Does Richard Dawkins Have the Right to Dislike Things from Other Cultures?

Do Richard Dawkins’ aesthetic preferences really betray cultural supremacy, racism, or xenophobia?

A few years ago or so, someone sent me a very funny Youtube video.  The video compares the words used to describe various items, such as airplane, butterfly, and others in a variety of languages, and compares how they all sound relative to one another.

The video makes a point of what these words sound like in German – that is to say, they sound very, well, for lack of a better word, German.

I have only a year of college German under my belt,, but this video gave me – and I suspect many of you – a good “Lachen” (that means laughter). Though I have great admiration for the German language and the great products of German intellectual and artistic culture, the language does seem a bit awkward at best, and quite angular and aggressive at worst. When I would watch old clips of Hitler giving speeches in history class, though I did not understand a word of what he was saying, it somehow made sense that one of the most murderous tyrants in modern history spoke a language that seemed to have rough edges that could be interpreted as intrinsically war-like.  The great Mark Twain seemed singularly interested in what he saw as the downsides of German, writing a work on the subject entitled, “That Awful German Language,.”  And I laughed quite contently whenever I hear the quote attributed, falsely or otherwise, to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – “I speak in Latin to God, Italian to Women, French to Men, and German to my Horse.”

Those who really know German would likely immediately object to such caricatures.  It’s quite difficult to hear German as intrinsically aggressive or awkward when you hear a great singer transport us into the pathos of the human condition as they sing great Lieder by Schubert or Schumann, or when really digging into the sublime poetry of Goethe, or when one observes the great tragic spectacles of the operas of Richard Wagner. Of course those who really take a deep dive into the German language and German culture know them, stereotypes aside, to be one filled with some of the greatest works of art and some of the greatest explorations of the human soul ever known. There is that same beauty reaching for the heavens as is sought after by great artists of every culture. Sure, superficially speaking, one can come to the opinion that the language is ‘ugly’, or ‘war-like’, but with an expanded palette, one comes to see it on a spectrum, one that can express love and joy with the same tenderness as a speaker of French or Spanish can any day.

So one could easily say that one’s preference for, say, Italian as a language of love is one born out of ignorance of German’s ability to transmit the sublime, three annoying linguistic genders to negotiate while doing so notwithstanding. One could easily say this view is just defaulting to a normative cultural bias instilled from youth. The aesthetic discussion is a discussion worth having, and a discussion one can have in good faith when it comes to what the merits of what a language may or may not possess. But no matter what conclusions are drawn, aesthetic preferences are, to a certain degree, subjective. It would be one thing to say ‘English is a superior language to German’, quite another to say ‘I prefer English to German.”

But while this may all sound well and good, now we must fast forward from the 1970s to today, drink a bit of post-colonial theory and critical theory, put on your Foucault goggles, and see what happens if anyone dares to utter something similar regarding a cultural item from a group or ideology that has been deemed oppressed, rightly or otherwise, in the pantheon of the oppression olympics. This is what Richard Dawkins did the other day when he opined on hearing the bells of the Anglican churches of his childhood – and how he preferred them to the ‘aggressive’ sound of the Islamic call to prayer, ‘Allahu Ackbar.’

On the subject of Islam, Dawkins has never been one to avoid controversy. The rise of the so-called ‘New Atheist’ movement enjoyed an initially warmer reception from the left in the mid 2000s, when the religious right were ascendant in the Presidency of George W. Bush, and evangelicals were still fighting to get so-called ‘Intelligent Design’ put into public schools, which the New Atheists excoriated with zeal. But with the disappointments regarding Barack Obama’s plans to correct the failures of the Bush foreign policy, and the presumption that doing so would help end the supposed primary motivator of terrorists, New Atheists became more and more the face of what some saw as an intellectual veneer used to justify Islamophobia and bigotry. All of the New Atheists, Dawkins most especially, have refused to treat Islam with kid gloves, a posture that has opened them up to scorn for supposedly being racist, xenophobic, and cultural imperialists, the greatest villains in the age of the Social Justice Warrior.

Dawkins’ follow-up explanatory tweet, needless to say, also did him no favors in this regard.

The response from the so-called “regressive left”, which already generally holds New Atheists in low repute, has been fairly predictable. So too even from people on the more mainstream part of the left, which still generally tend to want to be sensitive to Muslim sensibilities, even if they share not one iota of religious feeling themselves.  What may perhaps have been more interesting is the reaction from some members of the atheist community itself.

