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

May 8, 2013

Family values can suck and collective identities can melt away

Filed under: Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 3:31 pm
At The American Conservative Rod Dreher posts an email from an Indian American correspondent. It’s thoughtful, as befits an individual who is a medical professional. That being said my initial sentiment is in line with the first comment. That being … Continue reading

December 22, 2012

Cultural differences in film

Filed under: Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 1:18 pm

One of the issues which I occasionally bring up on this weblog is that despite all the talk about diversity and multiculturalism which most people air rhetorically, I live with diversity and multiculturalism because of my family background everyday (more honestly, whenever I have to engage with my parents). Though aspects such as food and religion are visible and obvious, sometimes it is the small things which are striking. Just today my mother-in-law stumbled upon some old photographs of her mother and uncle as infants. They were fraternal twins, born right at the end of World War I to Norwegian immigrants. Interestingly, my daughter bears a notable resemblance to her great-uncle, more so than to her own great-grandmother!

11438_190710812983_5574912_nThe peculiar aspect of this is that there are no photographs of me at an equivalent age to serve as a ‘control’ on this comparison. Despite their parents being working-class immigrants (my daughter’s great-great-grandfather was a longshoreman from Norway) my mother-in-law still has nearly century old photographs of her mother and aunts and uncles. In contrast, my father was a college professor in 1970s Bangladesh, whose wife was the daughter of a medical doctor, and yet my parents and their relatives couldn’t be bothered to take and preserve photographs of me. The image on the left, from when I was three years old, is the earliest that is preserved. I can count on one hand the number of photographs of me before the age of five.

I’d be curious about the experiences of readers.


December 1, 2012

Ah, the joys of multiculturalism!

Filed under: Culture,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 8:58 pm

I’m not particularly close to my family, but this Christmas we are thinking of inviting my parents for a bit. The reason is that they haven’t seen their first grandchild very often since she was born. But for me the main worry is that my parents are Muslim (in the case of my father in a somewhat serious way, and in the case of my mother more nominally/culturally). This means that we don’t see eye to eye on many things. When I visit their house I generally respect the rules of their house. I’m not a big drinker, but I would never think of even bringing alcohol to their abode. But what to do for the holidays? I am frankly uncomfortable drinking in front of my parents, because it seems disrespectful, even if it’s within my own home. I don’t judge their abstention, but they judge my consumption. If it was just my nuclear family it wouldn’t be a problem. My wife is even less of a drinker than me, and my daughter is a teetotaler. But for my in-laws drinking in the evenings, especially during festive occasions, is a normal part of life. Frankly it feels disrespectful to even consider asking them to change their behavior because my parents disapprove of alcohol consumption.

In the United States people glibly celebrate “diversity.” But the reality is that there is a great deal of self-segregation, and people within their own homes often eschew diversity of norms and mores. This isn’t hypocrisy as much as it is common sense. In domains like food and drink which loom large within the home & hearth there are major differences of expectation across cultures. Unlike most people from whom the experience of diversity is a choice, to a great extent for me diversity is a natural structural parameter of my life. Granted, I could cease contact with my parents, from whom I am ruptured in terms of my values and outlook, but that seems fundamentally inhumane. And of course it is even more strange for my wife; she never imagined that she’d have Muslim in-laws! For me negotiating between and across cultures is second nature. Despite being well traveled (she has lived in several European countries for years at a time), it is sometimes difficult for her to adjust to the reality that my parents expectations are very different from any she grew up with.

Life goes on. In a abstract sense my family is an instantiation of the process of cultural transformation. My parents are Bengali Muslims for whom English is a second language. All four of their children are non-religious Americans (Atheist, agnostic, apathetic, atheist) for whom Bengali is a second language. Despite having grandparents who were born in raised in eastern Bengal (Comilla), my daughter will be very much a child of the American west coast. The process of this change is not always without tension and discomfort. That is something I wish those who celebrate multiculturalism and change would reflect upon sometimes. Neighborhood color and authentic ethnic cuisine have other correlations.


May 27, 2012

Islam as the abomination

Filed under: Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 5:10 pm

Someone who goes by the handle “peave” seem to have left a rather interesting comment:

Mr u need a bit metal treatment okay,,we dont purposefully go and disrepair or disuse their “holy”sites…when a lady does,which she does with the Quran ,then she has done the act in order to hurt muslims…. and obviously u cannot control every one so that lady who posted that pic will have to bear the consequences as well okay.sick people like u, are trying equivocate two different acts as similar.shame on u .

