Cultural Relativity

When a person walks into a village and blows it up along with themselves we call it terrorism. But when a person drops bombs from a $100M fighter jet and blows up a village it’s somehow not terrorism. Why is that?

This is an observation Laura made tonight that stopped me in my tracks. I don’t know why it did, I’m sure I’ve heard it before.

Another thought that went through my mind was the question of what causes terrorism? The only single-word answer that I can think of which is not oversimplified is… imperialism. I’m sure I’d heard that somewhere before too.

If you ever go to India, I highly recommend loading the movie Ghandi onto your iPhone to watch along the way. The power of his *ideas* is as unfathomable as the ideas are ancient and simple: non-violence; humility; service. Where have we heard these before? The better question is, what ancient belief system does not espouse them?

Some would say imperialism is alive and well. Democracy and Freedom have replaced God and King, but the result is the same: bombs, death and suffering.

Cultural imperialism is a real thing, a vestige of the standard kind. But I’ve come to understand what this means in a new way while in India. Where once I thought it meant selling our crap and pushing our values on “naive” and desperate people, I now realize that’s not it at all. Those who consume America’s culture are neither naive nor desperate. Cultural imperialism is looking at a stranger through your own cultural lens and refusing to consider that the problem is not reality but rather myopia.

Everyone I know who had been to India told me two things: first, be prepared for the horrors of poverty like you’ve never seen before, and second, read the book Shantaram. Now it is quite possible that things have improved so drastically that I am unable to experience the stultifying nature of poverty one could even a decade ago. This would be extremely encouraging if true. But I suspect that economic uplift is only a small part of the puzzle.

Shantaram is full of deep observations about India from an outsider’s perspective, one that captures it perfectly for me, both in the misplaced guilt and the myopia. An example:

Now, before you go off on either the author or me for being an apologist for a morally tenuous state of affairs, consider this. How is it that in a population of 1.2 billion, most of whom are living in unacceptable conditions according to most Westerners, and who live side by side with extreme wealth, that theft and violence are very rare? And how is it that it is perfectly safe for a well-dressed Westerner to walk in any slum in Mumbai at any time of day or night? These are not fantasies of my own making, they are truths corroborated by everyone I talk to here.

I see the masses of people sleeping in the streets, the kids with filthy faces playing in cow dung, the crippled beggars dragging themselves on the ground. They are all still here. But when you put your hands together, smile and nod at any one of them they will invariably do the same right back (and mean it).

It’s hard for us Westerners to understand how different Indian culture is, but think about this for a moment. If you knew you would be reincarnated either as a more fortunate person or a less fortunate person (or perhaps a cockroach) based how you treated other people in this life, wouldn’t that change just about everything? How would you treat people who yell at you? What would you think of them? Would you feel anger (as you probably do today) or would you feel pity?

Cultural imperialism isn’t the unconscious forcing of one culture’s values upon another. No, it’s the audicty and gall one must have to pass judgment on a person’s lot in life (“oh, isn’t that heartbreaking?”) without knowing anything at all about them, their loved ones or their culture.

A final thought that has been playing on my mind recently. It’s been known for a least 2009 years that true leadership is about serving others, something that is echoed today in just about any lecture on leadership. So if this is true then we have to wonder: who is more powerful, the servant or the one being served?

  • Tiltmom

    “If you knew you would be reincarnated either as a more fortunate person or a less fortunate person (or perhaps a cockroach) based how you treated other people in this life, wouldn’t that change just about everything?”

    I sure hope not. One of my favorite pieces of writing is what Penn Jillette wrote for NPR’s _This I Believe_ series. The whole thing is here:

    But this is the part that immediately sprung to mind when I read your question:

    “Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.”

    Get it right the first time around — the only time around.

    And I couldn’t agree with you more. Did I ever tell you the story of my friend in boarding school who was looking forward to going home to be circumcised? Changed my whole world view, that did.

    • Rafe Furst

      The atheist stance yields only one “truly rational” strategy: fuck everyone over just enough so they don’t retaliate more than you can accpet. This is the iterated prisoner’s dilemma Nash equilibrium for all finite number of iterations.

      The limit case for IPD as N approaches infinity (i.e. indefinite reincarnation or unknowably long lifespan) is to treat everyone well this time around.

      If one wants to justify compassionate behavior with game theoretic arguments, reincarnation dominates no God.

