View from
The Left

Stop Pretending All Cultures Are the Same

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So I will say it with my heart, and others should too: If a culture persecutes LGBT people, is overtly racist, or makes women second class citizens, then to hell with that culture. My culture is better than that one.”

In left-of-center circles, one often encounters the attitude that other cultures—specifically non-white cultures—must never be criticized. Whatever shortcomings we might see in their cultures must be overlooked in the name of tolerance. In fact, they are not shortcomings at all but merely cultural differences, things to be celebrated and respectfully appreciated from a distance—of course without engaging with them in any meaningful way. That would be cultural appropriation. Culture just sort of exists, and if it is to be criticized at all, it must come from members of that culture, and, even then, their views better fall in line with progressive orthodoxy.

There is a point at which tolerance becomes moral relativism. To defend reflexively perceived minorities at all times leaves some massive blind spots. Yes, many who attack other cultures are often bigots who overlook problems and bloody histories of their own. And sure, enough interactions with these kinds of people will foster certain negative associations. That is basic human psychology. But it is no excuse for unthinkingly reacting to any instance of cross-cultural criticism because, in doing so, one may end up betraying his own values of acceptance, tolerance, and freedom.

Such attitudes are, by no means, confined to the wacky excesses of online discourse. One will hear it in the defensive tone, the indignant put-downs, and the insistence that we did bad things too. To give the devil his due, this is coming from a place of love. The idea that we need to be deferential to other cultures, that we need to keep an open mind and be understanding of the people’s differences are fundamentally good ideas, and pillars of everything that makes liberal society worth living in.

Karl Popper’s much-abused “paradox of tolerance” comes to mind, ingrained as it is in the progressive mindset: the notion that a tolerant society must not tolerate intolerance, lest it lead to the end of tolerance itself. Yet if we applied the same logic to some of the cultural views common throughout the Middle East, that reflexive knee jerk reaction kicks at once. Anti-Semitism is widespread across the Middle East. Women’s rights are far inferior to the Western world in both east Asia and the Middle East. Naked tribalism and prejudice are widespread in ways that would make these moral crusaders have a stroke, then a heart attack, then a brain hemorrhage, yet somehow find the energy to finish an indignant tweet.

If we concede that one culture is no better than another, the logical conclusion is that Saudi Arabia, for example, which is consistently ranked in the basement in terms of human rights, a country where women were not even allowed to drive until 2018, where they could not leave the house without a male escort until 2019—is no better or worse than that of Germany, or France, or the United States.

Hell no.

Some cultures are better than others. If one has a moral compass and recognizes that some things are good and some things are bad, that is the inevitable conclusion. Depending on one’s morals, what that is exactly is going to vary. Maybe one approves of Saudi Arabia and thinks that the West is degenerate, but at least one must acknowledge that there exists a better and a worse option. Cultural relativism is morally myopic, a purely nihilistic way of analyzing culture.

I hold a fairly open-borders stance on immigration, but that does not negate the need for integration. If one comes here, he should be welcomed with open arms, but not unconditionally.

I believe in freedom of expression, in individuality, in self actualization, and in civil liberties. It happens that Western democracies, more than any place on Earth, deliver better on these values. We are former colonizers alright, but Enlightenment values and liberalism established a framework that consistently improved upon itself until we shaved off the rough edges, little by little building a more perfect society. It may sound strangely optimistic in these lazy, cynical times, but there has never been a more stable, more prosperous period of human history, and there  has  never  been better  time to be alive.

And yet, despite this, the leftmost stratum of modern society seems to be convinced of the opposite. A much needed reckoning with the past is becoming an increasingly deranged act of performative self-flagellation, as if people, all too eager to show how virtuous they are, forget just what made society accepting in the first place.

Perhaps Saudi Arabia is an extreme example, but what if instead we looked at, say, South Korea or Japan, both of which are prospering liberal democracies but with considerable streaks of social conservatism and sub-par women’s rights and LGBT rights? Would it not be chauvinistic of us to assume that our position is correct just because of the cultural values we have inherited? Is it not a bit too convenient that everything we consider objectively right just so happens to align with our cultural understanding of right and wrong? What right do we have to judge a country that is still developing? Is it not the job of people living in those countries to decide for themselves what is best for them, if we all believe in individual freedom and liberty?

