Top Stories

A ‘Noble Savage’ Speaks Up

At the height of Islamist terror in 2015, an American radio station contacted me. They asked me whether I wanted to comment on the fact that the media appeared to be paying more attention to terror attacks in Europe than their counterparts in the Middle East. Could it be that the media knew that people were not going to tune in to listen to the news of attacks in places like Baghdad and Beirut? What was it about American culture that made the people sympathize with Paris but not with Beirut?

I responded that yes I would be happy to comment but by the time I answered the email, it was already too late and I had missed the slot. I felt relief because had I been on air, I would have said things that would not have been expected of me. The truth is that my conscience was troubled because I could no longer bring myself to guilt-trip the people of the West for not being emotionally egalitarian. This piece of writing is testimony to the fact that it took me nearly two years to gather my courage and air in public what I had intended to tell the radio station.

So here I share with you what I thought but did not have the chance to say then.

Given that the question was about the secular sin of disparity, in this case disparity of attention which implied disparity in compassion, it was clear that the role assigned to me was that of the admonisher from the East who acts as the voice of conscience for the West. I suspected that I was expected to tell the mostly atheists and yet strangely presumed sinful people of the West that they had failed to be emotionally correct; which is to say, emotionally egalitarian. They had neglected to show exactly the same amount of grief for Beirut, a city that meant nothing to them, as they did for Paris, a city that meant something to them.

Needless to say, the accusation that Western hypocrisy was at work in this emotional disparity was already implied in the framing of the question. The verdict of guilty had already been decided. All they needed was a person of Muslim background to add credibility to their own self condemnation. For reasons that are still beyond me, the station believed that for moral guidance, the emotionally incorrect Westerner needed to look at the Muslim world of all places. As if it is the Muslim world that is known for good governance, equality of opportunity, human rights and not the other way around.

How can we make sense of this?

There is this fantasy in the West, the fantasy of the noble savage. It is an old fancy and goes all the way back to that puritan, proto-communist, Thomas More. He was the one who had read too much into Amerigo Vespucci’s letter about the people of the New World. In Vespucci’s account, these people seem what we today would call today laid back and playful. They have an interest in aesthetics and given that they mention enemies, there is also a warrior side to them. In other words, they seem like a balanced people. More was inspired by Vespucci’s description of their Edenic existence in nature and outside history. So they entered his imagination. But there, inside More’s mind, the balanced people described in Vespucci’s letter were transformed, becoming dreary and high-minded, a bit like More himself.

Something like that was going on with the radio station. I suspected that I was the postmodern reincarnation of the noble savage. I was born and raised on faraway shores which meant that I was bound to be unpolluted by the West and ergo, still in possession of my ‘natural’ wisdom. Just like the noble savage of yore. What other explanation was there for asking a person raised in Afghanistan, one of the most corrupt places on earth, to play the role of the West’s voice of conscience? Was the West deaf to its own voice of conscience? Given the bizarre request, yes, it clearly was.

What do you do when a masochist asks you to hurt him? Today I would say that the answer is, you don’t. I heard the masochists’ siren call, oh wretched of the earth, give us today our daily dose of guilt and forgive us our sin of emotional incorrectness. The call to self-righteousness is still tempting, but if I can resist it today–and what’s more, speak my own truth—it’s because of what my Western education has taught me. I listen to my own voice of conscience and it says clearly and firmly, niet, nope, no way. The truth, after all, is the other way around. The West does not owe me an apology. It is I who owes the West gratitude for saving me from the jihad in Afghanistan.

The small act of sabotage I am committing with this short article is bound to disappear like a dew drop in a vast ocean. For even though ISIS and their like attack the West for the sin of disbelief, there’s no shortage of secular priests on these shores. Out there in the purgatory of the social media, the gods of Twitter watch as the average Westerner is grabbed by the scruff of his neck and reminded to display the correct emotion, a sad face here, a little heart there and a bit of correct fire and rage just over there.

I felt relief at missing the radio slot because I felt sorry for the average bedraggled Westerner whose attention and compassion is demanded by an ever-increasing number of smaller grievance groups. I couldn’t admonish her for being sane and not loving the faraway cities of the Middle East as much as she loves her own city of birth. Fellow feeling for one’s compatriots is not a crime, not even a moral one. And no, I couldn’t ask the people of the West to keep stretching their love so that it covers the people of the entire planet. Not only because love is not an elastic band but also because, to be fair, the rest of the world doesn’t reciprocate. If they do, they are often too ashamed to say so in public and those who do overcome this shame end up risking death. What’s more, even though the secular religion of egalitarian love demands that the people of the West love everyone—absolutely everyone—an exception is made when it comes to loving themselves.

