In which I explain how Abrahamic religious tradition, ingrained in Western society since before its very history began, explains some of the special ways in which we can be so dumb.


Leviticus, the ancient Biblical law, does not give us a lot of room for negotiation, and I think this may help explain the illogical way in which most Westerners approach the realities of society and culture. Leviticus asserts that human behavior intersects with the law of god in a black and white fashion. We tend to see our fellow human beings as wonderful or terrible.

A recent news story serves as an example:

“If he’s a terrorist, he’s the nicest terrorist I ever met in my life. I don’t think he is,” said Charles Casale, 46…

Casale was speaking of suspected North Carolina terrorist Daniel Boyd just indited for secretly buying guns, and organizing a terrorist cell to kidnap and kill people. (source)

In Leviticus, there are pretty much two outcomes to a violation of law. The less severe is to bring a steer to the temple and slaughter it for the priests. The more severe outcome is to be killed. The only real variation in the law is how you get killed. So, if a menstruating woman touches a cooking pot, or a person who is not menstruating touches a cooking pot previously touched by a menstruating woman, or that sort of thing, you have to go get the steer and bring it to the temple. But if two men kiss each other or a woman accidentally throws the dishwater on the garden (thus watering said garden, which is technically ‘work’) or you murder ten people, then someone must die.

I oversimplify slightly but not much. My point is easily understood: A very wide range of variations from the normative, expected behavior gets you very little variation in outcome.

Everything bad is an abomination.

I’m going to use the word kosher here in a mostly vernacular sense. I could easily use the term halal. What I mean by kosher is accepted, acceptable, proper, OK, not bad, not banned, and so on. Non-normative behavior (or non-normative attributes of a thing) make that behavior or thing an abomination. Since being an abomination is so bad … it can get you killed or lose you a cow … it is worthwhile to have a designation, or guideline, of acceptability. This is kosher. If you keep kosher, as it were, you will avoid abomination.

In the Abrahamic tradition, which underlies Western civilization to no small degree, something is either OK or it is something to die for, and I do not mean “to die for” as in a great pair of shoes. There is great variation in human behavior, in human reactions, in the real appropriateness or lack thereof of what we do; There are mitigating circumstances; There is context for all crimes and all good deeds; There is subtlety and variation. But in the Abrahamic interpretation, there is a line. Everything on one side of the line is kosher. Everything on the other side of the line is death (to the actor or to the actor’s cow).

I encountered the kosher concept in an interesting form the other day when I met a family of people in which no one would eat any land animal but beef, pork chicken, or turkey. One person said “Bison? No way! I had moose once, it was awful. Bison sucks!” Another person said “Goose? You can’t eat geese. They are inedible!” Another person said “Alligator? No way, that would be terrible to eat!” And so on. There was absolutely no room for consideration that of the zillions of species out there, a) something other than beef, chicken, pork, or turkey was edible or b) that among the many different things that people do eat, even if only occasionally, that there would be a pattern of how they tasted other than kosher = tastes good vs. not kosher = icky, tastes like moose. There was a clear kosher/non kosher boundary and the distinction explains how someone could ‘know’ that bison would taste bad because moose tastes bad, even though bison is very closely related to and has the same diet as cattle and moose is distantly related and eats an utterly different range of foods.

We see this kosher/non kosher distinction quite frequently when people speak of crime and ‘criminals.’ As a society, we seem eager to label individuals as, really, lower forms of life (or at least lower forms of humanity) when we link a person to an act (a felony, for example) and we seem very surprised (as in the example cited above) when the person is actually a descent human being. We don’t admit the possibility that the main difference between a criminal and a non criminal is not what they did but what you as an observer, friend, relative, cop, employer, or whatever happen to know about the person. News reporters never, ever fail to include the footage of the representative townsperson exhibiting shock that their perfectly normal mild mannered neighbor could “do such a thing” (where the “thing” is some news-worthy felonious act) not because that is ever really news (because it happens all the time) but because it is a a reificaiton, a benchmarking, of the a very fundamental feature of our Abrahamic society: Everything that is not good is an abomination, including our neighbor.

This kosher-non kosher way of looking at the world also facilitates our well known classicism and racism. Not everyone in the world is as classist and racist as we are. Many thoughtful Westerners who encounter the scholarship of race and racism pass through a developmental phase in their thinking in which they consider racism as adaptive, as a fundamental human trait that has some explanation. This makes me laugh, because it assumes that all humans are assholes. No. Mainly, Americans and Northern/Western Europeans are assholes. And a few other cultures here and there around the world. Most of the rest of the world, they are not assholes. They are quite capable of recognizing variation without attaching that variation to a binary good vs. bad (or even a sliding scale of good/bad). That does not mean that most people in the world lack hate or do not have some other group that they distrust or disdain for some reason. However, most of that distrust and disdain is historically contextualized and can be explained, or it is simply not taken that seriously. Most of the individuals practicing this disdain will readily put it aside. I know many Africans who are married to people who are of the group that their group disdains. The disdain is a fixture, not a fundamental, of life, and is often temporary and may not even be taken seriously. It is not like Western racism, which is pervasive, persistent, intractable, unchangeable, violent and destructive. The former is human nature. The latter requires serious cultural (and religious) indoctrination.

When an American travels to Europe, she may feel stared at, viewed askance, even judged. It is very common for travelers to feel that if they do things wrong they will stand out and be seen as somehow lesser. This is not a bogus feeling, because if you talk to Europeans about Americans (or other Europeans) you will often find commentary that backs it up.

This could be because Americans stand out and make fools of themselves. I have no doubt that this is true. But it is also true that Europeans traveling in America are also singled out, observed askance, judged, by Americans. In other words, while we are busy (as we often are) making subtle distinctions among Australians vs. Canadians vs. Americans vs. French vs. Whatever in how we treat each other interculturally in the context of travel or tourism or some other international venue, the truth is that we Westerns are a bunch of judgmental gits and no one is immune to our snarky comments, eye-rolls, and WTF stares.

But this is not true everywhere else. Most of my international living and travel experience is in several African countries, mainly in Central and southern Africa. In these regions, people are less often judged. Yes, outsiders stand out, and yes, outsiders do funny or dumb things, and yes, the Africans talk about the travelers and the tourists. But you don’t hear people judging like we do here. Walking around not knowing the local language in the US will get you stared at, will get people mad at you (“why can’t these people just learn English!!!”) but in Africa, it will get the attention of people who will want to help you out. Getting a custom wrong in the U.S. may result in people thinking you are a bad person, or a stupid person, or an untrustworthy person. Getting some custom wrong in Africa may get a laugh, but it will never get you disdain. Usually, people will just write it off because they’ve seen it before, they get that people don’t learn traditions and customs by osmosis when they cross geographical and cultural boundaries, and they would prefer to get to know you than to get to hate you if they are spending the time interacting with you.

I have sat through the process of negotiations when people in Southern or Central Africa were in disagreement. I’ve sat through a trial regarding a murder, investigations of other criminal acts, negotiations between a chief and an accused rebel, negotiations over the granting of permission for research by outside agencies, and all sorts of other intragroup and intergroup discussions. I have the strong sense that the process, while variable across settings on that large continent with great cultural variation, is generally different from the Western style of discussion and negotiation. For example, the outcome that is desired by all parties is almost always a positive one. It is not just innocent until proven guilty. Rather, it is more like innocent and let’s try really hard to keep it that way. The presumption of goodness of intention is a fundamental, not a fixture, of the process. Although this may vary a great deal, the viewpoint of a broader range of stakeholders seems to be considered; The principle of standing and who gets to speak who’s voice matters, is more egalitarian in the African context than in the Western context.

But most importantly, shades of gray are understood to be the norm rather than the exception. That someone may be a pillar of society and guilty of some crime is entertained as a possibility. The presumption of human fallibility is included in the decision making process. When Jesus lectured the Pharisees about casting stones, to the extent that Jesus may or may not have existed, he was being very African. In fact, a lot of the Jesus vs. the Old Testament differences seem to me to be African vs. Abrahamic differences. The argument has been made that Jesus was an African. This, and all similar “African Revisionist” arguments tend to infuriate (not just annoy, bother, or upset, but infuriate) White Westerners. In thinking about the Western vs. the African way of blame and judgment, and of the Abrahamic concept of Abomination, I wonder if this touchiness about the blackness of the Messiah is really just a race thing, or something more historically ingrained. I wonder if the hateful bible and the vengeful god is an abhorrent thought process that happens to appeal to the modern Western mind, in contrast to egalitarian, peaceful, culturally sensitive and accepting ways of thinking. The latter pop up now and then within the Abrahamic tradition, only to be beaten down like the moles in a game of whack-a-mole, but persist in the broader African, Native American, Australian, Central Asian … in other words, generally human … ways of thinking.

After all, the concept of nuance in guilt or subtlety in culpability… That would be an abomination.

Comments

  1. #1 Enoch
    July 29, 2009

    I think the premise is interesting, but I’m not sure that I understand the mechanism for Abrahamic thought getting passed on over generations. The person making the comment that “oh, can’t believe he is a bad guy” might well be an atheist, a Jew, or a Christian.

