Unequal Cultures and Social Darwinism

Over on the right-wing blog of Darth Vadum is the predictable post about how different cultures are not equal. That’s a sly way of saying that some cultures are superior to others, and an even more sly way of implying that Western culture is superior to all others. It’s an idea finding traction among the hardcore neo-con set, such as David Frum, VD Hansen and Jonah Goldberg. As mentioned in this space before, part of the neo-con agenda is to foment a war of civilizations, pitting the “enlightened” and “freedom loving” West against…. well, against everyone else, but in the short term against the so-called Islamic world.

The fundamental argument in favour of cultural inequality is, of course, deeply flawed. It goes like this: some cultures value individual freedoms, etc, more than others and are therefore superior to other cultures. The problem, of course, is in choosing the criteria for evaluation. The above example of “individual freedom” is a dearly held Western tenet, so applying it will automatically select in favour of Western modalities. It’s like saying White people are better than Black people because they are more white: a self-serving circular argument.

Another example: it has been argued that capitalism is better than types of economic communalism because capitalism creates greater economic wealth. While it is true that capitalism does create more economic wealth than other kinds of economies, this makes it “better” than other types only if greater economic wealth is indeed the standard by which one chooses to judge. Some people might not think wealth is all that important. And as we have learned this past century, other factors beyond wealth need to be put into the evaluative equation, such as personal happiness, environmental damage, sustainability of the wealth, population health and growth, population education and other softer quality of life measures.

This is why anthropologists and social scientists of the last century developed the idea of “cultural relativism”, which does not state that all cultures are equal, despite what the supremacist right-wingers will tell you. Rather, relativism argues that there cannot exist objective criteria with which to evaluate cultures, since each observer necessarily comes from a specific cultural tradition. This does not mean that we cannot evaluate and criticize cultures, only that we must be aware that when we do so we are inevitably applying our own culturally-biased value system. In the end, any such evaluation only serves to provide pseudo-scientific rationalisation for our supremacist philosophies and policies.

Ultimately, all leanings toward cultural inequality lead to one hoary destination: social/cultural Darwinism. If one accepts, even in theory, that one culture can be superior to another, then one must conclude that the superior one must prevail in conflict and is justified in doing so. This is a position that forms the bedrock of empire, so it is not surprising to see imperial scribes, like the Bush sycophants listed above, espousing such discredited social theory. In the words of Charley Reese:

“[The USA is] the only country in the world that has military forces permanently stationed all over the Earth. All imperialism, even the American form, is ultimately based on social Darwinism, a belief not openly stated these days that we are a superior people and therefore must inevitably rule in one way or another the inferior others.”

Furthermore,

“The code word we use for superiority these days is ‘democracy.’ It is democracy that is superior to all other forms of government, and therefore we are doing people a favor to spread it.”