TCS Daily

Pathological Agents

By Lee Harris - March 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Susan Sontag, in her classic exchange with Andrew Sullivan on 9/11, repeated that oft-quoted line that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." And if you had asked her for the source of this supposed truth, it is quite probable that she would have alluded to the principle of cultural relativism. And the same argument may be seen behind those anti-war protestors who argue that we should respect the autonomy of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, however abhorrent the conduct of this regime may appear to our own parochial cultural standards.

The reasoning goes something like this: Both 9/11 and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein are manifestations of another culture-a culture just as worthy of respect as our own. If we are to condemn them, we must therefore be condemning them from our own provincial cultural perspective. But what makes our own cultural point of view correct? After all, someone who looks at these phenomena from the perspective of the other culture may well see in them noble examples of heroic patriotism and virtuous self-sacrifice. In short, we should not judge the manifestations of another culture by the standards of our own.

That is the argument, and it embodies a position that might must be described as naïve cultural relativism.

It is naïve because it makes a wholly unwarranted assumption. It assumes that 9/11 and Saddam Hussein's Iraq are the manifestation of a culture, rather than the manifestation of a pathology within that culture.

This difference is one that we all accept in dealing with certain other historical cultures. For example, the KKK is not looked upon today as part of the culture of the American south, but rather a pathological and degenerate form of that culture, just as Nazism is understood as a pathological and degenerate form of culture of Germany, and not an intrinsic development out of it.

To put this more generally, if we are to take the idea of a culture seriously, as the naïve cultural relativists insist we do, we must be prepared to acknowledge that under certain conditions a culture may develop pathologies that subvert and undermine its essential nature.

To illustrate this, let us suppose we are anthropologists who once visited a remote island in the Pacific in order to study it and that we discovered there the normal distinction between the tribe elders and the young. Decades pass, and upon returning to the island, we are dismayed to find that all members of the tribe over the age of fourteen have died as a result of a plague, followed by a famine; and that the remaining members of the tribe-all of them mere children-are struggling to make realistic decisions about their own welfare. Should we look upon the remaining culture as a new culture, or as a pathological form of the old culture? Do we take as the norms of the island culture the "normal" behavior as it exists under these clearly abnormal circumstances? Or do we see in this behavior a pathological distortion of the traditional norms?

A culture cannot simply be whatever happens to be taking place at a certain moment in a certain geographical domain, since what is taking place inside a culture may be the transient outcome of a multitude of exogenous factors, like plague or invasion or earthquake, and thus may represent perversions of the intrinsic culture rather than manifestations of it. The culture of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was different in 1943 than it had been in 1932, but was this due to the culture itself, or to outside factors, such as the Nazi invasion of Poland? But if this is so, then this means that in order to decide on the true nature of the culture of the Warsaw Ghetto, it is necessary to look not at the pathological aberrations caused by the Nazism, but rather at the traditional norms of this culture-to see how this culture functioned and operated prior to its massive devastation by the Nazis. And the same logic applies to all other profound dislocations within a culture caused by external trauma or internal pathologies.

Now, in light of this, what attitude should we take to the Pacific island culture as it has come to exist in its present form? Because we know what this culture has been in the past, and how it operated prior to the catastrophic event that wiped out all the adults of the island, we are in a position to help the surviving children to re-establish the cultural traditions as they had traditionally been passed down by the elders of the tribe. But this is only because we are capable of recognizing what is genuinely pathological in the island's present culture, and what distinguishes it from the island's healthy traditional culture. We see where the children are going wrong-not by our cultural standards, but by the cultural standards of their parents and their ancestors. We see features emerging that are not only in conflict with the island's indigenous cultural tradition, but which are dangerous and subversive to the existence both of the island culture and perhaps even of the inhabitants of the island.

So what do we do if placed in this position? If we intervene and try to give the children our own personal values, or those of our own culture, then we are obviously betraying their traditional culture. But, if we do nothing, if we merely acquiesce in permitting the pathological form of the culture to take root and to grow dominant, are we not betraying the traditional culture as much, if not more?

This situation is not wholly imaginary, since it was the position in which the civilized world found itself in the aftermath of World War II, when the question arose of what to do about German and Japanese societies. And once again there was the same choice. Do you simply let the pathological remnant of the old devastated cultures struggle along as best they can, in the hope that something might come of it? Do you take a hands-off approach and say, "This is another culture, and we have no right to stand in judgment on it, since such questions can only be decided within the context of one's own culture?"

Or, on the other hand, do you run to the opposite extreme and decide simply to remake the pathological culture in one's own image, needless of the deep and persistent aspect of that culture's own tradition?

If you are sensible, you do neither. As a cultural relativist you are obliged to respect the culture and its own traditions, but precisely because you do respect them, you cannot be content simply with the hands off attitude. Rather, it is precisely because you respect them you will wish to try to purge the culture of the pathological elements that have gained the upper hand.

And this is the challenge that I would present to the naïve multi-culturalism of someone like Susan Sontag and those who espouse the same rather crudely conceived notions. If they are indeed willing to respect the culture of others, they must respect it enough to acknowledge the possibility that the culture in question may well take pathological turns, and that these pathological turns may be recognized by both those operating within the values of the culture and those operating outside these values.

Naïve multiculturalism assumes that a culture is simply an empirical fact, and not a set of normative rules governing the behavior of those who are part of it, so that everything that occurs within a culture or a cultural tradition is equally authentic or valid for that culture. But such an identification ends by embracing both criminal pathology and larger scale social pathologies brought about by both exogenous factors, such as famine, plague, invasion, colonization, on the one hand, as well as the rise of ideological pathologies represented by Nazism, racism, and religious fanaticism, on the other.

Culture, in short, has a point. It has a purpose. And this purpose is to hold a community together, and not to tear it apart. Hence those pathological agents that subvert and undermine a community cannot be listed among those elements of the culture, but must be understood as the enemy of the culture in question.

And by this standard it is clear that both Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein stand condemned, not by the standard of our culture, but by the standard of the great culture they have perverted and betrayed.

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