  2. #2 Liz
    July 29, 2009

    Nice the way you left out that the cited terrorist was working overseas with people of Islamic religion and Middle-Eastern heritage.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    Enoch: Personally I think it much more likely that the person making that comment is a Christian. The reason we don’t see nuance and subtlety in the comments on the front porch in the local news is because the reporters know what to look for.

    I would add that the mechanism in transmission is the lady on the front porch expressing shock at the neighbor’s level of evil. (Well, that is one mechanisms.)

  4. #4 Hank
    July 29, 2009

    “Everything bad is an abomination.”

    Tautologies anyone?

  5. #5 Jeff
    July 29, 2009

    Interesting… A lot of the things that are “black and white” in our society (political parties, evolution, race, abortion) stem from religious views. Amazing how many conflicts come from this.

    However, I think that defining the Western vs. African ways of life this just perpetuates this kosher/non-kosher attitude. Many people in both places have different viewpoints.

  6. #6 Stephanie Z
    July 29, 2009

    Liz, I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Islam is part of the Abrahamic tradition as well.

    Hank, we may treat that as a tautology, but it isn’t. Bad can be an unintended consequence, even of something good or necessary. It can result in learning. It can be a matter of perspective. It can be regretable but common and accommodated. Bad is complex.

    Jeff, while there are individual differences everywhere, it’s useful to look at which viewpoints get codified. Greg’s use of the differences in legal systems is pretty instructive.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    Jeff, good point and I am totally guilty of that. In truth, many Westerners don’t think like I’ve characterized them. Also, there are spots around the world where crazy long term hatreds that are like racism (or that just plain are racism) happen. I covered my self on that a bit by noting it.

    But yes, this is a black and white view that I suppose I can blame on the nuns and priests of my upbringing….

  8. #8 Jeff
    July 29, 2009

    We can only take so much of a nun’s wrath (and their yard sticks) before our viewpoints quickly align with theirs.

  9. #9 Liz
    July 29, 2009

    @6 Stephanie: All I meant was this: It is typical for people to use the racial or ethnic tag. “I saw two black guys doing X” and “Did you read about the Muslim guy who did that” though rarely is someone’s whiteness mentioned.

    I thought it admirable that Dr. Laden did not mention the unnecessary religious or ethnic details. You will also notice that he did not mention the ethnicity of the two men who robbed the house in Cambridge, until it comes up in comment 77 in that post (for one of the men, anyway). I had noticed this then and had intended to comment on it at the time.

  10. #10 William Carlton
    July 29, 2009

    Greg,

    I see the way that you treat the issue of intra-tribal justice in areas of Africa that you have travelled, and the attitude of Africans toward foreigners, in order to acquit them of the Western, Manichean impulse toward judgmentalism.

    I wonder if any openness on the part of Africans that you, as a Westerner, encountered, or that Westerners in general may expect to encounter, might be explained by a different sort of impulse engendered on the part of a culture which may view itself as overlooked by the First World taking the opportunity to show its colors to a hapless foreigner. There is even the possibility that an assumption of material rewards or other form of self-interest may be attached to overt acts of hospitality that you identify as lacking between First World agents.

    Also, conspicuously missing from your assessment was any evaluation of how INTER-tribal justice, after the African model—which you do go to the trouble of describing, cryptically, as “[varying] a great deal”—rates on the fairness scale.

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    July 29, 2009

    Ah. Light dawns. Thanks, Liz.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    I wonder if any openness on the part of Africans that you, as a Westerner, encountered, or that Westerners in general may expect to encounter, might be explained by a different sort of impulse engendered on the part of a culture which may view itself as overlooked by the First World taking the opportunity to show its colors to a hapless foreigner.

    That is a good point, and your point about material rewards is also valid. However, I was not a hapless foreigner exactly, since I lived in the same area with the same people for extended periods of time (in four different areas). That the issues you mention matter is clear. That I was aware of their mattering and have done all that is possible to mitigate is also true.

    Also, conspicuously missing from your assessment was any evaluation of how INTER-tribal justice, after the African model—which you do go to the trouble of describing, cryptically, as “[varying] a great deal”—rates on the fairness scale.

    What do you think?

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    July 29, 2009

    Gregg, the all-good/all-bad thing is a very Pauline invention. Go back to the Hebrew texts and you see that every single person worth more than a paragraph gets mixed character:

    * Noah is a drunkard
    * Abraham is a liar
    * Isaac is a bit of a simpleton
    * Jacob is a sneaky SOB who cheats his brother and pulls tricks on his father and father-in-law
    * Rachel and Leah are not exactly models of sisterly love.
    * Jacob’s sons are jealous enough to murder their own brother

    and it goes on that way.

    Likewise your representation of the Biblical legal system is more than a bit oversimplified. The “cow or death” dichotomy (besides that there are a lot of fines short of a cow) is for what you might call “crimes against the State.” Torts — which include a lot of things that would be criminal law in the USA — were resolved with monetary settlements.

    Your thesis is interesting, but at present a bit of a straw-man comparison.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    DC: Not so! I refer specifically to Leviticus. When I characterize Leviticus, I explicitly state that it is an oversimplification, but my assertion that a wide range of transgression receive a small range of typically extreme outcomes is unassailable. I am indubitably correct about that.

    You are correct about the representation of various people in the bible, but I was speaking of Leviticus, the law. These other books were written by different people at very different times with very different purposes. It is not even slightly surprising that the ethnographic and historical parts of the bible are much more nuanced than the part I was speaking of.

    Have a look at this:

    http://tinyurl.com/one-true-bible

    Who the heck is this chick Pauline?

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    [PS: only kidding about “not so” … for those just tuning in see http://tinyurl.com/say-not-so

    And yes, I know about Paul and his writings]

  16. #16 DR
    July 29, 2009

    This, not to put too fine a point on it, is complete and utter bollocks. I have no experience of any African societies, but to claim that racism is a purely Western invention is counter to all reality. It’s quite well-known, for example, that racism is widespread within and between the various Far Eastern countries – Japanese hatred for Koreans, Chinese hatred for everyone who isn’t Han (witness the recent issues with the Uighurs), etc. To dismiss this is as being “a few other cultures here and there around the world” is really no more than just falling for the old ‘Westerners are bad, those lovely traditional societies are great’ canard.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    DR: I happen to agree with you that a kind of racism that is pretty much like Western racism is found in Japan and some other eastern countries. You will note that in this essay I make allowances for that but I decided not to mention any particular parts of the world. But, really, you are telling me this essay is “complete and utter bollocks” but what you are really arguing is that you think Western style racism is more widespread than a) The West plus b) “a few other cultures here and there around the world”. Perhaps a better phrase might be “a not insignificant but nonetheless limited set of other cultures around the world” because really, most people are not Japanese or Euro-Americans.

  18. #18 D. C. Sessions
    July 29, 2009

    When I characterize Leviticus, I explicitly state that it is an oversimplification, but my assertion that a wide range of transgression receive a small range of typically extreme outcomes is unassailable.

    When the “small range of typically extreme outcomes” covers everything from a handful of flour and some oil to death, I don’t want to see what you consider a wide range.

    Since you explicitly address the “people are all good or all bad” model of human nature, and since Leviticus doesn’t get into anything like that, you can’t very well avoid the rest of the canon. At best the claim is unfounded, and you have some work to do supporting it.

    Who the heck is this chick Pauline?

    AKA “Saul of Tarsus” or “Saint Paul.” The dude who pretty much rewrote a Jewish sect with major elements from Persia, Greece, and Rome. You certainly appear to be buying into the fundies’ “Judeo-Christian” marketing when you ignore the rather fundamental discontinuities that he introduced — such as the whole “original sin” and black/white/no-gray view of human nature (and by the way, “white” doesn’t count.)

    PS: you’re way overstating the whole subject of menstruation too — you could have picked a better example.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    When the “small range of typically extreme outcomes” covers everything from a handful of flour and some oil to death, I don’t want to see what you consider a wide range.

    Glad to see you are reading your bible. Let me rephrase for you: There is a wide range of things you can do to get your ass stoned to death or otherwise killed according to Leviticus.

    My claim stands quite nicely without the outcome I’m claiming being explained directly to you in your reading of Leviticus. If this was stated in Leviticus it would not have required me to point out the relationship!

    My reference to a menstruating woman is obviously a snarky reference to “the unclean” which in turn is the underlying justification for that which is “kosher” in modern rabbinical law.

    Instead of summarizing, using a few metaphors, and speaking lightly of these issues, I could have simply reprinted the text, but what would be the point of that.

    My assertion, so that it is not lost in this sophistry, is simple: From Leviticus we see Abrahamic religion as having a “kosher/abomoniation” dichotomy, which in turn is easily demonstrated in today’s Abrahamic religion by explicit law. My own observation in several different cultures of Africa indicate that this is not how things are done there . I’ll add that this IS how missionaries seem to want Africans to think (I avoided that discussion above … it was getting too long for a blog post) yet this dichotomy is seen again and again in popular discourse (as demonstrated above).

