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How’s Your Shitty Culture?

March 20, 2010

I really don’t understand how the train got so far off the rails on this one.  I get that patriarchal societies with ancient practices and strict prohibitions can get ugly, but there’s ugly and there’s Afghanistan ugly.  Bibi Aisha was married off to a rival family in a longstanding Pashtun practice of trading women as chattels. 

She never met her husband, who was fighting in Pakistan when Aisha was given to his family.  They abused her.  She ran away.  She was arrested for running away and imprisoned.  Things got bad after she was pardoned.

That’s when a religious court determined that she must have her nose cut off. 

That’s when a religious court determined that she must have her nose cut off. 

That’s when a religious court determined that she must have her nose cut off. 

That’s when a religious court determined that she must have her nose cut off. 

That’s when a religious court determined that she must have her nose cut off. 

That’s when a religious court determined that she must have her nose cut off. 

That’s when a religious court determined that she must have her nose cut off. 

So her husband cut her nose off and left her for dead.  She lived.  This is her:

This image and the story behind it raise concerns for me as a humanist.   This woman’s culture has failed at the project of being a human culture.  It produced a husband in the Taliban, a girl sold into abuse, her imprisonment for seeking freedom and then her court-ordered disfigurement. 

Her misery has come at the family level, the local level, and the national level and her story is not unique. 

So here’s my moral question of the day:  What is an ideal solution to the problem of her culture?

I have no qualms about saying that such barbarous anti-humanism has no place on this or any planet.  It feels good to say that the human race would be a better race if it were purged of these atavistic behaviors immediately and permanently.  But how? 

Genocide is probably not the answer.  It so rarely is.  So what can and should be done about these people?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. JoJo permalink
    March 20, 2010 10:17 am

    one thing that could help is a more playful childhood. games are always fun. they could try, oh, i don’t know, ‘got your nose.’ that was always a good one.

  2. Aaron permalink
    March 20, 2010 7:01 pm

    Modeling ethical behavior is a start. This sounds naive and an example of “too little, too late” for this poor girl. That said, through the eyes of Pashtuns (regardless of political stance) America’s actions have been equally shitty. We treated their homeland as a warzone and potential cash cow for years. We channeled guns and blood money to sociopaths as a matter of policy. That our behavior was governed by ignorance and apathy rather than lucid intention is likely hard for Afghans to imagine (and might even make our actions more reprehensible).

    I’m getting carried away, but the Taliban and it’s mideval and misgynistic codes would not have been able to thrive if we hadn’t helped make Afghanistan shitty enough for these zealots to be perceived as liberators.

    That’s enough Monday morning QBing from me. What shall we do moving forward? I’m a tree-hugging pacifist, but continuing to confront the Taliban agressively and transparently (as we did in Marjah) seems like the right move. So does a commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan once the fighting stops. Also, bagels… and pizza… and chitlins.

    • JoJo permalink
      March 21, 2010 12:11 am

      why can’t they be bad without us being bad?

      and if they’re bad because we’re bad, who are we bad because of?

  3. Jonathan permalink
    March 21, 2010 4:12 am

    No, no Jojo, Aaron is right. First we put the Taliban in power, and now we are driving the people of Afghanistan into the Taliban’s ranks by using machine guns on them and dropping bombs every time they have a wedding.

    As for your final question, we are bad because of 1) Hip Hop 2) The burning of Washington during the war of 1812 3) Corporate entities that push a consumerist lifestyle 4) The military industrial complex 5) Changes that took place in this country during the cold war 6) The Roosevelt family 7) The Bush family and 8) chiquita banana- just google ‘banana massacre.’ They were called the united fruit company back then though.

    There are other reasons as well, but that should do for now.

    • Barry permalink*
      March 21, 2010 7:58 am

      Jo’s point that they don’t need us to be good in order to be good themselves is a good one. Since he made a good point, I can too. Ack.

      Insofar as “not cutting off noses” is a type of good behavior, we’ve been modeling that (as has just about every human culture) for at least centuries. I know that’s not your point, Aaron, but it makes me question the idea that they even would follow a good example. The brutality and repression inherent to a system that would produce Aisha’s sad story doesn’t seem like it would respond to Gandhi as easily as it would respond to Genghis. I don’t know exactly what the implications are.

  4. Barry permalink*
    March 21, 2010 7:36 am

    Afghanistan raises a lot of moral questions for the US to struggle with. There is no question that our aid to those opposing the Soviets helped hasten the Cold War’s end. In that respect, it was a successful action for us.

    Simply from an American perspective, the unintended consequences have been grave. Is there a way to quantify the existential harm done to the Soviet Union through our efforts there, and if so, was it worth a World Trade Center? Just asking these questions feels creepy, but I think the Soviet Union was far more dangerous to this country than Al Qaeda; maybe some balancing is worthwhile.

    I don’t know. This is hard.

