2012 January 04 Wednesday
Razib Khan: The poverty of multiculturalist discourse

Great essay. Recommended for full reading.

An academic discourse tends to totally muddy a clear and crisp discussion. The reality is that most Egyptians have barbaric attitudes on a whole host of questions (e.g., ~80 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty for apostasy from Islam). It was not surprising at all that the majority of the Egyptian electorate supported parties with reactionary cultural political planks; because the classification of these views as “reactionary” only makes sense if you use as your point of reference the Westernized social and economic elite. The majority of Egyptians have never been part of this world, and for them upward mobility has been accompanied by a greater self-consciousness of their Islamic identity.

This reality is not comforting to many, and so there has been an evasion of this. If we accept, for example, the hegemonic superiority of sexual equality, should we not impose the right arrangement upon those who oppress women? This is a serious question, but the fear of engaging in “dangerous” analysis in the “discourse” allows us to sidestep this question. Rather, by minimizing the concrete realities of cultural difference and the depths of their origin, Egyptians are easily transformed into Czechs in 1989 with browner skins and a Muslim affiliation. This is a totally false equivalence. As Eastern Europeans go the Czech population is atypical in its secularism and historical commitment to liberal democracy (one could argue the weakness of the Catholic church goes as far back as the Hussite rebellion and the later suppression of Protestantism by the Habsburgs). While other post-World War I polities switched toward authoritarianism in the inter-war period, the Czechs retained a liberal democratic orientation until the Nazi German invasion. After the collapse of Communism they reverted back to this state. Notably, extreme nationalist parties with anti-democratic tendencies have come to the fore in most post-Communist states, but not so in the Czech Republic.

Razib takes cultural differences seriously enough to actually notice them. Yes, European peoples have a variety of different cultures. Yes, Muslims share cultural beliefs that are incompatible with liberalism (and the rhetoric of liberal multiculturalists leaves them ill-equipped to understand and react rationally to this fact).

Razib makes a distinction between barbarism and savagery. I like the attempt draw such a distinction. But it is worth noting that we consider it unacceptable in the West for women to be the property of their male relatives even while we accept it in Saudi Arabia. So his "unacceptable way of being" seems to need some refinement. Unacceptability is not a binary judgment. There are limits to the cost we are willing to pay to eliminate a practice and those limits depend on attributes of the group is engaging in the practice.

I make a distinction between barbarism, which is a different way of being, and savagery, which is an unacceptable way of being. The modern world has accepted that slavery is savage, and not tolerable in any polity. In contrast, the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are effectively rendered property of their male relatives is barbaric, but not objectionable enough that it must be eliminated through force.

The more alien a culture seems to us the more likely we are to tolerate its practices. We are more disturbed by deviations from our norms by people who are more like us. Mormon polygamy in Utah is deemed less acceptable than Muslim polygamy in the Middle East.

One of the problems with the poverty of multiculturalist discourse is that we end up not talking honestly (or much at all) about practices that we object to if the practices are carried out by people who are not recognized as being of European (including diaspora) cultures.

Also see his previous post An illiberal people, written about the elections that swept Islamists to power in Egypt.

Over the past few days the American media has reacted with some consternation at the fact that it seems likely that Islamist political forces will probably control around two-thirds of the Egyptian legislature. This bloc is divided between a broad moderate element which emerges out of the Muslim Brotherhood, at around ~40 percent, and a crazy and savage Salafist component, at around ~25 percent. Terms like “moderate” need to be standardized though in their cultural context. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate in an Egyptian framework. But it is not moderate in, for example, a Tunisian context, let alone a Turkish one. Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahaway has pointed out that while the Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda, has women in substantive positions (e.g., 42 or 46 women in the Tunisian legislature are members of Ennahda) the Muslim Brotherhood gives women only token representation, with no leadership role. And, as I have observed before the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was greeted with great anger by North African Islamists when he proposed the shocking idea (to them) that all religions be treated equally. My point is that what is moderate in Egypt is going to be very reactionary in North Africa, and what is moderate in North Africa is going to be very reactionary in Turkey. In fact, what is moderate in Turkey is going to be very reactionary in the West. To a great extent, this is common sense, but for some reason this sense is lacking from our broader discussion on these issues.

So they differ in terms of just how illiberal they are. But what's the delta for each of the Muslim societies? Is Turkey becoming more reactionary? With more power to democracy (the military undermined with the connivance of the United States) will it become more like Egypt? Seems like it. Will democracy enable Muslim societies to reinforce their reactionary tendencies?

