Safety & exclusion at the Dowse

The Dowse Art Museum here in controversial Lower Hutt is hosting an exhibition with a video component that only women will be allowed to view. The video shows Muslim women getting ready for a wedding. Limiting views to women is a condition of display, in accordance with the wishes of the subjects.

This has got people talking, unsurprisingly, but most of what is being said is dumb.*

As far as I can tell, sitting under this issue are two contrary positions, and I don’t think they’re self-evident. Here’s my take on them:

“A public gallery must not share an artwork if some people will be excluded from seeing it.”
“A public gallery can share an artwork even if some people must be excluded from seeing it in order for the subjects to feel safe.”

Now, the way I’ve written that second position is important. I think most people who align with the first position think they’re arguing against something different, namely this: “A public gallery can share an artwork even if some people must be excluded from seeing it because another culture says so.”

This is a spectacularly unhelpful framing, for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because it treats culture difference as the final word. Their culture is just different to ours, and in this case, it’s offensively different! But culture isn’t the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. Look under the hood, and you find that cultural differences are almost always just different expressions of values that are shared across cultures. Here, it’s about safety, and about how people in different cultures feel safe. In the culture shown in this video display, safety is heavily gendered in a way it isn’t here.

If you accept my framing that talks about safety, then you have a discussion on your hands, a proper ethical conundrum. Does safety justify exclusion? Can exclusion ever be justified? It would be nice to have that discussion. I see no signs of it so far, though.

My personal view right now? I have to say it doesn’t bother me. Here’s why:

I want New Zealand to be a multicultural society, and that means one that accepts cultural practice that is not consonant with our own expectations. If we want to welcome people from other cultures, then we have to give them space on our turf to do things their way. It’s that simple.

(What’s not simple is figuring out exactly how far that goes. FGM is not to be blithely welcomed in my multicultural NZ, for example. Where to draw a line has to be carefully, probably painfully, argued out over generations; but the starting point and the principle is nonetheless clear.)

So I’m totally cool with an art gallery following an other-culture’s ideas, including a public-funded gallery as a small part of its ongoing work. Violating my cultural norms for a short time seems like a small price to pay to give space for, and access to, another culture.

And yes, the norm here is involves gendered discrimination. The idea of gender equality is awesome when it’s used to attack the concentration of social power in men. But that just doesn’t apply here; this is about protecting the social power of women. I think I support this inequality for the exact same reasons I support equality in the vast majority of contexts.

Also: there’s an idea that allowing this exclusion weakens the general principle of equality in our society. I don’t buy it. Maybe someone could convince me, but I just don’t see how you can get there from here.

Also 2: yes, there might be legal issues – if this is non-compliant with Human Rights legislation, then it’s gotta go, because that’s the law. But it’ll seem to me like an exercise of law that isn’t warranted, a false positive on the spirit of the legislation.

That’s where I’m sitting right now. Totally open to being pushed or pulled around on this, should a sober exploration of this ethical situation ever eventuate. Ha ha.

* Really dumb. There’s a lot of talk about political correctness, obscenity, Sharia law, thin edges of wedges, and numerous tangential comments on Maoris and playdough. The complainant getting media is a perfect example of this type, and I think it’s obvious his opposition is bound up with some unpleasant stereotypes and fears.