Charles Napier, a 19th century official of the British Empire in India, well understood the limits of cross-cultural tolerance. When told by Hindu leaders that it would be inappropriate for him to interfere with the “national custom” of burning widows alive on their husband’s funeral pyre, he responded:
Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.
Napier, by the way, was no Anglo-chauvinist. To the contrary, he was considered an Indophile. But he knew where to draw the line.
Here in the United States, we have a longstanding custom concerning female genital mutilation: We abhor it. Indeed, it is a federal offense to perform it on minors. But when the Maine Legislature had the opportunity to criminalize such behavior under state law as well, the bill failed on essentially a party-line vote. Some of the arguments against it make me wonder if Maine Democrats haven’t taken cross-cultural tolerance—if that’s what it is—a step too far.