Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Choosing the Right Way Forward

One of the main purposes of my work is convincing people that democracy and human rights are universally applicable, anywhere in the world. What I write is very black and white - because that is what my job demands. Propaganda isn't propaganda otherwise. However in private I have always -been slightly suspicious of the 'democratisation agenda': partly because it has been hijacked by American neo-cons in their quest for world dominance and partly because of an instinctive dislike of 'universalisms' which I have come to associate with thinly veiled cultural imperialism.
I don't think that makes me a cultural relativist on the other hand. I do not, for example, believe that all cultural practices are equally good. I do believe that better and worse decisions can be made and that in order to know which is which we have to make comparisons.

Yet I am also quite convinced that all cultural practices have a certain validity (that is they 'make sense') within the internal logic that governs every civilisation. Whether we are aware of it or not most of us operate on auto-pilot within our own societies, either conforming to or reacting against the unwritten rules which govern our understanding of right and wrong action.

Living within the parameters of these rules provides us with our sense of normality. We do not question why we behave a certain way, most of the time, nor do we try to justify it in our own terms. And if we are dissatisfied with the rules of the game, we react against them instead of putting in place alternative systems to govern our lives.

A good example would bethe sexual revolution which swept the West in the sixties and seventies where people swept away the suffocating social norms that governed relationships only to replace them with their diametric opposite - with little or no attempt to make sense of this seismic shift from one extreme to the other.

So we all operate within closed cultural systems mitigated only if and when we are exposed to alternative ways of living. In the past this happened rarely - through trade, or cultural exchange amongst the educated elite - but today alternatives to our own cultural norms are increasingly evident and accessible.

Migration, instant communication, the internet, even the availability of cheap foreign travel have all enlarged our horizons. Very few people alive today can claim to live culturally hermetic, homogenous lives. However it is equally true that our understanding of other ways of life remains superficial, even disneyfied.

Eating Chinese food, watching a foreign film, speaking another language, even hanging out with foreign friends, is rarely sufficient to give us more than a window onto another world. It's a bit like showing a photo of a tropical island to someone who has never been there.

They can exclaim at the beauty of the scene, perhaps remark on what people are wearing, eating, or doing, but they will not understand why those things are taking place - why they 'make sense' within the logic of that society . In fact, even if we went to that tropical island, most of us wouldn't understand a lot more about the scene in question - we would see, but we would not see clearly.

For most of us, 'our way' of doing things remains the best way. We view those who dissent from our norms - especially in our own society - on a spectrum ranging from the bizarre, to the suspect, or at worst, downright frightening.

This reaction differs from the reaction conventional people (and I speak as a British person here) have when confronted with an alternative cultural practice which is indigenous in origin, such aspeople acting like Punks, Goths, or whatever.

We are aware of where these practices come from and what they represent. And even if we dont like them we do understand them. What makes unknown cultural norms so frightening is that they don't make the remotest bit of sense to us.

So if a woman is veiled, if a Hindu refuses to eat meat, if an East Asian refuses to loosen up in our company, we don't understand why. We don't understand why these things are normal for the person in question and why any attempt to do otherwise would constitute a painful act of rebellion against their inner instincts.

It's a bit like telling your average British person to stop drinking alcohol, stop watching the football, or start going to church again, when they're an avowed atheist. These are simply things the average person does in today's Britain. They are normal. They are everyday. But are they right?

If we want to understand how best to live our lives we must put our own assumptions in question. While it may be normal for British people to drink to get drunk it certainly isn't in France. So who is right? Surely, when we make the comparison, we have to conclude that the French way of moderate drinking is preferable.

Yet other countries do not have a drinking culture. So which is better - the French way or their way? When we truly compare the effects of living with alcohol to the effects of living without we might well conclude that not drinking at all is essentially better for us even if it is, to our way of thinking, alot less fun.

So when deciding if you want to drink or not you can make a choice. You can say 'do I want to have fun and relax - and take the consequences if I cannot be moderate' or you can say 'to prevent overindulgence and its unpleasant effects on myself and others, I would do best to avoid alcohol'.

One argument derives from personal preference 'I want to have fun', the other from a qualitative, objective fact, which is personal health. As such, the best choice is probably not to drink - even though that goes against what most of us are culturally tuned to believe.

It's hard to make the 'right' choice from within British culture where not drinking is mocked as the preserve of the uptight and self-righteous. But it's much easier to make when looked at from the perspectives and norms of other cultures where the idea that you cannot 'have fun' without alcohol is an alien concept.

So we can see that enhanced cultural awareness can help us make choices and decisions about our own lives - by deconstructing our own norms and exposing much of our behaviour as the result of cultural conditioning instead of personal decision making or logic.

Once we realise this we can start to look for better ways forward. And it is here that I would like to return to democracy and human rights. Many people say that they're Western imports, a form of cultural hegemony that doesn't work for certain civilisations. That we should, de facto, respect every and all decisions made within the logic of other societies.

But that is not the case. As Amartya Sen has pointed out in 'La Democratie des autres' the idea of public debate and decision making is by no means confined to the West. Indeed, even that tradition which derived from the Athenian demos was more thoroughly reflected on in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and India many centuries ago, than it ever was in Western Europe until the current age.
Every society has had its open and closed periods, every society has times of freedom and times of dictatorship. Every society has its successes and failures. The Arab world today is a good sight less developed - both materially and culturally - than it was five hundred years ago when it was by far the most developed, open, and tolerant civilisation in the world. That is why it flourished. And why it has now ceased to flourish.

Realising this, we must be aware that certain practices are - when considered relatively - qualitatively better than others. And of all the worst qualities a society can exhibit, closedmindedness and intolerance must be amongst the worst.

That is why not only concerned foreigners but all Muslims and Afghans should be so affronted by what is happening to Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student of journalism who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy for downloading material on women's rights and distributing it for the purpose of stimulating debate on the Qu'ran's meaning and interpretation.

This is not only wrong because Afghanistan is now a democracy, and democracies allow pluralism, but because - from the perspective of openness and critical debate which allows all societies to move forward - it is illogical to execute someone for questioning norms: even if these are religious norms, and the society in question is a religious society.

For if we question something its truth, or logic, will either be revealed or denied. Truth (maybe not absolute truth, but internal consistency, lets say) can only be established through debate and discussion. And inconsistency - or falsehood - can only be exposed that way. So please, everyone, sign the petition to free this poor man - not because you believe a bunch of secular Westerners are right but because it is the right, and the only, thing to do.

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