There are two issues, one simple, and one complex. The simple one is that adherents to every major religion is part of a tradition which has engaged in acts of blasphemy and destruction against objects sacred to another religion. The practice is probably an ancient human norm, the statues of Marduk were torn down and dragged away by the Assyrians after their conquest of Babylon. In a more banal manner, the temples of pagans were torn down by Christians, and churches were put up their place, while the churches and temples of Christians and Hindus gave way to the mosques of Muslims. Again, the very simple point lost on the stupid is this: one person’s act of piety is another person’s act of blasphemy. This is why speaking about blasphemy or the sacred without properly admitting in a multicultural context the radical inter-subjectivity of the terms is bound to be confusing.

This gets to the second point. When Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs (and to a lesser extent Christians) complain that acts of blasphemy are meant to “hurt” individuals (.e., Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc.), they often don’t understand that the relationship of a religion and an individual varies. For example, people who have been subjected to physical and emotional abuse by clerics, and religious institutions, have a great deal of anger at those individuals and the institution as a whole. So, for example many feminists who attack religion approach the institution from a position of deep rage and anger, often justified rage and anger. Asserting that these individuals are out to hurt Muslims/Hindus/Sikhs/Catholics, etc., misses the point that they don’t view Islam/Hinduism/Sikhism/Catholicism in the say way that believers do. What is up for believers may be down for them, what is sacred, uplifting, the very stuff of life, might very well be a warped and abominable system of beliefs which have wrought only suffering upon the protester.

My own personal attitude is that it’s best to avoid too reductive a take on religion. We shouldn’t generalize from individual to everyone. But, we need to understand that individuals will have their own perspective. A Muslim should naturally be free to testify to the singular beauty of their religion. That is their liberty. But that Muslims should understand that that testifying does hurt some people, those who have been abused by Islam or Muslims in the past. Similarly, others should be free to post a picture of the Koran which they have taken a shit upon to show the world what they think of the Muslim religion. That viewpoint is just as real, and just as authentic.

Of course I don’t expect commenters like the one above to understand. Barbarians such as those that live in Pakistan, where non-Muslims live with the same liberty as Jews in 1930s Germany, aren’t going to understand the details of liberty as it has now come to be understood in the West. But what has been won over the past few centuries is a precious thing, and we should at least make a show of preserving it against the savages swarming at the gates. Note that the savage’s implicit warning that the blasphemer will have to bear the consequences if harm comes to her would not have been unheard of in 17th century Britain.

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.

June 26, 2011

Geert Wilders and banning lying

Filed under: Culture,Europe,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 12:55 pm

A few people have asked me about the Geert Wilders’ affair. If you don’t know Geert Wilders’ is a right-wing Dutch politician prone to making inflammatory remarks about Islam. He’s been brought to court on the grounds of whether his comments violated the speech laws in much of Europe, which sanction inciting or hateful speech.

The main issue as an American that one always has about these sort of things is that because of the First Amendment and the way it has been interpreted our social norms are such that in regards to speech we are exceedingly liberal. Prosecuting Wilders would not be an issue in the United States. Rather, it is much more likely that he’d be marginalized and ignored as a kook.

From my perspective the main problem with prosecutions for hate speech in relation to Islam and immigrants in Europe is that these attempts seem like banning lying; it’s a nominal and symbolic salve on the underlying diseases. Additionally, one must note that the attacks are focused on Muslim immigrants in particular, who from what I can tell have shown (in part) the greatest concerted collective resistance to becoming absorbed into the “European consensus,” as it has evolved.

Some of Wilders’ statements are so extreme and strange that I can’t but help believe that he’s working the Overton window. And from what I’ve read his strategy has worked, the whole center of gravity of public discourse has shifted in the Netherlands and much of Europe. The very fact that Wilders was acquitted is probably a reflection of this, as the enforcement of these laws often is a signal of public mood.

Overall I think there are several issues in Europe which must be addressed in the near future which are relevant to the rise of the right-wing sentiment:

- The likely unworkability of the European “super-state” because of cultural incompabilities

- The nature of employment regulation in Europe which discourages labor market mobility and fluidity

- The welfare state predicated on a common set of values affinity across lines of class and age not always compatible with a multicultural order

- The cultural insularity of many minority ethnic groups in Europe, especially Muslims, vis-a-vis the mainstream

And that’s the tip of the iceberg. The main problem is that because of the nature of politics many of these issues are neatly reduced into catchphrases. Muslim populations in Europe complaining of racism neatly neglect that black Africans who are not Muslim probably experience as much racism, but are not the locus of social unrest or panic, in part because they don’t pose a coherent challenge to Europe as it is. Anti-immigrant voices neglect the fact that even if all immigrants left tomorrow Europe would still be facing massive structural problems because of the reality of their demographics, as fewer and fewer young people are supporting large populations of economically inactive older pensioners.


