Christchurch and Western Culture, Part 1

[Note to the reader: My primary motivation for writing about this subject is to help steer people who might be susceptible to the Christchurch shooter’s ideas away from some of the intellectual errors that led him to murder. Whether his manifesto is widely distributed or not, the ideas behind it are easily available on the Internet and will remain that way, despite the fantasies of media and government censors. Left unexamined or casually dismissed as white supremacy without further analysis, I fear that others may heed the shooter’s calls to continue fighting the war he declared. I therefore attempted to treat this topic with as much seriousness as I could without spending an unrealistic amount of time writing an entire book. The result is a rather long article that I broke into three parts for convenience:

· PART I focuses on defining “culture,” since the shooter views himself as a defender of “Western culture.”

· PART II outlines the shooter’s core argument and identifies two critical errors in his thinking — errors that I hope others can avoid making.

· PART III distinguishes between the shooter’s perceived threat to Western civilization and any actual threats to Western civilization.

I do not intend for this to be the conclusion of a discussion about the problems that plague the West, but I optimistically hope that it can be the beginning. It should go without saying that I consider the victims of the Christchurch attack to be innocent, and my heart goes out to their families.]

PART I: Culture

In the aftermath of the massacre in Christchurch — an attack specifically intended to escalate cultural balkanization in the West — there is one thing that both the left and right (with a few exceptions) seem to agree upon: we’re not supposed to read the shooter’s manifesto. New Zealand has now made it illegal to possess or distribute the document, including by linking to it, and the mainstream media and major tech companies in the United States have made every effort to eradicate it from the Internet. Even Ben Shapiro told his audience on Twitter:

“Do not share the shooter’s name. Do not share the shooter’s evil video. Do not share the shooter’s evil manifesto. Mass killers desire fame and attention. Starve them of it.”

At first glance, Shapiro’s argument makes sense. As a society, we don’t want to reward mass murderers with fame (I’m looking at you, Netflix) because doing so may incentivize other would-be killers. Shapiro is right about that, which is why I’m not using the shooter’s name in this article, even though in this specific case I don’t think fame is what the shooter was after. On the other hand, the only reason I have any clue about the shooter’s thought process and motive is because I defied preachy injunctions from media pundits warning me to avoid looking at any source material first hand. I actually read the manifesto (which, by the way, doesn’t include the shooter’s name at all). I read it because I care about the future of Western Civilization, and if we hope to prevent it from fracturing into a 21st century version of tribal warfare, then we desperately need to understand the motivation behind attacks like this.

Of course, those with weaker constitutions would suggest that we simply scream, “racist!” or “white supremacist!” or “alt-right!” and then proceed to pat ourselves on our backs as if we’d just done something courageous or even remotely prophylactic. But the unfortunate truth is that a Tweet-length analysis of such a horrific and impactful event does almost nothing to help us identify the intellectual missteps that may have lead someone down such a morally reprehensible path, and it does even less to dissuade the next would-be shooter. To actually have a chance at preventing more needless death, we need to take a serious and careful look at the intellectual frenzy that resulted in the cold-blooded murder of 50 people. We can’t do that if we don’t even bother to read the shooter’s own explanation. What’s the alternative? To hand over the responsibility of reading and analyzing the shooter’s motives to a few elite media types, many of whom have questionable track records of both honesty and intellectual vigor? Should we simply sit back and let Oliver Darcy or Sean Hannity — or the New Zealand government for that matter — tell us what to think? That’s a hard pass for me, and if you’re an independent thinker it should be a hard pass for you, too.

Below are my thoughts on the manifesto and how I think it fits in contextually with the swelling culture war in the West. If you’re in New Zealand and would like to read it for yourself, it is preserved for all eternity on the Bitcoin Satoshi’s Vision (BSV) blockchain. Have at it. Discreetly.

The title of the shooter’s 74-page hastily constructed screed is, “The Great Replacement,” which is a reference to what he perceives as an existential threat to Western society. Despite the subtitle, “Towards a New Society We March Ever Forwards,” the shooter’s ideology is less about moving toward any particular utopian vision of the world and more about reacting to the changing cultural landscape of Western countries, including Australia, New Zealand, much of Europe, and the United States. He repeatedly bemoans “attacks on my culture,” sees mass immigration as an attempt to “destroy our cultures,” and specifically cites the “loss of culture” in France as motivation for his violent response. Like a growing number of the elusively-identifiable “alt-right,” the shooter exhibits a vague but accurate sense that Western civilization is under some form of ideological attack, but then fails to correctly identify the essential elements of the West that make it worth defending in the first place.

To unpack this error, it’s necessary to articulate what we mean when we use the term, “culture,” and how that relates to the essential characteristics of Western civilization that have allowed us to prosper and thrive. Look up the word “culture” in any modern dictionary and you’ll find a definition that sounds something like this:

culture (n): the quality of a society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in the arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.

Unfortunately, this definition is inadequate in that it both fails to capture the pervasiveness and impact of a society’s culture, and does a poor job of tying the concept to any considerations outside the field of aesthetics. When we use the term, “culture,” we mean much more than a set of aesthetic sensibilities. Culture is better described as a loose societal consensus on: (i) basic philosophic premises; and (ii) evolved cooperative strategies.

