Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Installing the Safety Valve

BREAKING THE ICE. So now Iran has declared Cartoon War in earnest. The mullahs' aggressive ambitions in this milieu are in some ways just as significant and portentous as their nuclear plans. But this new front is one we might do well to expand, notwithstanding all the weeping and wailing and beating of breasts that's going on in the western press. Why? Well, I'm going to tell you in a bit, so keep your shirt on.

A great deal has been written about this controversy. Pundits and bloggers are having a hard time arriving at clear answers about right and wrong on this matter, though, because their arguments keep getting deflected by the gravitational pull of contradictory ideas. Traditional liberals -- the same ones who bridle at conservative objections to the tasteless Toles cartoon -- feel an obligation to defend freedom of the press even as they feel an equivalent obligation to protect the sensitivities of the ignorant and oppressed of the Third World. Traditional conservatives are sensitive to the fact that lampooning someone else's religion is impolite -- they've been on the receiving end of similar blasphemies from secularists here for a couple of decades and they know it can be offensive sometimes -- but they also can't shake the conviction that the same Islamists who think nothing of murdering thousands of innocents don't merit quite the same level of decorum Presbyterians observe with Methodists. In fact, they suspect the Islamists have this particular humiliation coming, at the very least. And both of these western perspectives are influenced by the grotesque circumstance that possibly great death and destruction could be caused by mere cartoons.

The result is that most of the analyses contain a lot of "on the other hand" equivocating, and not many useful prescriptions. Yet there is one line of discussion that has produced genuine insight. The psychiatrist blogger Dr. Sanity evades the traps described above and dives straight into the real cause of the conflict:

A guilt culture (i.e., the West) is typically and primarily concerned with truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights. As noted earlier, the emotion of guilt is what keeps a person from behavior that goes against his/her own code of conduct as well as the cultures. Excessive guilt can, of course, be pathological.

In contrast, in a typical shame culture (i.e., Arab/Islamic culture) what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. The desire to preserve honor and avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is one of the primary foundations of the culture. This desire has several side-effects, including granting the individual carte blanche to (1)engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved; and (2) engage in any necessary behavior, including wrong-doing (i.e., murder, beheading, etc.) in order to avoid shame and/or recover honor.

In other words, Dr. Sanity is pointing out an irreducible fact that liberals of all stripes can never seem to understand -- that the Islamic culture and its followers ARE NOT THE SAME as we are. They do not, no matter how much we squint and rationalize and otherwise kid ourselves, really want the same things as everybody else. It's not just that they're poorer, or more oppressed, or more burdened by historical grievance. They have a profoundly different mentality, which Dr. Sanity elucidates in multiple ways, but most significantly here:

There is no shame involved in insulting or denigrating other cultures for Muslims. Therefore such insults are acceptable. That is why there is a disconnect between the disgusting cartoons that are incredibly offensive to Jews and Christians and/or the West (see here), yet at the same time, they angrily DEMAND on threat of violence that even the most mildly offensive cartoons (i.e., the Danish ones here) be immediately repudiated.

SHAME MUST BE AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS. Everything else is secondary. Contradictions are irrelevant; logic and reason unimportant. HONOR MUST BE RESTORED, and this can only be done at the expense of those who originated the "insult".

The inferences Dr. Sanity draws from her observations are bleak. She believes there is no way to resolve the situation because they are the way they are and we are the way we are:

Meanwhile, in our guilt culture, we obsess about how we might have hurt their feelings and some of us (not me) actually desire to make amends and apologize. This is laudable and very sensitive. It underscores the sense of tolerance that has evolved within Western culture. However well-meaning, IT WILL NOT WORK, particularly in the long-run. Making an apology for having "shamed" someone in such a culture is merely a sign of weakness from their perspective (since you are shaming yourself by admitting guilt), and hence only escalates the self-righteousness and demands that follow; and it does not ameliorate the next insult when it inevitably (and usually unintentionally) comes.

She sees nothing but violence ahead because in "shame societies, even the mildest insult must be avenged with death," and:

When a culture determines that the avoidance of shame is necessary no matter what the cost, the result is a culture of fanaticism, bizarre behavior in the name of "honor"; and simultaneously within the culture, the oppression, subjugation, and humiliation of women and others perceived as "weak" (and therefore "shameful") is a high priority. Additionally, the shame culture will always perceive the guilt culture as "weak" and inferior.

For Dr. Sanity, shame is not simply an attribute of Islamist society; it is the primary and driving force, responsible for all the worst aspects of Arabian culture generally.

But then -- almost inadvertently, it seems -- she offers us an oblique glimpse of a ray of hope:

The last such culture the West dealt with was Japan during WWII. Interestingly, they also had their suicide bombers (kamikaze) and their ritual killings for honor and vengeance related to shame avoidance.

After this, she proceeds to a grim prognosis about Islam versus the west that represents her final word on the subject. You should go read it. She's smart and knows what she's talking about. But here I'm going to drift backward to the passing mention of Japan.

She's right. That is the kind of Japanese culture we confronted in World War II. Women subjugated, a concept of honor defined by group opinion rather than individual conscience, an exaggerated sensitivity to humiliation (real and imagined), an authority structure obsessed with aggression, superiority, and -- ironically -- petty rules of rank and conduct.

