The poverty of multiculturalist discourse

By Razib Khan | December 28, 2011 10:00 pm

As I’ve noted in this space before many of my “web friends” and readers are confused why I call myself “conservative.” This is actually an issue in “real life” as well, though I’m not going to get into that because I’m a believer in semi-separation of the worlds. I’ll be giving a full account of my political beliefs at the Moving Secularism Forward conference. A quick answer is that I’m very open to voting for Republicans, and have done so in the recent past. And, my lean toward Mitt Romney* in the current cycle is probably obvious to “close readers.” But I’m not a very “political person” in the final accounting when it comes to any given election. I didn’t have a very strong reaction to the “wave” elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, except that I was hopeful but skeptical that Democrats would actually follow through on their anti-war rhetoric (I’m an isolationist on foreign policy).

Rather, my conservatism, or perhaps more accurately anti-Left-liberal stance, plays out on a broader philosophical and historical canvas. I reject the very terms of much of Left-liberal discourse in the United States. I use the term “discourse” because for some reason the academic term has replaced the more informal “discussion” in non-scholarly forums. And that’s part of the problem. I am thinking of this because of a post by Nandalal Rasiah at Brown Pundits commenting on a piece over at Slate, Responding to Egregious Attack on Female Protester, Egyptian Women Fight Back. Whether conventional or counter-intuitive Slate is a good gauge of “smart” Left-liberal non-academic public thought. Nandalal highlights this section:


While it’s always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture, I think it is safe to say that in this case, a kind of social contract has been irreparably broken. Based on the statements reported in the Times and in other media accounts, the women of all ages and political/religious orientations who took to the streets yesterday felt that the violation against this poor woman was a violation against them all. A repressive, virulently patriarchical society like the one the Egyptian military apparently wishes to foment in its country can only function with the tacit (whether coerced or freely given) consent of the women it oppresses. But when those same men who demand chastity, modesty, and all the rest prove themselves to be hypocrites by violently demeaning women in the streets, the silence is bound to be broken.

There are lots of implicit assumptions lurking in this one paragraph. Before, excuse the word, deconstructing it, I highly recommend D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t to get where I’m coming from. It has one of the most concise and well written critiques of the “Post Modern”** obfuscation which has crept into many disciplines purporting to describe, analyze, and comment upon the human condition. Slone’s short academic book is obviously about religion, from a cognitivist perspective, but his prefatory section is a survey of the diseases which ail cultural anthropology today (for a longer take see Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach).

First, the very idea that the Egyptian military is fomenting patriarchy seems descriptively false. I thought perhaps I didn’t understand what foment connoted, so I looked it up. The reality is that Egyptian society was, and is, virulently patriarchal. I’ve talked about this in detail before. 54 percent of Egyptians support the enforcement of gender segregation in the workplace by law (there is no sex difference on this by the way). The Egyptian military may be a authoritarian force in the country which does foment religious conflict and patriarchy, but the key is to observe that this leverages the pre-existent tendencies of the society. Over its history the Egyptian military, and the political and economic elite, have been forces for Westernization, on the whole. This is obvious when you observe that in a democratic election Egyptians are giving 2/3 of their vote to Islamist parties, and 25 percent of the vote to Salafist parties who wish to impose a theocratic regime immediately!

Second, we need to reconsider whether it was, and is, the repeated sexual assaults upon women which are the necessary root of the anger. Sexual harassment of women on the street has long been common in Egypt. As 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women report it, it seems unlikely that this is a phenomenon of a small minority of men who are violating a social contract (on this specific issue anger at the military combined with the power of media are probably the necessary causes of the outrage to this action). Mona Eltahawy has spoken at length about her assault at the hands of the authorities, but in interviews she also occasionally mentions that prior to the central incident there were instances of sexual harassment which she experienced from fellow protesters! One reason that many women in the Muslim world give for supporting Islamist parties is that these parties promise to enforce protections of women against the predatory behavior of men in societies where female honor is simply a consumption good when that female is not a relative.

So the inferences made from the contemporary events in Egypt in this case are faulty. But they’re interesting because the problem is so common. Why? You can’t make sense of this unless you examine the broader theoretical framework that people are operating within to generate inferences. A nod is given to this when the author states that it is “always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture.” I think this has a positive descriptive dimension, and a normative one. The positive descriptive dimension is that in scholarship one has to be careful to not allow one’s own subjective perspective to cloud objective judgments. Else, one may generate a false model of the world. This means setting aside one’s own values framework for the purpose of further analysis. Such a stance has not been the norm throughout human history. The didactic tone of Tacitus is much more typical than the cooler detachment of Thucydides. The use and abuse of scholarship for the aims of social and political ends are well known.

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. There is a tendency to be careful about analyzing or criticizing other cultures, because that is “dangerous.” Why? Well, would you want to be an “Orientalist”? But you are also careful to demarcate other cultures in a way suitable to your preferences for the purposes of rooting out “injustice.” Would the author of the Slate piece be wary of critiquing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? This endogamous sect is certainly apart from the rest of American culture. In fact, with its extreme patriarchy and polygamy it resembles the ideals of some non-Western societies. How about the culture of the American South? There’s no denying this is a distinctive region in folkways. Would one think it is dangerous to analyze or critique the distinctive attitudes toward relations between the races in his region, whose divergence from the North dates back to colonial times?

