Maiming, killing and dying for “culture”

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Originally published on SkepticInk

Parts of a 17-year-old boy’s feet from Bonita Park, in Hartswater had to be amputated, after he ran away from an initiation school in Pampierstad in search of food.

After he was tracked down, he was thrashed with a sjambok, while his feet were burnt with fire. He was later abandoned along the side of the road, where he was left for dead, naked and bleeding, until a passing motorist noticed him and alerted the police.

Due to extensive nerve and muscle damage, his toes had to be surgically removed.

667532_612441This boy, and thousands like him, are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, “through ritual circumcision and cultural instruction regarding their social responsibilities and their conduct”. Ever year, children die in the course of “becoming men” – and in South African society, being a man correlates quite positively with thinking you can dictate the course of the lives of women.

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools, with poor hygiene and cultural instruction from previous centuries, is that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a community. If the average adolescent knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d probably be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural indoctrination.

But it’s been – and will continue to be – a long wait for more people to have a better shot at a good life through adequate healthcare, education, and those goods many of us take for granted. And what we put in place as substitutes to give meaning to life – namely cultural practices such as these – result in initiation schools, genital mutilation, corrective rape, culturally embedded homophobia, sexism and so forth.

“Culture” is used as an excuse of all sorts of things (in South Africa, often as a simple vote-getter). But it’s only when you get to choose what your “culture” is – and not have it forced upon you – that it becomes remotely respectable. And even then, it should never be an explanation or justification for doing or believing something. As I tell students, appeals to culture, tradition and the like get the causality entirely backwards: things could become cultural norms because they are good norms; but the fact that something is a cultural norm has no bearing on whether it’s a good or respectable one or not.

  • http://blamer.wordpress.com @blamer

    I’ll try to be descriptive. Although I’m wary descriptions of a specific culture almost can’t help but hint at some proscriptive agenda.

    I’m unsure if modern anthropologists would agree with my description, but it seems that modern technologies have allowed for the emergence of a “global” culture (or perhaps we might talk of one internet denizen as belonging to multiple global cultures) to the extent that the South African culture of the OP might now be legitimately berated like a deviant subculture, moreso than merely an uncomfortable neighbouring culture that we expect has little-to-no impact on ourselves.

    Once the existence of these islands of “ethically dubious” (sub)cultures enters our modern global consciousness, it seems remiss of our global culture to report on it with the detachment and ethical neutrality we thoughtfully adopt when describing an ancient culture that has since vanished.