May 30, 2011

A conflict of visions

Filed under: Culture,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 4:43 pm

In a post below where I allude to a religious riot on the part of Sikhs in the UK, a commenter observes:

I am in no way excusing the Sikhs here for what happened, especially in regards to the damage to the center but British Sikhs as a group in the UK have delinquency and crime levels on par with the white British last I checked so it’s not like British Sikhs as a whole are disproportionately criminal.

This brings up the “problem of minorities,” and how we need to disaggregate the issues. Consider the British Pakistanis and British Afro-Carribean communities. Both of these communities have problems correlated with lower socioeconomic status. But the two communities exhibit very different “threats” to the British order, at least potentially. The Afro-Carribean community intermarries a great deal with the majority population, while the Pakistani community less so. To a great extent the difficulties of the Afro-Carribean community can be attributed to racial issues as well as the general problems of the British lower middle class as it transitions to a knowledge-based global economy. The problem with Pakistanis is similar, but there are also different dimensions.

To my knowledge black nationalism among Afro-Carribeans is very weak in the UK, as reflected in the extremely high intermarriage rates. There are problems with the community in terms of social pathologies like crime and destabilized family units, but these are acknowledged to be problems which must be overcome. The difference with British Muslims is that some of them present a different positive vision of the Good Society, at variance with of the majority of Britons.

Some of the same is evident among the Sikhs of Britain. They may not be explicitly oppositional to the British majority by and large as a minority of British Muslims are, but many of them espouse values which are very alien to the modern British mainstream. Here is a quote from about 5 years back:

The sold-out run of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play, drama Behzti, or Dishonour, which depicts murder and rape scenes taking place in a Sikh temple, has been cancelled after violent protests by Sikhs in Birmingham, England. The play will not be shown again. Welcoming the decision, a representative from a local Sikh temple, Mohan Singh, chastised the theatre for not heeding the warnings of Sikh leaders. He contended that free speech was not at issue. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham is quoted as saying, “Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion.”

Mohan Singh, from the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in south Birmingham, also welcomed the decision, but said it had come a week too late.

“Free speech can go so far. Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run,” he said.

“Are you going to upset 600,000 thousands Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the UK for that?”

There are plenty of similar quotes in regards to free speech which came out of that episode. Singh’s argument is totally coherent, and is a “good fit” with the norms in much of the world in regards to religious sensitivity in speech. But, it is somewhat out of step with contemporary Western norms, though not earlier Western norms. A violent communal response to speech which offends religious sensibility is an Islamic and South Asian norm. It is not viewed as deviant or criminal in these societies, but an appropriate communal response to offense.

This is a conflict of visions or values. The main problem I see in the modern West is that the ideology of multiculturalism has pushed back to the implicit background the values which characterize the Western world as it is today. Many non-Westerners, or those who identify with non-Western societies, have no such hang-ups. They are proud of African or Asian values, or wish to aim for an “Islamic society.” The most vocal champions of singular Western values are actually cultural conservatives, further discouraging liberal Westerners from espousing a positive moral vision of society (as opposed to a laundry list of social goods).

February 24, 2011

The community doesn’t speak with one voice

Filed under: Culture,Multiculturalism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:24 pm

Who speaks for the Semitic Sky God?

One of the problems with being an atheist and not a member of an organized religion is that life’s not a “package deal.” My materialist metaphysic, or perhaps more precisely my skepticism of metaphysics, doesn’t entail anything except what it entails. I am, for example, a political conservative, which goes against expectations. In contrast, religious folk have huge elaborated systems of thought. Since most people are stupid they’re generally garbled and inchoate as to what they should believe, but they have off the shelf ideas which they can marshal.

All fine and well. But, there’s a serious problem with adherents of organized barbaric superstitions presenting an authoritative Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Buddhist point of view. What they’re doing more accurately is present the view of a Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Buddhist. Even stipulating the existence of a Truth undergirding organized superstition, humans by their nature look through the glass darkly, and can not speak authoritatively as if there is a singular clear and distinct Truth which they can comprehend (as an atheist, I think the reality of the matter is that complex religio-philosophical systems are incoherent gibberish without systematic logical integrity).