    It is quite possible that this link is not explanatory. But please do offer alternatives if you think you have them (other than denial of basic Western assholery as we see DR coming up with).

  20. #20 D. C. Sessions
    July 29, 2009

    My assertion, so that it is not lost in this sophistry, is simple: From Leviticus we see Abrahamic religion as having a “kosher/abomoniation” dichotomy, which in turn is easily demonstrated in today’s Abrahamic religion by explicit law. My own observation in several different cultures of Africa indicate that this is not how things are done there .

    So (and I’ll have to use an example to be sure I don’t misunderstand you) African cultures don’t have taboos against murder or rape, but instead put them on a continuous scale of “not-so-good” through “meh” to “sweet!”

    Am I getting warm?

  21. #21 Russell
    July 29, 2009

    It seems to me the story of Noah’s bender confirms Laden’s thesis. Because Ham sees Noah naked, God curses Ham’s son Canaan. A small mishap is turned into war, strife, and genocide. It is the result that is “black and white,” not the cause. Noah was drunk, but the story doesn’t even record him getting a hang-over. Ham saw his father naked, and for that his descendants are cursed. Noah is blessed, “white,” despite a bit of tippling. Canaan is cursed, “black,” for his father seeing something that embarrassed his grandfather.

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    DC: No, not too warm yet. Rather than thinking of attitude towards crime (like murder) think of attitude towards persons. There are no criminals and there are no saints. There are just wonderful flawed humans.

    Russell: Yeah! And the apple! So you are told don’t eat the apple and you do and the next thing you know …

  23. #23 Stephanie Z
    July 29, 2009

    D. C., I’m going to venture a guess and say, “No.” However, I think part of the point is that neither do they have a culture in which people rush to excuse (or celebrate) police beatings, taser use, shootings of kids trespassing on a dare or prison rape on the basis that the victim isn’t legitimately a victim because they’re a criminal.

  24. #24 DuWayne
    July 29, 2009

    Holy shit – this is actually peripherally relevant to the post I emailed back at you and moreso to the topic I am leaning towards with the paper I mentioned. Down to commenters pointing out that these are not exclusively Western issues…

    I really don’t have time to respond right now – my brain is turning to fried mush and this is only going to get worse over the next week – not better….

  25. #25 Lynne
    July 29, 2009

    This North Carolina case is very strange and unexpected, even allowing for the influence of The Bible on Western thinking. This guy was a typical southern Gun Nut at home, but a bank robber in Pakistan and a lover of the pilgrimage.

  26. #26 Don
    July 29, 2009

    That was, possibly, the dumbest thing I have read on the internet all week. Seriously man, how can you rail against terrible “Western” generalizations by using largely uninformed generalizations yourself. Aside from you ramblings about how the Jewish tradition made western culture strict dualists, to suggest that Jesus might not have existed and/or might be African is fucking idiotic. Seriously, it’s like you read Leviticus when you were high, then watched the news, and let your brain vomit all over a computer screen. Oh, and I’ll save you the trouble, I’m an atheist.

  27. #27 D. C. Sessions
    July 29, 2009

    No, not too warm yet. Rather than thinking of attitude towards crime (like murder) think of attitude towards persons.

    And yet you use Leviticus, which is a code of actions (halacha), not of personalities. When I take up the narrative texts which do explicitly address the issues of personality, character, and human fallibility you insist that’s not the point.

    I’m truly not trying to be oppositional, and I’m not by nature dense — but you’re either setting up a straw man or just not getting your point across.

  28. #28 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    DC, Again if I wanted to tell you what it says in Leviticus and nothing else, then that would be pretty boring.

    Don: I totally understand what you are saying. As I note in the essay, there is a common and rather hard to understand negative but very real reaction which usually involves the kind of senseless spewing we are seeing from you whenever there is a mention of any African-Revisionist ideas. And I’m not even pushing any actual African-Revisionist ideas here.

  29. #29 Irene
    July 29, 2009

    I cannot read this post and not think about my dear departed Jewish grandmother in Queens and her reaction to anything that was not Kosher.

  30. #30 Guy
    July 29, 2009

    The very close geographical connection of the Near East and Africa, and the fact of recent population movements, argues very strongly for the idea that pretty much everyone in the bible was African, as in dark of pigment and essentially more linked to Africa than to, say, Europe.

  31. #31 William Carlton
    July 29, 2009

    Oh, shit, Greg, I didn’t mean to cast YOU as a “hapless foreigner”. Obviously not. That one just slipped by me. I was thinking of other Western interlopers when writing that sentence.

    That the issues you mention matter is clear. That I was aware of their mattering and have done all that is possible to mitigate is also true.

    As far as mitigating, I’ll have to take your word for it. It’s hard to present much more than the highlights in a single blog post, I know. I’ll look for you to spell out your reasoning in more detail down the road, if you’re so moved.

    And my impression is that the nuanced African-style justice you describe does not extend that far beyond local boundaries, regrettably.

  32. #32 Elizabeth
    July 29, 2009

    Has anyone noticed yet that the positive reactions to this idea of a binary mindset come in two forms?

  33. #33 Don
    July 29, 2009

    Greg: I totally have no idea what you are saying. I could care less about African-Revisionist ideas, in fact, I have little concept of what that term exactly implies. All I was trying to say was that your thesis is bordering on retarded and it’s certainly willfully selective in it’s proofs. If you’re trying to make an argument that the Abrahamic tradition has been detrimental to Western society – and by extension the entire globe – then there are far more intelligent and logical ways of going about it. As far as negative Religio-cultural arguments go, there is a rather hard to understand negative but very real reaction which usually involves the kind of senseless spewing we are seeing from you whenever someone with little knowledge of religious texts tries to extrapolate a theory of the world found in a book which is well over 2500 years old, written by elite priests with – probably – little connection to the larger society (who cannot read, nor write) around them the present world. I may sound harsh, but its hard to stomach the seriousness in which you have presented your half-baked idea. I realize you’re an educated man, but stick to science, you’re clearly out of your league here.

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    William, given the nature of things in sub-Saharan Africa, I’m not entirely convinced that the amount of warfare we see between countries is a little or a lot. It seems like a lot and it is easy to assume that there is a lot, but there are many countries in Africa that have not been involved in a war since World War II. That can not be said of the US, UK, France, Australia, Canada, and so on and so forth.

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    OK, Don,thanks for letting me know. Henceforth I’ll try to blog only about science, since this is a science blog and all.

  36. #36 Andrew
    July 29, 2009

    Yeah, I can totally buy this. I like the idea that the stream of meme exists even for people who are not bible readers. The fear of god is a powerful way to get a world view going, but once it is going it is not that hard to keep going (until it runs into a roughly equally powerful world view, of course).

  37. #37 D. C. Sessions
    July 29, 2009

    Greg, I’m just not getting the point here. If your thesis is that Abrahamic (not to mention Hammurabi and all the rest) has a black/white model of human nature, your examples just aren’t making that point. I’ll take your word that the African cultures have a more nuanced model.

    If your point is that Abrahamic/Hammurabian/whatever cultures have taboo behaviors that are pretty much permitted/forbidden, I won’t argue — but I don’t see any contrasting model presented.

    All the rest appears to be stage dressing to support one or both of those contrasts — and I don’t see that you’ve supported either one.

  38. #38 Elizabeth
    July 29, 2009

    I mis-spoke (that is what I get for writing the first half of a comment, making myself a cup of coffee, then writing the other half.) I’ll try again:

    Has anyone noticed yet that the reactions to this idea of a binary mindset come in two forms?

  39. #39 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    DC: I think we are now talking in the same ballpark.

    Abrahamic tradition is loaded with absolutes. It is loaded with oppositional binaries. Western culture is loaded with absolutes and oppositional binaries that occur in a wide range of areas. It could be that the oposotional binaries and absolutes, which I presume and I assume you agree are absurd, come from some other source. For example:

    1) Human nature.
    2) Some aspect of European history or economy/environment
    3) Whatever, feel free to add to the list.

    Here, I’m simply suggesting that the Abrahamic tradition is an excellent source for this sense that things must be viewed in absolute terms, with a binary opposition as the primary framework. I reject human nature as an explanation because this is not found universally, as I describe above. Also, I hasten to add that absolutism and binary oppositional modeling of world view need not be only from this one source (though I doubt I needed to say this).

    I don’t think there can be any doubt that this occurs as part of the abrahamic tradition, and I’ve given a sufficient argument for that. I think kosher, halal, and the nature of Christian sin is more than enough evidence. I see this coming from Leviticus, and as I’ve said (but what do I know, I only know about molecules, apparently) I’m not really looking elsewhere for it for the present argument, but as has been pointed out we do see these characteristics elsewhere in the OT.

    You can keep saying, DC, that I need to produce evidence, but I have.

