Take back the night, bring back Enlightenment

by Yule Heibel on September 3, 2003

I still can’t get to dissecting some matters at hand (re. the prior to previous post), but here’s another article that gets to the heart of things: Culture of Shame by Matthew Leeming, a review of Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul. Leeming attacks (in my view rightly) cultural relativism that would assign to primitive, misogynistic cultures the same value as cultures that espouse Enlightenment principles. He opens his review by describing the reception his account of an arranged marriage between a 14-year-old girl and a 38-year-old man got when he described it as “legitimised rape.” His accusers found him guilty of “Orientalism,” or depicting “eastern cultures as strange and inferior to the West, rather than portraying them as both equally bad.” Sorry, I’m with Leeming: as a woman, I cannot be relativistic about human rights, and fundamentalists are no friends of mine. They are backwards and benighted. And so it seems are their relativist defenders in academe.

Read the whole review, but here’s part of Leeming’s assessment of Seierstadt’s book:

Feuerbach would have loved this book. I have never read a more convincing exposition of his thesis that all theology is anthropology. Afghan theology simply reflects male insecurities. The Taliban were a back-to-basics conservative political movement, an attempt to recreate the paradise of the Arabian peninsula in the time of the Prophet when men wielded absolute power over their families. There is nothing exclusively Islamic about cretinous attempts to reconstruct a golden age: in Uganda the Lakwenas, Protestant fundamentalists, shoot people found riding a bicycle on Sundays.

For those of us who think that religious belief is a mental illness, this book provides plenty of clinical detail. The symptoms in Afghanistan are pretty florid.

He concludes that the cultural relativists — the “Orientalist witch-smellers and postmodernists at Oxford” (the former characterization a nice pointer to a Black Adder I episode) have “the Enlightenment in their sights.” Perhaps it wasn’t such a dire thing a couple of decades ago, but it’s fateful now that the benighted have the reigns of government in the West, too.

Academics and intellectuals of the world unite, we’ve only a fundamentalist apocalypse to avert.


jr September 4, 2003 at 3:41 pm

I’m having issues with the semantics of the word Enlightenment. It appears too vague and too easily captured by any group. Could the Taliban claim to be enlightened? I’m sure they have seen the light.

Although any word can be misused, a Common Sense culture appeals to me more. In a recent published story (which I can now find no reference) a book publisher had decided not to have illustrators depict anyone doing anything left-handed. The publisher did not want to offend cultures that believe the left hand is unclean. The publisher may be “Enlightened” but they left their common sense at the door.

If the publisher applied common sense to their argument there would not have been a story. Any belief that is based on faith may be enlightenment but is sure isn’t common sense.

Yule Heibel September 4, 2003 at 4:54 pm

In my usage, Enlightenment is a specific historical term. It’s not Common Sense, although the latter can be part of it. Enlightenment is that rediscovery of the rights of man (and woman) at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th when revolutionaries in France, in the US, and even, briefly, in Germany, overthrew despots and pursued democratic principles founded on rational inquiry. The term has subsequently had a chequered history, culminating, some would argue, in a Dialectic of Enlightenment, viz., most famous example to date: Nazi Germany, in which an “enlightened” culture used “reason” to pursue irrational, “mythic” ends, tragically proving that reason/ rationality and Enlightenment are not static “haves,” but constantly argued-over tools. But that doesn’t mean that the project of the French encyclopediasts (ordering and classifying knowledge in encyclopedias accessible to the “common man”) or the German philosophers or the American Founders is ditchwater. Those efforts catapulted us into the modern age, liberated culture from being bonded to the patronage of Church and State, overthrew the tolerance of slavery, and made it acceptable that women are as good as men… The list goes on. Common Sense doesn’t go that far. Enlightenment is an agenda that sets its sights on liberty for all through the advancement of human rights. It’s had its problem (many!), and it’s not a paint-by-the-numbers instruction kit. But it’s the historical legacy I hold most dear.

As for the Taliban: You’ve got to be kidding. And the publisher: maybe this person needs to reassess why they are doing what they’re doing. Grovelling to superstition to ensure market share? That’s not enlightened, that’s adaptation to forces that undermine human rights. And that’s part of the problem: we’re increasingly adapting to impossible situations, which was precisely not the agenda of the (historical, 18th-century-and-beyond) Enlightenment.

jr September 4, 2003 at 11:09 pm

I guess I was using a lower case enlightenment. And I was kidding about the Taliban.