  • Tiltmom

    P.S. it is rather species-centric of you to presume that there is anything wrong with being a cockroach. Their lives don’t look that bad to me.

    • Rafe Furst

      Agreed. What non-human form would you like to come back as most?

      • Tiltmom

        Hard to say. In another bit of species imperialism, JK often remarks that he would like to come back as one of our cats because, “They have such a rough life.” He says this whenever Helen is sleeping, which accounts for 18 hours of her day.

        From my POV? Their biological instincts are to hunt, kill and mate. The occasional bug aside, we seem to have stripped them of the opportunity to do any of those things.

        Bats seem to have cool lives. Flying mammals, echolocation, varied diet, very social creatures, few natural predators. But again, I’m imposing my own values and judgments on their lives.

  • When a person walks into a village and blows it up along with themselves we call it terrorism. But when a person drops bombs from a $100M fighter jet and blows up a village it’s somehow not terrorism. Why is that?

    Point of view…. for example; Ever heard about the guys whom got funded by a king, then set off to claim new land, then when that land became rich the guys wanted to have it all for them selves instead of paying taxes to the king. I reckon you know where this is headed….cause from the kings point of view these guys where terrorists, from another view these guys where heroes…

    I do not think it has anything to do with money; ie a $100m fighter or a guy with C4, it has to do with a political point of view. War is hell from any point of view however.

    Good piece on India by the way!

  • But isn’t terrorism defined primarily by the intent of the person? Sort of like what makes something a hate-crime – if the person who does it hates the person by a given definition of ‘hate’. Likewise, a terrorist commits the act in order to generate fear, which will hopefully be amplified by the media? So it’s not so much the actual attack itself, as it is the intention of the attack, that makes something terrorism.

    That probably isn’t right, though. It seems like it is both the intent to terrorize, and probably a demographic description. So, smaller “powerless” groups terrorize, including nazi militias in the US.

    • Rafe Furst

      Is preemptive war by a sovereign nation justifiable in a way that hate crimes by powerless groups never are?

      • I’m not sure if it’s justifiable in a way that a powerless group committing hate crimes is, but I do think they’re different. For instance, one difference is that terrorists and private militias are ordinarily not recognized by anyone as “legitimate,” based on some broader social contract theory that allows groups to assign legitimacy to others, etc. You can ask the same kinds of questions of almost any actual duty and responsibility that we have given to the state – we don’t let citizen hold trials, make arrests, imprison people, etc. I’m not a political philosopher, so I’m really pulling this out of my butt, but it seems like there’s a generally held theory of the social contract that assigns the legitimate functions of the state to people via laws, covenants, constitutions, etc., and the terrorist usurps that when he attempts to mimic the actions of the state privately. I’m not as sure that the difference is “real” – it may simply be that for social cohesion, it is necessary that there not be these groups, and if they exist, they must be eliminated. But like I said, I’m just guessing. I’m an economist, and so don’t know much about these things.

        But, you may be interested in an paper by Eric Posner. I don’t know where they ultimately published this – I think Georgetown Law Review. The title is “Optimal War and Jus ad Bellum”. It’s a very simple model of decision-making under uncertainty, and argues normatively that the state should engage in preemptive wars. That is, that it’s welfare enhancing for the state to sometimes engage in “preemptive self defense” by striking first.

  • BJ

    Point of reference is everything. My grandmother left school before finishing 8th grade to work to feed her family. She thought child labor was a good thing. It kept her and 3 younger siblings alive! Granted, she worked hard, but for decent people who encouraged her to read everthing they had available, so she never felt exploited, just blessed to be able to contribute. She also really valued education and seemed to think that if children in dire poverty were able to work enough to feed themselves and be required to go to school part time, they would be able to survive long enough to become educated enough to get a real job and, like her and my grandfather, that little boost would allow the children to grow up to be able to feed their own families, ending the cycle of poverty.

    Granted, she was lucky. Some girls of her era toiled in dire conditions. Having lived it, she understands much better than most of us reading this what the fear of starvation is. She couldn’t imagine what sort of person would deny a child a job when the alternative was no food because to our pampered minds children shouldn’t work.

    Giving a child the ability to feed him or herself is so empowering. For many adolescents, like my grandmother, it changed their whole lives. They wll always be able to take care of themselves because someone showed them it was possible. Granted, a few get stuck there, but in a developing economy not as many as you might expect – and it’s sure better than being sold to the slave traders.