I thought of that we I stumbled upon this article, Evolution, from Hinduism’s point of view: LifePoints. The author is Dr. Narayana P. Bhat, secretary of the Board of Trustees of the Hindu Cultural Center of North Alabama. He’s writing in The Huntsville Times, so no doubt this is one of the few exposures to Hinduism which the benighted residents of northern Alabama will have, and Dr. Bhat is putting his best foot forward. But he really doesn’t speak for Hinduism, anymore than any crazy bug-eyed mullah speaks for the True Islam.

February 20, 2011

Barbarians, primitives, savages, and decadents

Filed under: Admin,Culture,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 10:42 pm

I was having a discussion with a friend today about how we have no language with which to discuss cultural differences which don’t exhibit a “Whiggish” bias in history, or don’t allude to Golden Ages from which we have Fallen. In other words, our theories of cultural variation tend to be chronocentric; other societies are simply placed into the past, or are projected as a state of fall in the future. For example, many people simply did not understand my specific or general point in regards to cultural variation in Islam. The specific point was that the word Islamist is just a word with instrumental utility. Saying that an Egyptian is “secular” and a Turk is “Islamist” does not make the former necessarily a “good guy” and the latter necessarily a “bad guy.” Second, the general point is that we need to move beyond the tendency to frame Others as good guys and bad guys, with ourselves as the reference point.

This is not to say I have no ideas of what Good and Bad are. I think dressing up your women like ninjas-without-knives is Bad. I thinking women covering their hair for reasons of modesty is not necessarily Good or Bad. But, these sorts of judgments come from the background of values which I hold, derived from my culture. I like my culture. I think it is beautiful, and praiseworthy. There is no shame in that. We are what we are, and wish to maintain our integrity into the future. In fact, I think it’s more beautiful and praiseworthy than other cultures, even if there’s nothing wrong with other cultures. It is mine.

But, just because I think less of other cultures, does not necessarily mean that other cultures need to be forced to be like mine. People have choice, and can organize society how they wish, within reason. “Within reason” is contingent upon the consensus of civilized people. Slavery is outside that consensus. Arguably sex segregation is not. The Saudi treatment of women does not seem to be a causa belli or cause célèbre, though I think if it were enforced upon a racial minority it would be (I am very saddened by this consensus that gross sex discrimination is less objectionable than gross race discrimination, but that’s another post).

Societies organized differently than our own are not necessarily simply our own society in the past. They may be different in a deep and fundamental sense, operating in a different value space. In other words, difference does not entail “primitive.” The Saudi regime is one which I often term neo-medieval, but it is actually a quite advanced elaboration of a particular a set of ideas and norms enabled by oil wealth. Conversely, the sexual liberality characteristic of the West is not necessarily “decadence.” Rather, it is a feature, not a bug. Whereas barbaric Saudis may view  the Victorian era as the apogee of Western sexual mores, from which we have descended, Westerners may view it as a more primitive and regressed regime.

There is a time and place for Epoché. We have forgotten that in our age.

Informed faith on Tunisia

Filed under: Culture,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 2:42 pm

I have more faith in Tunisia giving rise to a liberal democracy which we’d recognize than Egypt. This is why: Next Question for Tunisia: the Role of Islam in Politics:

The second phase of Tunisia’s revolution played out in this city’s ancient medina last week as military helicopters circled and security forces rushed to carry out an unusual mission: protecting the city’s brothels.

Police officers dispersed a group of rock-throwing protesters who streamed into a warren of alleyways lined with bordellos shouting, “God is great!” and “No to brothels in a Muslim country!”

Five weeks after protesters forced out the authoritarian government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians are locked in a fierce and noisy debate about the role of Islam in politics.

About 98 percent of the population of 10 million is Muslim, but Tunisia’s liberal social policies and Western lifestyle shatter stereotypes of the Arab world. Abortion is legal, polygamy is banned and women commonly wear bikinis on the country’s Mediterranean beaches. Wine is openly sold in supermarkets and imbibed at bars across the country.

Raja Mansour, a bank employee in Tunis, said it was too early to tell how the Islamist movement would evolve.

“We don’t know if they are a real threat or not,” she said. “But the best defense is to attack.” By this she meant that secularists should assert themselves, she said.

The neo-medieval barbarians do not inhabit the cultural high ground de facto in Tunisia. Contrast with the supine state of Pakistani liberalism today, where “moderates” routinely salad toss religious nuts. Au contraire, the religious movements have to speak in the language of secularism and genuflect to liberalism.

