Monday, 22 August 2011

Understanding Culture 101

In the wake of the Utøya massacre and its insidious perpetrator, the ever ongoing debate on multiculturalism is a hot topic once again. And as always, when certain political factions or elements start debating this concept and its inherent evil, I do not know whether to laugh or cry. Because it is a simple fact that culture is never clean nor monolithic. Not even when it tries to be.

On one level, defining cultures requires a consensus and set parameters to define the specificity of one compared to another. However, most of the political factions interested in this are actually not so much interested in consensus as in being able to provide the vision to govern the definition. The reason for this is, of course, always to separate us from them and clearly establish the difference between ourselves and our Other(s). But anyone who tries to define a cultural enclave in this manner will always (without exception) stumble on the finishing line. No matter how narrow the parameters are made, it is impossible to exclude all those one wanted to exclude, and the narrower the parameters are set, one also increases the equally inevitable risk of excluding people one wanted to include. In short, whatever makes up any definition of any culture can never be absolute, or entirely fixed for the matter.

This does not necessarily mean that we should abandon cultural definitions altogether, but it should make us aware of the imprecision in their natures.

So, what does this mean? Simply put, culture is something that arises in social contexts, in inter-individual meetings, when the ego means an Other. Furthermore, this central metaphor also expands to an intercultural usage (if you will pardon the confusion for a second). That is to say, when one imprecise cultural definition meets an Other imprecise cultural definition, new cultural references arise in that meeting. This is unavoidable, because culture is both resilient and innovative in its nature.

Do not get me wrong. The equation is obviously not that simple. If it was, colonialism and imperialism would never have been a problem. The difference here is that colonialism and imperialism is not so much about a meeting between cultures as one culture violently attacking another. The main factor here has to do with power, and it can arguably be invoked on any situation where one cultural enclave uses force to apply its own cultural definition over others; either to dominate them or to eradicate them. And even in such instances, history has proven that the meeting is not unilateral anyway. There is an old saying that claims that you are what you eat, and apparently even colonisers and empires are affected by what they devour and digest.

But this is not the case here in Sweden (nor I would dare argue, in most European countries or in the US for that matter). Islamic culture (because as always since at the very least 9/11, this debate is about Western civilisation (and possibly Christianity) being overrun by Islam) is not in any position of power here. Nor, differently put, in any position of power greater than any other minority (and most certainly not greater than any majority). Swedish culture (whatever that is) is not overrun by excessive Islamic references or specific values. If anything, one could argue that Swedish culture or identity runs a greater risk of being overrun by Anglo-American values, but you rarely hear political groups like the Sweden Democrats complain about that type of cultural import as opposed to favouring Swedish culture.

And I would bet that they eat pizza as well. After all, pizza could arguably be seen as rather typical Swedish food. In fact, you cannot go anywhere in Sweden without finding a pizzeria. This is more or less true for any small town in the country, but this was obviously not always the case. Nor do we need to go very far back in history to find a time when it certainly was not (the mid-20th century saw the introduction of pizza into Swedish culture, and it was not an immediate success either). Similarly, the epitome of Swedish food – the Swedish meatball – is Turkish in origin, and was integrated into Swedish cuisine much like the pizza, only a couple of centuries earlier.

In short, the notion that the multicultural society is something new is a myth. Culture has always been a mongrel dog of many mixed breeds. And that is partly what keeps it alive.

I am not saying that there are no values to traditions. I am, however, suggesting that we have to understand that traditions themselves are never entirely fixed. We may talk about how a proper Swedish Christmas should be spent, for instance, but in all honesty, if we define proper as "the way they were celebrated 100 years ago" (a fairly short amount of time for judging these things), I honestly wonder how many of us truly do. Or perhaps even more strongly, how many of us even know what that would actually entail? And that is not even taking into account local variations. In more cases than not, our strongest sense of our traditions are our own memories of how things is or was, specifically for us.

Much like language, culture is a living thing. What was will not always be what is; nor will what will be be guaranteed to last forever. Culture is an ocean of ideas, values and traditions, mixing and mingling as the waves and the tides move. And we are creatures adrift on those mighty waters, sometimes pretending that we are in control of their movements.

Monday, 8 August 2011

An Eye for an Eye: Contemplations on the Death Penalty in the Wake of Utøya

Are there crimes that conceivably could warrant the death penalty?

Yesterday, I read an article by Ann Heberlein in a Swedish newspaper (i.e. the link is in Swedish) on the inherent problems in punishing crimes on the level of the Utøya massacre. Heberlein, who has a PhD in theology and has written books on ethics, evil and forgiveness, enters the debate in response to Ronnie Sandahl and Marcus Birro's respective contributions, both of whom strongly advocates the death penalty as the only reasonable punishment. Heberlein, leaning on both Hannah Arendt and Nietzsche, points to the fallacy of such reasoning in a very sound manner. There is no punishment strong enough to actually be proportionate and the deed itself is too horrible to ever be forgiven, she argues, but also points to the Nietzschean truism that we need to be careful so that our battling with monsters do not turn us into monsters ourselves when caught in this state of emotional impotence and turmoil.

