On New Year’s Eve, perhaps as many as a thousand North African or Middle Eastern men groped, molested and possibly raped woman in the vicinity of Cologne Cathedral. In the process, they did more to further the aims of ISIS than any murderous exchange. Their actions defined a new low mark for cultural integration and furthered the cause of the Far Right who argue that ‘Christian’ Europe and the Islamic Middle East are locked in a death spiral. The mob may have altered the course of modern European history. It is a matter of waiting to see how profound those changes will be when they arrive.
What was perhaps most telling about the story was how it moved into the headlines with the pace of dripping slime. It was slow, messy, and undignified. It was also predictable. The problems faced in the immediate aftermath had little to do with geography, politics, or even law and order. They were largely problems of language.
Despite the sense of advancement afforded to us by technology, we live in a post-intellectual age. Too often ‘intellectual’ is taken to mean ‘lofty’, and ‘elitist’ when, really, it simply refers to the ‘process of the mind’. The business of ‘thinking’ has been largely handed over to the various academies which have themselves been industrialised. This is much less evident in the sciences than the humanities, which perhaps explains why many of our most prominent ‘thinkers’ are scientists who have the luxury of evidence with which to back up their arguments. They also belong in a discipline where rigorous argument is welcomed. They haven’t succumbed to the follies of modern French philosophy (Derrida, Foucault, and, more impenetrable of all, Lacan) which has become the bane of all the humanities. Given the expansion of universities, especially in the UK, the amount of unreadable research in the humanities has increased in proportion to the number of badly conceived theses being written.
As a consequence, too many academic journals are filled with articles with a research value of diddly raised to the power of squat. It would be unfair (and too easy) to quote examples but anybody who has studied Philosophy, History, or English Literature will recognise the type of loquacious but vague papers that mix psychobabble with irrelevant social data. You would also recognize that unmistakable tension that occasionally falls across the hall at any academic conference when such a paper is challenged by those rigorous members of the audience who are unwilling to indulge in the usual habit of lofting an easy question so that the speaker can knock it back.
The lack of serious argument has led to a wider problem throughout our culture in which it is customary to allow bad opinions to go unchallenged. To do otherwise results in one of two outcomes. The most usual result is the use of a ‘thought terminating cliché’ such as ‘we will have to agree to disagree’ which has no more weight than the juvenile response of ‘so what’ but lacks brevity.
The other most likely outcome is more sinister. It is the official complaint, the punishment for holding non-orthodox views, often followed by the Twitter campaign demanding a person’s apology, job and/or life. This, sadly, is become increasingly prevalent in British universities where invitations to speakers are routinely withdrawn or challenged simply because the speaker dares express an opinion that’s counter to the prevailing doctrine. Germaine Greer supposedly offends when she argues, rightly and, much more importantly, with humour, that ‘just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a fucking cocker spaniel.’
It should be easy to laugh because Greer is funny and right, but some would find it easier to take the words as an assault on their pet theories based on abstract theory rather than hard science. More worrying is that the opprobrium heaped upon Greer makes academics pause before they say anything difficult or challenging. As with a lack of diversity in the natural sciences, within the context of academia, the limited gene pool produces yet more inbred follies of dubious scholarship that themselves enter into the cycle of bad ideas grown from the Petri dish of abstract stupidity.
The media is largely a product of this climate of paranoia. When Cologne happened, you could sense they went rigid with fear and, in truth, we all became wary of where we trod. They knew at once what they would need to report but they lacked the moral and intellectual strength so they would know how to say it. The situation in Cologne was a stark example of the problems caused when different cultural values conflict in an intellectual atmosphere where thought crime carries a life sentence. The attackers’ countries of origin could not be ignored yet describing it was itself a challenge. It quickly became a problem of language as to how these facts were reported.
