I had been searching for fresh coriander. Fruitlessly, one might say. I found myself asking a shopkeeper whether they stocked it and he peered at me as if I had run mad.
“We don’t stock it—there’s no call for it”.
I must have looked surprised so he added, “And frankly, I’m sick of having to tell people this”
“You are sick of having to tell people that there is no demand for fresh coriander?” I said, looking around to see if I was an unwitting guest on a hidden camera show, “Hmm…do you have any irony in stock?”
People, especially internet people, are overly fond telling each other that such and such a person has no chance of understanding them. Sometimes this manifests itself in privilege wars, sometimes in simple frustration that others can’t see your point of view. It can get more fundamental than this. Some believe that no-one of a despised class, race, sex, or ideology can possibly understand what they are saying.
Here’s my problem with this—and it’s the same as my coriander issue. If you genuinely believe that mere language cannot convey the depths of human experience from one human brain to another. If you really think that human minds are utterly isolated from one another and mere words cannot bridge that gap—if you really really believe this—then perhaps you should have the consistency to shut up about it. Because--maybe, like my shopkeeper, you are bringing your frustration on yourself.
In the last week a proposed talk by Uthman Badar, entitled “Honor Killings are Morally Justified” has been withdrawn. Badar is a leading member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahir, and openly believes that Sharia law is needed to save the soul of the West. He was proposed as a guest at the so-called Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.
The title of his talk was actually proposed by the convenors of the meeting, who then got cold feet at the resultant furor over the title and withdrew the invitation. This, of course, handed Badar the propaganda victory of being able to say that liberal western democracy stifles debate before its opponents (and he is an opponent of it) can say a word. The original talk was taken down but a screen shot can be examined here.
This is why cancelling his talk was wrong.
A quick reminder of how we resolve conflicts in liberal enlightenment democracies appears to be in order.
We don’t put people in concentration camps and gas them
We don’t put people in gulags and re-educate them to death
We don’t burn their books and force them to recant before killing them
We don’t torture them into signing confessions
(although this particular principle is undergoing signs of strain in some quarters).
What we do is defeat opponents with reason and evidence. This is how we play the game. According to rules that privilege argument and science. We don’t hide things. We want our opponents in front with their true colors flying. That’s how we do things and that’s why enlightenment democracy is worth something. Because, as Aristotle pointed out, the things that support a democracy are not necessarily the same things as the things that democrats want.
Valuing diversity means at least this—the minimal condition that we don’t think we know everything yet and think that the marketplace of ideas is where thought is tested.
Some people, who want to live in Western democracies, want Sharia. I make no secret of the fact that I detest every single thing about that proposal. But—ultimately we are going to have to live together and if we are not going to opt for one of the conflict resolutions outlined above then ideas need to be tested in open debate.
And, in this connection, I think that the the public trouncing of Uthman Badar at the hands of a rational arguer like Christina Hoff Somers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Maggie McNeil would have been useful and salutary. Not to mention—entertaining. We were denied that opportunity.
This is one reason why it was wrong to ban Uthman Badar.
Another reason it was wrong is that we might have learned something about ourselves. Honor killings are a disgusting aspect of some cultures and we shouldn’t allow our liberal sensibilities to prevent us facing up to calling them such. Neither should we fall for such transparent tripe as "Islamophbia".
But, we should face up to the fact that the attitudes that lead to such disgusting behaviour were prevalent in our own culture until disturbingly recently. Near where I live, the corpses of 800 babies born to mothers who had been seen as dishonoring their families, were recently fished out of a septic tank. Women who dare to take control of their own sexuality are harassed and impugned. At best they are cast as victims, despite their agency. At worst they are cast into prison.
Honor killings represent a reaction to female sexuality being seen as somewhat public property rather than the property of the individual females themselves. The fact that women also adopt these attitudes to other women should warn us off easy-osey pseudo-explanations like "patriarchy".
Evolutionary psychologists such as Daly & Wilson have been exploring these themes for some time. We are fooling ourselves if we think that these attitudes are far in our past. They are part of human nature—even if they now often appear in either attenuated or jokey forms nowadays.
Some examples. The recent creep-inducing purity pledges between fathers and daughters in the United States.
As John Tooby memorably put it:
“The assertion that "culture" explains human variation will be taken seriously when there are reports of women war parties raiding villages to capture men as husbands, or of parents cloistering their sons but not their daughters to protect their sons' virtue, or when cultural distributions for preferences concerning physical attractiveness, earning power, relative age, and so on show as many cultures with bias in one direction as in the other.”
Now these things, ranging from funny to creepy, are much better than honor killings. But they are what happen when we take human nature out of its hiding place and hold it up for examination—or possibly to ridicule. The harassment of adult female sex workers under cover of protecting them from themselves arises from the same propriatorial attitude to female sexuality—that it is a matter of public interest--not private choice.
There are no male Rapunzels, Auroras, or Sleeping beauties in any set of myths in any culture worldwide—and John Tooby reminds us of why. It isn't because of an international patriarchal conspiracy--it's because of differences in minimum parental investment. The human egg, retailing at 1.25 billions dollars/gram is by far the most valuable object on the face of the planet. Minimum differential parental investment bites deep—as I believe I might have mentioned once or twice before.
We can shape our eventual cultures into something more reasonable and humane. But this requires us to work with the grain of human nature—not to deny it. And we can succeed—but only by facing up to reality.
It’s been fashionable in the West to pretend that humans have no nature but there are encouraging signs that this intellectual pose is becoming increasingly unstable. We will improve through squarely facing the realities of human nature—along with one of the elements of our nature that can actually tame it and make the world a better place to live in. That element is reason. And to use it requires respect for argument and debate.
Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L. E., & Tooby, J. E. (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford University Press.
Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection.
Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1995). The man who mistook his wife for a chattel. The adapted mind, 289-322.