Some of this is clearly just a matter of race. Though people speak of “culture,” what they often act out is the idea that non-white races have different cultures by nature in an essential sense, and so must be critiqued with a softer touch, or greater sensitivity, than whites with a distinctive culture. Conservative white Southerners and Fundamentalist Mormons are clearly distinctive in culture from the typical Northern Left-liberal, but that does not shield them from a critique derived from a difference in perspective. The implicit idea lurking beneath the surface is that the white race is subject to a particular standard of cultural expectation, and criticism meted out serves to elevate dissenters to that higher standard, which diminishes “oppression” and “injustice” (quotes in this case because I feel that the terms are used many to further very narrow political projects, to the point where they’re heavily debased and almost without content as ends as opposed to means). In contrast, the situation is different with non-whites, who must be left to find their own direction, or more obliquely critiqued.

To a great extent this is a caricature, but the underlying dynamic is real. For example, a few years back a Harvard Muslim chaplain was caught contextualizing, and defending, laws enforcing the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Upon further inspection from an intellectual perspective I can see where he was coming from. In scholarly or academic settings I think one can have a real discussion about this issue, even if one disagrees with the presuppositions. I say this as someone who is technically a Muslim apostate (my father is Muslim, by which definition some Muslims would define me as such). Here is the section which I found amusing though:

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.

This individual is a Harvard graduate, so of course he would understand what “hegemonic modern human rights discourse” is alluding to, and the use of therm “discourse” suggests his familiarity with the academic style dominant today, despite his defense of capital punishment of apostates from Islam under Islamic governments. Despite the trotting out of appropriate terminology, obviously the individual in question believes in a hegemonic discourse. He accepts that Islam is the way, the truth, and that under ad Islamic regime those who are Muslim who turn from the truth may be put to death by the authorities. If a conservative Protestant chaplain at Harvard was caught privately defending the death penalty for apostasy (which was enforced by Protestants in Scotland as late as 1700) there wouldn’t be a discussion or contextualization; they’d be universally condemned and fired (in large part because killing apostates from religion is no longer part of the wider Christian set of norms, as opposed to the world of Islam where the concept is widely accepted).

The problem with the bleeding over of academic “discourse” into the public forum is that it obfuscates real discussion, and often has had a chilling effect upon attempts at moral or ethical clarity. Unlike the individual above I am skeptical of moral or ethical truth in a deep ontological sense. But I have opinions on the proper order of things on a more human scale of existence. You don’t have to reject the wrongness of a thing if you reject the idea that that thing is wrong is some deep Platonic sense. I can, in some cases will, make the argument for why some form of the Western liberal democratic order is superior to most other forms of arranging human affairs, despite being a skeptic of what I perceive to be its egalitarian excesses. I can, and in some cases will, make the argument for why legal sexual equality is also the preferred state of human affairs. But to have this discussion I have to be forthright about my norms and presuppositions, and not apologize for them. They are what they are, and the views of those who disagree are what they are.

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.

The irony here is that an academic position which espouses the deep incommensurability of different societies and cultures in terms of their values, rendering inter-cultural analysis or critique suspect, has resulted in the domain of practical discussion a tendency to recast inter-cultural differences of deep import into deviations or artificialities imposed from the outside. In this particular case that artificiality is the Egyptian military, but in most cases it is Western colonialism, which has an almost demonic power to reshape and disfigure postcolonial societies, which lack all internal agency or direction. This is simply not the true state of affairs. The paradoxical fact is that there is commensurability across very different cultures. You can understand, analyze, and critique other societies, if imperfectly. For example, I can understand, and even agree with, some of the criticisms of Western society by Salafist radicals for its materialism and excessive focus on proximate hedonism. The Salafists are not aliens, but rather one comprehensible expression of human cultural types. But that does not deny that I find their vision of human flourishing abhorrent. I understand it, therefore I reject it.

As I state above my views on foreign policy tend toward isolation. Despite the fact that I find the actions of many governments and value of many societies barbaric, and believe that the way of life expressed by Western liberal democratic societies furthers human flourishing more optimally, I do not believe it is practical or productive to force other societies to align their values with ours in most cases.*** In other words, I accept that the world is currently going to operate with a multicultural order. This does not mean that I accept multiculturalism, where all cultures have “equal value.” That idea is incoherent when it is not trivial. Such a framing is useful and coherent in a scholarly context, where Epoché is essential. A historian of Nazi Germany constantly consumed by their disgust and aversion to the regime which is the subject of their study would be a sub-optimal historian. Such disgust and aversion is right and proper, but for scholarship there must be a sense that one must movethat to the side for the purposes of analysis and description.

But most people are not scholars. They are not engaging in discourse, but having a discussion. Scholarly theories of modes of inquiry are often totally inappropriate for proximate political policy discussions. Normative biases and methodological commitments undergo peculiar transformations, and inevitably one has to confront the fact that much of what is meant or intended becomes opaque, embedded in abstruse phraseology and intelligible only to initiates in the esoteric knowledge. The hybrid of the Post Modern inflected scholar and public intellectual is ultimately a gnostic sophist of the highest order, transmuting plain if unpalatable truths about the world into a murky cultic potion.