  5. JoJo permalink
    March 21, 2010 10:58 am

    i see. so until the u.s. got involved in the 1980’s, afghanistan was where all the women of the world went for asylum when they felt oppressed? because afghanistan has this long history of equality and respect and dignity for women that was destroyed when cold war politics got involved?

  6. JoJo permalink
    March 21, 2010 11:01 am

    and jonathan, if those things you list are why we are bad, then my question is: who’s responsible for those things

    the spirit of my question is to get at agency, and, as a result, responsibility. aaron seems eager to pass the buck from afghanistan to america; that is, afghanis aren’t responsible for their bad behavior, america is. so, i wonder, who can i blame for america’s bad behavior so that it gets excused too?

  7. JoJo permalink
    March 21, 2010 11:03 am

    the article barry linked to said this:

    “The United Nations estimates that nearly 90 percent of Afghanistan’s women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse.”

    not a cultural problem at all. our fault.

    • Barry permalink*
      March 21, 2010 1:31 pm

      I was agreeing with you! For realsies!

  8. Aaron permalink
    March 21, 2010 5:32 pm

    I’m not interested in passing the buck… only in pointing out that it’s a dangerous road to start labeling cultures as shitty. It alienates people, closes off dialogue rather than encouraging it, and just feels patronizing and wrong when the shitty culture in question was enabled by our own warmongering.

    That said, domestic violence (all violence in fact) is a shitty, ugly, terrible thing.

    In response to Jonah’s comment “until the u.s. got involved in the 1980’s”, it’s likely that Afghanistan wasn’t the nicest place to be a woman before the super powers started mucking the business up. That said, it’s certainly been far worse for women since the Taliban took over. Before the Taliban, Afghani women were free to dress as they chose, attend university, hold jobs. Today, they are not. So yes, things have gotten dramatically worse over a period of 15 years. Blaming this as something inherently Afghan or Pashtun seems like faulty logic and unproductive. Blame the Taliban… blame radical Islam… blame Saudi zealots… just don’t blame an entire people.

    PS Why you got to hate on hip hop Jonathan?

    • Barry permalink*
      March 21, 2010 5:38 pm

      I am comfortable calling it shitty.

  9. JoJo permalink
    March 22, 2010 10:44 am

    aaron- fair points. although i agree with jonathan that hip hop is an object of derision.

    • Barry permalink*
      March 22, 2010 10:47 am

      Why is hip hop an object of derision?

      • JoJo permalink
        March 22, 2010 11:30 am

        genres typically have associated moods. country- sad, melancholy. metal- anger, agression. and so on. what mood is supposed to be provoked in the listener by hip hop? as best i can tell, the mood is that sucker mcs call me ‘sire’. but i think it’s pretty silly to go around feeling like that for no particular reason, or because one believes one is successful with cash or hos, neither of which warrant that feeling of alpha status either.

      • Barry permalink*
        March 22, 2010 11:37 am

        It’s rare for me to disagree with you so drastically. Of the genres you mention, country is the one I know best. To be sure, there’s a healthy dose of sad and melancholy country music, but there are countless joyful, funny, bawdy, exultant, aggressive, speculative, and confused country songs. I would not be so quick to summarize a style.

      • JoJo permalink
        March 22, 2010 12:20 pm

        those are just quick examples. of course things are more nuanced. however, ‘genre’ is related to ‘generic’, and there are characteristic qualities common to any instance of a genre- thereby making them generic (i.e. of the genre). such qualities may be best described in terms of the structure of the music, presumably, though with pop, i think the affect is defining.

  10. Jonathan permalink
    March 22, 2010 2:53 pm

    OK, a lot here and I’ve been away.

    I don’t think we are bad or evil. I also don’t think they are bad or evil in Afghanistan. I think some of our actions have unintended negative consequences.

    As far as Afghanistan goes, I think it would help to try to understand or at least ask the question, ‘why would somebody cut off a woman’s nose?’

    I am pretty sure that if you asked Barry this question he would blame superstition and religion, and say that the culprits did it because they were afraid of an imaginary God.

    I do not think this is the reason. I think the culprit did it because he was afraid that if he and others like don’t punish women like this, that their entire society will fall apart and descend into chaos. And in a way, the culprit would be correct. This is the law in his country- it is based on honor and dishonor, on tribal loyalty, and clans. Yeah it is weird and we don’t understand it, but I think we can all understand that if the law in any society breaks down and people stop following it, and there is no alternative system that can be quickly put in place that people will follow, things fall apart and descend into chaos. If one is put in a position of choosing between bad laws and anarchy, anarchy being more Hobbsian than Lockian, I am sure most would choose the bad laws.


    If judicial murder is common there, this is in part due to a lack of alternative forms of punishment- lack of prisons, lack of infrastructure, etc. Judicial murder as a primary form of punishment is common wherever and whenever you don’t have resources for something more humane.


    Hip-hop hurts my ears.

