Monday, April 14, 2003

It's been over a month since I saw this particular article, but I've been thinking about it on and off for all that time.

For example, 53 percent of those surveyed in Western nations express some degree of tolerance for homosexuality, compared to just 12 percent of those surveyed in Islamic societies. While 82 percent of those in the West support gender equality, 60 percent are tolerant toward divorce, and 48 percent express tolerance for abortion, the corresponding levels in the Muslim world are just 55 percent, 35 percent, and 25 percent, respectively.

In reference to key political issues, however, the attitudes and values of the two societies are virtually identical. For example, 68 percent in both the West and Islamic nations strongly disagree that democracies are indecisive and have trouble keeping order, and 61 percent in both societies strongly disagree that it's best for a country to have a powerful leader who decides what to do without bothering about elections and government procedures. Fully 86 percent of those surveyed in the West, and 87 percent of those in Muslim nations, strongly agree that democracy may have problems but it's better than any other form of government.

Of course it could be a coincidence. Maybe the reason those nations don't have a liberal democracy despite having the same desire for it we do have to do with needing experience, or institutions built up over time. Or maybe they really don't have the same desires people in the West do - just describe different feelings using the same answers on a multiple choice survey. Or it could be the same sect or other factor leads to two outcomes, making them correlate with each other because they are both correlated with the third factor.

There has been speculation to the contrary however, and it might be worthwhile to think for a moment how it could be otherwise - why liberal attitudes on certain issues might well correlate better with the successful practice of democracy than the stated desire for democracy itself.

Sometimes it isn't enough to want something. You have to believe in it with your gut deep down, you have to believe it's possible and natural, even necessary. Suppose a man says he believes in democracy, says he will not consider a leader who consults his people to be weak and ripe for overthrow, but will instead respect him. Now suppose that man goes home and expects his wives and sisters to obey his every order without question. Does some part of him intuitively believe that this is what it means to be a man, that this is how men can be expected to behave? Do his demands for democracy lack a certain depth because his deepest beliefs do not accord with it? It is one thing to demand something, another to be able to imagine it well enough to create and sustain it. An unrecognized feeling that rage was strength would explain turning to an intolerant sect to overthrow tyrranical governments. Untimately you have the same thing - but this is inevitable if that thing is inside you.

At the same time, this tells us something about ourselves as well. None of the numbers are zero or one hundred for either side. People who know they 'should' believe certain things often say they do. Presumably the survey was anonymous - yet people rationalize a great deal even to themselves. If we believe this, it comes at a price.

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