About 20 years ago I was in my mid-teens and becoming vaguely aware of the way grown men are perceived and expected to act. One day, while riding the Toronto subway, I saw a woman and her small blond-haired son, about 7 years old, rushing to try to get into the subway car. Because of the boy’s dawdling, he barely made it onto the car before the doors closed, but his mother was left behind on the platform. As the train pulled away, the woman scowled at her son from behind the door and growled something like, “See what happens when you don’t hurry?”
As the subway trundled along, the boy stood alone in terror, tears beginning to pool in the corners of his eyes. Now, our car was populated entirely by men, and while I felt that one of us should do something, there was all about us a palpable fear of “getting involved.” See, at 16, even I was cognizant of society’s judgment of strange men who approach children on subway cars.
Finally, a rough young Arab-looking man, 20-something and bedecked in leather, beckoned the boy over to him. “Do you know where you’re going?” he asked in a Middle-Eastern accent, to which the child responded by shaking his head. “Okay,” the man said, “come with me.”
Out of both curiosity and concern, I followed the pair as they exited together at the next stop. I saw them wait on the platform for the next subway car, from which the boy’s mother emerged, snatching the boy without so much as a tender look for her child or a word of thanks for the youth who had protected him.
I learned several things from that small vignette of city life. First, the negative weight of political correctness, so much in the news in those days, was a thing of real behavioral force that had the power to compel adult men to choose discretion over assisting a child in distress. There were likely other factors that might also help to explain our inaction that day, but this was certainly one of them.
Second, I learned that one should never make assumptions of character based upon appearances alone. That the only person to act in the boy’s best interests was a young, tough-looking man of Arab extraction is a poignant observation, especially now in a time rife with ready criticisms of non-Western societies. There are many today who would readily attribute savage, rapacious, and other “uncivilized” qualities to this heroic man, based solely upon his swarthy appearance and ethnic origin. Indeed, such voices are gaining in confidence, volume, and centrality.
There is a trend among some circles of creating a “war of civilizations,” ostensibly between the West and the nominative “Muslim world.” Certainly, terror master Osama bin Laden is known to favor such a conflict. But Western personalities are also guilty. And while we can fulminate all we like about the crimes and motivations of bin Laden and his ilk, it is perhaps most useful to first examine the indefensible behaviors and bloviations of representatives of our own Western cultures.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in September 2001, contended that Western societies are superior to those of other parts of the world. “We should be conscious of the superiority of our civilization,” he said. His position has found resonance and support in the writings of mainstream conservative voices, such as syndicated columnists Mark Steyn (who once contended that, “the Muslim world … is economically, militarily, scientifically, and artistically irrelevant”) and Ann Coulter (who once wrote that Muslims “smell bad,” and called for their “mass conversion to Christianity”). And there are many others. In the words of philosopher David Dieteman, “For [conservative] writers such as John Derbyshire and Jonah Goldberg, the war [on terror] is a chance to sing paeans to Western civilization.”
Well-heeled academics, like Victor Davis Hansen, give intellectual cover to such racist attitudes. Hansen regularly argues for the superiority of Western civilization over “Muslims.” One would think that an educated man like Hansen would know better than to monolithically attribute to a billion heterogeneous people behavioral and attitudinal traits generalized from a few select individuals. Such an act is, after all, the hallmark of racism. Yet this is the same tack taken by almost all the writers of such screed, to taint the whole with the actions of a few.
These writers do make some valid observations. Nations with majority Muslim populations tend to be more theocratic and autocratic than others, and tend to disallow certain freedoms more often. It is important to note, however, that in almost all such cases, the nations in question were either artificially created by Western powers (e.g. Iraq), had autocratic rulers imposed upon them by Western meddlers (e.g. Iran), or had autocratic rulers deliberately strengthened by Western support (e.g. Egypt, Iraq, Turkmenistan). Thus it is logically impossible to draw any causal relationships between the culture of these nations and the nature of their governance.
Moreover, there is a logical flaw in the manner in which Goldberg, Steyn, and Hansen in particular have chosen to evaluate the two nominative civilizations. Cultural anthropologists recognize this flaw and so typically adhere to the provisions of cultural relativism, a concept necessarily abhorred by ultra-conservative writers because it easily deflates their racist arguments. The flaw is this: these writers argue that Western civilization is better than “Islamic civilization” because, essentially, the West is more Western. That’s like arguing that men are better than women because they are more male; both are circular arguments that pre-suppose that the qualities of maleness or of Westernness are indeed the ones that are most vital.
There is certainly a seductive quality to their argument. After all, who among us of the West does not value democracy, freedom of expression, etc., at least in principle? But, as the episode in the subway 20 years ago taught me, not all of our civilization’s tenets are necessarily the most important ones, not if we can’t even find the moral strength to help a lost child.
Raywat Deonandan is the author of Divine Elemental and Sweet Like Saltwater, and winner of the 2000 National Book Award of Guyana.