Addendum: Many people claim that the Roman or Ottoman Empires, to name a few, were multicultural. They were in a plain reading of the term, but not in a way that people who espouse multiculturalism would recognize. In both these polities there was a hegemonic social and political order, and difference was tolerated only on its terms. For example, the Romans destroyed the Druids in Gaul and Britain. Why? One reason given, which we would probably view favorably, was that the Druids were practicing human sacrifice, which the Romans found objectionable. But another more material reason is that the Druids were natural loci for political and cultural resistance against the Roman hegemony. Similarly, the Ottomans had an elaborate system of millets which organized the different religious groups of the polity, but there was never any doubt that all were subordinate to Ottoman Muslims. Those social-religious groups which were classed as outside the pale for various reason, such as the Druze, were persecuted and not tolerated. Those which were tolerated, such as the Orthodox Christians, needed to be respectful of their subordinate position in the system. These tendencies can be generalized to all multiculturalist polities, which inevitably had a herrenkultur.

* No, I don’t think Ron Paul has a chance even if he wins Iowa. Though I do think he’s affected the whole political landscape, and that’s probably what he was looking for in any case.

** The quotations because the term is more one of aspersion than a real pointer to a specific and discrete movement at this point.

*** 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.


Comments (48)

  1. Antonio

    I remember around 10 years ago a friend of mine from Brazil was at Harvard, having dinner with a few recently graduate from there. She was told, repeatedly, that they respect all cultures and blah blah blah. I wasn’t there, she told me later on. At that time I didn’t realized here this came from but they were basically saying: “though you’re an allien, I respect you !”. She didn’t understood that because she didn’t felt so different from them. Sure these girls were ugly, untanned, poorly dressed , with no taste for food. Still, my friend didn’t consider them as alliens that should be judged in life from fundamentally different standards. Their comments were actually very offensive.

  2. to be fair, it’s a script. i generally find it a patronizing irritation more than offensive. but then i tend toward misanthropy anyway, so other peoples’ esteem is kind of not too important. they just sound idiotic. also, in some contexts the script is really important and they can get into trouble deviating from it.

  3. Darkseid

    “Lynch says she thinks that disparities will fall away as the system continues to make progress on suspensions. As for why the race gap exists, “I think some of it is cultural sensitivity, believe it or not,” she said.”
    fantastic post. it reminded me of this quote from a WaPo article Steve S. found earlier today.
    And as a former SWPL i can assure you that the paragraph you highlight in the Slate piece wouldn’t even be noticed or questioned in any way by the average Right Thinking Slate reader. the way we’re raised – we literally aren’t even aware of…the things we aren’t aware of. it starts in school and then we move to sources of info that intentionally don’t inform us of “Things Deemed Unpleasant.” then we start memorizing one liners like “there’s more genetic diversity in Africa than the rest of the world combined” and pretty soon the cake has been baked and there’s no going back. it’s the most amazingly subtle network of social cues i’ve ever witnessed and the people that keep it going will look you square in the eyes and tell you it doesn’t even exist;)

  4. Zora

    I’m not a conservative, Razib, but I do agree with you about the corrosiveness of the “we tolerate and respect your quaint cultures” attitude. I do not respect Hindutvadis, Nazis, or the Klu Klux Klan. Doesn’t matter to me that one group is “non-Western” and two are “Western”. Pogroms and lynchings are wrong.

    It IS important to have a basic grasp of the situation before you start condemning. But that isn’t so hard these days, when you can read New Delhi newspapers on the net.

  5. #3, i don’t think one should overemphasize the sui generis nature of this sort of left-liberal multiculturalist outlook. for example, many muslim fundamentalists are similar in that all other societies are perceived as being ultimately impacted or shaped by islam. e.g., european science was “stolen from spain.” they have their own script down pat. so do indians and chinese i’ve met. the vast majority of people in all societies are unreflective idiots, so they have to rely on these scripts. the scripts differ in the details, but there’s actually a lot of weird similarity (interestingly, most of them assert the unique and peculiar character of their culture).

    though to be honest, i am a breaker of scripts. i know enough “thick detail” that it’s relatively trivial for me to verbally bludgeon people, at which point i can start smoking out what’s really the issue. observe above that i suggest that ostensible multiculturalists often attempt to transform non-western people to colored weird-food-eating versions of themselves in values. at the end of the day they’re not totally comfortable with radical difference and total acceptance.

    #4 a major issue here is that despite the diversity there are human universals. we can communicate across the cultural barrier. it may take time, but it’s not impossible. world religions prove that ideas can flow across societies with very different backgrounds. as a conservative i think that actually the modern west could learn some things from other societies which criticize its hyper-individualistic and materialistic hedonic focus. but i don’t have this view because “i tolerant and respect” cultures. in this case, i think they’re right, and we’re wrong, at least on the margin (and i think the reality is that most westerners do in theory have a worry about these exaggerated aspects of western culture).

  6. Darkseid

    Razib, you def. have a point but what about the fact(?) that, often times, you can’t even get a garden variety liberal to even admit that that is what they are? that’s kinda what i had in mind when i mentioned the insidiousness of the whole SWPL social cue Network (which may or may not be associated with the Wilderness Chic Network:)
    I’ve had it happen several times in conversation where a wholehearted liberal will actually preface the conversation by stating “I’m no tree-hugger…” when, for all intents, that’s *exactly* what they are. I’m thinking “Ok, if you’re not one then who the heck is??”
    It seems like most other groups are more open about their script. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems somewhat unique to me. Perhaps they just don’t want to seem weak but I just cant imagine a European liberal hedging like that. And I’m sure Mexicans or Arabs would make no excuses for theirs. IDK, just kinda thinking this through…

  7. Antonio

    Hi, I don’t see how this can be patronizing for a foreigner. They are not treating the individual as a dumb who dosen’t know how to do the obvious. I agree with idiotic though. I would also add hypocrite and racist, in the sense of framing alleged differences in racial terms.

