As an American who grew up believing that the United States of America was the beacon of freedom in the world and that people all over the world envied our democracy and liberty, I could never understand why other countries would want to attack us. As a teenager, it was the Russkies and Chicoms that threatened us with their totalitarian aspirations. Today the threat comes primarily from terrorists, but hatred for our country seems to seethe from every corner of the globe. For many Americans, including me, this seems inconceivable. What motivated people all around the world to celebrate when the Twin Towers came down on 9/11? Why did so many dance in the streets and celebrate the worst attack on American soil in half a century?
In his book, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (IVP, 2004), Meic Pearse tries to help Americans understand the “roots of global rage” against Western democracy. In the introduction he views American tolerance, which many of us consider to be one of the cornerstones of our liberties, from another side. In this passage he is not referring to tolerance as moral relativism, but tolerance as the principles of freedom of religion, speech, press, etc.
The currency of the term tolerance has recently become badly debased. Where it used to mean the respecting of real, hard differences, it has come to mean instead a dogmatic abdication of truth-claims and a moralistic adherence to moral relativism—departure from either of which is stigmatized as intolerance. (p. 12)
Christians decry this kind of tolerance, too, but we often fail to remember that this kind of moral relativism came from the West. We would rather imagine that we have only ever exported the virtuous kind of tolerance, which seems self-apparently superior, not only to relativism, but also to the kind of restrictions on freedoms one finds in most of the world. How could anyone argue against the intrinsic goodness of a free democratic society? Pearse, however, describes the ability of tolerance to erode cultural and religious distinctives.
[Tolerance] is an agreement that a previously monolithic society makes with a minority: we will tolerate you and your strange ways for reasons that seem good to us (because we think it just, or because the advantages of doing so outweigh the disadvantages—or whatever) at the price of our overall culture being a little less sharply and rigidly defined than it has been before. Now, we agree to smudge the edges so that we can include you. (p. 11)
Pearse reminds us that many in the world see the impact of Hollywood, consumer culture, and crass capitalism (in contrast to principled capitalism) to be destructive to their cultures. Instead of seeing the positive aspects of American culture that truly exist, many around the world are more inclined to see the glass half empty.
It is hard to argue against the legitimate complaints concerning the corrosive power of American culture. Don’t we, in fact, preach against it in the church all the time? Why do we defend American culture against the rest of the world while we curse it in our own pulpits?
The truth is, the moral relativism that has been tolerated in America, especially in the last century, has invaded many countries around the world. Many of these countries had clear moral standards, even if they were distorted and included practices we would find objectionable. Our relativism has worn away the edges of their cultures, captured the hearts of their young, and has threatened their way of life. We may not agree with certain elements of various cultures around the world, but we certainly can’t deny that our “tolerance” has done this. And this is just one reason why many in the world hate the U.S. I don’t find the hatred completely justified, but the goal of this essay is understanding, not necessarily agreement.
The new tolerance is intolerance
Pearse continues explaining the “openness” of the new tolerance:
Where the old tolerance allowed hard differences on religion and morality to rub shoulders and compete freely in the public square, the new variety wishes to lock them all indoors as matters of private judgment; the public square must be given over to indistinctness. If the old tolerance was, at least, a real value, the new, intolerant “tolerance” might better be described as an antivalue; it is a disposition of hostility to any suggestion that one thing is “better” than another, or even that any way of life needs protected space from its alternatives. (p. 12)
How does this affect the distinctiveness of a certain culture? It muzzles and destroys it. I experienced this firsthand a few years ago while taking a doctoral class in philosophy at a Catholic university. After stating my objections to language games and irrationality in postmodern philosophy, I was informed by the Goth female sitting next to me that my dogmatism was oppressing her. If I could just view the world from the bottom of the ladder, as she had to, from her post-colonial and feminist perspective, instead of from the top of the ladder as a white man, then I would understand why my insistence that truth was better than falsehood was tyrannical and oppressive. This poor, deluded girl was unable to see how intolerant her tolerance had become.
How does this relate to global rage? Peoples around the world have seen an influx of this kind of culture-destroying tolerance coming from the West.
With this shift, the threat to distinctness becomes greatly exacerbated. It is not just totalitarian ideologues who will come into conflict with us Westerners; anyone who cares about their culture, and has enough exposure to us and our way of doing things to be affected by us, will feel threatened. (p. 12-13)
Pearse’s observations here reveal one reason why there is global rage: the intolerant tolerance of the West erodes the distinctions of culture. And for people that greatly value their culture, this constitutes a threat to be resisted, even violently if necessary.
