I was always taught that you should respect other people’s cultures. Cultural acceptance is part of military training as well, and was presented in computer based tests and so on since I enlisted. It tried to drive home the idea that one people’s culture is not necessarily better than another people’s, because each culture might work for or have been decided upon by that particular people. I agreed with it for years; after all, what is right for one people isn’t necessarily right for another, right?
After about 5 years in, I found myself working for an army E-6 (Staff Sergeant) who I remember affectionately as Papa Almond. Anyway, he sort of helped me turn that idea around. He wasn’t as big on the idea of cultural acceptance as I was at the time, and the more I thought about it, after considering the plethora of stories he had about his time spent deployed (the Army loves to send its folks to dangerous places and forget they need a break from time to time) my opinion changed.
See, I don’t think there is any obligation to accept someone else’s culture simply because it is their culture. There are things that make sense and things that seem silly or ridiculous that just don’t hurt anyone; these things don’t bother me and I can easily respect those differences. What gets me are the things that go contrary to what I see as a fairly innate moral standard.
Now, anyone who is an atheist (I am not – see my deist post for more details) should logically be able to accept that morality is relative to the culture. After all, it is by nature a subjective concept (sorry if you are religious and believe otherwise – even if morality is dictated by a deity, it is still that deity’s opinion). I accept that my morality is subjective – I base it off my own opinions of what is right and wrong, and center it around the idea that maliciously causing pain (emotional, psychological, or physical) to another person is inherently wrong. It is through this lens that I view other cultures.
I have to admit, much of my opinion was changed on viewing Middle Eastern cultures. After all, as a member of a military engaged in numerous operations in that region, it should be pretty easy to understand that the culture of that region was a primary focus of cultural understanding and acceptance in my training. There are a great many things in Middle Eastern cultures that I respect and even have great fondness for; however, there are aspects and subsets of those cultures that I simply cannot abide and have no care to respect.
The whole tribal mindset throughout much of the region is not without its good points. There is a prevailing feeling of obligation toward generosity and hospitality (obviously not felt by everyone, but not everyone follows all of their cultural mores). I cannot however abide the idea of one entire gender being considered less than the other, or bullshit attempts to justify a claim that they are balanced by showing a few things the “lesser” gender can do that the “greater” one cannot. Honor killings sprung out from this basic idea – that females have less value than males. A man can rape a woman with no consequences in many places in the Middle East; the woman, by contrast, can be punished (violently or otherwise) for extramarital relations about which she had no choice. One of the more egregious punishments meted out upon her is being forced to marry her attacker to retain her “honor”.
Let me be clear: anyone who thinks that it is acceptable (or required) to kill someone for dishonoring you or your family, or that someone should be subjected to more pain and suffering because of something over which they had no choice or control, hasn’t the slightest clue what honor really is. Honor, at its core, is about respect. If you respect someone so little that you would maliciously inflict pain upon them so you can feel better about yourself, then where the hell is your honor?
This is just one of many aspects that I considered about a good portion of Middle Eastern cultures that led me to the understanding that there is a different level of respect for human life between those cultures and my own. Higher cultures must naturally have more respect for human life. If you look throughout history and watch as Western cultures have developed, greater freedoms and more respect for life have come as time passed and those cultures developed. Perhaps this colors my view of what a positive culture should encompass, but this development is in line with my own personal reality.
It is because of all this that I looked at those cultures and decided that yes, I am better than they are. I am morally superior to them, and I don’t feel bad about having that opinion.
I should clarify that I am not speaking about the Middle East in its entirety; there are plenty of individuals, families, societies, etc. across the region that are every bit as moral as I am. I do not judge these people. They are like us – they have hopes and dreams, they want to live in peace and not hurt people or be hurt. They are good people, and they certainly outnumber the immoral people in their midst – the same goes for our own culture.
Immorality may have groundings in psychological development (some people are incapable of considering the feelings of others), but for most people I think it is cultural, and it is most certainly borne of ignorance. Ignorance is the greatest evil in the world. I’m not talking about not knowing, I am talking about not wanting to know – because someone is so cemented in their view that they refuse to see anything to the contrary.
It would be a better world if there were no ignorance, but we all know that isn’t going to happen. The voice of reason speaks calmly and peacefully. The voice of ignorance shouts. Guess which one we hear more?