Also see my previous post Razib Sees Liberal Multiculturalism As Epiphenomenal. Also: Inductivist And Imam Rauf: Muslim Extremists Deranged.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2012 January 04 08:53 PM  Civilizations Clash Of

ASPIRANT said at January 5, 2012 7:39 AM:

The problem occurs when these common sense guidelines in academics transform themselves into ever expanding relativistic bounds of discourse, incoherently in contrast with the strong normative orientations of the expositors of these same theoretical frameworks. In turning away from the bias of the past, there is now a bias which has inverted itself.

solaris said at January 5, 2012 8:58 AM:

>"If we accept, for example, the hegemonic superiority of sexual equality, should we not impose the right arrangement upon those who oppress women?"

If we did then we should, but we don't so we shouldn't. (Where "we" means the actual people of the West and not our increasingly disconnected ruling class)

solaris said at January 5, 2012 9:10 AM:

>"Yes, Muslims share cultural beliefs that are incompatible with liberalism (and the rhetoric of liberal multiculturalists leaves them ill-equipped to understand and react rationally to this fact)."

I'm not sure the problem is confined to just "liberal multiculturalists". Would that it were. A lot of plain ordinary liberals, classical liberals, neoconservatives and libertarians cling to the mistaken belief that all people are fungible. The entire open-borders project hinges on this supposition, as does "nation building" in Central Asia and the Middle East. In fact a genuine multiculturalist would be a person who understands that different cultures and people ARE different. The problem here consists of people who think that culture is a silly nonentity.

razib said at January 5, 2012 11:47 AM:

Is Turkey becoming more reactionary?

the world values survey indicates it isn't. i suspect what's happening is that the more reactionary elements are becoming more visible. this is similar to what happened in the USA in the 70s with the rise of the evangelical "new right," which was really just a shift of conservative protestants to the middle class. their views never changed (perhaps even got more liberal), but when they went to college and entered professions they became much more culturally prominent. the people erdogan represents have always been there. arguably he/they are more liberal than the used to be (e.g., his defense of having no state religion). but their economic and political mobilization is much greater, in large part due to greater wealth.

dorian said at January 5, 2012 5:36 PM:


As you know, the "Mensheviks" always pave way for the "Bolsheviks." There is always a liminal transition from the frying pan into the fire.

I'm willing to bet that even in 20 years Turkey will squander all the modernism and social advancements they've accumulated in the last 80 years to retrograde social mores. The more immediate aspect of this theater is watching the Selafists gut the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, once the latter come to power, not that the former are "moderate".

Randall Parker said at January 5, 2012 9:38 PM:


Yes, I agree with your point. There's a strong element in American thought that we've found the way for the people of the world to live and that we don't have to worry about cultural differences because our cultural victory is inevitable.

I've come across lots of Libertarians and Objectivists who are convinced they've found the revealed truth and that their values are logical and therefore correct.


It occurs to me that stability in how countries poll in world values surveys is an argument against the idea that the world is inevitably going to become liberal. I wonder of world value survey data is downloadable.

Shawn said at January 6, 2012 7:20 AM:

Sorry off-topic but this is huge: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmarshallcrotty/2011/12/21/m-i-t-game-changer-free-online-education-for-all/

Check It Out said at January 6, 2012 1:04 PM:

Sorry Shawn, it is still not the real thing. MIT will NOT back those courses with an MIT Certificate, as one would expect to receive. No, just one more of the 12,765 ways of lying or not delivering what they claim to deliver.

Education continues to be the privilege of the few. Sorry, you and I will continue to be part of that 99% without an MIT degree, even though I would like one. Sorry if that seem too much to ask, but I see that some can have it.

ziel said at January 6, 2012 5:10 PM:

Randall, regarding the WVS data. It is downloadable, but is only usable in SAS, SPCC and STATA. These are very expensive programs, so unless you have access to these programs professionally (and feel safe using them for such nefarious purposes!), it's more or less useless. There's a free SAS reader, but I've only been able to capture data in 10k chunks. I just don't have the time to try any more finagling.

Faruq said at January 10, 2012 12:56 PM:

How lucky we all at Parapundit are to have our very own little house sand-ni--er !
Boy, Randall cant get enough of brown-nosing this little traitor to his own people.
I dont know whom to feel more contempt towards: the uncle tom Razib or the house master Randall.

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