Right Question

Asking the right question is usually more productive than trying to prove the right answer.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

"Cultural Supremacists"

In much of the coverage post-faux-Koran-desecration-story-rioting… I'm reminded of a gripping scene from Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. Two "xenologers" (alien anthropologists) have been studying a primitive alien race for decades, following the shocking ritualistic execution by the aliens of the first two xenologers to interact with them. The Speaker, Ender, confronts them on their technique:
"How condescending of you," said Ender.

"It's standard anthropological practice," said Miro.

"You're so busy pretending to believe them, that there isn't a chance in the world you could learn anything from them."

For a moment they lagged behind, so that he actually entered the forest alone. Then they ran to catch up with him. "We've devoted our lives to learning about them!" Miro said.

Ender stopped. "Not from them." They were just inside the trees; the spotty light through the leaves made their faces unreadable. But he knew what their faces would tell him. Annoyance, resentment, contempt -- how dare this unqualified stranger question their professional attitude? This is how: "You're cultural supremacists to the core. You'll perform your Questionable Activities to help out the poor little piggies, but there isn't a chance in the world you'll notice when they have something to teach you."

"Like what!" demanded Ouanda. "Like how to murder their greatest benefactor, torture him to death after he saved the lives of dozens of their wives and children?"

"So why do you tolerate it? Why are you here helping them after what they did?"

Miro slipped in between Ouanda and Ender. Protecting her, thought Ender, or else keeping her from revealing her weaknesses. "We're professionals. We understand that cultural differences, which we can't explain…"

"You understand that the piggies are animals, and you no more condemn them for murdering Libo and Pipo than you would condemn a [cow] for chewing up [grass]."

"That's right," said Miro.

Ender smiled. "And that's why you'll never learn anything from them. Because you think of them as animals."

"We think of them as [men]!" said Ouanda, pushing in front of Miro. Obviously she was not interested in being protected.

"You treat them as if they were not responsible for their own actions," said Ender. "[Men] are responsible for what they do."

Substitute "savage" for "animal" and this isn't so different from the sophisticated European view of the Middle East - that Arabs are too "savage" to be expected to govern themselves without a strong dictator telling them what to do - and that responsibility for the criminal acts of terrorists lie not with the terrorists themselves, but with those who are held to civilized standards - like Americans and Israelis.

"Cultural supremacists" indeed.


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