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I was reading about a recent controversy involving Richard Dawkins saying describing a point about logic and comparing things. As I read about the conflict, the amount of inability of Dawkins and his detractors to understand one another across the barrier of communication was staggering. Many people completely missed what he was trying to say, and misunderstood him to a considerable degree. Meanwhile, he completely missed why everyone was upset. He condescendingly described it as an "emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face."

I feel bad for him. I really do. Because I feel like I get precisely where he's coming from and I understand why people are upset. To me, it appears to be something I have recently been harping on a lot. Cultural context and respect.

This is more or less factual: There is no such thing as absolute right and wrong. From a scientific point of view, there is no evidence of any sort of thing called "ethics" or "morality" existing anywhere outside of our own cultures and minds. From the greatest sins to the most minor incursions against polite social communication, what is right or wrong is relative to a given social/cultural context.

Is it wrong to murder an entire race of people? Not in an absolute sense. Is it right? Again, not in an absolute sense. To talk about these things you MUST first specify the context in which you are stating these things. There must be an agreed upon system by which to evaluate the ethical value of what is being measured and judged.

When Dawkins makes statements like these, he doesn't appear to realize that he is violating cultural taboos that he does not share. And when people get upset at him, they don't inform him of this in a way he understands, appealing to notions of absolute morality that do not have any basis in reality. When he then dismisses these cultural taboos as meaningless tripe, he ignores the fact that he himself likely possesses cultural taboos that he holds in similar ways.

Human beings are not logical, rational creatures of pure reason. We are emotional social creatures whose beliefs about reality are heavily shaped by the people around us. Our ideas about right and wrong, real and unreal, are fundamentally impacted by who and what surrounds us, and neither Richard Dawkins nor his detractors are exempt from that. We are not individuals, isolated from the herd, but expressions of the herd as well. We are both ourselves and our communities.

Conflicts like those I see above often appear to be substantial mismatches in cultural context. Everyone thinks they are operating under the same cultural context as "everyone else" and think that it's "just what's real" without realizing that they are just imposing their particular cultural context onto the others. The conflict arises from the conflicting parties not acknowledging or considering the distinction in culture, and their anger and disdain that they show for the culture that is not their own.

In my experience, cultural respect is most needed, and least shown, in these situations. If someone says or does something, or expresses a belief or value, that is not part of your personal cultural context... Cultural respect demands that you try to acknowledge and consider that difference. And most importantly, that you inquire as to the nature of the cultural difference. If the conflict is too great, separate.

The key to this, really, is a willingness to listen and learn what is going on in the hearts of others. Discover their perspectives and realities and discuss the differences. Teach others of your perspective and learn the perspectives of others. And in so doing, folks might discover a greater peace and avoid or resolve conflicts like these.

It's hard, though, to learn to communicate across cultural differences. To recognize that any judgement of others comes from our own cultural context. To establish a communication and interaction protocol that both respects other's values while not invalidating one's own. I think this is one of the greatest challenges of human interaction, and our continued violence and cruelty and conflict along cultural distinctions demonstrates to me that nobody has got it figured out yet. We're all still stumbling in the dark. Maybe we can get better about recognizing that others are stumbling, too.


Paradox Puree

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