These are fair points to consider. No one is immune to the trappings of his own culture, and we risk blinding ourselves if we will not at least consider what the relativist perspective has to offer. But when followed to their logical conclusion, they end up a betrayal of progressivism. Why should we consider it morally acceptable that women in South Korea or Japan are expected to drop their careers if they get married? Or that fathers should work themselves to death and never see their children? Because what, culture?

If we just shrug our shoulders and say that it is all inherited values, then we are ignoring the merits of the argument itself. It is a cheap excuse not to have to consider what is right and wrong—and why. Is it true that my values are mostly reflective of the society I grew up in? Of course. Does that disprove anything I stand for? Absolutely not. It is a non-argument.

Some societies are more effective than others at delivering the things that contribute to human flourishing such as human rights, civil liberties, individual freedoms, and liberal democracy. We cannot reject this without rejecting the idea of right and wrong itself.

So I will say it with my heart, and others should too: If a culture persecutes LGBT people, is overtly racist, or makes women second class citizens, then to hell with that culture. My culture is better than that one. That culture needs to change. This does not need to be accomplished through force but, rather, through social pressure and shaming from the international community.

If that sounds a bit too rah-rah nationalist, I understand. It gives off a certain uncomfortable vibe, I understand. It is not the easiest thing to say in left-of-center spaces. But better does not mean superior or perfect. Unhealthy norms exist in Western societies too. In my own culture, in Sweden, the norm is to be non-confrontational and passive-aggressive, and I hate that. In the United States, backward notions like circumcision or gun culture persist. And in parts of Europe, racist “blood and soil” ideas are eerily common. If one has the spine to say “this is right, this is a better way,” then it is also his duty to examine critically his own culture and find ways it can be improved and, then, act accordingly.

There is a culture clash in Sweden most immigrants would not expect. Swedish norms would seem subtle to an outside observer since they are all about negative freedoms: It is what one doesn’t do to people rather than what one does for them. One does not impose, does not make a fuss, avoids being a bother to anyone, and keeps his emotions to himself unless he is quite close to someone. A migrant from the Middle East, for example, where an assertive, boisterous ego is expected of most men, may find Swedes difficult to read, and the subtler social cues that a native Swede might signal could in some cases go undetected. Swedish culture is focused on avoiding conflict and offense as much as possible; now imagine how that clashes with an honor culture or heart-on-sleeve machismo.

There is a crucial line to tread here because if one does not, he will just swing too far in the opposite direction, and that is the way to populist madness. This process also means facing some uncomfortable realities. It means acknowledging that for one, we should set some cultural standards for immigration. I hold a fairly open-borders stance on immigration, but that does not negate the need for integration. If one comes here, he should be welcomed with open arms, but not unconditionally. One should learn the language, social norms, and laws of his new country. No one should have to give up his identity, however. Sure, immigrants should celebrate their religion, cuisine, music, fashion, and style to their heart’s content. But to some degree, they must make an effort to become a part of the society in which they now live. This means respecting the freedom and liberties of other people, including women, LGBT people, other racial and ethnic groups, and people of other faiths. And yes, it means subordinating one’s religious or communal forms of law and justice to the legal system of the new country. This is not too much to ask.

Because the alternative is to create what we already have in Sweden, where integration is a pressing concern due to a ghettoized, stratified society. Immigrants congregate in specific areas, never learning the language beyond basic needs because all of their friends and neighbors speak Kurdish or Arabic anyway. They never really become high earners because that requires education and integration, and they often fall into a life of crime because they are living poorer and with fewer options.

Doubtless many will take that as an anti-immigrant screed. It is not. The idea of expecting the same of everyone—regardless of race, religion, or national origin—that I would expect of myself is basic liberalism. I cannot stop people from making their assumptions. I can only argue that we need to take the ideas that make our cultures worth living in seriously. One can appreciate and take some pride in these things without being a frothing nationalist, performatively draping oneself in a flag with only a skin deep commitment to liberal values and civic virtues. At the end of the day, one has to believe that his society is good and worth having if he desires to see it change for the better, and I do.

Johan Pregmo is a freelance writer from Sweden, who is interested in discourse and the promotion of liberal values.

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