldn’t have burned the libraries of the Maya, Inca, or Aztecs, either; and done so serenely, an impregnable fortress in the belief in our own rectitude.
    I’m a little careful about that.  As a matter of history it’s cost the world a lot.  Some of it important, a lot probably not – but it’s all a loss.  I’d love to be able to stop speculating about how old the Sphinx is, and just look it up in a document from some one of the Roman libraries, or even from the Library at Alexandria – but obviously I can’t: those libraries were all burned.  I have little doubt my culture, or the culture of which I am part, is the highest and perhaps best flowering of the concept in history – but it still doesn’t give me the standing to burn other people’s beliefs.
    The Gypsies are like the Jews: they have always kept somewhat aloof from the societies in which they find themselves.  They preserve their own language, their own morals, their own customs.  This “apartness”has kept them whole, but historically cost them both, too: Hitler was just as efficient with Gypsies as he was with Jews.  Nor was he the only one: the Czars (I prefer that form to “Tsars,” I have no explanation for this) and a variety of emperors and regnant houses throughout European history weren’t fans of either, either.  It’s a long history.
    I’m in favor of letting the Gypsies go their own way, as long as they can refrain from dipping their hands into my pockets.  “The Jews became scholars, the Gypsies became pickpockets.”  (A sentiment that did not originate with me.)  It speaks to the “apartness” of both, and I incline to leave that – and them – in peace, as long as they do me the same courtesy.

    • shirleyelizabeth says

      Regarding Czar, perhaps it’s because you hold to the english version of Caesar (I actually don’t know of other versions, but I prefer the C to keep it linked).

  9. Danny Lemieux says

    There are a lot of similar subcultures in the U.S. that operate quietly apart from social mores. For example, there are still many ethnic Indians (from India) that pre-arrange marriages (and will give you good reasons for why that is so). There are not just Amish, but Mennonites, Hutterites and all kinds of Christian sects that live by very different practices. Your description of Gypsy courting and marriage practices aren’t all that different than what is practices in some of our Chicago Greek communities or Orthodox Jewish communities.
    As what was pointed out, however, the main thing is that each of those individuals have choices with regard to how they want to live. They are free to live by those choices as long as they don’t violate each others’ rights as laid out in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

  10. says

    Humans have this problem where they need the justification of social authority to do things. They can’t do things by themselves, based upon their own judgment. So instead they just sit around and do nothing, that is the easiest path when it comes to enforcing rules. Don’t enforce them.
    That’s why people sat around doing nothing about highlighting Jewish issues in America. That’s why the Nazis and Soviets were busy conquering the known world. One had the authority of society behind them, the others didn’t.

  11. Charles Martel says

    An observation about statements that have been made here.
    I doubt that there are any substantial similarities between the Jews and Gypsies. Aside from both being a people that has traveled long roads away from their original homes—the Jews from Israel and the Gypsies from India—the two cultures are completely unalike. The Gypsy attitude toward the rest of the world is that it is a flock of sheep to be shorn, and its standards of decent or civilized conduct have no legitimacy. You never hear of Gentile communities complaining of Jews’ filthiness or contempt for education, and their accusations of thievery against the Jews always involve sophisticated higher-order depredations, such as usury and banking, not the petty larcenies, thefts, and cons commonly associated with Gypsies.
    The Jews may have been roamers because of the Diaspora, but they never have been the amoral nomads that almost every civilized person perceives the Gypsies to be.
    As for the Catholics destroying the written histories of the Mayans and Aztecs, that was a tragic loss. There is no excuse that occurs to modern minds to justify it. But to 16-century Spaniards who encountered the height of Aztec civilization in Tenochtitlan, the pyramids of human skulls and the open cannibalism of the Aztec elite they found there incited a mighty repugnance. When the Aztec priests finished cutting the still-beating hearts out of sacrificial victims at the top of their pyramids, they kicked the corpses down the steep stone stairs of one side of the pyramid. At the bottom, the corpses were set upon by butchers, who rendered them into leg, torso, and arm chops to feed what today would be the equivalent of our parasite upper middle-class in DC and Manhattan.
    I suppose eating human flesh was a necessity for the poor Aztecs. Pre-European American man had unfortunately killed off all the big game animals in the Valley of Mexico, leaving rabbits, rats, and birds as the primary sources of protein. The hoi polloi ate chiles, beans, and squash, a drear diet sorely lacking in meat. Thank the bloodthirsty gods that there was ample protein to be had in the form of human flesh!
    The Spaniards were cruel by our effete 21st-century standards, but compared to the Aztec human flesh-eaters, they were Boy Scouts.  We are not so removed from them that we cannot understand the disgust and dismay they felt once they learned what the Aztecs really were, so the fact they went at dismantling the Aztec culture’s temples and means of dismemberment with gusto makes some sense.