  8. Isaac

    “I’m a believer in semi-separation of the worlds.”

    I wish you would separate genetics and politics. I subscribe/follow you purely for the genetics posts (where you do a great job) and would rather not be exposed to your political views. Is a blog called gene expression really the appropriate place to express them? Why not let people get just what they want by expressing your political views on a different blog? Just my two cents.

  9. IreneD

    “though to be honest, i am a breaker of scripts”

    Gee, it would be interesting to turn this intellectual torchlight to the non-multiculturalist right, where they are not comfortable with any difference and can’t accept others. Oh, sorry, most of the work here has already been done by those misguided leftists!

    Even more entertaining, why not deconstruct the script that make some people believe they are above common political labels…

    Though, as you so (unwittingly?) prove, there is indeed an international fraternity of sensibilities among conservatives of different cultures. Their common script may be characterised as a firm belief that they can’t be wrong because they have both reason and nature on their side. They will often call this “God”, but secular strains exist also, though they haven’t yet been isolated in the wild.

  10. Carol

    You are confusing “liberal” with the academic liberal you come in contact with. You need to come out into the real world a little bit. And maybe widen your reading scope. Being a conservative who would vote for Romney, the lying conservative who would gladly cut all funding for the research you are doing is, dare I say it, ironic.

  11. Konkvistador

    “As I’ve noted in this space before many of my “web friends” and readers are confused why I call myself “conservative.” ”

    I can strongly relate to this. In real life I’m literally the only conservative among my circle of friends and acquaintances, who mostly assume I’m just teasing them and don’t *really* disagree with what I *say* I disagree with (which is actually true some of the time, I hate people being smug about their arguments when they don’t defeat the strongest possible version of them) , because you see I’m “an atheist and smart”.

    My on-line presence isn’t much different being one of only 30 self-identified conservatives among the 1000 who responded to the recent 2011 poll on LessWrong, where I spend much of my online.

  12. siod

    Konkvistador why are you conservative? I assume you’re especially pragmatic, so you probably have a Tyler Cowen libertarian bent towards the economy. I also assume you’re generally misanthropic and thereby interested in self-serving fiscal, welfare, and social policies. Political positions are easy to understand if you understand someone’s value system. They simply start from values like axioms and follow from them to broader conclusions. Of course, some people haven’t reflected much on their values and what follows from them and simply perform their tribal script.

  13. Charles Nydorf

    The people at Slate are not liberals! I am a liberal so let me speak for us liberals. We do want our government to provide good public education, a strong social safety net, collective bargaining rights for workers and a progressive income tax. We do not collectively subscribe to any particular theory as to worth of various cultures.

  14. Why not let people get just what they want by expressing your political views on a different blog?

    most science blogs express political opinions here and then. this one is exceptional in that its opinions aren’t always liberal. ironic how people who are “liberal” have such discomfort with exposure to different opinions.

    Gee, it would be interesting to turn this intellectual torchlight to the non-multiculturalist right, where they are not comfortable with any difference and can’t accept others. Oh, sorry, most of the work here has already been done by those misguided leftists!

    i have a whole blog for that dumbass. what have you done lately? in fact i’ve said enough things challenging conservatives that they assume i’m a liberal. asshole.

    Their common script may be characterised as a firm belief that they can’t be wrong because they have both reason and nature on their side.

    “their” can substitute for liberals too. in fact, it’s true of most people, who hang out with ideological fellow travelers uniformly.

    . Being a conservative who would vote for Romney, the lying conservative who would gladly cut all funding for the research you are doing is, dare I say it, ironic.

    he’s a liar, so why would you think he’d act on his most recent social views? i don’t.

    Most Democrats are not super-urban erudite liberals, and probably would agree with you with some explanation

    just to be clear, this is true. but the cultural elite of the democratic party is closer to what i’m describing, at least in background. e.g., both parties further free trade despite the majority of americans opposing it, because of an elite consensus on this issue (i agree with them, but that’s neither here nor there).

    I mean, most politics in the US

    as i implied above, i, unlike you, don’t be much worked up over proximate politics. i’m interested in bigger philosophical issues.

  15. I enjoy hippie punching (or anti left-liberal whatever) as much as the next guy, but it seriously astonishes me that a scientist could consider voting for a man who claims (god knows what’s actually in there) he does not believe in anthropogenic climate change.

  16. Brilliant post. A very thorough examination that reminded me of something I tried to lay out on my own blog.

    Great read. I will be back.

  17. as with most things mitt what he does believe is in flux:

    i’m pretty sure he’s “tacking right” for the primaries.

  18. siod

    What’s the clearest difference you see between Romney and Obama? On actions alone, I would think Romney is more liberal.

  19. Jon

    I can get along with conservatives, but Republicans are no longer conservates, They have fallen off the mainstream map and landed somewhere in John Birch territory. Even if Romney is lying now, it’s just as likely that he’ll continue to pander to the base that elected him, especially during his 1st term. Democrats are fighting for positions that centrist Republicans would have supported just a few years ago. If you want to vote the more conservative candidate, vote for Obama.

  20. And that suspicion is good enough for you?? It isn’t, like, disturbing that Romney is blithely tossing basic science over the side to appease the Tea Party brigades?

    FWIW, people who have studied the issue found that Presidents almost always try to keep the promises they make in the campaign.

    The Republican party is not conservative. They are reactionary radicals.

