Sunday, April 11, 2010

Craving affirmation: a bad root with many branches

Diana West doesn't like American efforts to win the trust and cooperation of the people of Afghanistan. The American military, tasked with finding ways for two profoundly different cultures to share one planet, have evidently decided mutual respect will work better for them than mutual contempt. Ms. West writes:
...the U.S.-drafted Afghan constitution (like Iraq's) has recognized Sharia law as supreme since ratification in 2004. What seems different now, or maybe just more noticeable, is an unseemly American pandering before such law -- Sharia law, tribal law, any law but our own -- increasingly manifested by official U.S. military policy.
The US military seems to understand that human societies get to choose their laws, and that traditional Muslim societies will tend to choose Islamic law. It seems to me that anyone familiar with the principles of the US Declaration of Independence would reach similar conclusions. So why does this offend Ms. West? Does she really want American troops to embark on a millennium long project to force the Afghanis to accept American values? To what conceivable end? It appears the notion of mutual respect, in and of itself, raises Ms. West's ire. But once again, why?

I'd suggest that behind this position lies a bad habit that corrupts our decisions in matters both important and trivial: the habit of seeking conformity or submission at every possible opportunity. Behind this habit lies the unspoken position that other people must affirm my choices, either by imitating them, or by admitting the inferiority of their own.

This habit of thought creates all manner of conflict, both profound and trivial. It kept the battle between national mythologies going in Northern Ireland for forty years, and it keeps the battle going in Israel to this day. It has led to cultural genocide and political repression. Its poison leeches into our streets, as unemployed and marginalized young men lash out in bids for "respect", and motorists honk in resentment of cyclists' refusal to affirm the supremacy of their cars.

The idea that we can force people different from us to break down and admit their errors tempts all of us. We as a species have never needed to resist this temptation more than we do now.

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