Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Culture of Multiculturalism

A few years back during the first season of Babylon 5, one of the episodes depicted each of the major alien races on the station inviting others to witness some cultural or religious event that defined the dominant culture of their world. When at last it came to the humans' turn, the captain introduced his alien guests to a row of representatives of all of the major religions on earth. The message was that there was no dominant culture or religion. But as my friend Pat pointed out, there was--the culture of the captain, who was able to arrange all of those believers in a line, like voices in a choir.

This is the culture of multiculturalism. It's premises, briefly stated, are as follows:
  1. You may believe anything you like, provided that you accept that your beliefs may be wrong.
  2. Rational discourse based upon solid evidence shall be the sole mode of discourse in the establishment of the truth. Anything outside this is mere opinion. You may not dictate to others what they must believe, nor employ force to spread your beliefs.
  3. You may choose to partake in the arts and customs of any culture within the limitations laid out by the law, but you have no power to force anyone else to do the same.
  4. No governmental agency may act to encourage or discourage any religious belief or lack thereof.
Multiculturalism has been represented as a form of cultural relativism--a wishy washy, non-commital stance meant to appease . In fact, it is itself a very strong position regarding truth and belief. This distinction can be observed in the pursuit of science and the procedures of our courts. Truth is arrived at by the rational empirical method, sound reasoning based upon verified evidence. Truth must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. Religious belief is tolerated because it cannot be proven, or, strictly speaking, disproven. No religion can be favoured in law--none of them can present a solid case, nor will any admit that any body of evidence is sufficient to disqualify it. It has no evidence to support it, and dodges all attempts to falsify it. We must agree to disagree. To do otherwise would be to enshrine mere whim as law, the tyranny of popular opinion. The first step in establishing a state religion is to put God into the law, because it requires the courts to define God. The tolerance of the law ends when extremist thought becomes extremist action. You can think whatever you like, but you can't do whatever you like, nor can you encourage others to break the law.

This position is the high water mark of human civilization. By extension, it might be better if we abolished religion altogether. It is, after all, not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and encourages a great deal of muddy, wishful, magical thinking, not to mention some extremely dangerous irrational behaviour. The ethical component so often touted as the primary incentive to preserve religion is a cunard. Religion is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for moral behaviour, and it encourages as many sins as it does virtues. But it is foolish to insist on this position, simply because religion is encouraged and supported by a host of emotional motives and cognitive disfunctions that are apparently endemic to the human mind. I've prepared a list of these, but they are too many to go into here. Suffice it to say that it takes more effort and dedication than most people are willing to spend to rid themselves of it, and even most atheists have arrived at their position without much thought. Religion is not going to go away.

At the same time, the essentially secular attitude upon which multiculturalism is based can, should, and will defend itself against all challengers. These challengers will espouse some form of orthodoxy, whether religious or secular. Political correctness in all its variations are as much a form of orthodoxy as Christianity or Islam; the views of a confirmed Marxist or free market proponent will often rival the staunchest fundamentalist for pigheaded rigidity. Even postmodernism is a form of orthodoxy; defending its positive assertions with the sophistry of relativism, postmodernists dodge counterarguments by denying all truth, only to sneak back and try to establish their own opinions as the final word.

Multiculturalism amounts to the admission that you can't control what people think, nor should you try. It's a broader form of a tolerance for eccentricity. The tolerance ends, though, when it is abused and taken for weakness, when the broad social contract that underlies it is ignored or exploited. Then we remember why we chose this ironic attitude towards beliefs of all kinds. Our own history demonstrates how, given the chance, religion becomes tyranny. We may not be able to get rid of it, but at least we can prevent it from taking over.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

On Faith and Love

I've written before that faith has little to do with a belief in unverifiable tenants, in so called "articles of faith', but is instead an essentially optimistic approach to life and other human beings. Rote beliefs in metaphysical or magical propositions are no more than mere superstition, and have little influence on practical considerations. Belief in the afterlife is as likely to encourage the acts of the suicide bomber as it is to encourage altruistic behaviour. Stubborn adherance to the superstition of creationism says little about the ethical character of the believer beyond a tendancy to willful ignorance, itself a major character flaw. Indeed, M. Scott Peck, in People of the Lie, attributes evil to willful ignorance. And unquestioning adherance to the literal word of any scripture is at best ethically neutral. These same works have inspired acts ranging from the selfless devotion of Mother Theresa to the homicidal manias of Charlie Manson. The interpretation of these works says much more, since people will find there what they bring with them. Those seeking the Fellowship of Humanity will find it there, but so will those seeking a justification for whatever crimes they are already inclined to commit.

There is one area in which we are required to make assumptions without proof, and that is in our opinions of people we do not know, and in future outcomes involving unknowns. Faith in human beings has two essential aspects: the trust that they will deal fairly with us, and the confidence that they can do what they say they can. If we habitually assume the worst, we will often find our suspicions justified when those we suspect react to us in kind, or become discouraged by our show of doubt. If we assume the best, we may be disappointed, but we will also be far more likely to encounter the best in others, and we will be more likely to succeed. Pessimists have a more accurate estimate of the outcome, but optimists are more likely to succeed. This may be in part because pessimism both anticipates failure and contributes to it. The pessimist is not disappointed in his expectation of disappointment. But he is also unlikely to take the risk needed to find that rare nugget of gold, that true friend, or that serendipitous discovery. Faith, hope, and charity are in fact different sides of the same thing.