The interesting additional observation I will make is that Japanese culture has changed. Defeat in war by the United States and subsequent events really did effect major shifts in the culture of shame that precipitated WWII. Yes, one can still wade through any number of books that emphasize the persistence of traditional Japanese ideas in their approach to government, jurisprudence, business, and social affairs. Shame-related suicide is probably still a fact of life there. Women are still subsidiary to men despite MacArthur's imposed constitution declaring universal suffrage. But if you get away from the academic tomes and look at contemporary popular culture, you will observe a startling phenomenon that did not exist prior to the Occupation: the Japanese have learned to laugh. More than that, they have learned to laugh at themselves, as individuals, which is the real stake in the heart of a shame culture.

Today and every day on Japanese television, one can watch game shows in which men and women subject themselves to what (to western eyes) appear to be cruel humiliations, for virtually no reward. Their delight in participation seems almost inexplicable; perhaps the explanation lies in its subversiveness of the shame culture. The ability to laugh through an artificially created and voluntarily accepted public humiliation is, perhaps, a powerfully satisfying assertion of individual identity, a redefining of the concept of honor as a personal, interior choice that cannot be stolen by critical external eyes.

And if this is the kind of subterranean transformation it seems, how was it accomplished? Certainly not by force of arms alone, or the indignities of extended American occupation. It would have been hindered rather than promoted by official deference to Japanese traditions such as the divinity of the emperor. The agent of change is most likely to have been the introduction of popular American culture.

I'll propose a particular stereotype as having iconic importance in this context: the irreverent, slang-talking half-native, half-Americanized Japanese boy who always seems to become the American hero's sidekick in Japanese monster movies. He wears a baseball cap, he uses a distinctively outdated and sometimes incorrect vocabulary of American colloquialisms, and he is both mischievous and grinning. He is also immediately charming and attractive because he can be loyal, brave, resourceful, and honorable without taking himself too seriously. At some level, he senses that he may appear slightly ridiculous to others, but he can handle it because he is carving out a unique identity for himself. And he likes jokes.

To boil it all down to simplest terms, I'm suggesting that Japan has been able to retain vast parts of its traditional culture while coexisting with hugely different western cultures because its people acquired, finally, a sense of humor.

As with Dr. Sanity's perspective on shame culture, we are looking now at something that appears incidental or secondary but really isn't. A sense of humor is the great bridge between the prison of immature egotism and belonging in the greater world of humanity. Its possessor simultaneously views himself more humbly (and charitably) and others with greater wonder, appreciation, and pleasure. The ability to make a joke that causes others to laugh is one of the most direct sensory experiences of individual identity there is, and the ability to see that humor arises from the unexpected juxtapositions of great and small things is not to have learned a trick, but to have perceived a deep truth about life itself.

Dr. Sanity did not specify the fact that what she calls guilt cultures routinely exhibit a sense of humor about even their most sacred ideas. Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and rabbis have been telling jokes about Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and rabbis since, well, how about the end of the Inquisition? The differences between faiths do involve massive juxtapositions at every scale, and humor is the vehicle for accommodating them all under the same firmament. Those faiths which survive over the long haul do so by permitting and even institutionalizing a certain irreverence for what they hold most dear. Carnival, mardi-gras, and other apparent celebrations of "sin" were originated by Catholics who knew that any discipline without an occasional safety valve becomes a breeding ground for violence and destruction.

Conversely, the faiths and belief systems which see humor as a blasphemy against their brand of truth grow ever more rigid, cultish, brutal, and deadening to their followers: the Soviet Union, Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution, contemporary extreme fundamentalist Christian sects, ultra-politically correct leftists and feminists, Islamists. Each of these subcultures becomes suffocating to the extent that it cannot tolerate laughter about its own pretensions and peccadilloes.

The important truth is that Iran cannot win a cartoon war with the west, despite the fact that even western ranks are debilitated by humorless fanatics on the extreme left and right. We have a couple-thousand year head start, and they have no sense of humor. There will be nothing funny about Iran's cartoons of the holocaust. They lack the introspection and wide awareness required to detect what is humorous in any situation. They are very like a teenage girl so consumed by her appearance in the eyes of her preferred clique that she is unable to detect the absurdity of her own affectations.

But we can help Iran and the other Islamists the same way we'd go about helping that teenage girl mature: proceed to make jokes at her expense until she learns to laugh instead of bursting into tears. Because here's the other secret: it isn't humor that teaches youngsters to laugh; it is laughter itself -- and the glorious liberating feeling it provides -- that teaches youngsters to see and prize humor. On the day she finally dares to experience the relief of laughing genuinely, at herself, she will pass a threshold that brings her into the adult community. She will have discovered the one best escape from the prison of shame, which cannot be locked from outside without the active connivance of the victim. She will, through the experience of laughter, become conscious at last in the sense of understanding that she is only one center among billions, tiny yet potent. What a relief. What an empowering insight. Welcome to humanity.

The world must stop coddling the Islamists and their shame culture. The best thing we can do for them is laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh, at both them and ourselves. Eventually, they will, like the Japanese, start to get the joke, and we'll all be able to breathe easier.

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