Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The quote goes back to Aesop, this notion that familiarity breeds contempt.  (For the record, he also said this: We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.)  Vice published a piece about the Military’s support for Trump – some at the leadership level, most among those who end up getting deployed.  Trump fans in the Military talked about drawing back on our intervention in the world, the fact that Trump appears to be decisive (I can’t, in any seriousness, call him decisive.)

What they don’t talk about is how Trump’s anti-Islam message resonates with those who have spent time in the Islamic world.  

Let’s start with this: I’m speaking in generalities.  What I am about to say isn’t going to apply to everyone, but it is a decent starting point.  The religion and the culture are intertwined in the minds of those who grew up in it.  Most westerners can talk about their religion in one silo and their culture in another, and their family in a third.  Most westerners can talk critically about one aspect or the other without feeling the whole edifice is about to crumble. It gets much harder to tease out the threads when you’re talking about the Muslim world.  

My expertise on this is as follows:  I married a Muslim man.  We divorced.  I have worked around former military, lived with and loved an Officer who deployed “downrange,” had a long term relationship with another former officer who also undertook multiple deployments.  And I can say with a high level of confidence that familiarity breeds contempt.  Skipping over the salacious bits (I imagine if you spend some time googling night vision videos from Iraq, you’ll find stuff you can never un-see), let’s talk about why that might be.  

First, the world we first think of as Muslim – North Africa, the Middle East – has a culture that cannot be understood academically.  Which means that our governmental approach to it is doomed from the beginning because there is nothing in an American’s education, culture, approach, or experience that prepares us to understand this culture.  We are the distillation of Western culture down to its bluntest components.  We are direct.  We strive to mean what we say and say what we mean.  We value consistency and authenticity.  We don’t respect sensitivity, particularly if it stands in the way of progress.  We take others at their word.  

None of which works in this world.  

Meaning is conveyed in the subtlest of shades.  Go to a paint store and consider all of the different colors that look white to you.  That’s how little difference there is between different shades of meaning in this world, but each of those shades conveys something specific, and important, and different.  Are you frustrated already, just thinking about it?  Most Americans (and even more American men) are going to throw their hands up and storm off saying “I don’t give a shit which white you choose, just leave me out of it.”  We don’t have the patience for nuance that microscopic.  (Which, incidentally, I am behind 100%.  I don’t see the value in 2,000 shades of white either.  50 shades of grey is at least 45 too many.)

Pride counts for more than having something to be proud of.  God help you if you miss one of those cues that came in 2,000 shades of white paint chips, because you will have damaged your compatriots pride so irrevocably that there is no going back.  Ever.  Why do you think there are honor killings?  Because pride is valued at a higher level than a daughter’s life.  Doesn’t make sense, does it?  You can say the words and nod, but that’s academic.  It’s like reading about mermaids and unicorns.  You can understand the words, they fit together, but on some level it doesn’t compute.  It will never compute.  And anything is on the table in service of pride.  Anything.  Pride is valued above honesty.  It is valued above authenticity.  It is valued above progress.  

Children are not chastised with bad (don’t do that, it’s bad), they are chastised with shame (don’t do that, it is shameful.)

There is the inside world and the outside world.  Inside is for family.  Women are inside.  Outside is for the men.  What is said outside may only have the thinnest tie to the truth, but it isn’t considered shameful to lie.  What would be more shameful would be to admit something that is true, but unflattering.  You tell the truth inside, but then maybe only to the men.  And probably not even to the men.  Maybe to your father.  Maybe.  And honesty with yourself about yourself… fuggetaboutit.  

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone functions.  

Our cultures are oil and water.  And that doesn’t mean that we are at war with each other, it simply means that in the venn diagram, we think that the place where the circles overlap is bigger than it is.  Because we’re American.  We’re optimistic.  We’re direct.  We can do anything.  But only the Americans who have tried to get anything done in that sliver of overlap know exactly how small it is.  Find a soldier who has deployed and ask him or her about Islam.  Chances are they met some extraordinary people of courage.  Fellow soldiers.  Police officers in training.  Interpreters.  Leaders.  People they could speak with directly, trust completely, and work with effectively.  But overall?  I’d put money that their experience led them to believe that the whole thing was a clusterfuck from the start and we had no business getting involved because we didn’t know the terrain, human or cultural, and we had no clear objective.  Spreading democracy, incidentally, is not a clear objective.  Democracy isn’t smallpox.  

And I’d hazard a guess that most soldiers aren’t fans of Islamic culture, which gets shorthanded into Muslim people.  

This isn’t about religion.  Personally, I think organized religion is 99% bullshit.  Believe what you want to believe, connect with the divine in the way you see fit, and leave me alone to do the same.  The state of my soul has nothing to do with the state of your soul.  I don’t see how you can reasonably make the argument that religion isn’t its own culture.  In America, the national culture and the religious culture grow further apart every day.  I think this is to the good.  In the middle east, the culture and the religion cling to each other so hard we can only hope they suffocate each other entirely.  

Ooh.  Inflammatory.  I know I’m not supposed to say this.  I know I’m at odds with my basic liberalism which has no problem with democratic socialism, government regulation, socialized health care, mourning Bernie, end the war on drugs, etc., etc.

Of course, I’m American.  I would think this, but I’m firmly behind the notion that a culture should be judged by its outcomes.  By that measure, Western culture isn’t perfect.  There’s still too much racial bigotry, not enough logic (just listen to the people defending assault weapons), and too much religion trying to take over the public sphere.  However.  With all of its flaws, Western culture has demonstrably better outcomes for the vast majority of its citizens.  

You could call that relative, and question my measures.  Well, my measure are things like literacy; life expectancy; poverty;  transparency in government; equality under the law for men and women; the absence of child soldiers, child brides, and child factory workers; the absence of honor killings and feminine genital mutilation (we could legitimately get rid of circumcision here, just for the record); freedom of speech; and freedom of (and from) religion.

Perhaps if you were looking at social cohesion, then Islamic culture would come out on top.  Maybe for the fantastical architecture?  The sense of poetic despair?  Rumi?  The debt of gratitude we owe the Islamic world for hanging on to the world’s intellectual treasures while we the west went through the dark ages?  All of that is great.  But at what price for those who don’t fit in?  At what cost for the LGBTQ community?  The Saudi girl who wants to be an engineer?  The Somali girl who doesn’t want to marry the man her parents picked?  The Afghan girl who just wants to learn how to read?   Should they all be sacrificed for social cohesion or tradition?  And even then, the wars rage on between people who believe things that can only be differentiated by a few shades of white.  So much for social cohesion.  

Does Islam, by definition, prohibit female engineers, or girls who go to school, or homosexuals who live safely and openly in society?  Certainly no more than Christianity does.  But is the culture prohibitive of all of the above?  Absolutely.  

So yes.  By the measures described, Western culture is superior.  I don’t think anyone should die over this.  I don’t think we should drop bombs to stamp out a religion or a culture.  I don’t think anyone should be ostracized or excluded.  I’m not for a ban or a wall or profiling. The “don’t be an asshole” rule always applies.  But that doesn’t change the fact that our foreign policy in the middle east is hampered by our lack of visceral understanding of the culture we’re working with.  And it doesn’t change the fact that western culture produces better outcomes for a larger percentage of its population.

And if the Military has feelings that align with Donald Trump about how immigration from the Middle East should be handled, perhaps their feelings should be understood as having a foundation in experience that goes beyond bigotry and racism.

Okay, let the yelling begin.

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Familiarity Breeds Contempt

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