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<nettime> Umberto Eco: Reason in the Age of Terrorism
Kermit Snelson on Wed, 24 Oct 2001 19:22:04 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Umberto Eco: Reason in the Age of Terrorism

Passion and Reason by Umberto Eco
from Der Spiegel
(original Italian; re-translation from German by Kermit Snelson)

The religious wars that have drenched the world in blood for centuries all
arose from a passionate attachment to simplifying binaries: we vs. they, good
vs. evil, black vs. white.  If Western culture has proven fruitful, it is
because it has been forced to "liberate" itself from such damaging
simplifications through the spirit of inquiry and criticism.

Of course, this has not been invariably the case.  Hitler burned books,
condemned "degenerate art" and killed members of "inferior races", but he too
belongs to the history of Western culture.  But if we are to prevent new towers
from collapsing, even those that will come after us, it is the best aspects of
our culture which we must discuss with young people of every skin color.

What often causes confusion is not distinguishing between what are different
things: one's identification with one's own roots, understanding those with
different roots, and the judgment of what is good and bad.

As far as roots are concerned:  if someone were to ask me whether I would
rather spend my retirement years in a small village in Monferrato, in the
majestic mountain world of Abruzzi National Park or in the rolling hills of
Siena, I would vote for Monferrato.  But this doesn't mean that I consider the
Piedmont to be superior to the rest of Italy.

When our Prime Minister [Berlusconi, of Italy] said (in words spoken in the
West and not directed at Arabs) that he'd rather live near Milan rather than
Kabul, and that he'd rather be treated in a Milan hospital than one in Baghdad,
I'm prepared to agree with him.  And this would be the case even if somebody
were to tell me that Baghdad's hospital is the best-equipped in the world.  The
point is that Milan is my home, and home is where my native powers of healing
can flourish.  Roots can also extend beyond the purely regional or national.
For example, I'd rather live in Limoges than Moscow.  Does that mean that
Moscow isn't a beautiful city?  Certainly not, but in Limoges I'd be able to
understand the language.  The point is that everybody identifies with the
culture they grew up in.  There are certainly cases of transplants, but they
are in the minority.  Lawrence of Arabia dressed exactly like an Arab, but he
eventually returned home.

Now let's turn to the conflict of civilizations, because it concerns this
point.  The West, even if primarily for reasons of economic expansion, has
always been curious about other civilizations.  This interest has often been
scornfully dismissive; the Greeks described those who could not speak Greek as
"Barbarians", i.e. babblers, implying that they could not speak at all.

But more advanced Greeks, such as the Stoics (perhaps because some of them were
of Phoenician descent) soon noticed that the barbarians indeed spoke coherently
and in fact expressed thoughts similar to their own, but simply in a language
other than Greek.  Marco Polo tried to describe the customs and dress of the
Chinese with great respect.  The great Doctors of the Church, the medieval
theologians, devoted much effort to translating the texts of the Arab
philosophers, medical writers and astrologers.  The men of the Renaissance even
strained to find in these writings a forgotten Wisdom of the East, transmitted
from the Chaldeans and the Egyptians.  Montesquieu attempted to demonstrate how
well a Persian would have understood French, and modern anthropologists today
continue the mission of the Salesian order, who traveled among the Bororo;
certainly with the intention of converting them to Christianity, but also to
understand how they thought and lived.

In mentioning the anthropologists, I would be saying nothing new by pointing
out that since the middle of the 19th century, cultural anthropology developed
as the attempt to ease the sting of conscience felt by the West with respect to
other cultures, especially those viewed as "primitive peoples" or "societies
without history."  For the West did not always deal tenderly with such peoples.
It "discovered" them, tried to convert them, exploited them and enslaved many
of them.  This was done with the help of the Arabs, because the slaves who were
unloaded in New Orleans by cultivated aristocrats of French origin were shipped
from the African coasts by Muslim traders.