Sarah Mills – full disclosure, a brilliant writer and editor on this very publication, whose articles you should check out herewrote the following

“This seems to be symptomatic of a larger trend in which atheists, under the guise of criticizing Islam, resort to tactics that betray what could only be described as cultural supremacy. The sort of people who triumphantly (and misguidedly) declare the “West is the Best” and “Some Cultures are Better than Others.”… He has since backtracked with another tweet, one I might consider even more damning, as it is blatantly disingenuous and reinforces an unfortunate association between a phrase used by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians alike and the war cry of terrorists…

…To answer your question in good faith, however, Mr. Dawkins, yes, it is your cultural upbringing. But your tweet wasn’t really about that, was it? While it is certainly your cultural background that reserves in your heart a greater fondness for church bells, it is not at all beyond your capacity, as a learned man appreciative of the arts–which know no one culture, but belong to all of humanity– to also acknowledge the aesthetic value in the adhan….

…It is entirely possible to not like the adhan at all and think it aggressive. I would not share this opinion, nor think it grounded in any informed critique, but I wonder at what such a tweet intends to accomplish or worse, what it accomplishes. It is an odd observation, not without baggage and implications, regardless of intent…”

Hermant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist”, weighed in with similar sentiments.

“What’s Dawkins doing? He’s criticizing the way Muslims pray. The words they use. The tone in which they speak.  He’s not criticizing radical Islam; he’s criticizing peaceful Muslims….That phrase may be the go-to line for suicide bombers, but it also has a completely different context for most Muslims. If he doesn’t understand or appreciate that, he’s playing right into his critics’ hands.”

I don’t think anybody, including Dawkins himself, think these tweets were perhaps the best choices to make, particularly given that Dawkins faces a leftist opposition constantly looking for literally anything they can to misrepresent him as a white supremacist or a cultural imperialist. The question about the culture he was raised in is I believe a tongue-in-cheek dig at these critics, as one of the main points of contention Dawkins has fought against considerably is the leftist embrace of a manic moral relativism that has enabled some in the west to make light of, or even apologize for, the worst aspects of what happens in some Muslim-majority countries, such as FGM, the murder of homosexuals and apostates, and more. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens were a clarion call for me personally against such intellectual sophistry – the idea that it is worldly and sophisticated to declare that we in the west are so full of the original sin of our past foreign policy and legacy of imperialism and colonialism that we are in no position to pass any judgement when the truly oppressed groups in Muslim-majority countries we swear allegiance to – women, LGBTQ, free thinkers, and yes, Muslims themselves – suffer immeasurably in ways and magnitudes that are scarcely imaginable in our own countries today. Furthermore New Atheists reject the idea that these flavors of oppression are, as Sam Harris says in caricaturing Noam Chomsky, only “monsters of our own creation”. The Chomskyian perspective seems to embrace the posture that ISIS terrorists only behead people and drive cars into crowds in the west out of some inevitable and supposedly completely understandable reaction to our foreign policy, as if the individuals who join ISIS aren’t too fully capable individuals with agency.  It also seems to regard it as only mysterious why Vietnamese and Latin Americans, similarly brutalized by our indefensible foreign policy, do not react identically. Given that differences in belief apparently have nothing to do with such choices according to this Chomskyian perspective, we should see identical responses, yet strangely we do not.

So yes, New Atheists are happy to assert there are certain values, some of which happen to have origins in the west, that are better than alternatives in other countries. Decades of confusion thanks to manic moral relativism have left many who would otherwise be fighting the hardest for the rights of these oppressed people in this context completely deracinated –  and not only do they seem to be proud of their feebleness in this regard, but they trumpet it as a virtue. And it’s exactly this taboo that New Atheists have fought against – cultures should not be treated with kid gloves according to some sliding scale, but should be treated the same, and not be spared truthful criticism in the name of sparing people’s feelings. Furthermore, they assert that this can be done without indulging in real racism against other people as people. Given that the most numerous victims of terrorism are Muslims themselves, New Atheists say it is exactly because Muslims are the primary victims that this kid-glove treatment of Islamism must stop.

And while it’s true that New Atheists do not spare Islam harsh verbal treatment, they really aren’t all that much kinder to Christianity and Judaism either. Dawkins has had incredibly harsh words for the Jesus story – why, he wonders, does god have to let his only son be brutally murdered so that mankind can be forgiven, when he could just – well – forgive them?

And do his critics forget perhaps his most famous quote from “The God Delusion”, concerning his views on the God of the Old Testament?

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Again, as I stated above – if Dawkins had made a similar tweet regarding his fondness for English over the ‘awkward’ or perhaps even ‘aggressive’ sound of the German language, nobody would have batted an eye. I, and likely you, just as at the start of this essay, would’ve likely had a good laugh. Those of us who are not native German speakers, scholars, or lovers of German music would’ve likely agreed with him. The fact that other cultural artifacts have been deemed by leftist religious taboos to be required to be treated differently is an axiom that Dawkins and others purposely challenge, and I believe with good reason – because it is exactly this double standard that has helped serve as a kind of immune system for radical elements of religion in a multicultural context, sparing it from the kind of open discussion and criticism required to help stop the horrific oppression of groups we care about. It is for this reason that I find criticism of Dawkins here as somehow being culturally insensitive or ‘imperialist’ as unfounded, and in the end, unhelpful.