  11. Jonathan permalink
    March 22, 2010 2:55 pm

    What the Hell happened? My comment is in the middle of the thread. Scroll up a bit for my comment.

    • Barry permalink*
      March 22, 2010 3:16 pm

      Jonah – Genre, at least in music, is more appropriately understood as a function of musical conventions than lyrical themes.

      Jonathan – Cutting off noses and imprisoning women for seeking independence is intolerable. The sooner that culture ceases its current practices, the better.

  12. Aaron permalink
    March 22, 2010 3:31 pm

    Generalizing the values and emotional conditions of a musical style seems fishy. No doubt, hip hop has it’s fair share of misogyny, materialism and unearned egotism. We might also paint country as a breeding ground for alcoholism and infidelity, or jazz as an ethos of heroin addiction, quick fixes and (gasp!) lascivious dancing.

    But these generalizations fail to account for the soul of an art form. The human condition laid bare, no matter how ugly. Yes, there are plenty of bad rappers out there. More so, there are plenty of excellent rappers out there with of bad or superfluous things to say… and that’s life! Take one of my most favorite CL Smooth lines: “You better brace yourself / in other words fasten seat-beats / When the carmel melts / you love sports in your boom boom shorts.” (You’re welcome!!!)

    But hip hop also delivers social commentary:
    “We commute to computers / spirits stay mute while our egos spread rumors / we survive or else, turn to consumers.”

    and deeply personal revelations:
    “Mi abuela raised three daughters all by herself / I think about her struggle and I find the strength in myself.”

    And apart from the message, the music is bangin! It’s rare for folks to pick up a P-Funk record looking for a message. And when they do, 9 times out of 1o that message is “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.”

  13. Aaron permalink
    March 22, 2010 3:44 pm

    Weird… my music comment just jumped up into the middle of the queue.

    On Afghanistan, I think JoJo’s on the right track by trying to suss out what would make someone want to cut off a woman’s nose. It is hard to speculate what makes a person do such a terrible thing, but I think it’s pious certainty rather than fear. While the lines are probably muddy, I see this kind of behavior less as an adherence to tribal or ethnic codes, and more as Islamist zeal. People can commit terrible, terrible acts when they are certain these acts are justified by religion.

  14. JoJo permalink
    March 22, 2010 10:36 pm

    uh, i’m confused, as this stuff is out of order.

    so i’ll just say a few things.

    i never said anything about lyrics. i never implied anything about lyrics. a heavy metal song that was fast and thrashy and distorted, but had lyrics about hugging kittens and giving old ladies to charity would still be angry and aggressive, in my opinion.

    so, in that light, i think country songs with funny lyrics and hip hop with social justice lyrics still have the same underlying affect, since the affect, in my view, is (mostly) a function of the music/beats/ etc. so, a funny country song in a slow twangy steel pedal 12 bar blues would still count as sad and melancholy, and a big bassy ‘bumpin’ hip hop song in a gravelly ol dirty bastard voice, even if it was reciting the sermon on the mount, would still exude an alpha male cocky ethos.

    more generally, there is a basic question: in virtue of what is any given piece of music in any genre? i certainly do not think the answer is ‘kind of lyrics’. and even if there aren’t necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a genre, for the most part most pop songs are easily and immediately classified. willlie nelson comes on the radio- how many seconds before you judge it’s not schubert? and that it’s not cyndi lauper? or benny goodman? it’s obviously country, not classical or whatever the fuck or big bang swing. how many seconds of hearing wu-tang before you know it’s hip hop, not ska or opera?

    so, back to the general question: in virtue of what is willie nelson immediately recognizable as not in those other genres? in virtue of what is he immediately recognizable as country? i certainly wouldn’t say lyrics, even if there are relatively typical and ayptical lyrics in a given genre. i think the answer is ‘the affect’, and the affect is what it is in virtue of characteristic tempos, instruments, chord structure. i think a genre is the biggest set of music with that characteristic affect, brought about by the characteristic instruments/song structure. i think that as long as that stuff is there, the lyrics do little to affect the affect, that is, to change the mood produced. as before, the happiest bubble gum lyrics sang over death metal power chords wouldn’t make me feel all gooey listening to it.

    so, back to my original point. genres are distinguished mostly by mood, or affect. no matter how happy the lyrics, most country songs i’ve heard have a melancholy quality (if not of the america: fuck-yeah! variety of country). most hip hop, as far as i can tell, has a fuck those bitches attitude- just in the beats, tempo, and sound- regardless of the lyrics. all death metal sounds angry and stupid to me.

    so, in sum, regardless of the lyrics in hip hop, i cannot escape that every time i hear a hip hop song, it makes me think i’m supposed to feel like a badass, to whom sucker mcs are supposed to refer as ‘sire.’ i don’t find artifical enhancements of that feeling enjoyable, unlike the artificial sadness, say, produced by my speakers when they play willie nelson…

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