  40. #40 D. C. Sessions
    July 29, 2009

    “Oppositional binaries” I take to be an Aristotelian approach to culture. Which, dare I say it, is a rather Aristotelian reduction of Western culture — not everything runs up against the limits.

    Which was why I asked if the contrasting African societies have their own absolutes such as proscriptions against murder, rape etc. or absolute prescriptions such as charity, support for the family, keeping agreements, etc.

    Pick your own examples here, but a contrast and compare with only one example is kind of like one hand clapping: I koan’na folla ye.

  41. #41 Tsu Dho Nimh
    July 29, 2009

    egalitarian, peaceful, culturally sensitive and accepting ways of thinking (snip) persist in the broader Native American

    Greg, I call BS on this.

    The commonest name for any Native American tribe can be loosely translates as “Us” or “People” versus their word for all other tribes … “others”. Within any tribe they might be pretty accepting, but intra-tribal relationships were hardly what you seem to think they were. And clan versus clan politics in the larger tribes could teach Tammany Hall and the Borgias some tricks.

    Where was this peaceful accepting way of behavior when the Africans were enslaving each other and washing their spears in the blood of their neighbors? I’ve been reading … and from the earliest journals I can find through the recent tribe vs tribe slaughter accounts it’s pretty grim.

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2009

    Tsu, you should be careful reading the earliest journals. Take a skeptical view. Consider why they were written and by whom. Read some of the scholarship on those journals.

    Your BS meter may need some serious calibration if you are evaluating my assertions against that old writing!

  43. #43 D. C. Sessions
    July 29, 2009

    Greg, would you classify Pharaonic Egypt as “African?”

  44. #44 Michael
    July 29, 2009

    Interesting post and discussion. I agree that the kosher/unkosher dichotomy owes more to the blend of Greek philosophy with Jewish scriptures than the Jewish (and eventually Christian) scriptures themselves. But this doesn’t mean that the scriptures haven’t had their direct influence.

    Another area of complication is once you start applying rules in actual life, they become much more nuanced and dependent on social convention. Even if religious adherents claim it’s all black an white. An example would be that this very book of Leviticus — as interpreted by Orthodox Judaisms — has a gargantuan number of commentaries much of which is disagreement even on “black and white” issues such as whether a certain item is kosher or not. So there’s a difference between the official party line and the nuanced reality.

    Finally, I’m interested in Greg’s statement that this is something specific to Western cultures (as well as Japanese culture and a few others). Do you think there’s a relationship between this attitude and developments in science and technology? Perhaps it is the same abrasive and binary attitude that both causes social problems (often for those outside the society) AND contributes to a very focused research program within the “fields” of science or technology. Or are there counterexamples that I might have missed?

  45. #45 Charles
    July 29, 2009

    I was the one quoted on the local news.
    I was trying to show my disbelief of the charges against my neighbor.I think he’s a great neighbor.I hope he is innocent of all the charges against him.We are praying for him and his family.

  46. #46 MadScientist
    July 30, 2009

    That’s funny – the Spaniards have a black baby Jesus and a black Mary (possibly an influence of the moorish invasion). I used to think “man, these Jews got a nasty sunburn!”

    I had seen one culture in which homosexuals were just part of society; however, probably due to the influence of the catholic church, homosexuals were hated by some – usually only their fathers. I thought it was amusing how most people who didn’t have homosexual children simply ignored the church’s ranting about how god hates fags and fags are the root of all evil. I swear in that place the homosexuals were everyones’ friend, nor did they bring any evil into society as the god-naggers would have people believe.

  47. #47 Michael
    July 30, 2009

    Also in terms of the African style of justice that assumes the defendant is a good person that needs a solution worked out, sounds like this is exactly what happened to the poachers in your Congo Memoirs — however I think this shows that this type of conflict resolution is inadequate.

    Maybe it’s the same for those rapists and murderers from all sides of the Congo conflict that haven’t received much more than an “innocent and let’s try really hard to keep it that way” proceeding?

  48. #48 Rita
    July 30, 2009

    Let’s not forget that calling something “abominable” is actually calling it “outside the human pale” (ref derviation of the word via Oxford Etymological Dictionary) – a way of saying “only our group behaves as humans should, and our practices mark us out as just this”, and, as we know, relegating people to non human categories “vermin”, “swine” etc, is often a preliminary to treating them badly or even ushering them out of the world altogether. The poor cattle in the sacrifice situation start off in this category, of course, and so have no chance for a life…….err, wait a minute, aren’t people still sacrificing cows to the god of their bellies every day? Perhaps we need to think a bit more about what behaviour leads to getting killed by human beings – my in-group, my species – should it really mean the difference between life and death?

  49. #49 toto
    July 30, 2009

    Oooh, that looks fun. Can I try too?

    <<African culture is deeply ingrained with violence. From local witch hunts to full-fledged genocides, child soldiers, warlords, tribal violence and of course good old-fashioned international warfare, Africa has been continually drenched in blood for as long as we may care to remember. From Biafra to Rwanda, from Nigeria to Liberia, from Sierra Leone to Congo, it’s always about finding new and interesting ways to murder your neighbour. By contrast, in my many trips to rural Switzerland and Norway I have been impressed at how nice and friendly people are. Look at the crime rates! And they don’t even have any real armies! This definitely proves that Europeans are much more peaceful than the Africans.>>

    Cherry-picking, stereotyping, unwarranted generalisations and personal biases allow us to “prove” pretty much anything we want. News at 11.

    (other than denial of basic Western assholery as we see DR coming up with).

    Uh, he wasn’t denying anything. Rather, he was calling you up on your own bizarre denial of non-Western assholery. It’s a bit weird that you spontaneously assimilated the latter with the former.

  50. #50 David Marjanović, OM
    July 30, 2009

    D. C., I’m going to venture a guess and say, “No.” However, I think part of the point is that neither do they have a culture in which people rush to excuse (or celebrate) police beatings, taser use, shootings of kids trespassing on a dare or prison rape on the basis that the victim isn’t legitimately a victim because they’re a criminal.

    That’s, nowadays, a difference between the USA and the rest of the First World.

    (In fact, I’m not sure if the very concept of prison rape is known over here in Europe. I’ve only ever encountered it on the Internet, always in an explicitly US context, and for the first time a few years ago.)

    Most obvious symptom: having abolished the death penalty is a prerequisite for joining the EU (so Albania, which has no hope of joining for several decades yet, abolished it in 1994!), and even the calls for reintroducing it (which used to surfaced every time some particularly heinous rape/murder/pedophilia combination had happened) stopped about 20 to 30 years ago. Even the two practically fascist parties of Austria don’t support the death penalty, because they know it’d lose them votes on a serious scale.

    Of course, this attitude is on the decline in the USA, too. Again the most obvious symptom: compare support for the death penalty today with 20 years ago…

    The very close geographical connection of the Near East and Africa, and the fact of recent population movements, argues very strongly for the idea that pretty much everyone in the bible was African, as in dark of pigment and essentially more linked to Africa than to, say, Europe.

    If you count the average visibly Mediterranean person as “dark of pigment”, then yes… otherwise clearly not. If by “linked to Africa” you mean “linked to Egypt”, then very clearly yes (and in fact more so than the Bible makes explicit outside of 2 Kings); otherwise clearly not (local, regional, Mesopotamian, Persian, and Greek influence is all over the place, “Nubian”/”Ethiopian” isn’t).

    That’s funny – the Spaniards have a black baby Jesus and a black Mary (possibly an influence of the moorish invasion). I used to think “man, these Jews got a nasty sunburn!”

    Silly as it sounds, this is in fact the case. The “Black Madonna” phenomenon, which can be found all over Europe (there’s a famous statue in southeastern Poland for example), really is meant to allude to the flight to Egypt (away from Herodes, you remember?), where, as some smart people logically concluded, Mary (and Jesus and Joseph) must have got an extreme sunburn of a degree unknown in more northern latitudes.

  51. #51 David Marjanović
    July 30, 2009

    Oops, wrong choice of auto-fill-in for this blog. The “OM” part is an in-joke of another blog…

  52. #52 History Man
    July 30, 2009

    Is this post & thread from The Onion?

    What is it doing on Science Blogs?

  53. #53 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2009

    Well, Egypt is in Africa. Not only that but if you were drawing the line based on wild plants and animals, you would be hard pressed to argue why the Levant and Saudi Arabia would not be in Africa, and if you were drawing the line based on Geography, you could arbitrarily place the line down the middel of the red sea, the dead sea or the persian gulf. Thus, not only is Egypt in Africa but so is Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi and the Emirites, Yemen, etc. etc. You might want a boundary at the Tigris or Euphrates rivers or some convenient divide east of there.