February 11, 2011

Punk bhadralok

Filed under: Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 11:52 am

In the annals of cultural misunderstandings, my mother was a fan (at a remove) of the punk alternative band “Green Day” in the early 1990s. The main reason for this is that this was an era when “hair bands” were still on the scene, and the short and relatively trim hairdos of the alternative punk scene appealed to her aesthetic sensibilities. Of course, the irony is that the punk bands whose aesthetic she found respectable were arguably more heterodox and transgressive than the guys who were members of hair bands. Even setting aside the crass mainstream materialism which pervaded the hair bands, some artists in hard rock, such as Ted Nugent, were actually political conservatives!

Here favorite was “When I come around,” form the album “Dookie”:

January 28, 2011

Democracy, the god of our age

Filed under: Democracy,Multiculturalism,Populism — Razib Khan @ 1:25 pm

I have a post up at Secular Right which expresses some cynical skepticism about the popular revolutions in North Africa. I’m especially skeptical of Egypt, though I would be happy to be proven wrong by history. Democratic governance is better than the alternatives, all things equal, but all things are not equal. Tunisia is in many ways a more “Western” society than Egypt, so I have more hope that a conventional Western form of governance in liberal democratic form will emerge there. Additionally, unlike Egypt Tunisia has no minorities to oppress.

Because of the power of democralotry in the American mind we often can’t conceive of the possibility that populism abroad may not shake out in a direction conducive to our own “national interests.” Or, further other values which we putatively cherish, such as individual liberty and tolerance of dissent and diversity. But it is no coincidence that we were founded a republic, and not a democracy.

January 24, 2011

This is Bangladeshi culture

Filed under: Culture,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 12:03 pm

Drunk with honor

I’ve been paying attention on & off to the bizarre story of Potter actress Afshan Azad being beaten and threatened by her brother for her relationship with a Hindu man. The brother in question has been sentenced to 6 months in jail. Reading all the details of what happened that night, I have to admit, much of the behavior is absolutely intelligible in terms of the values with I am vaguely familiar with among Bangaldeshis in my own family. Afshan Azad’s brother was not behaving sociopathically, rather, he was acting in a very rational manner when one understands his cultural background. Some of the actions which seemed threatening were, I suspect, part of a melodramatic performance, with the physical abuse probably serving more as a punctuation. I would judge the probability of Afshan Azad being killed to be rather low, though I believe that the probability of her being physically detained, kidnapped, and forcibly married in Bangaldesh much higher (Western-raised Bangladeshi women have been tricked into going abroad, and then detained with the cooperation of Bangladeshi authorities; a well-placed bribe isn’t hard to imagine).

More broadly this points to the general nature of British multiculturalism. The separatism and preservation of parallel values which it has encouraged. See ‘Multiculturalism at its limits’. See in particular Kenan Malik’s criticism of how it has played out.

Finally, I don’t know if this is accurate, but the article linked described Afshan Azad’s family as devout Muslims, and, indicated that her brother had been drinking on the night of the assault. How’s that for “hybridity”? (he also referred to her in terms of abuse drawn from the wob-vocabulary, such as “slag”) More seriously, I suspect that the Azad family are unlikely to be particularly devout, and the assault was motivated as much by religiously universal South Asian communalism. This sort of brutish behavior is less common among Sikh and Hindu South Asians because these communities are somewhat more economically advanced and integrated with the general British culture, especially the latter. There’s nothing in Sikhism or Hinduism, alas, which makes these religion’s nominal followers less barbaric in the way they treat their women-folk in the “Old Country.” Muslim South Asians in Britain are simply poorer, less educated, and to some extent more indulged in their perverse deviations from British norms.

Addendum: Afshan Azad’s looks uncannily like a cousin of mine!

January 5, 2011

Modeling culture

Filed under: Culture,Multiculturalism — Razib Khan @ 9:29 am

Many Western liberals often view “People of Color” as passive entities upon which Western society operates. So the atrocious behavior Zach points to below would be “explained” by situational factors of class and discrimination.

Many Western conservatives view “People of Color” as isolated agents. So the barbaric behavior of Muslims is purely endogenous and determined only by the fundamental nature of Muslims and their culture (or, perhaps the Korean).

Both these models are false caricatures. Societies act through a series of interactions, as well as core values which emerge from their own independent history. Cultures have internal agency, but they also react to exogenous pressures. This is common sense, but often forgotten.

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