Joel September 5, 2003 at 1:08 am

The problem you are describing with cultural relativism is due to a misapplication of the idea. Relativism wasn’t meant as a philosophy or a moral guide, but as an technique for conducting scientific research. The anthropologist goes in, observes what is happening, and records it accurately. He/she does ~not~ make a moral judgement because her/his purpose is description.

German-American anthropologist Franz Boas developed the practice in response to the concept of “degenerate” and “primitive” societies which prevailed in early 20th century anthropology. Boas’s approach challenged racist assumptions. He merely insisted that all human beings were capable of complex thought. He and followers such as Margaret Mead demonstrated this time and again in their writings.

Despite the moral neutrality of their research, the early cultural relativists were not silent about human rights. They championed them time and again on behalf of indigenous peoples and minority groups — including African Americans and recent European immigrants — in the United States. Boas was expelled from the American Anthropological Association in 1917-1918 for insisting that anthropologists remain out of the war effort, that they be turned into pawns for politicians.

What happened is that under the effective onslaught against their racist and authoritarian notions, conservatives and despots the world over found what they thought was a loophole: if you made cultural relativism into a morality, then you could insist that your critics could not say anything about the things you did, including torture, war, oppression of women and minorities, etc. As a morality, cultural relativism became the tool of those who wanted to plunder the earth and its peoples.

As is often the case, when authoritarian regimes apply any morality, it turned out to be one-sided. They would cry “You can’t criticize us for our ways” while imprisoning, torturing, and killing those within their own society who disagreed with them.

The original relativists never meant to imply that all ideas were equal, that we had to accept the existence of spirits for example, because some person capable of reasonable thought claimed that they exist. They just asked that we keep our eyes and our minds reasonably open, to not allow bigotry to color our evaluation, e.g. “these people are of an inferior race and therefore incapable of intelligent discourse. We must govern them.” While Boas would have striven to keep his thoughts about the marriage case you described in your article, you could have hit him up for a donation for an organization which sought to persuade the Afghani government and people to abandon the practice. As I noted at the outset, there’s no inconsistency here: relativism is a scientific method. Only those who have had a stake in perpetuating injustice have tried to characterize it so.

Joel September 5, 2003 at 1:09 am

Incidentally, for what it is worth, my undergraduate degree is in anthropology from Pomona College.

Joel September 5, 2003 at 1:18 am

Last sentence of my long response should read: Only those who have had a stake in perpetuating injustice have tried to characterize it as a morality.

I’m working on a slightly expanded response at http://paxnortona.notfrisco2.com.

Yule Heibel September 5, 2003 at 2:01 am

Thanks for that comment, Joel. I’m glad you brought some historical perspective, via Franz Boas, into this. It’s so tricky — it’s clearly important not to denigrate another culture, and at the same time stand up for what you identify as defensible in your own, as well as recognize when those values are being eroded. You know, I think of people like Chomsky who defend human rights and rail against imperialism. How do they deal with questions on tolerance and relativism? I don’t know for certain, but I imagine Chomsky does so in a differentiated manner, weighing each case individually while keeping his values firmly in sight. It’s a minefield today. Let me step on one: Take headscarves. Should Muslim girls in Europe be going to school swathed in headscarves and more, and be free from harassment by their western/secular fellows? Certainly, if it’s the case that they’re doing it freely, vs. being coerced by their parents. But should western (secular) governments pay for separate Muslim schools (or classes within existing schools) so that Muslim students’ rights to exercise their religion fully are guaranteed? No. Because western societies have laws about the separation of church and state, and there’s a reason for these laws: to maintain individual rights. (I have similar non-PC views about ESL and teaching non-native speakers in their native languages, vs. “handicapping” them by putting them in full English-only classes — and I say that as an immigrant kid who spoke no English upon arriving in Canada at age 8. Many teachers and activists will hate me for saying this, but English happens to be the lingua franca in North America, and if you’re keeping a kid away from English immersion, you’re handicapping that child, i.e., non-English classes for non-English speakers are actually the handicap, not the other way around. Oomph; saying that will get me some enemies. But all I’m saying is give the kids some credit: they’re not so stupid that they couldn’t pick up a simple language such as English relatively quickly. Why ghetto-ize them in non-English classes?)

