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Cultural Differences

Multicultural is one of those warm, fuzzy words that makes everyone who speaks it feel good.

Most of the time, however, most of those who use the word believe that most of the people around them--no matter where they come from--will act pretty much as they do--only more colorfully.

But immigration has made Southern California a genuinely multicultural society. And that means more than simply having a lot of interesting “ethnic” restaurants around. It means living alongside people with very different habits of mind and conduct. How the conflicts that inevitably arise from such a situation are handled will do much to determine the quality of life in this region over the next few decades.

Unless they involve threats to public safety or crimes against property or people, one of the poorest ways to handle these conflicts is in court. Take, for example, the case of Sokheng Chea and Seng Ou, two refugees from the murderous repression of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, who last week were prosecuted in Long Beach because they had killed a dog they owned for food.

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Prosecutors and animal-rights activists said the two men had committed cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor. Municipal Judge Bradford L. Andrews disagreed and dismissed the case for lack of evidence, saying “to hold otherwise would be to subject every slaughterhouse employee or farmer to prosecution.”

His ruling was sensible; the decision to bring the case was not.

Like almost all Westerners, we firmly oppose the killing of dogs, cats and other animal pets for food. But we also recognize that some Asians do not share our scruples, which are, after all, values based on a set of aesthetic and philosophical judgments to which the West itself has come relatively recently. We seek to persuade others of their worth.

But, unlike coercion, persuasion requires tact, a sense of proportion and the expression of respect for human differences, qualities lacking in the prosecution of the Long Beach case.

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Schools, commerce, the influence of popular culture and the desire to conform are powerful and appropriate forces of acculturation. In all but the most extreme cases, the courts are not.


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