No, it was not right. Not only because it was unfair, but also because when I listened to the wording of the radio request, I started to hear something else, too: the distinct grinding sound characteristic of the emotional engineering machine tucked away in the dark cellar of the Internet’s collective subconscious.

So now the noble savage has spoken, but it’s not what More’s heirs want to hear.

Nushin Arbabzadah

Nushin Arbabzadah

Born and raised in Afghanistan, Nushin Arbabzadah came to Europe as a teenage refugee. She has post-graduate degrees from Hamburg University in Germany and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Her latest book, Afghan Rumour Bazaar: Secret Sub-Cultures, Hidden Worlds and the Everyday Life of the Absurd, was published by Hurst.
Nushin Arbabzadah

Latest posts by Nushin Arbabzadah (see all)

Filed under: Top Stories

by

Born and raised in Afghanistan, Nushin Arbabzadah came to Europe as a teenage refugee. She has post-graduate degrees from Hamburg University in Germany and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Her latest book, Afghan Rumour Bazaar: Secret Sub-Cultures, Hidden Worlds and the Everyday Life of the Absurd, was published by Hurst.

25 Comments

  1. Andrew West says

    “Out there in the purgatory of the social media, the gods of Twitter watch as the average Westerner is grabbed by the scruff of his neck and reminded to display the correct emotion, a sad face here, a little heart there and a bit of correct fire and rage just over there.”

    Hah, more from this author please.

  2. C_Miner says

    A simple phrasing is that she was approaching the question from the point of view of third world problems as opposed to first world problems. It makes me think of western feminists who are surprised that access to abortion isn’t considered as an existential threat to women in developing nations.

  3. ReasonAble says

    I’ve seen more and more of this sentiment that in order to be truly compassionate, one must have the same degree of compassion for all tragedies across the globe. It is often implied that it is one’s feelings of cultural supremacy or latent racism that would lead one to care more about events hitting close to home than those affecting foreign locations. But, who would not feel more concern/compassion for a school shooting in one’s hometown than they would for a tragic earthquake across the globe–regardless of how many lives were lost. It seems completely logical that a person would be more concerned about things likely to affect their own family and friends than people they’ve never met or don’t understand.

  4. Carl Grover says

    I appreciate your honesty. Those assumptions, and being conscribed to a belief based on anything but your opinion is inherently counter to what the western world is supposed to espouse. We find this in other subjects as well. For example, gays supporting Trump, blacks against affirmative action, etc. To me, this ties into another piece recently posted regarding the rationality of Trump voters. Just because someone may appear to go against their self-interest, or your supposed assignment of their beliefs, does not make you correct. The moral superiority in this country, and world, is deafening. I think Sowell captures these actions quite aptly when naming them (or this ideal) as “The Anointed”. We are not going to get anywhere in this fashion. Conversely, this also ties into stereotypes typically being true, yet I don’t see this topic hitting the steretype level today. Finally, it’s obvious to pay closer attention to events that can affect your well-being more directly. The Middle East terror was highly publicized in previous decades. They have been watered down due to being so common-place that the world is numb to it. The same premise applies to the police shooting of one black man being killed by an officer, far outweighs the killing of many outside of officer related events. While not totally tantamount to the topic, my point relates to the numbness of inner-city violence in the same fashion.

    Great read.

  5. Randy McGregor says

    Perceptive and eloquent. I really can only say “Here here!” I have nothing to add except my sincere appreciation to the author for writing it.

  6. She doesn’t want to play the conscience of the West… and yet she does just that here. Fortunately, not all “conscience” has to be “guilty”. The conscience can be ennobling, as it is here.

  7. ” I couldn’t admonish her for being sane and not loving the faraway cities of the Middle East as much as she loves her own city of birth.”

    The simple insight of this quote — and the entire piece — is touching, elevating, and brilliant.

    Bravo! Standing ovation from afar.

    Lee Jussim

    • Carl Grover says

      Not surprised by Jussim’s accolades. Contesting “moral superiority” is difficult, and even more so, risky. I recently struggled with who would carry the weight after Sowell’s retirement. That thought has now subsided. Dr. Jussim, I plan to read your words as feverishly as I have Dr. Sowell’s (with zero assumptions on your agreement). Honesty is all I seek. While I don’t have the education of most in this publication, I’m honored to have the access to your intellect. I hold no degrees, as I opted to join the Marines after high school, yet find myself nearing 40, consuming all that you philosophical giants have to offer. Cheers.

