Russia has appeared quite prominently on the world stage this summer. But this post is not about Edward Snowden. The coming of the Olympics to Sochi, Russia in the winter of 2014, as well as Moscow's hosting this month of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) World Championships has shone a spotlight on that country's attitude toward homosexuality.
In June, Russia passed a new law banning the discussion of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors." The video above demonstrates exactly what that law means, as an activist is arrested for unfurling a banner that reads "being gay is normal."
The law itself is both absurd and vicious in its dehumanization of homosexuality. The widespread support it received in the Russian parliament--the lower house passed the law 436 to 0 (with one abstention)--is also reflected in state propaganda, where the lead news anchor on Russian state television offered the following gem:
I believe it is not enough to impose fines on gays for engaging in the propaganda of homosexuality among adolescents. We need to ban them from donating blood and sperm, and if they die in car accidents, we need to bury their hearts in the ground or burn them as they are unsuitable for the aiding of anyone's life.
This law and the hate from which it springs sickens me. I don't expect there are many here who would disagree, and, for anyone who does, I have no interest in debating with you the idea that homosexuality is in any way less worthy of respect than heterosexuality. You're just wrong. Your views belong to the past, at least in our country. But there is particular angle to the overall debate about cultures and equality that I want to explore.
Yelena Isinbayeva, a Russian pole vaulter and so-called "face of the Moscow world championships," defended the anti-gay Russian law by asking for "respect" for her culture and her society:
"We consider ourselves like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys ... it comes from the history," she said. "[The protests are] disrespectful to our country. It's disrespectful to our citizens, because we are Russians," she said.
"Maybe we are different than European people and people from different lands. We have our law which everyone has to respect. When we go to different countries, we try to follow their rules. We are not trying to set our rules over there. We are just trying to be respectful."
Isinbayeva later sought to clarify her comments, noting that English is not her first language, and that she rejects "any discrimination against gay people on the grounds of their sexuality." Homosexual activity among consenting adults has not been illegal in Russia since 1993, and this is what she is presumably referring to when she said she rejects discrimination.
Clarifications aside, I want to examine more deeply the rhetoric she used to defend the law. Respect our culture, Isinbayeva said. Our beliefs about homosexuality come from our history, they are authentic to us and have their roots in our people's traditions. Our ways, she claimed, are not better than yours, just different, and we have a right to be different.
This is the language of cultural conservatism for certain, but it is also the language of a particularly extreme, relativist kind of multicultural ideology (there is much diversity within multicultural thought). Isinbayeva bends that language to her own purposes, but the fact remains that that language has always been open to such abuse.
If all cultures are truly equal, as some harder forms of multicultural ideology argue, then Isinbayeva and her anti-gay allies in Russia are right. In fact, the idea that all cultures are somehow equal has hampered some on the Western left from criticizing hate and other abuses of human rights in non-Western cultures since at least the controversy surrounding the 1989 fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomenei of Iran against Salman Rushdie following the publication of The Satanic Verses. During the controversy, in reaction to those who sought to accommodate those Muslims offended by Rushdie's book on the grounds of respecting cultural/religious differences, English journalist Andy McSmith wrote:
We are witnessing, I fear, the birth of a new and dangerously illiberal "liberal" orthodoxy.
There is nothing wrong, in theory, with a general commitment to respect all cultures, and there is certainly plenty to criticize about my own culture. The point is, when push comes to shove, I'll always choose to respect people's rights over people's cultures. All cultures are not equal. The culture of white nationalism, or of the Christian Nationalist/Christian Identity movement--yes, by any definition these are cultures--is not worthy of respect, but rather is something to be vigorously rejected and opposed by anyone who respects human rights.
Kenan Malik framed the issue quite well:
We can either recognise people as equal, or we can recognise cultures as equal. We can't do both.
Hatred of homosexuality is, according to Russian law and prominent Russian cultural icons, central to Russian culture. I cannot respect that culture or any culture, whether Western or non-Western, that goes on record as opposing equal treatment for actual flesh and blood human beings, or publicly declares that some groups of human beings are less worthy of respect than others because of who they are. Only a liberal universalist approach can truly defend the equal rights of all people.
Cultures don't have rights. People do.