The Phony Clash of Civilizations
We really are undergoing a clash of civilizations, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says. Hirsi Ali argues that political scientist Samuel Huntington was right when he wrote in 1993 that future conflicts would be between the West and non-Western “civilizations.” For Huntington, the conflict between civilizations—groups united by common languages, cultures, traditions, and religions—was even more fundamental than the ideological conflict that characterized 20th century politics. In particular, Huntington though that what he called the Islamic and Confucian civilizations would inevitably come into conflict with the Western world.
Huntington’s suggestion that the Islamic world would inevitably clash with the Western world seemed prophetic to many people after the attacks of September 11. Hirsi Ali says that Huntington’s model “reflects the world as it is—not as we wish it to be.” Muslim countries, she points out, are almost without exception illiberal and undemocratic. Even relatively moderate Turkey has taken a recent turn away from the West (although this turn is in part a reaction to the European Union's reluctance to take a Muslim member). We need, Hirsi Ali suggests, to recognize that with their fundamentally different worldviews West and Islam are and can only be enemies.
Hirsi Ali is right to argue that at stake are competing worldviews. She is right too to be critical of the illiberal elements of Muslim societies. It is not clear, however, that the current conflict is really between civilizations—or even what exactly a “civilization” is. As I have written before, it is wrong to frame the conflict as between Islam as a whole and the West. We should not assume, just because our enemies say they are attacking us in the name of Islam, that all Muslims are actually our enemies. Our real enemy is a particular, fundamentalist strain of Islam, one at odds in many ways with the historical mainstream tradition of Islam. This violent fundamentalism is largely a Middle Eastern phenomenon—most Muslims don’t actually live in the Middle East—and probably owes more to recent history of the region than it does to the tenets of Islam. Blaming Islam for the problems of the Middle East is probably not much different than blaming the dysfunction of African countries on the fact that most Africans are black.
Nor is it clear that what Hirsi Ali identifies as symptoms of the clash of civilizations—the conflict over the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, the ban on building minarets in Switzerland, and the recent ban on wearing burkas in France—are really evidence of some fundamental conflict. It’s hard to see, for example, how an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan—which may never get built in any case—is much of a threat to anyone. None of these things—mosques, minarets, or burkas—are serious public issues. Rather they are ways of diverting public attention away from the real, difficult problems of governing, which would require hard, unpopular choices. But singling Muslims out as the enemy is, unfortunately, generally very popular. As Sara Silvestri points out, the burka debate in France serves as a welcome distraction from the need to make budget cuts. Here in the U.S. the Ground Zero controversy provides a handy way to attack liberals before the fall midterm elections. None of this means there’s any fundamental conflict with Islam, only that Muslims make a convenient scapegoats. “Islam,” Silvestri says, “has become an easy card to play.”
Nor can we protect the values of western civilization by failing live up to them. It’s no more justified to ban the wearing of burkas than it would be to ban the wearing of crosses. While many feel the requirement to wear burkas oppresses women, telling women how they can and can't practice their religion doesn't make them less oppressed. By the same token, we are no more justified opposing the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero than we would be to oppose the construction of a synagogue in a neighborhood where people didn't like Jews. The truth is that the real danger to western civilization doesn't come from outside forces; it is that if we're not careful we will betray its ideals.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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