  8. The author misses the mark. Her article is driven by supposition, primarily about the motives for the radio station’s invitation. As she never reveals the mission or audience of this radio station, she assumes that its audience was made up of Westerners who would prefer to hear about what is happening. There are many meta-geographies at play in a broadcast audience. It is clear that Westerners’ meta-geographies are often quite limited, to the point that they are often unaware of large swathes of their own history simply because they occur outside of national borders. It is inevitable that Westerners will care more about their parochial concerns and the few places around the globe that they consider important or familiar. However, the author persists in confusing what audiences ‘want’ to hear with what a responsible media provides. And the issue is not ’emotional egalitarianism’. Indeed, eliciting emotional outpourings is not the main role of a democratic media. Simple awareness is more important here, and nothing in this article shows clearly that the radio station in question was more concerned with eliciting moral outrage from the audience than its simple awareness of the full extent of terrorist attacks and activities worldwide.

    If the West’s concern is with terrorism, which is a global phenomenon which requires attention to areas of which many Westerners are oblivious, then it is important to have a clear picture of the global patterns of terrorist activity. The danger of under-reporting attacks outside of the immediate vicinity is that some may develop the impression that attacks are only happening in the immediate vicinity. Such a limited picture may lead to uncritical statements like: “ISIS and their likes attack the West for the sin of disbelief”. Those who care to be informed beyond this type of caricature would understand that the relationship between terrorist organizations like ISIS and the West is much more complex than the attack of religious fanatics on secular democracies. This is called context, and it is quite important that media contribute to providing context through balanced and comprehensive reporting that helps the public decide and act in an informed manner. Anecdotally, having spent time in the Middle East, I was struck by how extensive the media reporting was on events throughout the world, especially as compared to North America. The public in the West should be informed of what is happening globally, if only to understand their own reality, as their governments, military and corporations are certainly active across the globe.

    • “she assumes that its audience was made up of Westerners who would prefer to hear about what is happening in the West, strictly defined.”

  9. Marcus Andersson says

    I’m a bit dense here. But it seems like you moved from Afghanistan to Europe and say that the West saved your skin. It seems like there is a difference between living in the West and what that affords someone and living in the Middle East with the poor governance you describe, which from my limited knowledge, has been greatly negatively influenced by the West. What would the governance and culture be like today if the Middle East had not been under colonial rule or if we did not interfere with democratically elected leaders like Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran in 1953? It seems to me there are very few countries that were under colonial rule that have advanced to wealthy democracies today. Brazil, South Korea, but those seem like exceptions.

    • Juraj Hanke says

      Well I think Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Africa would think otherwise. A colonial past is actually quite a good indicator of a countries future economical and democratic success. That doesn’t mean that colonizing these countries was ethical or the right thing to do, but these are the facts.

    • Jay Salhi says

      “What would the governance and culture be like today if the Middle East had not been under colonial rule”

      Perhaps much like it was under Ottoman rule, which the culmination of a 1,200 year “colonialism” we don’t talk about much.

      As for Mossaddegh, you have bought into a highly oversimplified myth. Iran was a constitutional monarchy. The shah had tremendous power, including the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister. By 1953, the shah had appointed and dismissed ten prime ministers, including Mossadegh (who served as PM twice). Between 1953 and 1979, he appointed twelve more. Yet, only the replacement of Mossadegh is considered a coup by the people promoting the myth that Mossadegh was some sort of great democratic hero who would have liberated Iran but for the evil CIA. Mossadegh was feudal aristocratic with authoritarian tendencies. He was not an Iranian version of Thomas Jefferson.

  10. Superb. There is a lot in common between the liberal West today and the self-castigating apocalyptic religious cults which abounded in early Protestantism. Self-flagellation has become a sign of moral worth, and calling for a catastrophe to fall upon the people they hate has become more important than encouraging and nutruring the people they love.

  11. Phillip says

    Chanzo is bizzaro, good article, try understanding what she wrote instead of telling her what the interviewer really meant. She didn’t share the specifics so you decide to fill her in on what they are, that’s truly amazing powers of thought there, you must be great at parties.

    • Bill Haywood says

      “She didn’t share the specifics. . . .” So why are you assuming the interviewer wanted a guilt-trip piece? Seems your criticism should be aimed at the columnist, too.

  12. Kurt Bergmann says

    Great read! Liked it so much that I just ordered your book 🙂

  13. Adam Smith noticed this about human nature: losing the tip of one’s little finger would be more distressing than the news a million people died in a Chinese earthquake. Anyone who honestly observes himself will know this is true – and its corollary, the closer an event is to you personally, the greater the emotional impact.

  14. Born and raised till how old? Sounds like you’re just fantasising about your own situation to be honest. Also Afghanistan is far less developed than most of the middle east.

Comments are closed.