And of course, finally, as I said above, we must admit artistic preferences are, in the end, largely subjective.  You, I, and Richard Dawkins, are allowed to dislike things, even cultural or artistic artifacts that come from other cultures, and even when that dislike is born out of some ignorance.

That some have cast Dawkins’ dislike for the Call to Prayer as born out of some ignorance of its beauty is the one piece of criticism that I believe has some merit. I lived near Dearborn Michigan for three years, and during that time I acquired some very basic knowledge the music of the middle east, the Call to Prayer included.  As I said above, it’s hard to dismiss German as merely ‘ugly’ when one gets to know its many fruits. During my time living near Dearborn I used to attend concerts by Arab music ensembles with much enjoyment, and earlier, in an elective class I took as a student, I really enjoyed getting to know more about the history of the Call to Prayer, and its interesting and unusual relationship with musical practice in the Islamic world. Am I any sort of authority on this? No. But I’ll contend my palette is probably just a bit more expanded than Professor Dawkins on this subject alone (something I will claim on almost no other subject with an intellectual titan such as Dawkins).

One of the very best experiences I had in New York City two years ago was getting an Uber from Manhattan to Brooklyn around Christmas, and towards the end of the trip the driver, a Muslim man with whom I was having a friendly conversation, spontaneously began reciting verses from the Quran with the signature musical inflection that is often part of the practice. Truly I was spellbound. Though I obviously did not understand the words, I was absolutely transported by their sublime beauty, which earned the driver a well-deserved tip. So again, while artistic preferences are fundamentally subjective, I’m going to have to disagree with Professor Dawkins, and say that the Call to Prayer is, in fact, at times quite haunting, and gloriously beautiful.

But here again, we must be careful. The reflexive tendency of well-meaning progressives with Foucault earbuds worn to celebrate every artifact from other cultures as beautiful is also a position born out of ignorance. There are most certainly some Arab musicians and ensembles in Dearborn that are, for lack of a better word, lousy. Some who trumpet the Call to Prayer have sub-par voices and sub-standard ideas regarding taste. This again is something we profess openly in the German example with no penalty. For every Beethoven, there were composers like Ferdinand Ries and Ludwig Spohr.  Never heard of them? Of course not, because history has a way of sifting the mediocrities out. People who proclaim the beauty of Mozart usually have not actually taken the time to listen to a work by Salieri, who, despite his newfound fame thanks to his role in the Oscar-winning movie “Amadeus”, has music that seems to grace concert halls today very, very rarely. The person of fine taste knows that a reflexive love or hatred of all things in a genre are both positions born out of ignorance. Although I have many passionate opinions about different types of Bourbon – my drink of choice –  if another person who knows it more superficially than I just fundamentally dislikes it, I cannot cast the opinion as some kind of grave offense. Perhaps if I got Bourbon listed as an oppressed group, we’d find reactions against preferences for drinks over it to be met with a similar kind of indignation.

But what about Dawkins’ second tweet attempting to explain the first? This is an example where I empathize with and understand the concerns of well-meaning progressives.

I most certainly do share the concerns of some that while we cannot be dishonest about the realities of Islamist terrorism, and we should affirm our right to dislike cultural products even from a culture different than our own, we should be very wary about promoting unfair stereotypes casting all Muslims as violent. It’s an unfortunate reality that “Allahu Ackbar” is often that which is shouted before a violent terrorist blows themselves up or opens fire upon innocent people. And it is terrible how this has painted Muslims in the eyes of some, including those who are already egregiously prejudiced and are looking for excuses to promote their own bigoted narratives. How can one be honest about the link between religious ideas and terrible actions without unfairly denigrating all instances of peaceful religious practice in the process?

Here too, the German example is instructive. Because in the darkest hours of German history, yet another great musical tradition was put in the service of some of the worst horrors ever seen on our globe. While being marched into slave labor camps or into the gas chambers, Jewish prisoners were often forced to set their death marches to the music of Richard Wagner, a vocal anti-semite himself, though having been born and died much too early to have ever been a Nazi. Wagner, who in works like the prelude to “Tristan and Isolde” made himself one of the most important innovators in Western Music, served as the soundtrack to a hellish nationalism, the theme music for a human inferno Dante couldn’t have imagined. Was it Wagner’s personal doing that it made it such? Of course not. Would it be fair to somehow blame Wagner for how his music was used in the Nazi regime? No. And yet again, here with our Foucault earbuds removed, we are able to speak honestly about both his music’s beauty, and the violent reality of how it was used.

For many victims of the Holocaust, the reality of how Wagner was used is a terror that has not left them. This is why even today, performances of Wagner in Israel are hugely controversial.

It’s a subject that has been treated very cleverly by Jewish comedians. In his film ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’, