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Post Civilization, Barbarism, and Radical Cultural Relativism
Created by John Eipper on 07/06/18 3:24 AM

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Civilization, Barbarism, and Radical Cultural Relativism (Cameron Sawyer, Russia, 07/06/18 3:24 am)

I don't think that "civilization vs barbarism" is actually a "false dichotomy," as John E described it on July 5th. 

To assert that there is no such thing as civilization is to assert radical cultural relativism--no culture is more advanced than another, or better than another--just different. I don't believe that is true, and I do believe that you can speak of some cultures being relatively more civilized than others, or at least, that some customs or cultural features are better or worse. I do not think that it is true that burning widows, for example, is just a quaint local custom, no better or worse than our own local customs.*

We just have to keep in mind that to say so is a nuanced judgement which is fraught with different hazards and pitfalls of chauvinism and so forth.

I do not think that it is necessary to go over to complete cultural relativism, in order to have a decent, chauvinism-free understanding of the achievements of other cultures, or to see the drawbacks of one's own.

*I am referring of course to the famous case of the English governor in colonial India, who stopped a widow from being burned after the death of her husband. The villagers protested, declaring that "but it is our custom to burn widows!" To which the governor replied "Yes, but it is our custom to hang those who burn widows."

JE comments:  To counter the example of burning widows, one could cite King Leopold's barbarity in the Congo, or those crowning achievements of Western civilization:  the mechanized carnage of WWI and the incineration of whole cities in its sequel.

We all have cultures we like better--I prefer a compassionate secular democracy with deep respect for human rights.  The trick, as Cameron Sawyer notes above, is to find a nuanced judgment of other cultures.  I would add that it's better to overcompensate on the side of relativism, as we will always be inclined to see ourselves as the civilized ideal and the Other as inferior.  This mindset is what leads to colonialism, military adventurism, and "nation-building."


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  • Cultural Relativism Again (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 07/08/18 4:10 AM)
    JE wrote on July 6th: "To counter the example of burning widows, one could cite King Leopold's barbarity in the Congo, or those crowning achievements of Western civilization: the mechanized carnage of WWI and the incineration of whole cities in its sequel."

    Yes, absolutely. The nuclear bombing of Japanese cities and the indiscriminate slaughter of the mostly non-combatant inhabitants, the Gulag, the Holocaust, the Tuskegee Experiment--you can go on and on about the glories of Western civilization.


    But even these things do not mean that our civilization is no better or worse than any other, or that there is no such thing as progress. Or barbarism.


    JE comments:  Interesting topic.  WAIS is about many things, but we're almost always engaged in the comparison of cultures.


    Now we'll have to define progress.  More stuff?  Hygiene and cures for disease?  Laws
    to protect private property?  Air conditioning?  



    Tim Ashby (next) has sent a comment on Viscount Hardinge, Governor-General of India in the 1840s.  He may have been the first cultural relativist:  "It is your custom to burn widows; it is our custom to hang those who burn widows."

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  • Field Marshal Henry Hardinge in India (Timothy Ashby, South Africa 07/08/18 4:32 AM)

    Cameron Sawyer (July 6th) referred to the famous case of the English governor in colonial India, who stopped a widow from being burned after the death of her husband. The villagers protested, declaring that "but it is our custom to burn widows!" To which the governor replied, "Yes, but it is our custom to hang those who burn widows."


    I believe that the British colonial official mentioned was Field Marshal Henry Hardinge, 1st Viscount Hardinge (1785-1856) who was Governor-General of India from 1844-48.


    Hardinge epitomized the positive benefits of British imperialism during the Victorian era. He was an enlightened and energetic reformer during his tenure in India, yet with an appreciation for the benign elements of Indian civilization (he ordered the preservation of ancient monuments and art at a time when "muscular" Christian missionaries were destroying such things). He suppressed the traditional practices of slave-dealing, suttee, female infanticide, burning or drowning of lepers, and child mutilation by exerting influence on native rulers, using a carrot-and-stick approach (e.g. you'll be Britain's ally with all the benefits thereof if you do what we tell you, and if you don't we'll send the Sepoys in to install British administrators).


    He also encouraged education by offering government employment to college-educated Indians and established the first school for training civil engineers (both native and European). Hardinge also introduced the cultivation of tea, began construction of the Ganges canal and developed plans for an Indian railway system. He built hospitals and orphanages using a combination of taxes raised from local rajas and charitable contributions from the upper and middle classes in Britain.


    During his tenure as Governor-General, Hardinge was criticized by many British colonials for being too soft on the Indians, especially Indian soldiers (soldiers) in the Honourable East India Company's army who considered him a "good friend" because he abolished corporal punishment, increased the scale of pensions for wounds received in action, and imposed strict sanitary conditions for their barracks to reduce disease.


