I have been watching a debate which featured Ibn Warraq, a brave and intelligent man, the author of Why I am not a Muslim.
He was proposing the motion that Western Culture or Civilisation is superior to the competition, a view with which I had considerable sympathy. However, musing upon the debate I began to feel that the motion was not well formed. I decided that what are important are ideas not cultures. Any human being can claim any idea or belief, no matter where he lives or when.
Let me say immediately that I am not a relativist. I am firmly of the opinion that some ideas and beliefs are benign whereas others are the opposite. I believe that there exists an absolute standard of Truth, although it often extremely difficult to determine which beliefs and ideas are true and which are not. Only in Mathematics do absolute proofs exist. All the same, I am as sure that gratuitous cruelty is bad as I am that 2+2=4. No culture can claim to own either of these truths.
I am increasingly of the opinion that debates as to whether one culture is superior to another are likely to be unproductive at best. I think it can be very productive to debate, for example, free markets vs command economies; and in this case I am sure that free markets win hands down – Logic and History are on my side. The contrary view depends on the “wouldn’t it be nice if...” argument, which isn’t an argument. It wears nappies.
In the debate I was watching Ibn Warraq and his supporters listed a number of merits of western culture: respect for individuals, the rule of law, the scientific method and many others. They claimed that these virtues were characteristic of “The West” – and it may be that a majority of westerners are supportive of them. Needless to say, the opposition immediately reposted with examples of western behaviour that flouted these virtues. Marxism and Nazism were invented in the west. The crusades were a bad thing.
I found myself in the uncomfortable position, as a champion of the west, of having to admit that the opposition’s points were well made. So I have resigned. I still maintain my right to prefer living in the UK to living in Iran or North Korea but I am no longer going to wear the western uniform. Picture me in dungarees covered with badges: Free Markets Rock, I Love the Catholic Church, Abortion Sucks, Social Justice is a Stupid Idea, Taxation is Theft, Democracy is Dangerous, Death to Tyrants, Up with the Scientific Method, Down with Materialism, Slavery is Wicked, Freedom of Speech, Jesus Saves.
I feel lightheaded with freedom. But it is a burdensome position. It requires me to know as much as I can about Economics, History and Moral Philosophy. All the same, I would rather bear the burden than vote the “Western” Ticket.
If this were a book, there would have to be a chapter on Good Economics and one on Bad Economics; one on Wars (Just and Unjust). Each chapter would have to be awash with History. Who first had this brilliant idea? Where did that ghastly notion come from? Every good and every bad idea is like a baton in a relay race.
Who knows how many times the wheel was invented? – possibly only once; it never made it to the New World before the Europeans got there. It was a very good idea; no one culture can claim it.
Phonemic analysis was a very clever idea, namely that all the words in a spoken language are made up of a small number of sounds (in English about 40). One, only one, very clever Phoenician realised that to write any sentence in any language all you needed was approximately one symbol for each sound. Voila, the alphabet! Reading and writing became fantastically easy. All alphabets are related. The Chinese did not adopt the idea. Reading and writing Chinese is phenomenally difficult. Now it would be absurd for any culture to claim the idea of an alphabet. The inventor has been dead for thousands of years; his invention was the ancestor of thousands of alphabets.
A symbol for zero made arithmetical calculations spectacularly easier than they were for Pythagoras, genius though he was. Some anonymous Indian invented zero. Arab muslims adopted the idea and we got it from them. Zero belongs to the world.
It may be that monotheism was an Egyptian insight. The Hebrews took it on. Polytheism is now as incoherent to theists as it is to atheists. The Jewish idea that God is not part of the world any more than Jane Austen is a character in Pride and Prejudice is very profound. Think about it!
Regrettably, bad ideas get taken up, just like good ones. Marxism (invented in the west) spread around the world like smallpox. Millions upon millions died as a result. Global warming hysteria (invented in the west) has not killed as many; but preventing the spread of industrialisation to our brothers and sisters in the Third World is culpable stupidity. DDT hysteria (invented in the west) has been responsible for millions of deaths. Islam (invented in Arabia) is a powerful religio-political system; but it doesn’t seem to work, at least in the sense of helping people to live together in liberty. Muslims kill other muslims in alarming numbers – and not just other muslims.
Cultures are not homogeneous. They are so far from being so that perhaps the term is practically meaningless. In the state where I reside abortion is, to all intents and purposes, a form of birth control. Millions of innocents have been done to death for being inconvenient. Millions of citizens of that state regard this situation as being iniquitous. In what sense do I belong to any “culture” which permits this?
I am fascinated by the fact that many ideas seem to belong in families. For example, someone who is a Global Warming sceptic is quite likely to be a free marketeer. Someone who is dissatisfied with Darwinian Theory is quite unlikely to be a socialist.
Unhappily, modern states largely monopolise the schools in the territories they control, and thus are in a position to exercise undue influence over the pupils in those schools. Ruthless governments impose thought control, which increases homogeneity. Perhaps North Korea does have a single culture. God help them! Political Correctness has a similar effect in many countries.
Do you like Islamic “Culture”? Do you like Western “Culture”? No!