  12. Robert Arvanitis says

    There’s an even more poignant contrast.
    Do native peoples in the jungles of South America or Borneo, say, have the right to preserve their culture?  Even if the kids grow up without medicine, at risk of predation or starvation?  When is it right to just let them be?

  13. Kevin_B says

    The American continent and its peoples probably do not have anywhere near the history and experiences with gypsies and their culture as does the European continent. The gypsy populations in the Americas is probably relatively small as a proportion of the population. I want to offer some perspective on gypsies from the Old World here. I will conclude this preface by outright stating that I do not like gypsies much at all. 
    My sister has been watchingMy Big Fat American Gypsy Weddingon Netflix.
    I’ve only seen one or two episodes of the UK version of that show, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” of “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings”. Of the American version I have only seen a teaser during a commercial break, but it was quite telling (as I will explain later in this post). I found the show to be in general rather unpleasant and unwatchable and was fairly disgusted by it. I think it is a disgusting, decadent and disheartening show. I do not advise watching it, it has little to no redeeming features.
    According to my sister, the gypsies marry when they the girls are quite young (with the girls’ age at the time of the wedding hovering around 15).  
    Is it just me or is 15 really not an age to get married? Perhaps one day even in the West girls being married off at a young age wasn’t completely unheard of, but under current understanding in the West, such is not acceptable. 15 in my opinion is just to young to get married and start popping out babies (I guess gypsy girls are supposed to start having babies as soon as they’re married). I don’t necessarily have issues with young marriage, but it seems to me that an age of say 18 or 19 is much more appropriate for marriage and the start of child-bearing and rearing than 15.
    it’s entirely possible for a girl to reach the altar without even having kissed her future husband.
    Gypsies commonly employ arranged marriage. In some cases, the girl may somewhat know her future husband before the wedding and the arranged marriage may have been an agreement between families to ‘predestine’ certain children for one another when they are very young; in other cases the arranged marriage is more like a business arrangement between gypsy men involved with each other, and the girl may hardly know or have met her future husbands. Also, gypsies employ child marriages, or at least, they have very young girls being made into brides and marry them off to men potentially substantially older. I have read stories about 12-year old girls being married off to boys/men in their mid to late teens, but I suppose they wouldn’t insert something like that into an entertainment show. It seems that to a certain extent the gypsies aren’t entirely unlike the Muslims in this respect.
    The girls must be virgins when they marry, even though my sister says that they dress exactly like hookers during the courting phase.
    Again, to some extent, the gypsies appear to be not entirely unlike the Muslims. The gypsies also have this cultish approach to girls’ virginity, although they don’t do it in the same way or enforce it to the same extent as the Muhammadans. They don’t use headscarves and burqas, but they have their methods, including getting girls married very early on.
    As for the ‘dress like whores’ comment: one can ask what exactly it means to “dress exactly like whores” and debate about this. I am not one to disdain or oppose some ‘sexiness’ and some showing of skin, and I don’t mind somewhat sexy clothes, but I do think there should be some limits. As far as I remember from my very limited experiences with the gypsy television shows, the girls were dressed in VERY provocative, eye-catching, garish and risque outfits and wore lots of jewelry, very high heels and huge amounts of (in my opinion) badly-applied, extremely unnatural make-up (and they did so at young ages). The girls did appear ‘whorish’ to me, and my perception was certainly that they lacked any sense of class and moderation, as well as appearing way older than their actual age. 
    Last but not least, a part of the teaser in the commercial break I mentioned earlier consisted of a fragment of two scantily-clad teenage gypsy girls going at each other in a ‘catfight’ in a public street. One of the girls used a high-heeled pump to bash the other girl, while they were screaming things at each other that one can only suppose were extremely obscene and vulgar, as the content of the screaming was nearly entirely bleeped away in the clip. It was disgusting.
    The boys are expected to get sexual experience with non-gypsy girls.
