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Publicity and Public Life

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Elizabeth Frazer
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Copyright (c) 1999 Princeton University Press. This article is now available in an anthology titled IS MULTICULTURALISM BAD FOR WOMEN? edited by Joshua Cohen and Matthew Howard, from Princeton Univerisity Press, 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission, in writing, from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For COURSE PACK and other PERMISSIONS, send e-mail to Princeton University Press.]
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When reading Susan Okin's argument, I was struck that there is more to say than she says here about the muddled and contradictory nature of thought about privacy and publicity in liberal and other political systems. Okin's own discussion focuses particularly on the dilemmas when "Western liberal societies" confront multiculturalism. This starting point bothers me. Liberal political theorists are in the habit of insisting that Western societies "are liberal"; they do this to promote liberal values and principles. But in Western societies conservatism, social democracy, socialism, anarchism, and feminism, among other-isms, compete with liberalism for dominance. The exact admixture varies, according to the strength of different traditions of social and political thought in a society, and varying political histories--the contest of different parties and party systems, for instance, or the lasting salience of different social conflicts. For these reasons, I will discuss the confusions about ideas of privacy without assuming a "liberal" setting.

Okin argues that liberalism as much as other ideologies will have difficulty achieving sexual equality, because gender and sexual relations are central to culture, culture is reproduced and transmitted to a large extent in households, and in many (including liberal) cultures sexual relations are thought of as private.

It's difficult to make strict sense of this privacy claim. In all cultures and according to all political ideologies, social norms govern household, kinship, and sexual relations. Deviant behavior attracts a range of interpersonal, social, and even legal sanctions. Likewise, social and public discourses--religious and cultural prescriptions, gossip, fictional representations, journalism--focus and comment on household, kinship, and sexual relations. There may, of course, be variation in the extent to which comment and action by various agents (neighbors, socially dominant groups, state functionaries) is considered legitimate. But it is difficult to imagine any society and polity in which these matters are "strictly private."

If they are not strictly private, to what extent are they public? Publicity figures prominently in Okin's analysis at several points.

First, there is the contrast between the public row about girls wearing headscarves in French schools, and the silent or quiet tolerance and subsequent intolerance of polygamy on the part of the French government. Mechanisms of administrative and bureaucratic discretion work in response to governmental imperatives, and may hardly be noticed, let alone debated, by citizens.

Second, in most cultures--whether minority or majority--it is men who articulate and legitimate group beliefs, practices, norms, etc. That is, men's voices are audible and men's analyses and prescriptions are promulgated within the relevant culture and across cultural boundaries.

Third, cultural practices and ideologies of gender have in many contexts to be publicly justified. Almost invariably "gender" resolves into the control of women by men. In broadly liberal cultures it is common for this to be denied; in others, people are much more explicit and honest, and when explaining practices like clitoridectomy will say out loud that there is a need for girls to be submissive wives, and the like.

Fourth, in Western societies where there are minority cultures, it typically takes "extraordinary circumstances" for states and governmental authorities to be concerned with minority practices such as forced marriages, and for subsequent publicity in the press and broadcast media.

Okin's analysis emphasizes, implicitly, the political need--from a feminist standpoint--to publicize what are assumed by members of minority and majority cultures and states, in a rather muddled way, to be private matters; and to publicize voices and views that hitherto have been silent and unarticulated.

If we analyze "publicize" by reference to the examples from Okin's discussion, we generate the following:

1. make a matter of governmental, administrative, and judicial business and interest;

2. make a matter of interest in "the forum"--whatever and wherever that is. In modern societies "forums" are likely to make use of if not actually be constituted by the press and broadcast media;

3. make visible and make audible;

4. make inter-cultural.

If the first three conditions are satisfied then, ipso facto, discourse, discussion, dispute, deliberation, etc. cannot be confined within the boundaries of one culture. Or can they? Of course, the satisfaction of the fourth condition depends on the structure of the press and broadcast media, and on the structure of government and the lines of transaction between it and civil society. If these are segmented and culturally confined, then "public" discourse can be effectively monocultural.

Feminist arguments against traditional privacy ideas, and for the politicization of such matters as sexual relations and interpersonal transactions, have often been misrepresented by conservatives, socialists, and liberals as licensing state interference in intimate spaces. This is rubbish--what is actually hoped for is public negotiation of new gender relations and norms, and their political adoption. That means: deliberate, principled adoption, with the possibility that the decision will be changed in further political process. Not: their coming into being as a result of economic exchanges or cultural evolution. (Although cultural evolution is an important element of feminist models of political change.)

There is a problem, as Okin's examples and discussion make vivid, when "public deliberation and action" is left to bureaucratic governmental decision making--whether in a democracy or other kind of polity, whether accompanied or not by public announcement and articulation and defense of policy. The press is a priceless resource for the voicing of claims--as Okin's account of journalistic coverage of women's views of polygamy shows. But journalists and reporters work in an industry whose production conditions and market logic are not conducive to the careful evaluation of social science, or the accurate representation of new theories, or the fair presentation of novel political and social positions. Though the press and broadcast media may be our "forum," the structure of the industry can divide it so as to threaten cross- cultural communication.

The feminist project is to provoke serious, public, political discussion of gender relations, in which women's voices are heard. We can't say, in advance, what conclusions will issue from those discussions. But we can say that arguments for depriving classes of adult persons of resources like jobs, legal equality, or sexual self-determination (that is, the right not to have sexual relations with any person one does not choose oneself) are difficult to sustain when they are publicly audible, visible, scrutinisable, and challengeable.


Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review



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