  54. #54 Al West
    July 30, 2009

    Maybe African people are different, but if Europeans are assholes, then east Asians are even bigger assholes. If you’re white in Asia then you get stared at, surreptitiously photographed, talked about (on the assumption that you don’t know what they’re saying, because you’re a dumb white guy who couldn’t possibly learn another language)…. And if you’re black, don’t bother trying to go anywhere without being actively stared at. Asian people are also more judgemental about sexual infidelity – or, in fact, any sexual feelings, of any kind, almost at any age. China and Taiwan are so repressed and racist that I wonder if the Abrahamic god didn’t stop over there to have a chat after talking to the Hebrews. The same goes for Japan – a very racist country. I have nothing against east Asia, and in fact I studied Chinese as an undergraduate, but I would say that it is a fact that east Asians are more judgemental and more likely to divide the world into kosher/non-kosher than westerners, despite all of those “yin-yang” texts and supposed Daoist influence.

    As for the idea that African racism is no big deal… isn’t that something we can check by looking at relatively recent history? How about Rwanda? If someone in one tribe can marry someone of another tribe that is reviled by the former, then I fail to see how this is in any major respect different to a British man marrying a French woman – traditionally, they look on each other as different or evil, and this goes far enough to affect how they vote on European issues (like the EU constitution, seen in France as an Anglo-Saxon free market conspiracy). But there are a lot of marriages between French and British people. Leviticus doesn’t seem to be in operation there. Even in the idea of Europeans and Americans reviling each other, I know plenty of Europeans who have married Americans. Or at least, slept with them. They may look at them strangely when they’re tourists, but I don’t think it’s black and white, either in analysis or reality.

    Anyway, the idea that Leviticus somehow has some effect on mentalities in the west is pretty absurd. Simply, I know no one (except me) who has read Leviticus all the way through. None of the laws of our countries (neither here in the UK nor in the US) are based on Leviticus, and very little mention is made of Leviticus in normal culture. On top of this, I’m pretty damn western. I grew up watching Ducktales and Star Trek. And none of this really applies to me. It’s simply not how I operate, and I expect the same is true of you.

    And in fact, you can find a counter to this very idea in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, where, like other stoics, he advises trying to be sympathetic to and to understand the motivations of people who break the law – not an absolutist idea. Do you think the Abrahamic texts are more important than the contributions of the stoics in building western society?

    On top of this, conceptions of Us vs The Other are found in all kinds of societies in Europe (and elsewhere) before the influence of Christianity. Germanic tribes called everyone “Welsh” who wasn’t German. The Greeks, of course, used the word “barbaroi”. Even the Sumerians used a word to describe the uncivilised, meaning “someone from the mountains”, as they lived on a plain. China has famously been hostile to outside groups, dividing the people of the world into Chinese, “cooked” barbarians and “raw” barbarians, depending on their cultural proximity to China. This idea is also found among native American tribes, Papuan tribes (who might go so far as to eat people they considered sufficiently different from themselves, but refuse to eat people they considered to be the same)…

    I don’t know enough about Africa to refute your claim, exactly, but I do remember reading an article about how violence was unknown in a tribe on the Malay peninsula, because they had no word for “aggression”, the gist being: western culture is shit, and we need to do something about it. I speak Malay, so I checked up on this in the Malay language press: just like every single group in the world, this group has words for “to hit”, “to kill”.

    This is getting very, very long, but there’s a lot to say. Another point occurs to me about Japan. It has a very lax penal system, in a sense. Long stays in prison are avoided like the plague – prosecution and defense ideally work together to ensure that the defendant doesn’t end up staying in prison for a long time, the idea being, essentially, to create harmony in the community. That would refute the idea that Japan has Leviticus-style absolutes if that were all that happened, but: if you end up staying in prison for a long time in Japan, then you won’t be able to get a job afterwards. You will be avoided. You are essentially an abomination. This is not the way it is in Denmark, or even the UK or France – not in the modern age, that is.

    Normally, I love your blog. But this post struck me as being bullshit, frankly.

    Apologies for the length.

  55. #55 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2009

    The reason that this still counts as a science blogs is because the author (me) looks at statements like “I don’t know much about Africa but …. [fill in selected stuff heard somewhere some time can’t quite remember but it fits my prior misconceptions] therefore [yadayada]”
    and he (me) thinks “this person needs to learn how to put evaluate and put together information and do it critically.”

    So one argument against what I’ve said is that East Asians exhibit a Western like assholery. So that disagreement is that you agree with me. Another disagreement is that I’ve got Africa wrong because somehow you feel I must have it wrong because it is not in accord with what you feel in your gut and you know Rwanda if fucked. That is a valid thing to bring up. We can talk about it. In the meanwhile, tell me the land area of Rwanada in relation to the continent of AFrica and tell me how many countries there are in Africa. Don’t look it up, just guess. Then look it up.

    Regarding the influence of Abrahamic religion: I don’t know quite how one can look around the Western world and not see this influence, but you do bring up a good point about mechanism, which I have addressed but not in any detail. I don’t think individuals read the early texts (or any of the esoteria you mention) then go out and act on it. People learn how to act and react from the culture they grow up in, which is not placed there by their genes or by aliens, but rather, by history.

    Someone mentioned above how dichotomous the comments are. I would add this: Historically, over three years of blogging I can guarantee foot stomping reactions that are in the guise of valid critique (but that is not valid because it consists mostly of “I heard about this and that so what you cay can’t be true!!!11!!!!) by challenging the validity of either Western or White claims on goodness, stability, ability, or authority.

    Which is a VERY Abrahamic reaction, don’t you think? I mean seriously, Al, you just said that my blog is no kosher!!!

  56. #56 Irene
    July 30, 2009

    I agree that it seems speculation (which is what your post is) will get you in trouble if you touch on the cultural underpinnings in ways that force people to think about themselves. You are, in essence, asking people to get in touch with their own guilt.

  57. #57 Al West
    July 30, 2009

    No, Greg, I didn’t say that it’s not kosher, just that this particular post is not great. Or true. To be honest, if there is foot-stomping and thoughts of abomination going on, then I’d say it’s not me that is doing it.

    To be honest, I think you’re creating out of nothing a binary opposition that doesn’t exist by referring to Africa as one thing. You know it isn’t, I know it isn’t – of course, it was trivially easy to find an example that didn’t fit with what you said. Like I said, I don’t know that much about Africa, and since I only have limited knowledge, I only used a limited example. Sorry – but there’s really no excuse for leaping down my throat about it when I started with a proviso.

    Are you referring to The Meditations as “esoteria”? Really? I thought it was a fairly common text, and quite influential. Even on Christianity, esp. in the middle ages. Certainly, more laws are based on Roman, stoic-inspired precedents than on Biblical law.

    I’m not interested in standing up for “western culture” – for a start because it isn’t one thing, but many. Further, I’ve lived a lot of my life in Asia and the Pacific. It’s not of interest to me to defend something like that, something I have little connection to beyond my early years. But what I can say is that I can see very little trace of what you claim in whatever is meant by “western culture”. Really. Or, if I can see a trace, I can also see it in pretty much every culture on the planet. I’m sure you’ve found the anthropological philosopher’s stone: a society that doesn’t have aggression/racism/arbitrary binary oppositions. But a lot of people have found those. How often have they been correct?

    You seem to be saying that my entire post rests on supposition – that I either have no direct experience of these things or that I’ve never studied them academically. That’s actually not the case, and I resent the implication.

  58. #58 James Sweet
    July 30, 2009

    So, I see the debate is already raging, and I have no desire to jump into it. I’ll just say this: While I agree with your main thesis that Abrahamic religion contributes to a black-or-white worldview, and that certain other (equally false) world religions are not quite so bad in imposing this artificial dichotomy, the idea that racism is a purely Western thing is laughable. Amnesty International agrees with me, for whatever that’s worth. It trivializes the difficulty of combating tribalism (because let’s face it, racism is just one of the more ugly manifestations of tribalism) and is insulting to the countless victims of racial/tribalist violence in other parts of the world.

    Maybe you have a point about Abrahamic religion exascerbating and focusing racism… maybe… it’s an interesting thesis, and I’d be interested to here more about it. But this crazy idea that it is the genesis of racism? I ain’t buying it.

    (for the record, I rarely miss a chance to criticize Abrahamic religion, so this is not some hackneyed defense… I just think the argument is wack)

  59. #59 D. C. Sessions
    July 30, 2009

    Well, Egypt is in Africa.

    I hope it was clear that I was referring to culture, and in particular culture in the context of your compare and contrast. Physical and botanical geography aren’t really on the table and the modifier “Pharaonic” wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish.

    So, for purposes of your cultural comparison, would you include Pharaonic Egypt as “African?”

  60. #60 D. C. Sessions
    July 30, 2009

    No, not too warm yet. Rather than thinking of attitude towards crime (like murder) think of attitude towards persons. There are no criminals and there are no saints. There are just wonderful flawed humans.

    So, if I understand you correctly, “African culture” is all about person and not about actions. There is no social valance to the things that people do?

  61. #61 anon
    July 30, 2009

    Not gonna post this under my usual name, because I know there is some massive flame coming… I like some of what Greg writes and he’s definitely, er, provocative… but based on a couple of his more controversial posts, let me advance a hypothesis:

    Greg is ashamed to be a white, male, Westerner, and it is causing him to view the world in an overly-simplistic way, where anything that is not white, male, or Western is automatically “kosher”, and anything that is white, male, or Western must suffer for its sins.

