Thursday, December 01, 2005

Taming Snakes

The Devil's Kitchen has got me thinking about race, culture and religion with a post which lives up the his "magnificently controversial" reputation. Up here in Aberdeen, ethnic minorities really are in a minority, if you see what I mean. The city still has a largely white population, although that is slowly changing. That hasn't stopped us having problems with racist assaults although attacks like that are very unusual. I must confess, however, that I do know a fair few Aberdonians who are unabashedly racist.

Support for the BNP is almost non existent though and they rarely put up candidates in elections. I suspect that's because the racist element intersects rather neatly with the "can't be arsed voting" element. I doubt any amount of campaigning by the BNP could do anything about that. Racism doesn't inspire strong emotions in Aberdeen. It's just there simmering occassionaly at the surface. Don't get me wrong though, the vast majority of Aberdonians are not racist at all.

Anyway, because Aberdeen is still largely "white", I'm usually hesitant to express my views on these issues. For three years (aged 15 - 18), I did go to school with people from all over the world at an international school in the Netherlands so I've probably got to know more people from other cultures than the average Aberdonian. But, I've never lived in a what you'd call a multicultural city. In the Netherlands, I lived in a town populated largely by Dutch farmers. The nightlife was not quite as exciting as I'd expected it to be.

Despite all of the above, I thought I'd write a little bit about the limits to tolerance in a civilised society. I'm not really sure if these views will be controversial or not but I'm going to do it anyway.

DK provides the starting point:
“Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.”
- Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain.
I wholeheartedly agree.

But there is a problem lurking in the statement; in the real world, there is no universally accepted definition of what is evil. Even within one culture this is problematic but when it's extended to encompass all cultures it's a very difficult problem indeed. Different cultures generate different attitudes towards what is and what is not evil.

By any definition, we can all agree that honour killings are evil. I can write that and firmly believe it and everyone reading will agree and yet, we know it isn't strictly true. Some people have a definition of evil which does not include honour killings. These people are wrong; honour killings have no place in a civilised society. I can state that catagorically and without qualification. Is that cultural imperialism on my part? On your part? Well, it is, no matter which way you look at it, but I still believe it's the morally correct attitude to adopt. To justify this, we need to rely on the concept of "good" cultural imperialism. Good cultural imperialism is, if anything, an even more nebulous concept than evil. Wielding it in an argument is a bit like holding a poisonous snake by its tail and trying to use it as a weapon; it can work but you'd better not have a lapse of judgement. History is littered with bad empires built on "good" cultural imperialism.

I should say that I believe race has little bearing on these matters. Culture and religion are, I believe, of far greater significance. They are very much interconnected and I believe that they are the by far the largest factors in the differences which exist between "races". I should also add that when it comes it Islam, and other religions other than Christianity, my own lack of knowledge means I cannot always easily differentiate between cultural and religious influences.

Religion, as regular readiers may know, is not something I greatly respect. I don't believe in God or Allah. In fact, I believe they are nothing more than elaborate comfort blankets. I also firmly believe that you have a right to believe in whatever religious ideology you chose but *only* if it does not impinge on everyone else's right to do the same.

Many religious believers do not share this view. As I understand it, Muslims, Catholics, Jews are believers from the moment they're born (or possibly even conceived). Children are automatically indoctrinated into the religion of the family. This, to me, is abhorant. I find myself reaching for the poisonous snake. Children should be educated in a variety of beliefs, including atheism and humanism, and be allowed to decide for themselves what they want to believe. It is a matter of personal freedom. Why not? Scared your religion won't win the day? Surely if God is on your side...

I suspect a large number of people would object to my attempt to apply good cultural imperialism here. "Parents have the right to bring up their children in the way they think best", they might argue. "But it's brainwashing defenseless individuals", I might reply. It is, as I said, a nebulous concept.

It's the grey areas which are the problem. Who decides? Forced marriages? I believe they are totally unacceptable. Others, from other cultures and religions, would not agree. Arranged marriages? If both parties are genuinely in favour, I don't really see a problem (although it's probably hard to differentiate between forced and arranged marriages in the real world). Again, others might disagree.

In the end, a civilised society must find a way to make concrete judgements about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. The multicultural ( and consensual) nature of modern society makes this more difficult than it has ever been before.

Applying our values to other cultures in other places only increases those difficulties still further. That's not to say it can't be done but it must be done only with the great care.

Democracy, while flawed, is still humanity's best attempt at deciding these matters in a morally acceptable manner. That conclusion is, of course, brought to you courtesy of a poisonous snake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I am largely sympathetic to your worldview and am myself disenchanted with established religion. I believe you commit a common error, however, in seeking to promulgate a democratic/liberal ideal of a tolerant society without critically examining how we got that society. Your entire (admirable) doctrine of an individual having autonomous ability to choose things like religion, as long as it does not impinge on other's rights, did not descend ex nihilio in the 18th century. It was only Christianity's doctrine of the worth of the inidividual due to the nobility of the soul, wedded to the administrative/legal apparatus of the Roman Empire that allowed the evolution of an idea that the individual did not "belong" to the state.

Further, the U.S. founders, heirs to the wisdom of the Scottish Enlightenment, firmly believed (even though many of them doubted the Christian Doctrine and did not believe in the divinity of Jesus) that organized religion, and a person's socialization within it, was the only way to instill the values necessary for a citizen to function in a free society.

Thus, there is no way to logically derive what is "evil" or "good" without reference to the values of a political/social system that is critically dependant upon specific religious tenets to come into being.

I wish it were not so. I wish that by pure force of intellect and logical reasoning we could come up with reasons why protectig the individual is of critical importance. Unfortunately, as in so many aspects of life, there is no such simple and self-obvious path and we ar forcd to do a perpetual twist on a highwire, balancing between logic and tradition.

Best regards from a fellow tightrope walker.