  21. juan

    As a fellow secular conservative I generally agree with most of what Razib has written here. I’m fascinated by these political posts and how Razib loosens the reins on what he allows in the comments.

    I find liberal science bloggers drop in politics all the time. Often just with a casual smear of the Right. The left-liberal hegemony on campus means liberals and progressives are often acting on auto-pilot, they don’t seriously examine criticism of their ideology and values. They just assume their own righteousness regardless of the suffering it inflicts.

    Environmentalism is a good example of this style of left-liberal religious thinking. The refusal to use cost-benefit analysis. The willful blindness. The refusal to consider the harm that higher energy costs will do to the health and welfare of people. They behave as if they are on a religious crusade because they are.

  22. There is no deep “ontological” anything. You are engaging in metaphysics by even using the term.

  23. Konkvistador

    siod: I guess the best response to that would be, why aren’t you conservative?

    This is not something that I can cover in short post, the inferential distances are just too great. I usually don’t discuss politics because politics is mostly just blue vs. green, tribal script like you say.

    Since you are interested however I will try to sketch out some philosophical underpinnings. I perhaps do bend libertarian in certain ways, especially economics, but the whole deontological aspect of rights rubs me the wrong way, also functional libertarian societies probably aren’t something most of mankind can be a part of, at least if you want to optimize for their well being. I’m also very sceptical of most notions of moral progress, since I mostly just see moral change, not in the sense of not liking the way morality has developed in the past few centuries, but rather in the sense of society getting reliably better at divining some kind absolute morality, waiting to be discovered (full disclosure I am not a moral realist Thus I don’t feel comfortable outsourcing *future* moral development to this essentially untamed and incredibly poorly understood process.

    But I think the main reason I consider myself conservative is because after some introspection I’ve decided that equality seems to be for me much more likley an instrumental good, a means in certain circumstances rather than an ends. For example: I think free public education up to and including uni is useful, especially if you employ countermeasures to degree inflation. I fundamentally mind redistribution of material goods much less than redistribution of esteem, respect, status or rather value. This is dislike is that much more salient because I suspect the *actual* rather than the stated and perhaps even believed purpose of such redistribution is more good old intrasocietal warfare and strife rather than something done for the “greater good”.

    I don’t feel like pretending an ugly illiterate dumb unhealthy vicious person is equally valuable to my own value system as a beautiful well educated intelligent healthy benevolent person. The idea that all men are equal in the sense of worth just dosen’t seem to be there, despite my social democratic and Christian upbringing.

    To repeat I am not all opposed to programs that can make the unhealthy healthy or the illiterate educated, as long as the opportunity cost of such interventions isn’t more misery or lack of general goodness elsewhere.

    And yes I know such sentiments make me a major outlier in the US sense of what a conservative is. Even here in central Europe, the right is basically fragmented into crypto-nationalists, milquetoast libertarians and sort of Christian-y social democrats and I can’t really find a comfortable spot for myself.

    BTW The way in which you posed that question makes me think you’ve read my stuff before, is that so?

  24. FWIW, people who have studied the issue found that Presidents almost always try to keep the promises they make in the campaign.

    interesting. do you feel obama has? lots of liberals seem to complain a lot about this. i’m not sure what to think.

  25. G

    Why bring politics into this at all? Inviting sweeping generalizations about liberals and conservatives is irrelevant and, in my opinion, detrimental to your comments on discourse.

    On a different note, the following quote from your article was hilarious:

    “Normative biases and methodological commitments undergo peculiar transformations, and inevitably one has to confront the fact that much of what is meant or intended becomes opaque, embedded in abstruse phraseology and intelligible only to initiates in the esoteric knowledge.”

    That is, it would be hilarious, if the irony were intentional.

  26. #27, 🙂 it’s almost impossible not to slide into this when words like ‘hegemony’ and ‘discourse’ take hold…. but yeah, i decided to hit publish.

  27. gcochran

    I’m glad you remembered to put in the quotes when you called Slate “smart”.

  28. I am glad that you hit “publish.” If all one reads is science blogging on climate, evolutionary biology, epidemiology and evolutionary psychology(mostly negative), which is most of science blogging, you will see hints of “these people are stupid and look they’re conservatives” and it doesn’t have to be PZ Myers, Maggie Koerth-Baker or Joe Romm. There is a notion among liberal bloggers (easiest to find in feminist bloggers) that liberal politics = atheism = knowing science = intersectional social justice work.

  29. Bobbafett

    The downside of raw empiricism is that those who do it, often lack wisdom. They are too close to viewing anyone not like themselves as subhuman. Being so close to genetics makes one see human race as lesser beings on a long gradient of higher to lower animal. So conservatism and/or misanthropy ensues. But this has always been the refuge of the weak minded, people who have no real power to help others or heal them. If you had been born with curable defects would you enjoy being crushed under the hand of conservatives of recorded history? I doubt many today who are conservative would want to live anywhere near previous generations of conservatives in human history. Such is the irony of conservatism.

    All great civilizing forces of modern society have come from the weak and the oppressed not from the intelligent and misanthropic.

    The truth is the human mind does not live in reality, if superstition and religion wasn’t evidence that the human mind does not fundamentally work correctly and this applies to all human beings and their bankrupt ideologies.

    The world is much more complex simple minded politics of 21st century. Most intellectuals unfortunately live in isolated worlds and take anecdotes as truth. You can’t look at the bank bailouts (corporate socialism) and still take conservatism seriously – the conservatives bailed themselves out with public money to protect the capitalist system and gave the middle finger to everyone else.

