Monday, January 11, 2016

Western Imperialism and Theories of Human Nature; Or, Culture Is A Thing

I don't know if you saw this article that appeared the New York Times over the holidays about the aftermath of the case in Afghanistan where the woman was beaten and killed by a mob of men because someone said, falsely, that she had burned a Quran.

The article basically describes the way the legal process has unfolded, the various attempts to hold people responsible for the violence, and the many obstacles and difficulties that have arisen. Among other things: it's hard to know exactly when she died, and therefore it's hard to know who was and was not responsible for her death; the case was heavily politicized from beginning to end; a million complicated things.

It was only when I got to the middle of the article, though, that I realized that the piece is not just about a court case and its complexities; it's also about the way the case itself is seen as a test case for a massive program of Western intervention into the Afghan legal system.

The details and failures of that effort read like a textbook case of Western imperialism, hubris, arrogance, and just general failure to understand anything about how the world works.

Most broadly and unsurprisingly, as one informed commentator said, the consulting experts failed to understand the point of the exercise, with the experts assuming they were "helping to rebuild a system in transition from the Taliban period to a more secular one," when in fact the Afghans are still deciding what kind of system they want, given that their current system draws on both Islamic law and an existing state legal code.

In a classic move, assuming their job was to "rewrite" the code instead of starting by just translating the existing one, Western consultants from various countries just used their own systems as templates when they felt like it -- like, "Oh today the Italian guy is here so he's going to make it look like the Italian code."

As insulting and paternalistic as that whole business, what's crazy is how badly the whole thing was done. Like, it's bad enough you want to be headmaster of the world -- but now you're going to do a half-assed crappy job of it?

There were many missteps, leading eventually to a wide array of problems -- such as many defendants with no defense lawyers and with no notification that it was even their day their case would be considered.

And so many of the missteps seemed to me to come back to simple failure to understand that culture is a thing. People live in various ways, and those ways profoundly affect how social systems work. It's not like fixing a carburetor, for fuck's sake.

According to the Times, these things happened during the consulting phase:

Consultants tutored the Afghans about jury selection, even though judges decide the cases.

Consultants spent a lot of time teaching about how to handle sexual assault cases, even though in Afghanistan almost no one brings sexual assault cases, because of family pressure and fear of reprisal. 

Consultants placed young advisors to tutor older judges, even though this flies in the face of cultural attitudes about deference to age and experience. The judges were then naturally dismissive. As one Afghan defense lawyer with a Harvard degree put it: "Everyone has his pride, and they say, 'Why is this young kid teaching me?'"

Judges often study theology and Shariah. So when lawyers trained in law and political science are in the courtroom with judges, they're often talking past one another.

The consulting program didn't deal with the problem of corruption. As a defense lawyer for two of the accused in the case said, "When your client is a poor guy, you are asked to pay a bribe or he spends 16 years in jail."

Partly because of corruption, people don't trust the justice system. When people don't trust the justice system, you can't just let the system do the work of trying to find the just decisions. No one will believe the result was arrived at in the appropriate way, and will therefore interpret the result as politicized.

While I realize that in some deep sense you can trace these problems back to ingrained social attitudes in the West that their system is somehow obviously best so who cares what other people think, it seems to me there are some interesting implicit ideas about human nature that are relevant.

I don't know how and when this happened, exactly, but somehow the idea seems to have taken hold -- at least in North America -- that social problems are basically like engineering problems, that you can just use some charts and graphs and so on to get to your "result," that economics and the language of incentives gives you all the "theory" you need, so that sociology, anthropology, history and literature have been deemed relatively unimportant.

How do cases like this not suggest to everyone that this is the opposite of the way things are? Culture is a thing. To work with people and collaborate with them, you have to understand it. To understand it, you have to think about people and learn about them and listen to them in a certain humanistic way.

If the education gods came down from on high, don't you think they would find it bizarre that while war and violence and injustice are some of our main problems, we're closing down the departments where you learn about such things?

Culture is complicated, and social systems are just not engineering problems. Why is there so much resistance to this simple and obvious fact? 


Janet Vickers said...

Really appreciate this post. Thank you.

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