Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 28, 2011

The poverty of multiculturalist discourse

As I’ve noted in this space before many of my “web friends” and readers are confused why I call myself “conservative.” This is actually an issue in “real life” as well, though I’m not going to get into that because I’m a believer in semi-separation of the worlds. I’ll be giving a full account of my political beliefs at the Moving Secularism Forward conference. A quick answer is that I’m very open to voting for Republicans, and have done so in the recent past. And, my lean toward Mitt Romney* in the current cycle is probably obvious to “close readers.” But I’m not a very “political person” in the final accounting when it comes to any given election. I didn’t have a very strong reaction to the “wave” elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, except that I was hopeful but skeptical that Democrats would actually follow through on their anti-war rhetoric (I’m an isolationist on foreign policy).

Rather, my conservatism, or perhaps more accurately anti-Left-liberal stance, plays out on a broader philosophical and historical canvas. I reject the very terms of much of Left-liberal discourse in the United States. I use the term “discourse” because for some reason the academic term has replaced the more informal “discussion” in non-scholarly forums. And that’s part of the problem. I am thinking of this because of a post by Nandalal Rasiah at Brown Pundits commenting on a piece over at Slate, Responding to Egregious Attack on Female Protester, Egyptian Women Fight Back. Whether conventional or counter-intuitive Slate is a good gauge of “smart” Left-liberal non-academic public thought. Nandalal highlights this section:


While it’s always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture, I think it is safe to say that in this case, a kind of social contract has been irreparably broken. Based on the statements reported in the Times and in other media accounts, the women of all ages and political/religious orientations who took to the streets yesterday felt that the violation against this poor woman was a violation against them all. A repressive, virulently patriarchical society like the one the Egyptian military apparently wishes to foment in its country can only function with the tacit (whether coerced or freely given) consent of the women it oppresses. But when those same men who demand chastity, modesty, and all the rest prove themselves to be hypocrites by violently demeaning women in the streets, the silence is bound to be broken.

There are lots of implicit assumptions lurking in this one paragraph. Before, excuse the word, deconstructing it, I highly recommend D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t to get where I’m coming from. It has one of the most concise and well written critiques of the “Post Modern”** obfuscation which has crept into many disciplines purporting to describe, analyze, and comment upon the human condition. Slone’s short academic book is obviously about religion, from a cognitivist perspective, but his prefatory section is a survey of the diseases which ail cultural anthropology today (for a longer take see Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach).

First, the very idea that the Egyptian military is fomenting patriarchy seems descriptively false. I thought perhaps I didn’t understand what foment connoted, so I looked it up. The reality is that Egyptian society was, and is, virulently patriarchal. I’ve talked about this in detail before. 54 percent of Egyptians support the enforcement of gender segregation in the workplace by law (there is no sex difference on this by the way). The Egyptian military may be a authoritarian force in the country which does foment religious conflict and patriarchy, but the key is to observe that this leverages the pre-existent tendencies of the society. Over its history the Egyptian military, and the political and economic elite, have been forces for Westernization, on the whole. This is obvious when you observe that in a democratic election Egyptians are giving 2/3 of their vote to Islamist parties, and 25 percent of the vote to Salafist parties who wish to impose a theocratic regime immediately!

Second, we need to reconsider whether it was, and is, the repeated sexual assaults upon women which are the necessary root of the anger. Sexual harassment of women on the street has long been common in Egypt. 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women report it, it seems unlikely that this is a phenomenon of a small minority of men who are violating a social contract (on this specific issue anger at the military combined with the power of media are probably the necessary causes at the outrage to this action). Mona Eltahawy has spoken at length about her assault at the hands of the authorities, but in interviews she also occasionally mentions that prior to the central incident there were instances of sexual harassment which she experienced from fellow protesters! One reason that many women in the Muslim world give for supporting Islamist parties is that these parties promise to enforce protections of women against the predatory behavior of men in societies where female honor is simply a consumption good when that female is not a relative.

So the inferences made from the contemporary events in Egypt in this case are faulty. But they’re interesting because the problem is so common. Why? You can’t make sense of this unless you examine the broader theoretical framework that people are operating within to generate inferences. A nod is given to this when the author states that it is “always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture.” I think this has a positive descriptive dimension, and a normative. The positive descriptive dimension is that in scholarship one has to be careful to not allow one’s own subjective perspective to cloud objective judgments. Else, one may generate a false model of the world. This means setting aside one’s own values framework for the purpose of further analysis. Such a stance has not been the norm throughout human history. The didactic tone of Tacitus is much more typical than the cooler detachment of Thucydides. The use and abuse of scholarship for the aims of social and political ends are well known.