    Conservatism’s only valid viewpoints are – people don’t get along (culture conflict) and genetic inequality (the inferior human beings they so detest).

    If the nazi’s hadn’t done “human improvement” in the wrong way we could have intelligent discussions about improving the human race through science. But simple minded ideology generally speaking is a result of not understanding how limited your own mind really is. Not all conservatives are stupid people, but most stupid people are conservative.

    A better view of mankind is that ALL human beings presently alive on earth don’t have what it takes to be civilized just yet, no real civilization yet exists because they are too busy trapped by their biology to move on from the animal kingdom and they find themselves much too impressed by their ability to speak and do little minuscule bits of science of which there is much yet undone.

  30. omar

    I agree with most of what you say and I identify as liberal-social-democrat and intend to vote for Obama. So much for proximate politics.

    One angle (not the most important one, but I think its there) could be that while many casual adherents and self-satisfied groupthink nurtured “thinkers” are just mindlessly repeating the party line there ARE a number of people who are seriously committed to what they imagine is a worldwide organized movement to overthrow the existing system (including the system in which they work and draw a salary or get grants). i.e. they may know that a lot of their bullshit is bullshit, but its useful bullshit in a higher cause. It undermines the dominant civilization and its armies and bankers (or so they think..I think the actual contribution of Tariq Ali or even the far more scholarly Vijay Prashad to bringing down Western civ is negligible compared to the contribution of wall street bankers). but there IS a hardcore of calculation and conscious propaganda mixed into the postcolonial bullshit…

  31. Konkvistador

    “All great civilizing forces of modern society have come from the weak and the oppressed not from the intelligent and misanthropic.”

    Whig history is so neat, tidy and comforting. Isn’t it funny how a fundamentally uncaring universe basically conforms to what a Christian god would try and do? Could it be we where wrong and … oh no wait, could it just perhaps be that we’ve grandfathered in some silly notions connected to that particular flying spaghetti monster unexamined and we are seeing what we want to see? American Liberalism is basically Quakerism minus God.

    For example let us take the intelligent bit, would you say that modern sensibilities are closer to the sensibilities of 1950’s Harvard faculty or the sensibilities of the 1950’s “oppressed” and “weak”. Now let me ask you which of these two groups was on average more misanthropic?

    In any case please define civilizing, I have no idea what you mean by that vague applause light ( ), except “more like our current value set”.

    “I doubt many today who are conservative would want to live anywhere near previous generations of conservatives in human history.”

    I wouldn’t mind living in the 1880’s, 1910’s or 1930’s or 1970’s or 1990’s, as long as modern technology was available and my relative socio-economic status wasn’t changed too much.

    *But overall you are right. Real conservatism is fundamentally in a way much more morally relativist than progressivism.*

    I like this society and set of values *because* and *only because* it is mine. If arguments, a bacterial infection or drug have changed me, this obviously translates into the target of what I’m conserving.This does not change the fundamental soundness of the position. For indeed a rational agent trying to maximise his utility has no reason to change his value set (except perhaps purge some contradictions, deciding ties by chance).

    “If you offered Gandhi a pill that made him want to kill people, he would refuse to take it, because he knows that then he would kill people, and the current Gandhi doesn’t want to kill people. This, roughly speaking, is an argument that minds sufficiently advanced to precisely modify and improve themselves, will tend to preserve the motivational framework they started in. ”

    Human minds are not sufficiently advanced (yet). But there are workable approximations of this.

  32. Whig history is so neat, tidy and comforting.

    i don’t even think this is whig history. the enlightenment whigs were quite suspicious of democratic ‘enthusiasms.’ i would argue that anti-elitism implicit in this model is the fruit of 19th century romanticism hybridized with the more radical elements of the enlightenment (e.g., marxism). rosseau and robespierre’s bastard.

    as an empirical matter i think it’s wrong. populist movements always need an elite “head.”

  33. leviticus

    The world is a borderland, a zone of cultural interaction where peoples (cheap labor) and ideas are constantly flowing and being exchanged, blah, blah, blah. That’s basically the idea isn’t?

    I’ve been to communities in the Southwest, advertised as “diverse.” The population is usually 80-90% Hispanic, earning the “diverse” label. I’d argue that when a population is more than 2/3rds of a single ethnicity it ain’t diverse, but what do I know? I don’t have a degree in ethnic studies.

    Razib’s point about the celebration of diversity beginning and ending with the relative safe otherness of spices and melanin is spot on. When diversity starts extending into different areas, such as attitudes towards gender relations things get tense. We either get bellicose feminists allying themselves with Dubya or the sort of tittering unease that many liberals have with 3rd world machismo. They usually ignore it or make excuses for it. For what it’s worth, in my limited experience,these are often the same folks who insist on puritanical rigidity in gender relations, domestically. Mild form of racism? Lowered expectations for foreign, masculine peasants? You betcha.

    But to defend the middle-brows on the food point; many wannabe middle-brows (not your average guy on the street, who American middle-brows invariably never interact with) from other countries usually begin with an extended discourse on the motherland with their food and love of family. Nobody else, it would seem, takes food and family as seriously as they do. Is this an indigenous response or have they taken their cues from us, having watched one too many episodes of A. Bourdain, and are telling us what they expect us to hear?

    On the point about a hegemonic culture in Rome or the Ottoman multicultural empires and how modern multikulti advocates might regard it with unease, perhaps, but aren’t they often proponents of enforced cultural conformity? Do they not enforce norms through violence, creating a world in which the only differences are the safe ones that involve cumin, complexion, and vowels at the ends of surnames?