    Maybe not so much as expected or encouraged, but  certainly it is not discouraged or viewed badly. Again, a simirality with Mahomet’s bunch, as Muslim men having sexual relations with non-Muslim women are most often not disdained, and in some cases having with or even raping non-Muslim women is encouraged. 
    To the extent that relations with non-gypsies were discussed in the British version of that television show, it did seem that the gypsies do consider non-gypsy women as ‘sluts’, women of lesser value and fair game. In the British series there was this one young non-gypsy woman who married a gypsy guy and had at least one kid with him. His gypsy family didn’t view her positively and considered her to be sluttish. They eventually split, by the way.
    Meanwhile, the men, who are also usually high school drop-outs make their living in itinerant trades.  A profitable one is, apparently, selling paving services door to door.  Working hard, they can make as much as $10,000 a week — 
    I think this brings me to my main point about the gypsies. Education doesn’t seem to be considered very valuable in gypsy culture. Learning a trade and learning how make as much money as possible, as gypsy culture is indeed very image-oriented and keen on expensive goods, is all that matters. It seems that in gypsy culture as far as making money is concerned, pretty much anything goes. Going on the experience with gypsy people on the European continent, I think it is extremely naïve, if not outright incorrect to believe that gypsies will only resort to legal and ethical methods to make money. Gypsy culture has a very relaxed attitude towards illegal and unethical activies.Gypsies, mainly gypsy men, here in Europe are disproportiantely involved in crimes including theft, breaking and entering, burglary, grand theft auto, theft from vehicles, robbery, pickpocketing  and so on. Gangs of Roma gypsies from Eastern Europe operate in Western Europe committing such acts and making money of it.  Gypsies are also well known for unethical business practices, ripping people off and all kinds of swindling and scam artistry. On top of that, they are know to  employ mob-like tactics when it is in their advantage to so do, and they don’t necessarily eschew violence either. I heard of a case of a gypsy guy killing another gypsy guy he had a falling-out with by running him over with his car. Finally, gypsies are known to actually be involved in prostitution, up to forcing their girls to prostitute themselves and solicit (so far for the virginity cult stuff if money is to be make), as well as to resort to aggressive begging techniques and training children to beg (aggressively) as well as commit petty theft. In short, gypsy culture is very image and money-oriented, has little issue with crime and sees it as entirely valid, as long as the victims are not gypsies. Non-gypsy peoples are disdained in gypsy culture, they are not to be respected and committing crimes against them is something they don’t think twice about. I do not trust gypsies any more than I trust Muslims and I want just as much to do with them, which is preferably nothing at all. There is a base for the gypsy people being known or said to be thieves, scam artists, scum, murderers and in general a people you cannot trust. 
    The view of gypsies as an itinerant people of salesmens, artisans and artists who do business, make, build and sell stuff, make music, do fortune-telling and have eccentric and extravagant weddings, while otherwise keeping to themselves and leaving everyone else alone is in my opinion an incorrect view. Unfortunately, that is probably the view television shows such as My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding are selling to viewers.
    Taking a girl out of school to get married may be a waste of a good mind or promising talent…
    I would say that marrying off children, kidnapping, bride prices and first cousin marriages, all of which are done in gypsy culture, are immoral.
    Second, I’m more upset about differing cultures if I feel they pose a risk to me.  Unlike the gypsies, who keep themselves to themselves, 
    I think my earlier arguments should put this into perspective, Bookworm. I think the notion that gypsies are a people who keep to themselves and do not pose a threat or a disturbance is at least to some degree incorrect. Perhaps the gypsies are not a threat to the same extent as the Muslim are, but they can definitely be harmful and a nuissance.
    While mine may be a tolerant culture, his is a conquering one,
    Gypsy culture might not be a conquering culture, but it is a culture that legitimizes and allows unethical and criminal activities to be visited upon mainstream Western culture, as well as disdainign mainstream Western culture. I do not hold a positive view of gypsies and gypsy culture and I think it is justified to do so.
    I think the cultural sanctioning of crime and unethical behavior as well as the hatred towards non-gypsies is what in my opinion sets gypsies apart from other groups who operate apart from mainstream culture, including Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Hasidic Jews and so on.

