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.