    There, I said it. Now bring on the allegations of bigotry, because I know they are coming. Before you do though, keep in mind I am not trying to be an apologist here. Western imperialism and American slavery are some of the most shameful occurrences in human history, and in a discussion of those I would never deign to say something as shallow as, “Yeah, well, the rest of the world is racist too!” That would be asinine and irrelevant.

    But when in the middle of an interesting discussion about the possible negative influence of Abrahamic religion on Western values and how that may have contributed to Western racism, he all of a sudden starts talking like the rest of the world was some kind of magical egalitarian utopia before the white man came along and ruined everything. That’s not just stupid, it’s insulting — insulting not to the white man, because really, what does the white man have to complain about? but insulting to the rest of the world who has to deal every day with issues you have just trivialized. It’s insulting to my half-French half-Korean friend who experienced just as much racism from Koreans as he did from whites. It’s insulting to the Chinese Uighurs and the persecution they endure. It’s insulting to the victims of brutal racist beatings in Russia (white maybe, but NOT western).

    It’s just like when Greg was dealing with the whole fallout from the “all men are rapists” incident (as a side note, I did not have a major problem with his initial post in which he allegedly said this.. in context, the supposed “all men are rapists” quote made sense) and he followed it up with a post that basically said, if you are white, male, western, or middle class, then “It’s Not About You”(TM) and if you respond on the comments with anything other than, “Wow, you were right Greg. I’m so ashamed to have been born this way,” then half a dozen commenters will jump on you and call you a self-centered bigot. Nice.

    As soon as the conversation gets too difficult, Greg just starts shouting, “White males! It’s all the Westerners and the white males!” Western patriarchy has a very ugly history to answer for, but Greg’s knee-jerk chanting and naive worldview is not productive. It trivializes real-world problems — and in its cartoonish and juvenile portrayal of white male oppression, it trivializes those crimes too.

  62. #62 Stephanie Z
    July 30, 2009

    anon, what I find interesting about these discussions is the way in which, even when Greg makes it clear that he’s making generalizations at a cultural level that may not apply to any individual, people read them as absolutes. Cultural criticism seems to only be acceptable for cultures of which we are not a part. Anything else gets the same kind of reactions as very personal insults. Greg becomes the transgressor for even floating an idea.

  63. #63 DuWayne
    July 30, 2009

    I have a few minutes to throw into this, before I dive back into my brain mushing, end of compacted semester crunch…

    I think those who are arguing that this concept of Abrahamic justice doesn’t pervade Western society, need to set aside the content of the Law and look at the application. There is a great deal of absolutist, black and white thinking, when it comes to criminal justice and even in a great deal of our everday decision making. An example of this that I fall into, is developing an absolutist distaste of certain actors or actresses, that will cause me to decide I am never going to see anything that person is in again. I need to be dragged kicking and screaming to see even a theoretically great movie, because of my black and white attitude.

    But I think it is also important to recognize that this may be a hallmark of certain social/cultural systems. Of all social organizations, the state level society is the absolute least stable. Someone mentioned Egypt. Here is a great and very early example of a society that fell into this pattern of black and white thinking. Of absolutist justice. The early Greek state was much the same. The early Roman state fell into it as well, though due to the nature of Empire, what was being so strictly enforced, may vary from one region of the empire to another. Nonetheless, it was there and it was there before the empire subsumed the middle east.

    I suspect that due to the volatile nature of the State, it is inevitable that we would see this pattern. It also makes sense that this pattern is especially critical during the more formative stages of the life of the state and therefore we would see the pattern of the U.S. – early in our history there was a much stricter, far less nuanced view of the law – even worse than modern Texas. Whereas now, there are only a handful of states that even come close to the early justice patterns of the U.S.

    Once a state has stabilized, it stands to reason that these tendencies would be relaxed – at least in periods of relative calm. It also stands to reason that these patterns would emerge during times of major upheaval – the worse the upheaval, the stronger the pattern.

    In short, I would suspect that these patterns are tied far more closely to the stability of the underlying social structure, than they are to any religious traditions.

    I apologize for ignoring Africa in all this, because I think that I could probably provide some support for Greg’s position on that – but I really need to get back to work…Sorry Greg….

  64. #64 anon
    July 30, 2009

    , Stephanie Z, I am not trying to interpret Greg’s remarks as an absolute. I don’t even think his comments about racism being an exclusively Western thing even hold water as a “generalization at the cultural level”. I think this is obvious to anyone with even a reasonable knowledge of global history and current events.

    I’m not sure exactly what proof is required. Whenever anyone points out an example, the reply is, “Well! One anecdote doesn’t prove anything!” True, but what do you have regarding Western racism? By the same argument, I could just assert that anything you say about Westerners is just an “isolated incident”. (I wouldn’t, though, because that would be retarded)

    So tell me, what do we have to show to convince you that racism is a global phenomenon? What numbers or facts would convince you?

    I’m totally on board with Greg’s criticisms of Abrahamic religion. I am NOT on board with his bizarre assertion that racism is mostly non-existent in the rest of the world. So your strawman of “Cultural criticism seems to only be acceptable for cultures of which we are not a part” doesn’t hold water.

    In fact, part of the reason his fubar is so irritating is that Greg was actually getting somewhere with this argument about Abrahamic religion imposing a false dichotomy on the range of possible human behaviors. In fact, I think there is something to the idea of contrasting this with certain Eastern religions in which there is no such dichotomy, and speculating as to how that may have shaped and informed the cultures for better or for worse. I do reject the notion that Abrahamic religions are the only religions that have a black-or-white worldview, though, and I think the argument would have been more useful if this were taken into account. Moreover, though, this bizarre denial of racism in other cultures just undermines the whole thing. It’s hard to take the rest of it seriously after that, because it shows a profound ignorance of world history. Worse yet that he holds up Western racism as Exhibit A in how the false good/evil dichotomy of Abrahamic religion has shaped Western culture. It wrecks what might otherwise have been an interesting thesis.

    Greg becomes the transgressor for even floating an idea

    Cop-out. Hey, I was just floating an idea about Greg’s worldview. Don’t make me the transgressor for even floating an idea!

  65. #65 Al West
    July 30, 2009

    Anon is making some reasonable points, possibly, although I don’t agree that Greg is ashamed of being a white westerner. Because he isn’t. He’s a human being with a very varied experience of culture – a large number of cultures. And that’s precisely where the theory fails. Trying to apply a very broad brush to questions of culture, especially modern culture, is always going to fail due to personal idiosyncrasy. Not only are the “cultures” of the west different – Sweden’s different from Italy’s, Italy’s from Canada’s – but the individuals in these nations absorb different influences. In the modern age, with the internet and television, a Londoner may be a huge fan of Indonesian gamelan or an Argentinian may drink black tea with milk. You can’t make any guarantees about the cultural content of a human being’s life, and even living on the same street is no guarantee of even an approximate similarity.

    So to say that a fairly obscure (in terms of its real world presence) text like Leviticus is the main (or one of the main) factors in affecting the disparate cultures of modern day Europe and north America is stating something very big. It should also leave real traces in each of those areas. And were it a cause of racism or absolutism, then every affected culture area would display the same tendencies, since they would all share the same historical root, and that’s not the case.

    If culture has any effect on people – and it must, and does – then it must take some kind of a form that we can look at. Simply because Leviticus once played a role in the intellectual history of many western European nations does not mean that it has an overriding presence today such that it is the root of racism or absolutist preferences. It would leave some kind of evidence, rather than some supposed parallels. Legal systems in Europe and the USA pay no heed to the OT, either in phrasing or application. Certainly absolutism is more of a problem in China, where some cities have the death penalty for pick-pocketing (although this is being phased out).

    I’m not sure if the stability of the state is a more reasonable cause of absolutist thinking, but it’s certainly plausible. I would go out on a limb and say that it is significantly more plausible than claiming an amorphous connection between Leviticus and modern day absolutism and dichotomy.

    I think that one of the problems here is not with analysis, but with the data. Greg believes that western nations have a problem with racism, false dichotomies and absolutism that other areas do not have. He then lists central Asia as one of the utopian areas. At that point, I was tempted to call Poe, but that’s not so much the point.

    On top of that, surely it is not sensical to state that there is something in one society that makes it more human or more natural than another? Surely that’s the kind of thinking that gets thrown out in Anthropology 101? People and their cultures are the products of a fusion of experience with natural, innate features. Asking whether one trait is due to nature or nurture is like asking whether it’s the oxygen or the hydrogen that makes water liquid at room temperature. Are binary oppositions a natural thing? Well, they seem to be. Levi-Strauss posited structuralist interpretations of myths around the idea that binary oppositions are innate in everyone, and that it is culture that creates the variation in the imagery used. That does seem a tad more reasonable than claiming that only white people think in terms of binary oppositions.