  34. Konkvistador

    “as an empirical matter i think it’s wrong. populist movements always need an elite “head.””

    That’s what I was trying to imply with the challenge of comparing past elite opinion (in my example a faculty of an Ivy League uni) and “weak & oppressed” opinion to modern opinions.

  35. Nobody else, it would seem, takes food and family as seriously as they do. Is this an indigenous response or have they taken their cues from us, having watched one too many episodes of A. Bourdain, and are telling us what they expect us to hear?

    no. again, be careful about imputing all tendencies to western influence! 🙂 i think the key is that smell and taste have strong resonances with memory, especially childhood memory. i’ve seen this in non-western contexts, where at our multicultural mosque as a child south asians and arabs would always talk about issues with the food (south asians like it spicy, arabs less so).

    Do they not enforce norms through violence, creating a world in which the only differences are the safe ones that involve cumin, complexion, and vowels at the ends of surnames?

    i think there’s a lot of schizophrenia here. you can see it in the same person. i do think we need to frankly talk about a “thin set” of “human universals” which are enforced through force (e.g., no slavery). but to get to that point we need to clear out all the bullshit, whether from the left (“we respect all cultures” and “all bad stuff that colored people do is due to white men who colonized them with demonic thoughts”) or right (“USA #1, USA #1, USA #1, greatest country in the history of the mother-fucking world”).

  36. RafeK

    I definitely enjoyed this post Razib. I find the quandary of freedom of religion vs resitance to barbarism and savagery deeply important. Freedom of religion is logical principle in nation made up of religions with broad agreement on certain subjects I don’t think it remains robust when certain religions reject secular law completely, or engage in savagery.

    I don’t agree with the definition of savegry as that which is so terrible we have to intervene there is always a cost benefits analysis. I consider the treatment of women in saudi arabia savage I do not think we should try to impose our moral code not because it is in some way accetable but because the chances of our succeeding in changing it through activing intervention is to small and the cost in human lives is to high.

    It amazes me how little real discussion there is around issues like this as we hurdle towards an every more multi-cultural world.

    On another note, the vociferousness of the censoring responses of a number of responders is very enlightening. I do not see this when Ed Yong dismisses the bell curve or opines on the policy implications of global warming. I don’t see this on PZ meyers very poltical science blog, I don’t see this when Scottie Westfall dismisses intelligence testing.

    As far as I can see multiculturalism is an Orthodoxy of thought every bit as powerful in our society as any religion and just as irrational. The emotional rhetoric of the liberal responders here only confirms that impression for me. I experience this same response myself regularly when I try to explain my views to liberal friends.

    Both conservatives and liberals reject science that does not align with their views the question to me is which is more damaging.

    To give two simple examples, Conservatives reject the evidence of global warming. The left rejects the evidence that races differ in cognitive capacities(so does much of the right actually unfortunately). My impression is that these positions are both driven primarily by orthodoxy and tribal alignments not rational examination of the evidence. I am inclined to believe that the later has far more profound policy implications then the former.

    If you attempt to reject tribal orthodoxy you will become heterdox to any large groups ideology at that point it is cost benefit analysis as whether your alignments with any particular group are more important then your disagreements. That analysis leads me to support the republicans however tepidly.

  37. I definitely enjoyed this post Razib. I find the quandary of freedom of religion vs resitance to barbarism and savagery deeply important.

    being “religious” gives practices only marginal buffer or latitude. i think “freedom of religion” as analogous to “freedom of speech” is fake. to a great extent it is an artifact of defining religion qua religion as confessional protestantism. you are free to believe whatever you want to believe, but when religious practice bumps up against broader social norms, then you are likely to be screwed. the mormons in the 19th century found that out, and somali muslims in seattle who justify very cursory female circumcision (a cut into the clitoris i believe) on religious grounds also found this out. religion can give one moderate license to engage in behaviors, but they have to be relatively innocuous (e.g., sikhs getting out of helmet requirements).

  38. Very stimulating post, and comments (Omar, you are scaring me). Interesting that you should mention Sikhs and their helmet dispensation, Razib. I don’t know whether it was the same in the States, but in the UK this was the concession that broke, to our great detriment, the principle of equality before the law. We should have said, “Nobody is making you ride a bloody motorbike, stop wasting the court’s time.” People whose lives are restricted by their religious beliefs should be appealing to their religious leaders for a dispensation, not to the law of the land.

  39. juan

    I read the Sikh helmet reference as referring to military helmets, not motorcycle helmets. I understand the US Army has relaxed the restrictions on Sikh’s turbans and beards, but I don’t believe any state with mandatory motorcycle helmet laws allows a Sikh or religious exemption. I could be wrong. I understand it’s different in the UK. I imagine it’s a function of a larger Sikh community as a % of the populace.

  40. Do you really see him vetoing right-wing Budgets passed by a Tea-Party dominated Congress?

    interesting point. i’m a not a big fan of the tea party because because i believe in less spending AND higher taxes, and they more symbolic anti-gov. types (core demo are older folks who use medicare and SS). i guess i need to think about this in detail. frankly, i think romney is a more competent manager than obama. but i also believe that institutions matter.

    p.s. yeah, i figured who you were when you cited the social science literature! too bad more readers don’t do that….