The task of cultural anthropology is to show that a logic exists that is not
Western logic, but that has to be taken seriously and is not to be despised or
suppressed.  This does not mean that anthropologists, having described the
logic of others, must choose to adopt it.  With few exceptions, they return
from their years of field work back to their homes in Devonshire or Picardy to
enjoy the rest of their lives in leisure.  From reading their books, one could
conclude that cultural anthropology adopts a relativist position and asserts
that one culture is as good as any other.  But I don't think that conclusion is
valid.  At the most, anthropologists tell us that the lifestyle of others must
be respected, at least as long as the others stay at home.

Part II

But the real lesson that one must learn from cultural anthropology is that one
must adopt criteria if one is to say that one culture is superior to another.
It is one thing to say what a culture is, and another to assert the criteria by
which it is to be judged.  A culture may be objectively described: these people
behave in such a way, believe in spirits or in a single God that alone
permeates all of nature; observe such and such rules in their family units,
consider it attractive to wear rings in their nose (this observation could be
applied to current Western youth culture), consider pork to be unclean,
practice circumcision, fatten dogs for the table on feast days, or -- as
Americans say about the French -- eat frogs.  But asserting the criterion by
which a culture may be judged is another thing altogether.  That depends on our
roots, our preferences, our customs, our passions, and our value systems.

For example: Do we consider the extension of human life expectancy from 40 to
80 years to be of value?  I am personally convinced, although mystics might
argue with me on this, that between some bon vivant who lived to be 80 and
Saint Luigi of Gonzaga, who lived to be only 23, the latter lived a more
fulfilled life.  But let's assume that a greater life expectancy is a good
thing per se.  If so, then Western medicine and science are certainly superior
to many other forms of scientific and medical practice.  Do we believe that
technological development, the expansion of commerce, the speed of our
transportation to be values?  Many are convinced of that and are thus justified
in considering our technical civilization to be superior.

But the Western world also includes those who believe that life in harmony with
an unspoiled environment conforms to a higher value and are therefore prepared
to do without air travel, automobiles and refrigerators.  They are prepared to
weave baskets and to travel from village to village on foot in order to avoid
holes in the ozone layer.

And so you see that if one is to say one culture is superior to another, then
it doesn't suffice merely to describe it (as the anthropologists do,) but one
must also assert a value system that is indispensable.  Only then can we say
that one culture is better than another.

The advocate of dialogue would demand our respect for the Islamic world and
remind us that it produced figures such as Avicenna (who was born in Bukhara,
not far from present-day Afghanistan) and Averroes -- and that it would be a
sin to come back again and again to those two as if they were the only such
individuals.  There were also Al Kindi, Avempace, Avicebron, Ibn Tufail and
that great historian of the 14th century, Ibn Khaldun, regarded by the West as
the actual founder of the social sciences.  We remind ourselves that the Arabs
of Spain had already cultivated geography, astronomy, mathematics and medicine
at a time when the Christian world lagged far behind.

This is all true, but it doesn't constitute an argument.  Those who argue this
way might as well say that Vinci, an admirable parish in Tuscany, is superior
to New York City because it produced Leonardo de Vinci at a time when Manhattan
was occupied by four Indians who sat on the ground and had still 150 years
ahead of them to wait before the Dutch arrived so they could sell the peninsula
[sic] to them for sixty guilders.  That isn't exactly the point, however.  And
besides--and in saying so I have no desire to offend anybody--that the center
of the world today is New York, not Vinci.  Times have changed.

It also doesn't do much good to point out that the Arabs of Spain were tolerant
of Christians and Jews at a time in we were attacking the ghettos, or that
Saladin after the reconquest of Jerusalem showed much more mercy to Christians
than the Christians did to the Saracens after they conquered Jerusalem.  All
this is true, but it is also true that in today's Arab world there are
fundamentalist and theocratic regimes in which Christians are not tolerated.
And Osama bin Laden has not exactly shown mercy to New York City.  On the other
hand, the French were guilty of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, yet nobody
today describes the French as barbarians.

