Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cultural Superiority

Our post Different Strokes attracted a bit of disagreement from readers who took exception to my claim that the West is exceptional. What was particularly objected to were these graphs:
Even after all we've learned in the last couple of decades about how people in the rest of the world live their lives, there are still some liberal-minded folk who like to tell us that we in the West shouldn't think that our way of life is superior to that of people living elsewhere around the globe. All cultures and ways of life are equally worthy of celebration, the multiculturalists and cultural relativists insist, we're all patches in the brightly colored quilt of human expression and no patch is of better quality or more importance than another.

This sentiment makes for warm feelings in university faculty lounges and classrooms and may prompt us to break into a treacly chorus or two of Up with People or We Are the World, but it's an awfully hard belief to maintain once we start looking at how so many of the world's people actually live.
Since several readers wrote to say that indeed they don't think we should think Western culture is superior to that of people elsewhere around the globe I thought I should amplify a little bit.

What follows applies not just to cultures construed as different nations or global regions but also to sub-cultures within a country or region. Also, by the term "superior culture" I mean a way, or view, of life which promotes human flourishing to a greater extent than do other ways of life.

Thus, I want to insist that:
  • A culture which produces a Bach, a Shakespeare, or an Einstein is a superior culture to one that never has.
  • A culture which can invent and build jetliners is superior to a culture that can't build indoor plumbing.
  • A culture which values hard work and education is superior to one which fosters indolence and ignorance.
  • A culture which treats women with dignity and respect is superior to one which treats them as property and with contempt.
  • A culture which values basic human freedoms such as the freedom of speech, opinion, and religion is superior to one which kills those who deviate from orthodoxy.
  • A culture which values the rule of law and suppresses the resort to violence and individual vengeance is superior to one which doesn't.
  • A culture in which men are expected to nurture and provide for their families is superior to one in which they're seen as little more than sperm donors.
  • A culture which sends food, medicine, and people abroad to help others is superior to the culture to which they go.
  • A culture which develops pain-killers and cures for disease is superior to a culture which is helpless against pain and disease.
In short, a culture which produces great art, music, architecture, technology, and literature, a culture which can harness nature or at least mitigate the damage it wreaks, and which is animated by humanitarian impulses, is superior to a culture which cannot do, or does not choose to do, any of this.

No culture is perfect, of course, but some are much less perfect than others. Every culture has flaws, but to the extent a culture is flawed it's usually because its people have adopted one or more of the traits of inferior cultures.

For more on this I invite the interested reader to read In Defense of Elitism, a Viewpoint post from 2010 on a similar topic.