Faith extends to ourselves as well as others, in our confidence in our own abilities. Certainty of failure prevents action; success in any endeavour is prevented because the endeavour is not attempted. This is the paralyzing gaze of the black dog of depression. The concept of grace is that quality of confidence that some have and others lack, which may be rooted in past experience or in brain chemistry. The roots of this faith or doubt in self may lie in psychological or physiological causes. The physiological causes are now coming into view, but the psychological conditions may take a lifetime to unravel, if they can be unraveled at all. It is no wonder, then, that doctors are so willing to prescribe pills, which in some cases may be all that is required to break the cycle.

But this faith in oneself is by no means a necessary or sufficient condition for ethical behaviour. Sociopaths tend to have a rather high estimation of themselves. Self esteem is by no means a guarantee of virtue. Something else is required for this, and that something is love. I am not talking about mere sentimentality here. Sentimentality is the love of person as an object, a construct of imagination in which the person become the mere repository of the wishes and desires of the beholder, a hollow automoton that we paint with our favourite colors. Sentimentality quickly turns to anger and hate when the object in question suddenly reveals themselves to be another messy human being, with all the flaws humans are heir too, and with a will of their own that frustrates our expectations. The romantic perfection promised by our grandiose wedding ceremonies is an illusion. It's one thing to throw a lavish party, it's another to expect the party to last forever. Sentimentality is easy; love is hard work. And marriage is not the only relationship that requires love--to some extent, even the briefest encounters require some measure of it.

Love is the motivation that powers faith, the desire to see the best in others and to accept their imperfections. Love is comprised of three aspects: good will, compassion, and empathy. Good will is the willingness to root for the other person, to take pleasure in their achievements without petty jealousy. A uniform application of good will requires a conquest of one's own ego, the petty, needy desire to be better than others. Compassion is the capacity to forgive and give aid to others in need, a counter to greed and selfishness. In fact, compassion counters greed at the societal level as well--ubiquitous generosity calms the fear of material ruin. If helping hands are there to catch us, we need not spend our lives hording wealth in fear of the spectre of poverty. Generosity encourages generosity in others.

Empathy is the counter to sentimentality, a genuine effort to understand the other person. Without understanding, good deeds are worthless. If I were hungry, I would like a peanut butter sandwich, but that same sandwich would kill someone with a strong allergy to peanuts. A glass of wine might be of great benefit to someone in stress, but if that person is an alcoholic, that glass of wine might destroy them. In order to help someone, you must first take the time to understand them. This means listening rather than assuming, giving them what they need rather than what you think they need. This applies, again, at both the personal and societal level. There have been many aid programs that have done more harm than good, in which money or goods blindly given have supported corrupt governments or harmed the health or economic prospects of the recipients. Charity without empathy is simply an attempt to feel good about ourselves, without any real concern for the recipient of our charity.

All of this demands that the question of evil be faced; how do we deal with those who would be all to willing to take without giving back, those in whom no faith is justified? The answer, I think, is fairly obvious--you give them the benefit of the doubt on your first meeting, and punish or simply avoid them after this if they betray your trust. Researchers have discovered that people will, even at a real cost to themselves, punish others they perceive as having cheated them or others, and the desire to do this seems to be very deeply rooted. This, in fact, is called in game theory optimistic tit-for-tat, and is the best general strategy for the prisoners dilemma. However, it produces negative results when applied against a pessimistic or aggressive strategy. One of the ways to recover from this is a variation that allows optimistic tit-for-tat to forgive periodically, or give two chances rather than one, but that still does not deal with the case of the uniformly aggressive strategy, in which the other person always cheats. Such simple models of game strategy, however, do not take into account that aggressive players eventually get a reputation as such. The number of people willing to give them the benefit of the doubt dwindles as the number of people waiting to exact revenge grows. Eventually, they lose all their winnings.

Contrary to the simplistic philosophy of Star Wars, anger is not always the path to the Dark Side. Simple anger directed at a clear transgression has a corrective effect. Sustained anger does not--this is hatred, and leads to the same aggressive behaviour which loses the game. We have evolved this strong tendency to punish cheating because it threatens not only us, but the entire society upon which we depend. We retaliate against those who betray our trust because they are a threat to our kind, to humanity itself. Consider the value of money. It is in fact, merely a promisary note, ink on paper. We attach value to it based upon our faith that others will make good on it. Money is a magical object. The real currency is the faith we hold in others and our institutions. Each betrayal of trust erodes this faith, threatening the very basis that our money, and our entire society, is based on. People who lie, cheat, and steal are like the Coyote in those old Road Runner cartoons, sawing the board in the middle between himself and cliff, cutting his only means of support. The pathetic thing about most criminals is their incapacity to grasp the consequences of their own actions. And yet, there are many legitimate businessmen who act just within the boundaries of the law, and yet are guilty of the same ignorance. If a critical mass of corruption and distrust is reached, the very money they have sacrificed so much else for will be worth less than the paper it is printed on.

If betrayal of the faith in others for personal gain is evil, the ultimate evil is betrayal of faith for the purpose of destroying faith itself. This is the intent of terrorists. Freedom and responsibility are inseparable; one earns one by demonstrating the other. We extend and defend freedoms as a testament of our faith--real faith, not some inconsequential, childish superstition. There is always the danger that someone will abuse this freedom, but that is the price we are willing to pay. To exploit this freedom in an attempt to destroy it is to declare war on humanity itself. And to do this in the name of God is to declare good evil and evil good.

I do not believe in God. The Muslim extremists better hope I'm right. Because if I'm not, they have declared war on God as well.