We shouldn't belabor history, because it is a double-edged sword.  The Turks
impaled people (and that's bad), but the Byzantine Orthodox ripped out the eyes
of their dangerous kinsmen, and the Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno.  The
Saracen pirates made "The Raw and the Cooked" out of their victims while the
corsairs torched the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean at the bidding of the
British Crown; bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are certainly sworn enemies of
Western civilization, but that civilization has featured leaders with names
like Hitler and Stalin (Stalin's evil was so great that it has been called
"Oriental", even though Stalin went to graduate school and read Marx.)

No, the problem of criteria is one of contemporary categories, not historical.
One of the praiseworthy aspects of Western cultures (free and pluralistic, and
these are values that we consider inalienable) is that today we have known for
a long time that one and the same person can deal with different problems using
diverse and even contradictory criteria.  For example, we consider the
extension of life expectancy to be good and environmental pollution to be bad,
even though the same energetic communications and support networks that enabled
the great collaborative work necessary for the former also brought the latter
in its wake.

Western culture has developed the capacity to freely admit its contradictory
foundations.  Perhaps these contradictions have not been resolved, but they are
acknowledged and discussed.  Ultimately, this is the very locus of the entire
debate over globalisation: what level of positive globalisation should be
allowed without incurring the risk and injustice of perverse globalization?
How can the lives of millions of Africans with AIDS (and perhaps our own) be
prolonged without accepting a global economy that permits those with AIDS to
die of hunger instead, and leaves us with only contaminated food to swallow?

Part III

But exactly this critique of criteria that the West pursues and encourages
makes us understand that the questions of criteria are delicate.  Is it correct
and civilized to protect banking secrecy?  Many are convinced that it is.  But
what if this allows terrorists to avail themselves of London's finest financial
services?  Is the protection of so-called privacy a positive or a doubtful

We are constantly submitting our values to examination.  The Western world does
this so much that it allows its own citizens to reject technological
development and to become Buddhists instead, or to live in a community that
doesn't use tires, not even for horse-drawn carriages.  Our schools are
required to teach that even the criteria at the heart of our most passionate
convictions must be analyzed and discussed.

The problem that cultural anthropology has not yet solved is what do we do when
somebody from another culture, whose principles we have duly learned to
respect, wants to come live with us?  The reality is that most of the racist
backlash in the West stems not from the fact that there are animists in Mali,
but that those animists are coming to live with us.  What do we do when they
wear the chador, practice infibulation (i.e., sew their girls' vaginas shut
until marriage) or refuse blood transfusions (as do some Western sects) for
their sick children?  What if the last remaining cannibals from New Guinea (if
there are any) emigrate to our country and want to barbecue a little boy at
least every Sunday?

With respect to the cannibals, we are all agreed: we throw them in jail.  As
far as the girls who wear a chador to school, I see no reason to raise a fuss
if that's what they want to do.  But as far as infibulation goes, that raises a
question (even for those who are so tolerant that insist at least that local
medical facilities be made available to ensure that the operation is sterile.)
But what do we do, for example, with the demand that Muslim women be allowed to
be photographed for passport photos while wearing their veils?

We have laws that are applicable to everybody and established so that citizens
may be identified.  I believe that these laws cannot be dispensed with.  If I
visit a mosque, I take my shoes off in order to respect the laws and customs of
my host country.  How do we deal, then, with a photo with a veil?  I believe
that a solution in such cases can be negotiated.  At the end of the day,
passport photos are only conditionally suitable anyway.  In these cases, the
passport can also possibly include fingerprints.  If Muslim women wish to
follow their own rules of dress, but also wish to attend our schools, they can
learn to obey to rules that are not their own, just as the many Westerners do
who enroll in Koranic schools and have decided of their own free will to become

For some years there has been an international organization called
"Transcultura" which advocates an "alternative anthropology."  It has
encouraged African researchers who have never been in the West to describe
provincial France and the society of Bologna.  Having learned from their
writings that the two most remarkable things about European culture are that we
walk our dogs and frolic naked on the beach, I can assure you that two-way
cultural observation has begun and that many interesting discussions have

