Tuesday, April 05, 2005

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.


At 9:07 AM, April 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing you remember from your logic course is probably the technique of "reductio ad absurdum", in which you refute a proposition by demonstrating that it would logically lead to an absurd conclusion.

At 1:05 PM, April 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Verily shall thee I read
my mind to feed
t'would'st seem noble indeed
for more to follow thy lead
and heed'th not those who plead
for planting compassion's seed
o'er 9/11's wicked deed
-LDM (the lonely donut man)

At 5:31 PM, April 05, 2005, Blogger Dr. Sanity said...

I think Ali is a great and courageous woman. I read the article over the weekend and was newly impressed with her.

At 11:07 PM, April 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this all teaches us most clearly is: 'Religion is poison.'

At 5:08 AM, April 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...'Religion is poison.'

Anon, I've been an atheist for over 4 decades.

Religion dispensed without regard to dose can be poison. But when properly administered, it can be a salve.

Religion is seldom the crux of a problem historically, it is the people who deign to foist their own brand of medicine upon thee and me.

At 6:33 AM, April 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I Could Scream" is a Blog that deals with the oppression of Muslim women. It is worth checking out. I've always wondered why American feminists have not spoken out more on this issue. Honor killings, clitorectomy, forced marriages, etc. Years ago I was in the Peace Corps in W. Africa in a predominately Muslim area. I was in a mixed training group and towards the end of the training all of us men were given a small motorcycle to use in our work, the women weren't. I will never forget when one of the women wanted to learn to drive a motorcycle the men became enraged, almost violent saying a woman had no place in doing such a thing.

At 6:44 AM, April 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Religion, per se , is not poison; however, some people who purport to practice it are full of venom. Then too there are atheists who are full of the same venom !

At 3:11 PM, April 06, 2005, Blogger Solomon2 said...

If you liked that article, you'll probably want to watch or read the soon-to-be-available transcript of the same author's Monday presentation, Raymond Aron and the End of Europe.

At 6:55 AM, April 09, 2005, Blogger David said...

you might want to link to this female circumcision entry in wikipedia


Ali is a remarkable person with large brass balls, what a story, what courage.

here is another link to a blog and comments about her and Theo


At 4:17 PM, April 23, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The US is willing to offer you millions if you come here and earn your citizenship, Hirsti.

It would be a wise policy for the US to drain every other unworthy country of their excellent human resources.

Who knows what a nation can achieve with people nobody else wants.

At 12:45 AM, May 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is preposterous how somebody can easily be famous by clobering Islam.
Is had been in existent for centuries and will,untill the end of time, as for hate monger a painfull punishment awaits them.

At 2:49 PM, January 08, 2008, Blogger Ian said...

Surely being intolerant of intolerance instantly makes you a hypocrite?
Being intolerant of other people doing things you don't find acceptable, e.g. subjugating women, is exactly the same as them not tolerating what they don't find acceptable, e.g. women not dressing modestly. No one can see objective truth and judge what is right and what is wrong, so you shouldn't impose ideas on other people if they are in contention. Very few people would disagree that murder is wrong and should be illegal so very few people will have a problem with people not being allowed to murder people, but saying to Muslims, "I don't find the things you do acceptable, change them." is completely wrong because it is purely your opinion against theirs, and there will be a fairly even amount of people on either side of the argument.
In short, being intolerant of intolerance makes you exactly the same as the people who are intolerant, the only difference being that you think you're right and they think they're right.


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