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Polanski and the cultural defense

12 October, 2009

I was intrigued to find  out from today’s New York Times (Michael Cieply, “In Polanski case, a time warp”) that a report by two probation officers who, in 1977, made a recommendation against a longer gaol term (as compared to the 48 days  he got) in Polanski’s case of unlawful sex with a 13-year-old, they made the argument that while foreign filmmakers “enrich[ed] the community with their presence, they have brought with them the manners and mores of their native lands, which in rare instances have been at variance with those of their adoptive land.” Implicitly, they were making a cultural argument in favour of a lenient sentence.

These days, the cultural defense is often used in sex crime cases of non-European migrants (it is rarely successful in Europe, more often so in the U.S.), and it tends to be forgotten that thirty years ago it was applied to South and East Europeans. Overall, cultural arguments in such cases have become more explicitly articulated, both by defense and prosecution (and especially in public debates). At the same time, attitudes towards child-rearing, the agency of children and the adult-child relationship, and the biological versus moral determination of sexual behaviour have changed in complex ways. These days, children are seen as being endowed with more rights, yet, as the article points out, they are given less voice in legal deliberations because of the assumption that they must be protected. It seems that the biopolitics of childhood has become more strongly entrenched because it is harder to find an interpretive framework for the ambiguities of individual cases (that is, the difficult questions of free will and choice) when they involve individuals coming from different societies, as they increasingly do. It seems that the most successful weapon to deploy against the schematicism of this biopolitics is an equally schematic politics of culture. Thus, in a case reported by Alison Dundes Renteln in her book The Cultural Defense, an Afghan father in the U.S. was put on trial for kissing his infant son’s penis. He would have likely faced a harsher sentence than Polanski had the defense not mobilised an anthropologist to testify that such behaviour was a culturally appropriate expression of affection.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 October, 2009 8:03 am

    This is a complicated one becuse it involves a conflict been absolute and relative. All societies believe that their moral position is absolute. So problems arise when different abosulutes come into conflict.

    The problem is made more complex because absolutes change. Just look at the age of consent or marriage within Australian society over our relatively short history.

  2. Beryl Wing permalink
    10 December, 2009 9:09 pm

    “The cultural defense” is a complicated matter that we, as societies, are rightly reckoning with.

    What is more interesting to me, and ultimately useful to a world in which we daily bump up against more and more cultures, is an understanding – without judgment – of different cultures.

    As an Image Consultant and Strategist the biggest cultural clothes ignorance I see is the gender divide.

    Women persistent in criticizing, deriding and even mocking men’s clothes choices without understanding the signals men send each other with these choices which cause them to rise in their careers. Women blame their lack of career success on the glass ceiling without understanding that they, as devotes of fashion (a failure marker in the male symbology), are willingly excluding themselves from a one of the largest tools in achieving success.

    And I am looking for ways to open both my individual and corporate clients eyes to this and other culture facts around clothes.

    It is a new way of thinking and, since people don’t know what they don’t know, I find it hard to bridge the gap and get people to make that leap of faith. I not only have to do the job, I have to create an awareness of the field. Has anyone else faced this problem? And do you have any suggestions?

  3. julie permalink
    30 March, 2010 3:22 am

    I’m research the cultural defense for a dissertation that looks at how multicultural policies are applied in different historical contexts and am curious if you could point me to more information re: the cultural defense being ‘rarely successful in Europe, more often so in the U.S.’?

  4. 30 March, 2010 7:49 am

    I would suggest Alison Dundes Renteln’s book, The Cultural Defense.

  5. 9 April, 2010 7:46 pm

    I just came across the following, published in 2010:

    Cultural difference on trial : the nature and limits of judicial understanding / Anthony J. Connolly

    I haven’t read this book, but it would appear to be very relevant to the current topic.

  6. V.E.G. permalink
    24 June, 2010 4:12 am

    Roman Polanski’s mother died at the hands of Uncle of William Patrick Stuart-Houston.

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