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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Is the West Morally Superior?

I read with interest and not a little cautious alarm over at One Hand Clapping, an article in which Donald Sensing quotes from a couple of snippets from different reports of an American foreign service diplomat serving in Indonesia.

One highlights the apparently ineptitude of the UN in distributing the badly needed aid to the victims of the Tsunami victims. Another tells of his observations that Indonesians seem to be reticent to help their own countrymen in the midst of the current calamity from which much of that part of the country is still reeling.

This diplomat suggests that the Indonesians have not rallied together in the same way as Americans have done in the wake of 9/11. The billionaires (purportedly there are quite a few of them in Jarkarta, the capital of that country) in Indonesia seem to him to be more interested in their day to day business and industry than in the plight of their own countrymen.

The conclusion he drew from these observations is that
Begging the pardon of the cultural relativists, but might we not be allowed to raise -- ever so gently, of course -- the possibility that these differing reactions to human suffering, show Western civilization as the best we have on the planet? Maybe, just maybe Western civilization is morally superior.
To which Donald echoes: "No maybe about it."

Now, I am not too familiar with Indonesia, but let me point out some distinct differences between Indonesia and the United States. Indonesia is a country of quite culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse population with deep scars of divisive and historical animosity. Even the predominantly Islamic majority is made up of ethnically and culturally diverse people groups.

In the region where the Tsunamis hit the hardest, there are culturally, ethnically and politically different people groups from the region where this diplomat conducted his field observations. Indonesia were never united by the rich, proud, cultural, political and national history that America had.

Furthermore, the billionaires he alluded to were most likely to be from the ethnic and religious groups that only quite recently suffered at the hands of certain extremist groups in the region. There are still quite a tension between the races and the religious and culturally diverse groups there. In fact, I dare say, the foreign diplomat, by making his observations public in this seemingly unthinking manner, may have harmed the relations and the tenuous and uneasy balance between the disconsonant groups. Who knows, it might incite the bad blood and bitterness against that is always underneath the surface in that volatile country. As a foreign diplomat serving in that red-hot region, he should have known better.

What is worse, in my opinion, is the comment made by the owner of One Hand Clapping and echoed by the comments by not a few commenters who seem to once again reflect the ubiquitous loud-mouthed gloating American all over again. I want to ask why is it that some of us in the West are so quick to point out anything that is different from what is so familiar to us, and any culturally unfamiliarity as morally inferior? Just because some people do not accept certain principles that we hold ideologically superior, or just because people do not behave like we do, doesn't make them morally inferior.

This myopia, above anything else, is what makes the West, in general, and America, in particular, sometimes appear abhorrent to those we are trying to help or influence. This attitude alone will undo all the good we are trying to do with our billions in aid. We cannot buy their favor with money if our attitude remain condescending and patronizing.

If we remain humble, and ready to accept that even though we prefer it, and even though we think it is quite comfortable, the principles we hold dear and the lifestyle that we are so used to having, may not be the best ones. Let us just be grateful that we have this lifestyle, and these sets of principles that have supposedly made us apparently successful thus far, and let us offer our benevolence and our generosity without snubbing our noses at our neighbors. Otherwise, if we are not careful, we will trip over our very haughty attitudes. Didn't the Good Book itself says, "Pride comes before a fall?"

UPDATE: After posting this entry, I saw another post over at this site responding to the same foreign correspondent's article, and made a comment to it. I was a little more "colorful" and thought I'd share it with you over here:
This diplomat either ought to go back to basic training or he ought to come back to the comforts of his home. He shouldn't be out there pontificating as if he and the country he represents are the shining light in this world of desperate need. He first of all needs to look further ashore than Indonesia and see genuine humanity at work all over the place. And then, if he is a Christian, he needs to turn to the pages of the Bible, and see that there are "none righteous, no not one" and then keep quiet from his left hand what his right hand is doing. If he thinks that the West has any ounce of goodness or morality in it, modesty and humility are among the virtues that if missing, will render generosity and compassion nullified.