Friday, July 21, 2006

Against the "It's different, therefore to be respected" statement.

A couple of days ago, as a spin off of the discussion regarding the current crisis in Middle East which is taking place on the VCN list/s (and that is taking mucho fmy little free-time), there was a brief exchange involving 2 or 3 people about the superiority or inferiority, on a cultural level, of Israelis over the Palestinians, which developed into a "you can't compare things and say one culture is better than another" exchange.

Now that struck me, and to the risk of sounding unpopular, my question is, why not? Why can't one say, after having laid down a given referral structure that we should all have and we probably do have and take for granted, that something is better than another, rather than everything being the same? We all are able to say that a given tool is better than another for a given purpose or that a given object has a better quality than another, yet when it comes to an abstract and often undefined thing as "culture", we are supposed to abstain from any judgement and declare that every culture is equal and deserve the same respect.

Well, I disagree.

As I see it, every possible discussion and every comparison, to be possible, has to start from a set of outlined premises, be them axioms in mathematics, rules in a game or values in ethics. Once laid down such lines, one can actually see when a discussion is indeed possible, even if not necessarily fruitful, or impossible altogether. For instance, it's usually pointless to discuss about religion and, much similarly, politics, as the premises the people use their own ideas are often irrational (as, not rationally demonstrable), radically different and mutually exclusive.

If I believe that there is no God I can't possibly discuss with someone who believes there is a God in order to find a common position, just as much as someone who believes the State shouldn't intervene in the life of the citizens besides laying down a set of given rules will never be able to reach a compromise with someone who firmly believes the state should intervene in the life of its citizens to the point of directing them towards a given set of beliefs.

When it comes to ethics, social issues, politics, culture and every discussion that one way or the other touches any of those (which means, thinking about it, almost everything that is not the weather and the customary "how do you do" exchanges) , I believe that it's only possible to have a discussion if a given set of undeniable values are laid down and generally agreed upon and accepted. At the same time, I believe I can give a positive or negative judgement on the
different things that are considered values by an individual or a culture and ultimately on the individual or the culture as whole. My own personal judgement, obviously.

I know in a western world which has been suffering for political-correctness for the last 20 years to the extent of denying its own values to avoid a confrontation with others who won't give up theirs, such a statement as the one before is most likely to be labelled as racist, if not worse, but I suppose I'll run the risk.

So, what are the values that I think should be laid down and accepted as universal before even entering any discussion which has to do with different cultures? Simple things really, and nothing that has not been thought about, at least in the western society, for the last two thousand years and that was considered as an generally agreed thing already 2 hundred years ago:

a) that all human beings, male and female, are equal and are entitled to the same rights
b) that the life of a human being is sacred, has to be protected and even encouraged
c) that the human being has the right to self-determinate the course of its life, as long as by doing so he infringes the same right of another human being, and seek its happiness in its life as it sees fit for itself.
d) that freedom of thought is sacred
e) that the freedoms that are direct consequences of the 4 points above are sacred, as long as they aren't used against any of those 4 points.
f) for instance, as a consequence of d), that freedom of religious belief (or un-belief) is sacred as long as I don't use it against the equality of male and female, their life, their self-determination and their freedom of thought
g) similarly and under the same conditions, the freedom of expression
h) similarly and under the same conditions, the freedom of association
i) similarly and under the same conditions, all the corollary rights like the one to privacy, sexual freedom, movement establishment, property, political activity, work and retribution, instruction and so on and so forth.

Some, I hope few, will find such a list astounding and biased, the most will find that natural and agreeable. I'm afraid, I can't but consider worse and undesiderable individuals and cultures which do not accept such values or, even more, consider them un-values. Which doesn't mean such cultures should be actively and forcefully eradicated, but that, finding myself in the need of choosing, I could assign a lesser values to the one I consider worse and favor the other.

To be noted that it is following this or a very similar scale of values that most of us live.

In almost every country we live political organizations and activities are protected and even encouraged, but for instance in
Germany and in Italy is forbidden the constitution and the activity of Fascist parties, because they fundamentally deny all or some of the top points
of the list.

In almost every country freedom of speech is (at least nominally) protected, but you can't use it against a minority or without limits. And I could go on with examples.

But the point is, why, if we agree on such a list of values (and I admit freely and without any problem that I am not interested in discussing about anything with anyone who doesn't agree on them, as the person would be utterly alien to me) in expressing a judgment of value, I can't say that a person, culture, organization that respect all or most of those points is *better*, not merely different, than one which respect less or none of those, or that even professes the belief that some of those are indeed non-values and are not to be respected at all?

Should I say that an individual or a culture that profess the subjugation of the woman to the man is merely different, but not worse, than the one which profess their equality?

Should I think that an individual or a culture that punishes harshly, to the point of killing, someone who decides there is not a supreme being or that there is one, but it's not the one he was told it is, is equal, but simply different, than the one who allow you to believe what you feel better, as long as you do not force it on the others? Or am I allowed to believe and profess the second is actually better?

Should I really profess the equality of an individual or culture who places the freedom of thought and expression as hypothetical, conditioned to the adherence of a given doctrine or belief, or downright denies it as a right to an individual or culture which see it as a fundamental individual right (with the only condition stated above)?

Am I allowed to say that an individual or a culture that strives to protect the minors is inherently better than one that requires permanent, debilitating and at times catastrophically disabling mutilations performed on them for them to be accepted as persons, profess the preference for a gender over the other to the point of actively predetermining it before birth and deny their free will in choosing a partner or I must profess them as merely different, but
deserving the same respect?

May I humbly decide and profess that an individual or culture that has life as a value is better than the one who cherishes death as long as it brings death unto others as well?

The "every belief is different, but deserving the same respect and consideration as ultimately morally equal" line is the same that brings to the greatest and unsolvable paradoxes. May I protect the freedom of speech of the one who speaks against the freedom of speech of the others? Should I preserve the right to life of the one who will use it to deny that same right to another, or many others? Should I protect the freedom of someone who will use it to oppress others?

Given that, can I consequently decide that, given a system of referral points, something is indeed better than something else and decide to think, speak and act consequently? For myself, I decide I can. And I will make a step forward and consider my own referral system not as relative and equal to any other possible referral system, but as absolute, in an act of probable pride, but as the only act that allows a human being to live following, as much as possible given the frailty of the human nature, a line and a direction, and not swaying around, lacking a compass.

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