    Anyway, this whole issue is supposed to be an emotive one, but I find it hard to get worked up about it. All societies have problems of one kind or another. Blaming a much-derided thousands of years old text for a perceived problem is probably not the best way to proceed.

  66. #66 Tsu Dho Nimh
    July 30, 2009

    Greg –
    I’m not talking about academic journals. I’m talking about ships’ logs and the journals written by early explorers, Navy personnel on the Atlantic anti-slavery patrols, etc.

    Yes, some of them had axes to grind and edited their journals for publication, others were just writing down what they saw, never intending to be published. If you compensate for the emotive writing style, deduct half of what is written just for good measure, it’s still nowhere near the heart-warming picture you want me to believe.

    Start with “Slave Ships and Slaving” by Dow and backtrack to the sources he used. Some of them – unaffordable to buy or even visit – are available as PDFs, thanks to Google’s book scanning project.

    Rounding up their fellow Africans, even their own tribe, and marching them down to the coast to sell to the slave ships was a major source of income for African rulers.

  67. #67 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2009

    Tsu, I had assumed that this is what you were talking about, and I simply refer you to what I already said about that above. Seriously.

  68. #68 Pierce R. Butler
    July 30, 2009

    I’m reminded of visiting some friends when the afternoon was disturbed by an unbalanced neighbor across the street ranting belligerently at thin air. I pointed out that there was obviously no cause for alarm, since no one around would ever end up on tv saying “We never dreamed…”, but for some reason these silly Americans persisted in worrying.

    Tsu Dho Nimh @ # 66: … ships’ logs and the journals written by early explorers, Navy personnel on the Atlantic anti-slavery patrols, etc.

    All of whom, pretty much by definition, were dealing with an Africa which had already (for decades or generations) been hit – hard – by ruthless slave raiders, disrupting a previous history of much more depth and constructiveness, and of much less violence.

    The accounts you’re reading might all be accurate, but the intra-African sociopathology described is probably an order of magnitude or so above the levels prevailing before the Portuguese and imitators sailed in with guns and chains.

  69. #69 toto
    July 31, 2009

    and he (me) thinks “this person needs to learn how to put evaluate and put together information and do it critically.”

    What people in this thread are trying to tell you is that this is precisely what you have failed to do in this post. Of course they (we) may be wrong, but I’m not sure your replies help clearing the confusion.

    The perceived problem is that you have deliberately hand-picked examples of Western stupidity, and similarly hand-picked illustrations of Non-Western goodwill, and ignored anything that didn’t fit within the cookie-cutter – i.e. pretty much the definition of pseudoscience.

    It might help if you could explain how your worldview accomodates not just Rwanda, but also Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and of course – Congo! Or even simply everyday occurences of inter-tribal violence.

    (I have deliberately excluded other examples that could somehow be linked with Abrahamic influence, such as Nigeria, Algeria, Uganda, etc.)

    Incidentally, since you have been in prolonged contact with some of the populations that we call “pygmies”, are you going to tell us that they enjoy a fully equal status with their non-pygmy (“Bantu”) neighbours, everywhere? I’d ask the same question about other non-“Bantu” groups such as the Khoisan (“bushmen”-“hottentots”).

    The basic contention is that violence against “the other” is roughly equally distributed among ethnic groups – just as friendliness and goodwill are. People are nice, and people are assholes, the world over. Now this may be a misconception. The “Noble Savage” myth may not be a myth after all. But in the light of historical “arguments” about inter-group differences, you would need to present some stone-hard evidence to convince your readers. You simply haven’t done anything of the sort yet, and I really don’t see how you could – without resorting to massive data selection (“hand-picking”), as you have done in this post.

  70. #70 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2009

    Toto, you could not be more wrong. Critics have not been constructive at all. Here is the nature of the typical criticism (it has three parts):

    1) “You are totally wrong, 100 percent full of bullshit, and this is the absolutely worst thing I’ve ever read on this blog, nay, the blogosphere in general, no, actually, the entire internet, EVER!!!”

    2) “Laden is hand picking examples and being very selective”

    3) “Oh yeah? Explain Rwanada/Congo (which is one place) and One Other Place I can Think Of on the continent of Africa!!! That obviously proves that Africans are by nature violent and love all that tribal conflict!!!11!!!”” (I have not heard the racial slurs but I sense them behind every phrase.)

    Analysis: For point 1, we are seeing a very strong, emotional reaction. What is the reason for that? It could be because I’m totally wrong. Or it could be that I’m not totally wrong but have hit a nerve or two.

    For point 2/3, I find it very humorous that many of the same individuals who accuse me of making a poor argument or selecting information are willing to then jump right in and do what you are doing here: cherry picking.

    There are some valid critiques here, (well, not in your post, but on this thread) but few deserve my attention because there is no “rule” that tells me that I must pay attention to a tarnished half baked possible good idea that is wrapped in monkey poop and slung at me. Mostly, though, we are just seing ignorance.

    If you adjust your attitude a little I might talk about the relationship between “pygmies” and their neighbors. I should point out, to underscore the fact that you don’t have a clue, that the geographically largest and population-wise largest region/group of “Pygmies” do not associate with “Bantu” people at all. That is a misconception from the Anthro 1000 level to which people who have any understanding of Africa at all seem to be walking around with. Please learn about your examples before you use them, and speak more respectfully to those who actually know shit.

    But yes, to answer your poorly formed question born of ignorance and snark, well, read what I said above. It is not the case that all people live in harmony and love each other. But it is also true that intergroup and interpersonal hatred is not unpatterned and random. The fact that you are ignorant of this patterning is irrelevant to the reality that Western style racism is not what we see around the world.

    Answer me this: Why is it that when westerners (especially Europeans) hear the idea that Western style racism is rather special, without learning even one iota of what is behind this idea, they reject it with anger and with foolish arguments?

    The basic contention is that violence against “the other” is roughly equally distributed among ethnic groups – just as friendliness and goodwill are.

    What a wonderful guilt relieving convenience of an argument.

    The “Noble Savage” myth may not be a myth after all.

    No, it is a myth, but the fact that you think I’m making that argument is pitiful.

  71. #71 Tsu Dho Nimh
    July 31, 2009

    Pierce and Greg …
    When the journals of the extremely early explorers and the early slavers – the Portuguese, the priests, etc. – are not recording this “depth and constructiveness”, what then?

    When Mutota was given the title of “Master of the Ravaged Lands”, what am I to conclude from that?

    When Mansa Musa travelled with his retinue of 12,000 slaves, where did the slaves come from? Who mined his gold?

    Who did Sundiata revolt against, and why?

  72. #72 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2009

    Tsu, I could give you a long list of references from early middle and later accounts that are so absurd that they are clearly false. They would be examples of why you should be careful what you believe. Note: I am not making a statement here about any of the specific examples you give, or about the slave trade that was going on during these centuries in the region between … oh, let’s say teh Arctic Circle and the southern reaches of Africa, across Europe and Asia, not everywhere but in many places. What I am saying is that the motivations, training, attitude (i.e. racism) and biases of the people who write things needs to be taken into account … as you are adjusting what you want to accept of what I am saying, you ought to consider doing the same off writings off hundreds of years ago.

    Unless, of course, what you find in these writings happens to conform to your expectations. Then, just accept it for what it is and then you can always say “I’m Tsu. I know what I like and I like what I know!”

  73. #73 Tsu Dho Nimh
    July 31, 2009

    OK Greg, I’ve gone back into the oral traditions and pre-Portuguese coastal exploration accounts and you don’t like those either?

    How about you give me some references that you consider to be reliable, unbiased and accurate that show a lack of tribalism, and show this spirit of goodwill or whatever it is you think they had and Europeans didn’t.

  74. #74 Irene
    July 31, 2009

    toto: I love the fact that you are screaming about hand picking but for your example of ongoing and continuous tribal violence everywhere in africa by everybody because it is the nature of Africans argument you could only manage a four year old case.

  75. #75 Andrew
    July 31, 2009

    Since no one else seems to know, I’ll answer: There are 53 countries in Africa if you count Madagascar and nearby island nations. Excluding all the islands, 47.

  76. #76 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2009

    Tsu, it is not that I don’t like these documents. I love these documents, and I’m sure you can get a lot out of them! I’ve not done much (almost nothing) with the old Portuguese literature, but I’ve read every word of everything I could find in English, French and German related to the eastern Congo and nearby areas of Uganda, Sudan and bits of Rwanda. It is a wonderful source of information. It is not a valid way to confirm your own biases.

  77. #77 Jason Thibeault
    July 31, 2009

    Tsu: I’d just like to point out that oral traditions are not historically viewed as being super-reliable, being one giant ages-spanning game of Telephone. I mean, oral traditions are what got the story of a local flood inserted into the Bible as a global event.

    That said, there’s a lot of real info that can be culled out of them, because some salient facts correspond with real events that are recorded otherwise (e.g. evidence, contemporary written history, etc). But I wouldn’t rely on them as relating unequivocal truth.

  78. #78 Jodi
    July 31, 2009

    So, Andrew, how many countries are there in Europe, excluding Crete, Great Britain and Ireland?

