Tradition as justification

27 Mar

The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a much-beloved figure in the Western world, symbol of advancement for women and progressive ideas in the developing world. Upon beginning her second term as the President of Liberia, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite her country’s persistent lack of economic growth and its depressing lack of possibilities for its people, Sirleaf remains a figure of hope and belief in change for American and European governments.

So, it was quite a surprise to many of her high-powered supporters to discover, in an interview with The Guardian, that Sirleaf not only does not support the rights of Liberian citizens who may be gay, she is also the head of a government that is currently increasing its anti-gay legislation. When asked about this by the reporter, Sirleaf replied that there are “certain traditions in our society that we would like to preserve..”

A female president of a formerly desperately war-torn country that was originally founded by freed slaves, invoking “tradition” as a defense of laws or aspects of her culture which propagate violence, oppression, and hate is so rife with contradiction as to almost be funny. Absurd is perhaps a better term. The absurdity of using the monolithic, so-broad-as-to-be-meaningless, backwards,  repressive and regressive justification of tradition as reasoning behind hate legislation attempts to provide an immediate barrier against questioning or dispute. Further, the usage of the term implies that to question Sirleaf and her government’s hate legislation is to engage in Western imperialism. “This is the way we do things here”: meaning, don’t be bringing around your colonialist paternalism to our country.

But the defense of oppressive laws and cultural practices as “tradition” is a complete canard. The tactic is reminiscent of that used to maintain the practice of female genital mutilation in some areas of Africa; a practice that is still rampant throughout the continent. To oppose slicing off parts of a female’s genitals, to oppose the imprisonment of a gay man or woman simply for their gayness, to oppose the use of legal and violent threats against gays who attempt to step out of the closet, to oppose the torture of children accused of being witches: to engage with the voices of opposition against these oppressions–these “traditions”–is not to assume the position of paternal imperialist, but to maintain the belief in the rights of individuals, wherever they are, to live without fear, oppression, hatred, and violence. Opposition, resistance, and questioning of these policies and practices of violence and hate cannot be attributed to  “Western” ideological bullying, but as a way to raise one’s fist and voice in solidarity for universal rights.


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