    • Kevin_B says

      I forgot to add to that post a recent case in Greece, where a group of gypsies had kidnapped a little Greek girl whom they forced to dance for money, as well as having destined her for child marriage.

    • lee says

      When I was in high school, one of the big summer scams perpetuated by Gypsies was “paving your driveway.” There was some tar, to make it smell right, but mostly it was extremely diluted black gook. People who fell for it, usually had to have their driveways repaved by an established professional. (A friend of mine, her father who was a major bleeding heart, fell for it. Cost him a LOT in the end.)

      • Kevin_B says

        I’m not surprised about that story. That’s exactly the kind of scam an unscrupulous scam artist would pull off, and given the right circumstances, gypsies are just that. However, if the circumstances are more favorable to getting money through stealing rather than scamming, they’ll prefer to do that, as we’re seeing with the gypsy gangs here in Europe.

    • says

      Kevin_B:  What you say about European gypsies when it comes to crime is fascinating, because it’s consistent with what travel books used to say in the pre-PC 1980s:  stay away from gypsies, because they’ll rob you, the traveler, blind.  Be especially aware of packs of gypsy children, the books said, because they’ll surround you and strip you of everything, including your underwear.

      I rather wonder, in these politically correct times, if travel books are now self-censoring because it’s “insensitive” to warn travelers about marauding gypsies.

  14. Beth says

    You nailed it, Duchess.  The fem movement dealt us a really bad hand that has far-reaching consequences as we see now with so many children being raised by school districts. 

  15. jj says

    Nobody, including me, says that Jewish and Gypsy culture are alike.  What I said was that they both tend to hold themselves apart from the society in which they find themselves.  Whatever society.  They maintain a core of separateness, in the interest of cultural preservation.  I am unconvinced this is an inaccurate observation.
    The 16th century Spanish didn’t approve of the Aztecs.  Nor in fact do I – in part.  But I might hesitate a bit deciding they should be wiped out, and their history expunged.  Especially if I were Spanish, a citizen of a culture that was – and remains – by several parasangs the native soil of inventive European cruelty.  I am capable of shame.  (Though less so all the time.)  If whatever they’re doing works for them, and they confine it to themselves, and don’t proselytize, I wonder who I am to “enlighten” them?  My knowledge of the universe, though fundamentally different, may turn out to be just as wrong as mine supposes they are.
    The Spanish did it for religious reasons and for greed – always the worst reasons to do anything.  Second to gathering souls for God they were after the gold.  I doubt if they gave a damn about human sacrifice.  If they did they would have drowned Torquemada and Dominic Guzman at birth.  The Spanish visitors to these shores, after all, taught the Indians the art of scalping.  Difficult to spot the cultural superiority, there.

  16. Charles Martel says

    Although I agree with jj that it’s hard to determine the superiority of one culture’s take on the universe over another’s, I would venture to say that eating captive people for religious reasons—always a bad reason for doing violence, no?—is probably a touch more vile than torturing Indians and heretics one at a time on the rack. Just a touch.
    But, then, who are we to say?

  17. says

    I see no reason why the bunch of ignorant cum savages calling themselves “society” get to offload their crimes and stupidities on me.
    Other people and society don’t have the standing to claim I’m responsible for Western society’s deficiencies. That was all on those other people.
    People think their souls and their societies are attached to each other at the hip. My response is to cut that Gordian knot with a sword. There is no connection, except what humans choose of their own free will. And soon they won’t have that free will any more once they get too attached to human society.
    Human individuals choose of their own free will to do good or evil. If they abdicate that judgment in favor of God or society’s authoritarianism, then humans become tools and instruments: they are as good or evil as their God is good or evil, as their leader is good or evil.
    Either those guilty are human individuals or they are tools. Either way, that has nothing to do with me.

  18. jj says

    Eating ‘em for religious reasons, or locking them into ovens for religious reasons and cooking ‘em (without eating them) – quelle difference?  The sainted Domninic’s locking them into the ovens in the Languedoc and heating them up slowly took longer and, one imagines, hurt more; but there aren’t degrees of dead.


Leave a Reply