Heberlein refers to Sandahl's reference to a SIFO (the Swedish Institute for Opinion Surveys) in which 33% of the Swedish population believes that there are crimes that conceivably could warrant the death penalty.* Sandahl obviously uses these statistics to question why no politician is pursuing the issue of maybe re-instating it. Heberlein's answer is simple: because it probably is not a good idea in a civilised society. And she then moves onto confronting Birro's switch from anti-abortion (on the grounds that all life is sacrosanct) to pro-death penalty (on the grounds that life is only sacrosanct if the individual has earned that status).**

However, while I appreciate Heberlein's argument, and find it important, I would nevertheless linger on those statistics. Because it strikes me that there is an inherent difference between believing that there are crimes that conceivably could warrant the death penalty and thinking that it is a good idea to institute laws of that nature.

Let me first off answer the question of that survey, the question with which I myself opened this post. Yes, I do think that there are heinous crimes that conceivably could warrant the death penalty. There are deeds where the individual's inalienable right to life can be considered spent, and basically rendered null and void. Do I think this means that the death penalty is a good idea? No, not at all. Because the idea of putting capital punishment into law is problematic on several levels. Not because it is always wrong to take life. Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting that it is right to take lives, but let us face reality. There is basically no government on Earth that would have any compunction of ordering soldiers onto a battlefield and ordering them to take lives. I am not suggesting that war is a good solution, but sometimes, it is undeniably the only solution. Personally, I am rather glad that Hitler's vision of an expanded Third Reich was thwarted and that concentration camps were shut down. And any time such things occur, there is an ethical need to oppose that.

So, why is the death penalty wrong then? Well, first and foremost because it would be hard, I believe, to institute a law where the required evidence was so definite that an erroneous conviction was entirely impossible. After all, if you kill someone, it is mighty hard to overturn a wrongful verdict. Granted that some crimes come with that level of specificity, but how would you put that into legalese.

Then there is the issue of the legal machinery itself. In countries where the death penalty is practised, like the US, it is worthwhile noticing that this penalty is not applied evenly. In other words, different legal representation (and by default pecuniary assets) might be the difference between life and death. This all goes back to a point Heberlein makes: who decides the criteria for who gets to live and who does not?

There is an inherent ethical dilemma involved in the taking of any life. In war or in violent police actions, such a dilemma is circumvented, or temporarily suspended, by the needs of the moment. Basically, it becomes a question of a practical utilitarian principle in which the good of the many (and innocent) outweighs the rights of an individual or individuals who are posing an immediate threat to the former. Once the person committing the violent deeds is in captivity, any such suspension or circumvention is itself rendered null and void. If the threat is disposed of, it would seem as if we no longer have any moral right to ignore ethics.

In older times, vengeance was the law of most lands. But as civilisation spread and our societal bonds grew, even that practice was influenced by other means of compensation. Weregild was a concept introduced as a means of ending blood feuds and stabilising regions, and I think it is safe to say that this helped us move forward as a species. Naturally, our impulse to strike back at those who hurt us or ours have not been weeded out of the species, but we deal with it by allowing the law to handle things for us.***

At the end of the day, we might also ask the question of what a proportionate punishment means. We cannot kill the mass murderer of Utøya more than once, yet his death would seem puny next to his deeds. Even if we allow ourselves to resort to that ultimate punishment of depriving such a criminal of life, the response fails to achieve proportion.

Furthermore, it is also questionable as a punishment since it is a brief moment to pay for so much inflicted misery. The perfect metaphysical punishment for the massacre on Utøya would, in my humble opinion, be to have the perpetrator spend the rest of (at the very least) his existence reliving the events on that small island during that hour and a half through his own victims, literally as his own victim. But metaphysical punishments elude our capabilities and so we have to deal with this in a human manner, and preferably one where we do not gaze too deeply into the Nietzschean abyss ourselves.

* It is probably worthwhile noting that Sweden does not have a death penalty, and as far as I know, neither does Norway.
** I will grant Birro the not at all unproblematic point that it would be possible to conceive of given rights that can be lost on account of breaches against the social contract as voiced in law. After all, we usually claim freedom to be a given, inalienable right, and yet we do not hesitate to imprison people for crimes, depriving them of that freedom. Granted that depriving someone of their life is somewhat more permanent, but in theory there is nevertheless an analogy here to be considered.
*** This is why the US system of allowing victims or relatives of victims to weigh in on the legal process in cases of release on probation has always struck me as strange. Logically, either the behaviour of the convict weighed against his or her crime should warrant the release or not. Personal opinions of people probably should not be a factor.