    As a young officer, Hardinge served under Wellington during the Peninsular War and was cited for bravery under fire. When I was a teenager living in Spain during the early 1970s, I rode my old Bultaco Saturno 200cc motorbike throughout the Peninsula, using an original early 19th-century map titled "The Route of the British Columns Through Spain" to visit all the famous battlefields. I camped for the night on the Albuera battlefield where Hardinge had a key role in the victory of the British/Spanish forces over the French. In those days the battlefield was a lonely, eerie place, and I picked up regimental buttons, grapeshot and bits of human bones (I reburied the later).


    JE comments:  Cultural relativists see the "enlightened" colonizer as an oxymoron, but what about those authorities who use their power to defend the rights of the powerless among the colonized peoples--widows, the enslaved, or (today) women subjected to genital mutilation?  The central dilemma:  how can you eliminate intolerance, without being intolerant?


    Tim, you must tell us more about your "Motorcycle Diaries" trek around Spain.  Any surviving photos?  I'd love to post them on WAIS.


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    • A Motorcycle Trek around Spain, 1973 (Timothy Ashby, South Africa 07/10/18 6:34 AM)
      John E asked me on July 8th:

      "Tim, you must tell us more about your 'Motorcycle Diaries' trek around Spain. Any surviving photos? I'd love to post them on WAIS."


      Alas, no. I was 19 at the time, did not have a camera, and doubt if I even considered making a photographic diary.


      Spain was very different in those days (1973). This was still the Franco era and everyone was wary of the Guardia Civil. They seemed to be everywhere, even in remote villages, and would often accost me on dusty back roads and battlefields, suspicious of what I was doing there (they were utterly baffled by my interest in Peninsular War history). The country generally was very undeveloped. I can't recall any of the impressive autopistas that connect the municipal dots today, much less the amazing high-speed trains.


      Rosemary and I bought a house in Mallorca in February and have spent the past few months renovating and furnishing it (photos below). We alternate two weeks on the island and two weeks in London. We're an hour from Palma Airport to the ENE, at a place called Cala Provensals near Font de sa Cala. We have the kind of businesses that are largely virtual, and with high speed internet (actually a superior fibre connection to our London WiFi) one can work anywhere these days. We're just a two hour flight from London, so can easily fly up and back for meetings in one day.


      I love Mallorca. It is safe, secure, friendly and the cost of living is much lower than in the UK. We've given up on South Africa and hope that our house there sells before the market implodes. The political and security situation has deteriorated since my last posting about the country.


      I'll do an update in a few months, but for now you can identify me as "Timothy Ashby, Mallorca"!


      JE comments:  I'll make the update, but for some reason the WAIS website isn't allowing me to extract you from South Africa, Tim.  WAISdom's IT czar Roman Zhovtulya will have to investigate.


      What a gorgeous house.  In the second photo you can catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean.  Expect me to drop by very soon...do you need a gardener or pool boy?

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    • Does the "Enlightened Colonizer" Exist? (Tor Guimaraes, USA 07/11/18 3:17 AM)
      As one who enjoys the wonderful delights of different cultures and abhors the trampling of cultural rights, I also agree with John Eipper's comment that foreign authorities must use their power to defend the rights of the powerless. (See Timothy Ashby, July 8th.)

      This apparent contradiction can be easily explained by my belief in God the Universe, and that scientific knowledge must override mythology and religious superstition from all religious zealots hurting people. After reading Timothy Ashby's post, I am quite impressed by the great administrative performance by Field Marshal Henry Hardinge. While some of the native population may chose to see the glass half empty because of the other many negative side effects from colonialism, it would take an idiot cultural relativist not to see the great benefits from much of Hardinge's cultural intervention.


      JE comments:  I didn't say that colonial authorities must use their power to defend the powerless.  Rather, I asked whether a colonizer who improves human rights can be considered "enlightened."  The examples are numerous, from prohibiting human sacrifice in the Americas to Mussolini outlawing Ethiopian slavery in 1935.  But let us consider just this last case--does freeing the enslaved justify a war of conquest?

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      • Does Emancipation Justify War? (Timothy Ashby, South Africa 07/11/18 5:32 AM)
        When talking about Italy's conquest and colonization of Ethiopia, John E asked:

        "Does freeing the enslaved justify a war of conquest?"


        In the latter stages of the US Civil War, freeing the enslaved became the paramount justification for the North's war of conquest against the South (and it was truly a war of conquest and occupation).


        By the way, following the Norman Conquest, the Domesday Book of 1086 records that around 10 percent of the English population were slaves.


        JE comments: Ah, slavery and the US Civil War. Did the Peculiar Institution cause the war? Depends on who you ask. Did Lincoln fight against the Confederacy in order to free the slaves? No, at least not until 1863. Even the hallowed Emancipation Proclamation started out as a tactic to undermine the Confederate economy. Finally, did the North fight a war of conquest? This depends on whether you take the Confederacy as a legitimate nation or a separatist rebellion. How about a war of reconquest?


        Does emancipation justify war?  Gosh, this depends on who you ask.


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