Imagine if Islamic fundamentalists were invited to study Christian
fundamentalism.  Not Catholics, but the American Protestants whose fanaticism
exceeds an Ayatollah's and who want to erase all references to Darwin from
school textbooks.  I believe that such an anthropological study of another kind
of fundamentalism would enable them better to understand their own.  They would
come to understand our own concept of a Holy War (I could recommend to them
many interesting texts and recent dates) and perhaps learn to view their own
with a critical eye.  After all, we in the West have learned much about the
limits of our own thinking by attempting to understand that of the "savage."

One of the much-discussed values of Western civilization is acceptance of
differences.  Theoretically, we all agree that it is "politically correct" to
refer to somebody in public as gay.  But in private, we still giggle when we
talk about a homosexual.  How are we teaching acceptance of differences?  The
"Académie universelle des cultures" has a Web site which posts material on
various themes (skin color, religion, mores, customs, etc.)  for the use of
teachers who live in countries that want to teach their pupils to accept those
who are different from themselves.

Next it is decided to dish up to our children no lies, all the while asserting
that all men are created equal.  But children notice quite well that some
neighbors or classmates aren't like themselves.  Their skin color may differ,
they may have slanted eyes, they may have smoother or fuller hair, they may eat
strange things or not take communion.  It also doesn't suffice to say to them
that we are all creatures of God.  Animals, after all, are also creatures of
God.  But children will never see goats sitting beside them in the classroom
during spelling class.

So instead, children must be taught that human beings are indeed very
different.  And we must explain to them exactly what these differences are, so
that they can be shown how such diversity can be enriching.  A teacher in an
Italian school must help Italian pupils understand why other children pray to a
different God or play music that isn't rock-n-roll.  And of course, a Chinese
teacher must teach Chinese children, who live next to a Christian community,
the same thing.  The next step would be to show that our music has much in
common with theirs, and that their God also has good things to teach us.

A possible objection: why do this in Florence when they don't do it in Kabul?
But this objection couldn't be further from the values of Western civilization.
We constitute ourselves as a pluralistic society because we allow mosques to be
built among us, and we can't dispense with this just because in Kabul they
throw Christian missionaries in jail.  Doing so would turn us into the Taliban.
Rather, we should hope that by permitting mosques in our country, that some day
Christian churches will be allowed there and that the Buddhist statues there
will not be bombed.

In recent days, several odd things have come to light.  One is that the defense
of Western values has apparently become the exclusive property of the Right,
while the Left is acting, as usual, pro-Islamic.  But the defense of scientific
values, technological progress and modern Western culture in general has always
been hallmark of the secular and progressive wing.  All Communist regimes have
invoked the ideology of technical and scientific progress.  The Communist
Manifesto of 1848 begins with an impartial justification of bourgeois
expansion.  Marx doesn't say that we should reinvent the wheel and return to
Asiatic modes of production.  Rather, he asserts that the proletariat must
adopt certain values and achievements of the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, is precisely reactionary thought (in the highest sense of
the word), that has historically, at least since its rejection of the French
Revolution, opposed the secular ideology of progress by advocating instead a
return to traditional values.  The more serious among these thinkers of
tradition have always, along with the rituals and myths of primitive peoples
and Buddhist doctrine, turned to Islam as a still-living source of alternative
spirituality.  It was the reactionary thinkers who have always reminded us that
we -- dried-up as we are by the ideology of progress -- are not superior and
that we must seek the truth among the mystical Sufis or whirling dervishes.

So in this sense, a strange rift has recently opened up.  But this is perhaps
only a sign that in an age of great revaluation of values (and the age we're
living in is certainly one of these) that nobody is sure any more what side
he's on.  But it is precisely in times like these that we must understand that
our own superstitions must be fought exactly like those of others: with the
weapons of analysis and criticism.  I hope that these themes will be addressed
not only in press conferences, but also in the schools.

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