The problem occurs when these common sense guidelines in academics transform themselves into ever expanding relativistic bounds of discourse, incoherently in contrast with the strong normative orientations of the expositors of these same theoretical frameworks. In turning away from the bias of the past, there is now a bias which has inverted itself. There is a tendency to be careful about analyzing or criticizing other cultures, because that is “dangerous.” Why? Well, would you want to be an “Orientalist”? But you are also careful to demarcate other cultures in a way suitable to your preferences for the purposes of rooting out “injustice.” Would the author of the Slate piece be wary of critiquing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? This endogamous sect is certainly apart from the rest of American culture. In fact, with its extreme patriarchy and polygamy it resembles the ideals of some non-Western societies. How about the culture of the American South? There’s no denying this is a distinctive region in folkways. Would one think it is dangerous to analyze or critique the distinctive attitudes toward relations between the races in his region, whose divergence from the North dates back to colonial times?

Some of this is clearly just a matter of race. Though people speak of “culture,” what they often act out is the idea that non-white races have different cultures by nature in an essential sense, and so must be critiqued with a softer touch, or greater sensitivity, than whites with a distinctive culture. Conservative white Southerners and Fundamentalist Mormons are clearly distinctive in culture from the typical Northern Left-liberal, but that does not shield them from a critique derived from a difference in perspective. The implicit idea lurking beneath the surface is that the white race is subject to a particular standard of cultural expectation, and criticism meted out serves to elevate dissenters to that higher standard, which diminishes “oppression” and “injustice” (quotes in this case because I feel that the terms are used many to further very narrow political projects, to the point where they’re heavily debased and almost without content as ends as opposed to means). In contrast, the situation is different with non-whites, who must be left to find their own direction, or more obliquely critiqued.

To a great extent this is a caricature, but the underlying dynamic is real. For example, a few years back a Harvard Muslim chaplain was caught contextualizing, and defending, laws enforcing the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Upon further inspection from an intellectual perspective I can see where he was coming from. In scholarly or academic settings I think one can have a real discussion about this issue, even if one disagrees with the presuppositions. I say this as someone who is technically a Muslim apostate (my father is Muslim, by which definition some Muslims would define me as such). Here is the section which I found amusing though:

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.

This individual is a Harvard graduate, so of course he would understand what “hegemonic modern human rights discourse” is alluding to, and the use of therm “discourse” suggests his familiarity with the academic style dominant today, despite his defense of capital punishment of apostates from Islam under Islamic governments. Despite the trotting out of appropriate terminology, obviously the individual in question believes in a hegemonic discourse. He accepts that Islam is the way, the truth, and that under ad Islamic regime those who are Muslim who turn from the truth may be put to death by the authorities. If a conservative Protestant chaplain at Harvard was caught privately defending the death penalty for apostasy (which was enforced by Protestants in Scotland as late as 1700) there wouldn’t be a discussion or contextualization; they’d be universally condemned and fired (in large part because killing apostates from religion is no longer part of the wider Christian set of norms, as opposed to the world of Islam where the concept is widely accepted).

The problem with the bleeding over of academic “discourse” into the public forum is that it obfuscates real discussion, and often has had a chilling effect upon attempts at moral or ethical clarity. Unlike the individual above I am skeptical of moral or ethical truth in a deep ontological sense. But I have opinions on the proper order of things on a more human scale of existence. You don’t have to reject the wrongness of a thing if you reject the idea that that thing is wrong is some deep Platonic sense. I can, in some cases will, make the argument for why some form of the Western liberal democratic order is superior to most other forms of arranging human affairs, despite being a skeptic of what I perceive to be its egalitarian excesses. I can, and in some cases will, make the argument for why legal sexual equality is also the preferred state of human affairs. But to have this discussion I have to be forthright about my norms and presuppositions, and not apologize for them. They are what they are, and the views of those who disagree are what they are.

An academic discourse tends to totally muddy a clear and crisp discussion. The reality is that most Egyptians have barbaric attitudes on a whole host of questions (e.g., ~80 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty or apostasy from Islam). It was not surprising at all that the majority of the Egyptian electorate supported parties with reactionary cultural political planks; because the classification of these views as “reactionary” only makes sense if you use as your point of reference the Westernized social and economic elite. The majority of Egyptians have never been part of this world, and for them upward mobility has been accompanied by a greater self-consciousness of their Islamic identity.

This reality is not comforting to many, and so there has been an evasion of this. If we accept, for example, in the hegemonic superiority of sexual equality, should we not impose the right arrangement upon those who oppress women? This is a serious question, but the fear of engaging in “dangerous” analysis in the “discourse” allows us to sidestep with this question. Rather, by minimizing the concrete realities of cultural difference and the depths of their origin, Egyptians are easily transformed into Czechs in 1989 with browner skins and a Muslim affiliation. This is a totally false equivalence. As Eastern Europeans go the Czech population is atypical in its secularism and historical commitment to liberal democracy (one could argue the weakness of the Catholic church goes as far back as the Hussite rebellion and the later suppression of Protestantism by the Habsburgs). While other post-World War I polities switched toward authoritarianism in the inter-war period, the Czechs retained a liberal democratic orientation until the Nazi German invasion. After the collapse of Communism they reverted back to this state. Notably, extreme nationalist parties with anti-democratic tendencies have come to the fore in most post-Communist states, but not so in the Czech Republic.

