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Culture as a Defense?

The cholera epidemic is Latin America not only exposed established systems of discrimination, but also perpetuated structural inequality through the discourse that it gave rise to. Cultural reasoning led to racialization of the indigenous people who suffered the most from the outbreak of cholera. This cultural reasoning was present in propaganda, official statements, and the stereotypes that became commonplace in collective discussions on a variety of local, national, and international levels. By blaming the outbreak on those who suffered from it the most, the indigenous people were dehumanized by those with power and authority who gave themselves an excuse for the continuation of inequality. One part of Briggs’ article that stood out to me was using cultural reasoning as a legal excuse for behavior through “the cultural defense” (667). Some have deemed it the “new insanity defense” due to its rise in popularity, and it has been used as a mitigating factor to give more lenient sentences for the perpetrators of violent crimes.

This fascinating article highlights many examples of cases in which the cultural defense has been used, and in what situations it has affected the outcome of the trial. One that I found to be relevant to our topic of violence was People v. Kimura. After a Japanese-American woman found out that her husband was having an affair, she tried to drown herself and her two children. Although she killed her children, she survived, and she was charged with first-degree murder. However, her culture was offered as an explanation for her actions, and she pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter instead. She was sentenced to five years of probation and counseling. It was argued that due to her cultural values, she believed it would be better to kill her children rather than just kill herself and leave her children motherless, a practice called oyako-shinju (“parent-suicide”) in Japanese culture. (More can be read about this case, as well as other cases here.)

The cultural defense reminds me of the dangers of cultural relativism. By looking at a culture through its own lens of perception, we do not make the mistake of ranking cultures and valuing certain cultural values over others. However, that does not mean that morality is thrown out the window and that we should excuse any behavior just because it is deemed “culturally appropriate”. While I agree that culture affects behavior and what people perceive as acceptable behavior, it should not excuse criminal actions.

More interesting articles about the cultural defense and case studies can be found here and here. The following video showcases another case as well.


– Kaela Gullion


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