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.

Citizens defending themselves in England

In the post-feudal era, England, at its height, was a nation build on property rights.  Up into the 19th Century, theft was a capital crime.  The 21st Century, however, is characterized by a more “collectivist” attitude that is peculiarly feudal in nature.

In the 14th Century, the King was the technical owner of all land.  He granted land rights to the nobles, who granted land rights to the gentry, who granted land use to the serfs.  The latter, of course, were essentially slaves.

Modern England provides an inverted mirror of this same pyramid of ownership rights, with the government holding the land and dictating its use in a way that does not benefit the ordinary citizen.  What this means is that, in modern England, a man’s home is no longer his castle.

The government gives your average Englishman certain rights in his home, but he is no longer allowed to defend it by force and, if he leaves it for even a weekend’s vacation, he may come home to find it taken over by “travelers,” who can then claim rights in the property as well.  Most of the “travelers” aren’t even from the ancient gypsy lineage, but are just lawless people who like to live free.

In one housing estate, however, perhaps inspired by the spirit of the RAF fighters who once lived on the land, the people have refused to take lying down the fact that the government gives them, at best, the most limited rights in the land they thought they owned.  After suffering total (although polite) rebuffs from legally neutered police forces and council governments, the residents mounted a massive defense against encroaching travelers:

The old RAF camp had never seen an army like this, not in all its years of proud service.

There was a nurse, a lorry driver, a shopkeeper and ambulanceman, several young mothers with children at their side – and a Staffordshire bull terrier called Kandie.

[snip]

They bought ten tons of rubble and hardcore to block emergency exits around the perimeter of the former camp, which closed in 1999 but still has walls and barbed wire fences. A rota was drawn up to ensure the main gate was guarded around the clock.

‘Traveller Watch’ volunteers were assigned to look out for suspicious vehicles and call for reinforcements if needed. A website and Facebook page were set up to co-ordinate resources – a facility never available to Locking during its service history, which included training aircrew and radio operators for the Second World War and the Falklands.

[snip]

Properties on the estate are now worth between about £150,000 and £320,000. Many have been turned into suburban havens by proud owners, in tranquil roads where
hanging baskets and cherry trees abound.

Now some of those same people are doing guard duty for up to 20 hours at a stretch.

Louise Bailey, 31, a part-time supermarket worker and mother of two, told me: ‘We feel totally let down. There doesn’t seem to be any way of protecting our community apart from doing it ourselves.’

Two miles away, a vision of what they are fighting against was emerging in the morning mist. About a dozen caravans and vehicles set up camp on some grass verges beside the M5 motorway. Other trucks and caravans joined them later.

How long would they be there, I asked one of the men. ‘Not long,’ he said with a smile. ‘Not long.’

It seems as if we’re living in apocalyptic times. If you ever read Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful and monumental A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, you will get exactly the same sense of decay following on the heels of a broken feudal system.