These things should not have to be said but it’s a sign of our times that they must be made clear. Racism is spiritually bankrupt but also intellectually void. With the exception of a few instances, it is illogical and unacceptable to equate a person’s abilities to their ethnicity. Those exceptions are notable because they’re obvious. It is known, for example, that people born in sub-Saharan Africa are more prone to sickle cell anemia. It is thought that people of Northern European descent are more likely to be Celiac. There are many others examples but, in the main, who we are is not fixed by ethnicity. Nor does it have much influence on our development beyond our physical appearance. We are all within a certain range of heights, weights, skin tones, body temperatures, vocal ranges, and, indeed, genders. Race might not be skin deep (bone structures also convey ethnicity) but it certainly has little impact on our thoughts, actions and character.
Culturally, however, we are very diverse and it would be downright foolish to argue otherwise. A person born in London in 1955 would in all likelihood enjoy very different music to somebody born on exactly the same day but in a small rural town in Syria. Played to non-native audiences, any music can sound discordant and non-musical.
Such differences go to the root of our cultural identities and bless us with the rich diversity that we enjoy. We are all creatures of context, which means that our likes and dislikes aren’t hardcoded into our being as much as they are the ‘firmware’ installed throughout our development. It explains why different people might prefer certain types of weather or food. Just this week it was revealed that Cadburys have recorded a big loss due to Europeans rejecting the American recipe of Creme Eggs. American and European might be biologically the same but, clearly, our tastes are different.
The same can be true of intellectual habits, which include our morality. Different cultures promote difference normative values through their literature. Notions of heroism and goodness might be different according to the stories we were told. So too are masculine and feminine values taught to us at an early age. Of course, there are some situations where we are victim to the nature of our bodies. That is the essential truth of the more sensible versions of feminist theory which argue that the female condition is different to the male.
When those men groped their way across Cologne, the problem was clearly cultural and it would have been reasonable to describe it in precisely those terms. It is so self-evident that it needn’t even be started that ethnicity itself was not the cause of their actions. The factors that influenced the mob’s behaviour were most likely their culturally derived attitudes towards their own sexuality and the role of women in society.
To say any of this, however, is difficult in a climate where disagreeing with other cultural norms quickly turns into accusations of bigotry and racism. No sooner do commentators speak of the group’s origins in North Africa and the Middle East than others cite ‘Islamaphobia’, a word that has been repeatedly used and misused.
So let’s try to be clear then about this word. Self evidently, ‘Islamaphobia’ means ‘a phobia of Islam’ but it is rarely used in the strictest sense. The word is pejorative and people that use it cynically exploit its tricky nature. The more you study the word, the more ingenious you realise the trick. It is the linguistic equivalent of a snare. It lures you in because ‘Extreme fear’ is a reasonable meaning. Then its jaws snap tight and you realise that you’re being punished because ‘irrational fear’ is not.
Islam criticised in the same way that sceptics criticise all religions is reasonable, justified and, I strongly believe, necessary. Islam broadened to encompass ethnicity is not. ‘Islamaphobia’, therefore, is a very poor word unless it is defined as the ‘extreme anxiety of the dangers pose by the religion of Islam’. That is rarely the case. It is a word deliberately constructed as a ‘thought terminating cliché’. Once used, we are not meant to proceed any further and the failure of the media to aptly describe the problems of Cologne are, I think, symptomatic of the way we do not challenge these words.
We have a responsibility to challenge any concept, practice or ideology that promotes values which are at odds to those of our society. That doesn’t always mean that we reject anything that we perceive a foreign. Sometimes we embrace them and those values enhance our system, as has happened throughout our history. Yet, at the same time, we should feel no shame in decrying those values which are incompatible with our own. It happens frequently across the Middle East where Westerners are jailed for Western values and habits. And what is more: it is also correct that they are. If you go to Saudi Arabia and are caught having sex on the beach then the authorities have every right to charge you with criminality in the same way that they have the right to punish those that don’t abide by their rules concerning alcohol. If those cultures require improvement, it is up to the people living in those cultures to improve them as we improved our own. We need to rid ourselves of the mendacious cant that has polluted our thought and stifles our arguments. We need to say what we believe and feel no shame in believing in what we say.