In 1988 a judge in Quebec, Monique Dubreuil, sentenced two men convicted of the gang rape of a young woman to 100 hours of community work and 18 months of house arrest.24 The prosecu- tor had asked for four to five years of incarceration. The judge’s rationale for this lenient sentence was “cultural sensitivity.” The young woman and the perpetrators were all Haitian immigrants to Canada, and the judge opined, “The absence of regret of the two accused seems to me to be related more to a cultural context, particularly with regard to relations to women, than to a truly sexual problem” (Ref. 24, author’s translation). Women’s rights groups as well as many within the Haitian community in Montreal were outraged. In effect, in the name of cultural sen- sitivity, a whole group was stereotyped and stigmatized.
The problem centers on how culture and community can be thought about in ways that acknowledge distinctiveness without stereotyping or essentializing—that is, reducing the complexity of a group or individual to a single essential characteristic.25 Such a simplification can only be achieved through a detailed account that shows the links between past and present social contexts and behavior. In her discus- sion of the culture defense, Anne Renteln2 employs the UNESCO view of culture as “traditional culture” shared by a group, but in the contemporary world, most people are between cultures, forming their own distinctive hybrid identities in which their relation- ship to community and tradition is shifting, ambig- uous, and often contentious.26 Moreover, culture it- self cannot be understood without looking at the power relationships between minority groups and the dominant society. Approaching culture from the point of view of the dynamics of power and hybridity works against the tendencies to essentialize and ste- reotype the “other” and underscores the ways in which culture exerts its effects, not only through re- modeling the individual’s brain,27 but even more forcefully through constructing and justifying social institutions and practices.