Re. academia: I know that many people in academia wrestle with “relativism” in a differentiated manner — say you have to teach an art history course, the kind that used to be called “Renaissance to Modern,” and now is called “Themes in World Art”: you’re not supposed to say, really, that Caravaggio or David are so bleeding good it blows your socks off, nor are you, conversely, supposed to valorize non-western cultures at the expense of others. But you’re still trying to convey and suss out a concept of quality — what appeals, why are we looking at this and not that, what makes this stand out, etc. — if you’re still interested in the topic yourself, that is. You might even focus just on the reception of things, and try to get students to understand the mechanisms of why some things “catch on” and others don’t. If you’re a mediocre scholar, however, you might present the whole melange as a banquet of “pick-‘n-choose,” without putting any opinion on the line. And I have to tell you that I hate that kind of academic course: it’s pablum, and it’s confusing. The students have no idea why they’ve taken it. They could have spent the time watching MTV. At least if there’s some bossy opinionated person talking about an object, they can get their hands on something and disagree. Hence, while many people in academia wrestle with what looks like relativism, they’re actually still in the business of developing standards. But then there are the others, and there is the trickle-down effect, where relativism becomes a cursed thing similar to channel surfing.

I’m sorry this comment is getting so long. I just commented on The River about being in Rant-o-Rama Land and needing to get out: help! On that note, let me sign off before I shovel myself into an even bigger hole.

Joel September 5, 2003 at 3:51 am

My take on Muslim schools is that if you’re going to have a situation like that in Holland where Catholics and Protestants have their own schools, then so should Muslims.

However, I prefer the American system where religion is kept out of the classroom entirely.

As for having one set of laws for Muslims and another for Christians as seems to be the case in Nigeria, I say no. One law for everyone. On issues such as adultery, let individuals decide for themselves. Not every sin should be a crime, I think.

Now, as for the ESL issue, I have a view which is different from yours, but also gets me into trouble with the Left sometimes. I believe that every student who graduates from high school here in California should be proficient in both Spanish and English. This arouses a chorus from both the Right and the Left: Why, they say, the poor dears! You will make school too hard on them!

I believe that kids can handle more than we allow them, that it is a tragic waste to allow good minds to get bored and not develop their full potential. Part of the problem is that some kids won’t graduate because of this, but I note that that is only serious when you have a society which casts failures out on the street.

Yule Heibel September 5, 2003 at 2:34 pm

My blundering into this area & our subsequent discussion shows just how complicated these issues are, how differentiated and patient you have to be in approaching them. The schools, eg.: I forgot all about Catholic & Protestant schools. I don’t know how they’re funded in Europe, but I do know that in Germany, eg., if you’re baptised and don’t officially (with official declaration etc.) leave the church, you will pay taxes to the church when you’re a working adult. These are automatically deducted by the government (!) and passed on to the church, so it’s not a clear separation of church & state. The schools are probably receiving funds that derive from government-sanctioned taxes on the “faithful”; they presumably also charge user fees. Anyway, the Canadian eg., closer to home, is interesting, too. I learned last year that Canadian private & parochial (non-xian, too) schools receive a significant percentage of their funding budget from the government. Can’t remember the exact amount, but it was in the double-digit percents, less than 50%, but more than 20% (should look it up). This means that my taxes are going toward funding snooty private schools like Glenlyon-Norfolk, where grass hockey and cricket are as high on the agenda as debating matches & the International Baccalaureate, and they’re going to fund schools like the Christian Pacific Academy, where they might be practicing abominations such as teaching “creationism” (although they do have to meet BC Ministry of Education requirements in science, so it can’t be too medieval, I guess). (PS: I actually typed “evolutionism” at first and just corrected it; where the heck did that slip come from?). Where exactly would Canada draw the line if a parochial school of whatever stripe began advocating overthrowing the state? (I don’t know, by the way; I assume there are guidelines that you can’t overstep, but I don’t know what they are.) Travel back in time and let’s say you’re Hitler, and the Catholic & Protestant schools are starting, sotto voce, to agitate against your policies even though you’ve been elected to run things. You say, in the name of reason & ratonality, “I’m withdrawing funding from these schools (which will force them to shut down) because these schools are breeding grounds for dangerous anti-government rebels.” But who is rational here, Hitler or the parochial schools? To me the example indicates something about the value of determining intent and context vs. defining rules that have to followed more or less blindly. At any rate, the way we’ve proliferated our methods into everything, it comes as no surprise that we’re perforce choking on specialists (lawyers, too) who interpret and massage everything for us.

I wouldn’t want to see proficiency in a foreign language as a graduation requirement for high school, by the way. I wouldn’t mind seeing proficiency in English as a requirement…. Some level of competency in foreign language should be a requirement for people heading for college/ university, though.

Joel September 5, 2003 at 11:03 pm

Since the time of its inception as part of the United States, California has been bilingual. Switzerland requires its students to speak two of the three languages for high school graduation. They are trilingual and they haven’t fallen apart because of it. On the contrary, they are, despite their size and relatively puny citizen army, economic giants.

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