  79. #79 D. C. Sessions
    July 31, 2009

    (/me brushes straw from the jeans)

    Greg, I’m not calling your thesis wrong — in fact, I’m still not sure quite what it is. We’re not remotely into the “falsifiable” stage here. So I’m trying to ask polite, respectful questions like “for the purpose of this cultural discussion, was Pharaonic Egypt ‘African’ in the sense that you’re using it?”

    Unfortunately, that’s not getting me any closer to “falsifiable.” Which, being the science-fixated geek that I am, is how I tend to approach things like this. Well, that or literature, but this doesn’t have the earmarks of postmodernism either.

    Please clarify.

  80. #80 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2009

    As it is it is not falsifiable. As it is it is a blog post suggesting that a) there is a binary nature to blame and shame in western society that b) I happen to think is missing in the African cultures I’ve lived in, and c) I see this binary thing so strongly in traditional Abrahamamic thinking that I suspect that is a sourse of it.

    From here one can develop hypotheses, perhaps, but probably not yet.

  81. #81 D. C. Sessions
    July 31, 2009

    As it is it is a blog post suggesting that a) there is a binary nature to blame and shame in western society that b) I happen to think is missing in the African cultures I’ve lived in, and c) I see this binary thing so strongly in traditional Abrahamamic thinking that I suspect that is a sourse of it.

    Well, I won’t deny that Jewish and Italian mothers are world-class guilt trippers. However, the same elements appear to be solidly entrenched in pre-Christian Persian, Mesopotamian, Celtic, Western Aryan, and Hindu cultures — and that’s just the stuff tracing back in one way or another to Asia Minor.

    In the Western Hemisphere you get a hefty dose in Olmec, Mayan, Aztec, and Athabascan cultures. None of which had a whole lot of Abrahamic influence.

    I don’t pretend to be a cultural anthropologist, but I’m a wee bit of an amateur historian. So far as I’ve turned up, there’s little to no controversy over the picture I’ve presented on these aspects of Western Hemisphere and pre-Christian European cultures. I won’t speak to the same question on Asian cultures outside of India.

  82. #82 Al West
    July 31, 2009

    I think a lot of the criticism has simply been read wrongly. I, for one, am not claiming that there is no racism in Europe or in the west generally, or that people in the west do not think in terms of binary oppositions. But there are two main points to be made: 1) racism and binary oppositions seem to be fairly normal throughout the world (the majority of peoples seem to distinguish between their own tribe as an in-group and other tribes as an out-group); and 2) how in the fuck does Leviticus connect directly with European (or world) predilections for binary oppositions and racism? I understand that Leviticus is an intolerant and ridiculous text and one that encourages binary modes of thought, and that there might be a degree of correlation, but I fail to see any kind of causation here. Leviticus’ teachings have long been discarded by Jews and Christians. And frankly, there are lots of different societies in the west: they don’t display the same qualities, with degrees of tolerance and intolerance. Since, in Anglo-Saxon culture at least, a lot of pagan concepts carried over with a veneer of Christianity laid on top, it might be more profitable to look at earlier Germanic precedent.

    I dug out one of the few books I have on Africa: Victor Turner’s “The Ritual Process”. One of the central rituals (among the Ndembu) described in the book is almost entirely made up of binary oppositions. And that’s in central Africa. I understand that this is only one society, and that should be made clear. But I’d also say that this is reasonable evidence that there is a certain amount of thinking in binary oppositions in an indigenous context in central Africa. That’s as far as I’ll go with that.

    And for people outside of Africa, as an example: the Biwat tribe in New Guinea – studied by Margaret Mead – clearly had a concept of an in-group and an out-group (and they’re far from the only ones). If a person spoke the Biwat language, then you couldn’t eat them, unless they lived a certain distance away, at which point it became kosher. (That’s in both Mead (1935) and Foley (1986), The Papuan Languages of New Guinea, CUP). I use that as an example because until the 1930s, the Biwat had no contact with Europeans, so their behaviour could not be said to come from a Christian imposition. Nor did they speak an Austronesian language or have any contact with the Indonesian, Muslim, world. If you want evidence that native American people use binary oppositions in their thought, or used them previously, then you could do worse than Mythologiques, but I’m certain you’ve already heard of or read it.

    I think it’s possible that you could be right. Maybe there is a society out there that doesn’t use binary oppositions in thought and maybe it is in Africa. Maybe Leviticus is responsible for binary thought in Europe and the west. But I see no evidence, only (at best) a correlation between the binary ideas and racism of Leviticus with the binary ideas and racism of the west (possibly in former times more than now). I also think you’re having a bit of a strop, because we haven’t accepted the premise without thinking. I have no prejudice against Africa. I do have a prejudice against ideas without much basis. I also have a prejudice against off-hand rejections of reasonable criticism.

  83. #83 Lou FCD
    August 1, 2009

    Just popping in to say I’ve read the post as asked, but only the first 50 or so comments.

    I want to digest it all before I make any comments of substance.

  84. #84 Fiona
    August 4, 2009

    Is it me, or are you blaming Jews for the evils of Western Civilization? *yawn* Anti-Semitism is such an old, tired trope. Can’t you come up with something better?

  85. #85 Steve von Maass
    January 1, 2010

    Uneducated people everywhere tend to suffer from instinctive false dichotomies and lack of subtlety, and if you think you’ve discovered a magically noble culture that doesn’t do so, I urge you to live a few more years, and a little further into said culture. (Talk to me when you’ve been married into it for a decade or so.) Contrary to your entire thesis, however, most people who have given this serious study discover that it is only those cultures with a Greek and Hebrew origin which have any substantial capability of perceiving outsiders as anything but sub-humans and barbarians. The very word for “foreigner” in most Asian cultures is consistently synonymous with barbarian, outsider, non-people, etc. If you find some peoples more pleasant or harder to offend than westerners, it is generally because they expect no more from you than they would from a talking monkey.

    What really astonished me about your essay, however, was your remark questioning whether Jesus had “really lived.” Such a comment is hardly one befitting an educated anthropologist, and it makes everything else you wrote difficult to take seriously. Perhaps Harvard forgot to mention that, whatever you believe concerning Jesus, there is no other person from the ancient world whose existence is more thoroughly documented, but any child with a western calendar might be able to help you there.

  86. #86 Peter Lund (Denmark)
    January 1, 2010

    Perhaps Harvard forgot to mention that, whatever you believe concerning Jesus, there is no other person from the ancient world whose existence is more thoroughly documented, but any child with a western calendar might be able to help you there.

    Huh? What about Julius? The Plinies? Or even someone like Socrates who didn’t publish anything himself? (He is caricatured in a play by Sophocles and mentioned by both Plato and Xenophon.)

    There’s practically no basis for believing there ever was a Jesus or that he was in any way important to the Jews of his time. Not to mention that whole Son of God thing…

    What any child with a Western (Northern) calendar can help you with is the timing of the Solstice. Some of them will also know that it was celebrated before Christianity and that it took the Christians quite some time before they decided that Jesus must have been born at that time.

  87. #87 Greg Laden
    January 2, 2010

    Steve, actually, you are totally and utterly wrong. You clearly no nothing whatsoever about sub Saharan Africa.

    Such a comment is hardly one befitting an educated anthropologist, and it makes everything else you wrote difficult to take seriously.

    Then I suggest you run away as fast as you can, because the logic that if you disagree with something someone said means that everything else they say is questionable (especially when you are wrong in your disagreement) indicates a very poorly developed, immature intellect. This is the kind of thinking we try to weed out in High School.

    Perhaps Harvard forgot to mention that, whatever you believe concerning Jesus, there is no other person from the ancient world whose existence is more thoroughly documented

    Harvard who,Steve?

    Huh? What about Julius? The Plinies? Or even someone like Socrates who didn’t publish anything himself? (He is caricatured in a play by Sophocles and mentioned by both Plato and Xenophon.)

    There’s practically no basis for believing there ever was a Jesus

    Yeah, I remember Harvard telling me about those guys, now that you mention it!

  88. #88 dave
    February 23, 2010

    “Mainly, Americans and Northern/Western Europeans are assholes. And a few other cultures here and there around the world. Most of the rest of the world, they are not assholes.”

    So you acknowledge that society tends to be eager to place labels, then you just go right ahead and do it? I can’t figure out if you’re contradicting yourself or if you just don’t care that you’re flagrantly generalizing. I’ve travelled to many places in my short life.. and I’ve met just about as many jerks in India as I have in Indiana. You ditch your credibility when you say things like, “this particular group of people is mostly such-and-such..”

    “Assholes” ..? If going to recite mindless slander, at least be specific with your negativity.

  89. #89 Greg Laden
    February 23, 2010

    Dave, I have no doubt that you’ve met a lot of assholes. If you read the post you would know that this is mainly a comparison between sub Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. Then, if you read the comments, you’ll see that a lot of assholes have comealong and screamed “I know a lot of assholes in Asia!!!11!!”

    Which is funny. Because … oh, never mind.

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