Hirsi Ali: intolerant of intolerance
I hope you've had a chance to look at this magnificent profile of Hirsi Ali in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine. It is certainly "riveting," as the Big Trunk at Powerline writes. I'm not quite sure why he calls it "mortifying" as well (definition: causing shame or awareness of one's own shortcomings), except that Hirsi Ali's courage puts us all to shame in comparison.
The name of the piece, "Daughter of the Enlightenment," is apt. This lovely and fearless Somali refugee to the Netherlands has led many lives in her own short one: dutiful daughter, well-educated multi-linguist, arranged marriage refusee, refugee cleaning woman, devout Moslem, apostate Moslem, member of Parliament, object of death threats. Now, she adamantly refuses to pull any punches.
Here's one of my favorite Hirsi Ali quotes. It's her reply to outraged Dutch Moslems and multiculturalists who criticized her for calling Islam backward in its treatment of women: For five long years in Leiden [University], you taught me to state facts. Now I do. Ah, would that Larry Summers could learn to defend himself so boldly and succinctly!
Another statement of Hirsi Ali's worth pondering: I confront the European elite's self-image as tolerant, while under their noses women are living like slaves. Here Hirsi Ali criticizes the cultural relativist notion that the mores of other cultures living within the midst of the West are off-limits, that we cannot judge them no matter what they do, and that this attitude represents the pinnacle of tolerance. The point Hirsi Ali is making is that such blanket, unthinking "tolerance" is wrong. Tolerance should not be tolerant of intolerance, or it sows the seeds of its own destruction.
It's like one of those brain twisters--those paradoxes or syllogisms or whatever they were called--in a course I took so long ago and dropped before I flunked it: symbolic logic. The idea is that, if one takes a certain principle to its extreme, it very often will be found to contain an internal contradiction. (I think that, on this list of logical fallacies, the final one may be what I'm describing--"conflicting conditions." But please, don't quote me on that!)
Western society used to be a great deal more closed, rigid, (and, yes, intolerant), than it is now. That intolerance was often arbitrary, or at least, seemingly so. Wearing a skirt with a certain hemlength (covering the legs entirely, for example) was not a matter of choice, it was obligatory if one didn't want to be shunned. People of different religions weren't accepted in polite society. People from other countries were thought churlish if they ate different sorts of foods (garlic, for instance, was thought to be particularly declasse).
For many years--slowly at first, and then with ever-quickening tempo during the 1960s--society in the West has become more tolerant of these arbitrary distinctions. We no longer blink much at skirt lengths, as long as the person is clothed; there are movers and shakers of every race and religion (although of course some bigotry remains); garlic and all sorts of ethnic foods are served in upscale restaurants.
Those are the sorts of advancements that are in step with Enlightenment values. In Western societies, women like Hirsi Ali not only can speak their minds freely, but they do not have to endure what she endured as a child, a procedure that the NY Times article delicately and far too euphemistically refers to as "circumcision."
So, let's all celebrate the triumph over arbitrary intolerance. But the pendulum has swung way too far if we require ourselves to tolerate everything, even cruelty to women, and to tolerate intolerance itself. Tolerance applied without any distinction can become a trap. That way lies madness--not to mention the seeds of the destruction of tolerant societies themselves.