Basic Philosophic Premises

Traditionally, there are at least six major branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. There are variants to this organization (for example, some philosophers consider ethics, aesthetics, and politics to be sub-categories of a branch called axiology), but for the purpose of this discussion these six will suffice. That a shared culture presupposes shared understanding of basic philosophical tenets seems almost too obvious to mention, but let’s quickly consider how the major branches help define a culture. For brevity I will assume that politics is a sub-branch of ethics, and I will treat logic and epistemology together as a single category, thereby limiting the discussion to four areas: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the question of the nature of the Universe as a whole. Imagine a group of people who earnestly believed they were perpetually stuck in a dream; everything around them was a product of their own imagination and nothing — and no one — actually existed. How might they behave? Now imagine another group of people who were completely certain that they were awake and living in the material world, and that every action they took affected people and things around them in a permanent, irreversible way. How might they behave? Would we describe these two groups as having a shared culture? Metaphysical assumptions are so fundamental to how we think and behave that a society with large groups of people holding diametrically opposed metaphysical beliefs simply cannot be said to share a unified culture.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy devoted to the theory of knowledge. In other words: how do we know what we know? Our epistemological assumptions determine what we consider to be knowledge (logic is fundamentally concerned with how that knowledge is systematically integrated in a non-contradictory fashion). For example, if a farmer’s crop fails does he turn to science to solve the problem by studying the soil, measuring water consumption, checking for disease or pests, or does he accept what the local shaman tells him, which is that next year he must make a larger sacrifice to appease the corn god? When someone is accused of a crime, is guilt or innocence determined by praying to Zeus and checking-in with your feelings, or by rationally examining evidence? Although not everyone in a society must always be in full epistemological harmony at all times, to have a shared culture there must be a general agreement on what constitutes valid epistemological methods for most materially relevant situations.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy focused on discovering how humans should act. A mutually shared sense of ethical principles determines what a culture considers moral, what it considers immoral, and what it considers amoral. To use some particularly charged examples, in order to share a culture, people need to share the same answers to questions such as: Do men and women deserve equal respect and treatment? Is the initiation of the use of force against your neighbor justified if she does not share your religious beliefs? Does every individual have rights that arise from his or her nature as a human being, or can individuals be sacrificed to the group, or to a god? Are people of another race deserving of equal respect, or are they sub-human? The answer to many of these questions may differ between individuals in a particular culture, but the more these answers differ, the more fractured the culture becomes. Often, a culture’s shared ethical values are reflected in political choices and become codified into law. A culture’s shared ethical tenets can also change over time, sometimes becoming more unified (examples: women’s suffrage is no longer a controversial topic, and gay marriage is becoming less controversial), and sometimes becoming more Balkanized (examples: the rights to self-defense and free speech are no longer universally held beliefs in the West). For many people, their ethics are derived from religious beliefs. Islam, Christianity, Scientology, Zoroastrianism, and Satanism are not ethically congruent.

Finally, aesthetics is the study of the notions of beauty and art, which is the only branch of philosophy that writers of dictionaries seem to think matters when we use the word “culture.” This belittles the concept of culture and implies that culture lacks moral relevance. I’ve argued here that aesthetics should be moved out of the dominion of philosophy and that it should be treated as its own separate discipline more closely related to psychology. Regardless, shared aesthetics are the most obviously visible aspects of a unified culture: art, music, fashion, theater, etc. These are generally the facets of culture we most hope to experience when we travel to other parts of the globe. They are novel, sensorial, and largely innocuous.

Evolved Cooperative Strategies

Apart from a basic set of shared philosophic premises, people from the same culture have evolved a set of arbitrary, but functional, standard practices for social interaction. This is why the dictionary definition of “culture” includes the word “manners.” Misalignment of manners between people living together can lead to mistaken offense, unintentional affronts, and even physical conflict. A quick Internet search will reveal all sorts of gestures and habits that are considered polite or neutral in one culture, but greatly offensive in another. More importantly, a culture’s cooperative strategies include more subtle behavior and function as a kind of shortcut to detecting potentially dangerous anomalies in people around you. Is that man standing too close? Is he responding to social cues in an expected manner? If not, those may be signs that he’s a threat, and your subconscious may give you a vague sense of uneasiness in his presence. This is a completely practical, helpful, and efficient reaction when living in a unified culture. Security expert Gavin de Becker writes about the importance of heeding these warning signals in his book, “Gift of Fear.” But if the man in question is from a different culture, what your subconscious interprets as behavioral red flags may in fact be benevolent adherence to an alternate set of cultural norms governing social interaction. It may be hard to determine this without risking further engagement with the man, and it’s definitely difficult to override your deep-seated emotional response mechanism.

Aside from philosophic differences between cultures, differing cooperative strategies may be a contributory factor to the increased social isolation and general distrust observed in more diverse communities. In his paper, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam reluctantly concluded that, in the short-term:

“…immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”

Putnam goes on to describe how a society with mass immigration can overcome these problems over time through cultural assimilation and reconstruction of what he calls a “social identity.” In other words: synthesis of a new common culture.

[To continue to Part II, click here.]

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