  41. Tom Bri

    I am surprised by the vitriol displayed in the comments here, among what I expected to be intelligent adults. To read the liberals, conservatives ‘detest’ inferior humans, are ‘generally misanthropic and thereby interested in self-serving fiscal, welfare, and social policies’ and on and on. Seriously, some people need to get out and socialize a bit more outside their little, closed cliques.

    One a personal note, this conservative managed to travel the world, live for nearly two decades in various foreign climes, marry a (gasp) brown person, and have a few mixed-race kids. Sorry Razib, this is your place. Delete this as irrelevant if you please, but blind, ignorant prejudice and, apparently, hatred, trip my trigger.

  42. #44, it isn’t a stereotype or over-generalization if it’s a white conservative male. it’s just true 🙂

  43. Tom Bri

    So true…I guess if the shoes fit, I gotta wear ’em.

  44. Sandgroper

    Tom, I definitely do not mean you personally, but I have come to realise that living in foreign environments and intermarrying does not of itself demonstrate anything about tolerance of other cultures. I know of too many individual cases where it was more like asserting cultural dominance. I’m not drawing the inference that it is the generality, but I’ve seen it often, and not just confined to white males, and it applied in cases where neither culture contained any particularly repugnant practises outside of trivial stuff like food. It was also not confined to people who were politically conservative – what people opine and how they behave in reality are frequently different, like the example given of reciting the patronising script for cultural tolerance while actually treating someone relatively culturally close as an alien.

    I was discussing this just a couple of days ago with my own biracial/bicultural daughter, who knows quite a few people her age group from mixed families, and she agreed with me – it could demonstrate something, but it often doesn’t.

    She and I also agree that there are some practices which are utterly repugnant and should qualify as indefensible in absolute terms, like genital mutilation of female children, and yet conservative people from my own culture have told me I should be tolerant towards it because “it’s just their culture”.

    My daughter is pretty far conservative on most fiscal and quite a few social issues, BTW, often more conservative than I am. Whether she agrees that multiculturalists are idiots depends on what level it’s applied – she would assert that there are some human universals that should override, and so would I.

  45. RK

    To extend the caricature, it seems like a major ingredient in determining which groups are examined critically is not just the whiteness of the group itself, but the whiteness of the group they’re perceived as being in opposition to. It’s one reason why Latin American whites are targets for liberal concern in a way African whites aren’t, or why nationalism among Mizrahis in Israel is critiqued more stringently than nationalism among Quebeckers.

  46. Bobbafett

    The fact that many of you think me liberal is proof of how simple minded you all are. Anyone who is not conservative or criticizes conservatism therefore must be liberal. Simple minded conservatism at its best. It’s amazing how simple minded so called intelligent people are. Conservatives feel the need to attack liberals or assume the other person is a liberal because they think they are wiser and more intelligent. The truth is all human beings of this era are incredibly mindless. Most of them have false models of the world and therefore their interpretation of reality is necessarily riddled with falsehood.

    My point of view is that all human beings of this era are contemptibly ignorant because your intelligence is not enough for you to perceive the world as it is, your views are limited to what your mind is capable of and the amount of time you have to read and self-reflect which is extremely limited (~27,000 days). Most of you make more in one year then the days you will live your entire life, not exactly a recipe for human wisdom. Your mind is not the rational machine the enlightenment thought it was, and you all need to friggin learn it. That means there are people out there that can speak true statements that you can never interpret because the enlightenment was wrong about human reasoning. Just because you read something does not mean you’re understanding it as intended.

    Your model and perspective on the world is fundamentally limited. Given human history it’s safe to say all human beings in the 21st century have the intelligence of homer simpson, and that goes for their leaders as well as their intellectuals. Human beings are not a race of genius’s. Any race of beings that has had millions of years of time to solve the most basic ethical problems isn’t very bright on the whole. There mountains of scientific evidence that all of us are at a subhuman level of existence given our wanton waste of resources and our unsophisticated views on a whole plethora of things.

    A human beings perspective is only as good as their ‘model of the world’ and what’s been discovered about human reason in sciences means all of you are wrong about a lot of things. Those who fail to understand this will forever remain trapped in their false model of the world.

    All human beings of the 21st century are incredibly simple minded, especially those of the academic and professional kind. In fact they are some of the most easy to deceive.

  47. RK

    Uh, what? Legitimately didn’t understand where you were going with that. Could you expand a bit?

    Sure; I could have been clearer. Why did the minority regimes in Rhodesia or South Africa attract more international attention and censure than other, arguably more repressive governments? One reason is that they were examples of a white herrenvolk ruling over a non-white Other. By contrast, Latin American whites, at least in the U.S., are subsumed into a category that’s perceived as being less white than the majority. (About half of all Hispanics self-identified as white in the last census.) As a result, it’s the majority’s conduct toward them that’s under the microscope, and programs that gauge diversity in terms of their presence (like the UT affirmative action program upheld by the Fifth Circuit) are at least potentially justifiable. Obviously I’m painting in broad, impressionistic strokes here.

    The same goes for the Israelis (perceived as white-on-brown) in comparison to the Quebeckers (white-on-white). I’m just saying that when Razib notes that “some of this is clearly just a matter of race,” it’s not just the race of the group in question that’s determinative.

  48. H

    A superb takedown of the Slate article and multiculturalist notions in general ruined by your political response, which of all things is to lean toward Mitt Romney. Romney wouldn’t be where he is today as the establishment Republican candidate if he offered any challenge to the multiculturalist-liberal interventionist/neocon consensus. Have you seen the guy’s foreign policy advisors?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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