The irony here is that an academic position which espouses the deep incommensurability of different societies and cultures in terms of their values, rendering inter-cultural analysis or critique suspect, has resulted in the domain of practical discussion a tendency to recast inter-cultural differences of deep import into deviations or artificialities imposed from the outside. In this particular case that artificiality is the Egyptian military, but in most cases it is Western colonialism, which has an almost demonic power to reshape and disfigure postcolonial societies, which lack all internal agency or direction. This is simply not the true state of affairs. The paradoxical fact is that there is commensurability across very different cultures. You can understand, analyze, and critique other societies, if imperfectly. For example, I can understand, and even agree with, some of the criticisms of Western society by Salafist radicals for its materialism and excessive focus on proximate hedonism. The Salafists are not aliens, but rather one comprehensible expression of human cultural types. But that does not deny that I find their vision of human flourishing abhorrent. I understand it, therefore I reject it.

As I state above my views on foreign policy tend toward isolation. Despite the fact that I find the actions of many governments and value of many societies barbaric, and believe that the way of life expressed by Western liberal democratic societies furthers human flourishing more optimally, I do not believe it is practical or productive to force other societies to align their values with ours in most cases.*** In other words, I accept that the world is currently going to operate with a multicultural order. This does not mean that I accept multiculturalism, where all cultures have “equal value.” That idea is incoherent when it is not trivial. Such a framing is useful and coherent in a scholarly context, where Epoché is essential. A historian of Nazi Germany constantly consumed by their disgust and aversion to the regime which is the subject of their study would be a sub-optimal historian. Such disgust and aversion is right and proper, but for scholarship there must be a sense that one must moves that to the side for the purposes of analysis and description.

But most people are not scholars. They are not engaging in discourse, but having a discussion. Scholarly theories of modes of inquiry are often totally inappropriate for proximate political policy discussions. Normative biases and methodological commitments undergo peculiar transformations, and inevitably one has to confront the fact that much of what is meant or intended becomes opaque, embedded in abstruse phraseology and intelligible only to initiates in the esoteric knowledge. The hybrid of the Post Modern inflected scholar and public intellectual is ultimately a gnostic sophist of the highest order, transmuting plain if unpalatable truths about the world into a murky cultic potion.

Addendum: Many people claim that the Roman or Ottoman Empires, to name a few, were multicultural. They were in a plain reading of the term, but not in a way that people who espouse multiculturalism would recognize. In both these polities there was a hegemonic social and political order, and difference was tolerated only on its terms. For example, the Romans destroyed the Druids in Gaul and Britain. Why? One reason given, which we would probably view favorably, was that the Druids were practicing human sacrifice, which the Romans found objectionable. But another more material reason is that the Druids were natural loci for political and cultural resistance against the Roman hegemony. Similarly, the Ottomans had an elaborate system of millets which organized the different religious groups of the polity, but there was never any doubt that all were subordinate to Ottoman Muslims. Those social-religious groups which were classed as outside the pale for various reason, such as the Druze, were persecuted and not tolerated. Those which were tolerated, such as the Orthodox Christians, needed to be respectful of their subordinate position in the system. These tendencies can be generalized to all multiculturalist polities, which inevitably had a herrenkultur.

* No, I don’t think Ron Paul has a chance even if he wins Iowa. Though I do think he’s affected the whole political landscape, and that’s probably what he was looking for in any case.

** The quotations because the term is more one of aspersion than a real pointer to a specific and discrete movement at this point.

*** I make a distinction between barbarism, which is a different way of being, and savagery, which is an unacceptable way of being. The modern world has accepted that slavery is savage, and not tolerable in any polity. In contrast, the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are effectively rendered property of their male relatives is barbaric, but not objectionable enough that it must be eliminated through force.

August 26, 2011

Slate, science, and Brian Palmer

I’m still scratching my head over the rather atrocious Brian Palmer piece in Slate, Double Inanity: Twin studies are pretty much useless. It’s of a quality which would make it appropriate for WorldNetDaily. Here are the responses of Jason Collins, Daniel MacArthur, and Alex Tabarrok. The comments at Slate were rather scathing too. I observed over at Genomes Unzipped that many of the assertions in the piece were in the “not even wrong/what does that even mean?” class. Palmer is apparently a freelancer at Slate, and they’re doing a bunch of stories on twins this week. I wonder if they just sent him the assignment with instructions on the slant, and he took it a little too far. Even if it was a polemic it was a shoddy and embarrassing one. My main concern is that many people perceive Slate to be an organ which publishes “smart” and well researched pieces, and they’ll take Palmer’s screed at face value.

The scientific problems with the article are legion. But still: how does something like this get published in a relatively high-end publication? Brian Palmer has editors presumably. If the copy was an undergraduate paper the prose would be ...

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