In Pearse’s view, the new “openness” of American tolerance is an antivalue because it only erases—“it excludes all hard definitions of identity.” Openness also, by its insistent hyperinclusivity, destroys any real sense of community, a concept which postmoderns believe they invented, even though in reality, it was a distinctly Christian reality long before they began to pontificate about it (Acts 2:42-47).
In the past few decades, tolerance and openness “have passed beyond the stage of being consciously held ideals in Western countries; they have become foundational to the Western outlook. The person who does not hold them is increasingly looked at with bafflement and disbelief” (p. 13-14). The reason? Tolerance and openness have become part of Western common sense.
The un-common nature of “common sense”
“Common sense” sounds like a good, conservative, Christian idea. We often appeal to common sense in discussions where we feel an opponent is being irrational or purposely denying the truth. We say in exasperation, “Common sense tells you that the more you tax the citizenry, the more you stifle the economy!” or “The existence of God is a matter of common sense!” In this type of statement common sense seems to us like a trump card; who can argue against common sense?
In reality, however, the appeal to common sense is a trap. It appeals to a so-called universal, innate sense of truth and right that every rational person ought to possess. Common sense is supposed to provide certainty and a reliable standard for rationality. The problem, however, is that common sense is completely relative to the culture in which we find ourselves. Additionally, we must recognize that what is common sense to believers will not necessarily be so to unbelievers, and vice versa. Further, what is common sense in one time may not be in another. So at the least, common sense is bounded by culture, religion and time.
Pearse explains that what people in the West perceive to be common sense is completely foreign to the thinking of many in the rest of the world. We have become so used to the way we think that we find it hard to believe that everybody doesn’t think the same way. Pearse explains: “If confronted by individuals or groups who differ from this perception and who behave accordingly, we will probably consider them to be stupid, crazy or perhaps fanatical” (p. 14-15).
This point ought to be of special interest to Christians, for the Bible makes it clear that we are cognitive aliens in a world of people whose thinking has been distorted by depravity. Unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness, exchange the truth of God for a lie, and have been given over to darkened minds and depraved practices (Rom. 1:18-32). As a result, they often perceive believers to be stupid, crazy and fanatical. On the other hand, the regenerate have been delivered from darkness into light (Col. 1:13, John 3:21), behold the glory of God (2 Cor. 3:18), and are transformed as a result (2 Cor. 5:17). We should, of all people, understand that what is considered rational and common sense will necessarily be different between believer and unbeliever. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that various cultures view common sense quite differently.
Rather than sharing a primary affinity with other Westerners regardless of their faith, we ought to find affinity with believers around the world, regardless of their cultures. What is common sense to believers is that which the Word of God clearly states. As a result, my outlook and worldview should share more in common with a believer in the jungles of New Guinea than with my unbelieving neighbor, all the while acknowledging our cultural differences as expressions of the glory of God.
Also as a result, we ought to share some righteous rage with the rest of the world concerning the wickedness of the West. We could easily default to raging against the abominable practices of other cultures, such as female genital mutilation in Sudan or the conscription of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, but it is highly unlikely that these practices will influence our culture any time soon. Corrupt Western culture, on the other hand, reaches into almost every nation and people group on earth and wears away cultural distinctives and the moral fabric of societies. This enrages the keepers of culture in other nations, and in their Adamic state, blame and recrimination come naturally (as it does for us).
Conclusion: maybe we are the barbarians
Does all this mean that America is completely devoid of cultural value and deserving of the wrath and violence brought upon her by others? Certainly not. Every nation on earth is bound in sin, corruption and wickedness. Every nation deserves the wrath of God, but instead receives the blessings of common grace presently. The rage of nations against the West is both a reflection of the suppressed knowledge of God (when they hate wickedness and error) and the depravity of their own hearts (when they hate the Christian elements of the West). Yet, we can learn much about our culture from this rage by those we have traditionally considered to be barbarians.
Understanding the root causes of global rage is not a simple exercise, but it is critical if we are to avoid missing the point, and missing opportunities for the proclamation of the gospel. It is also important so we don’t misdiagnose pressing problems related to global rage such as immigration, multiculturalism, missions in restricted access nations, and terrorism. I conclude with a final statement by Pearse.
[It is] increasingly urgent for Westerners to obtain a clear view of what makes their own culture tick so that, seeing themselves, they can more clearly understand why the rest of the world considers them—as it most assuredly does—to be dangerously seductive, but domineering barbarians. (p. 15)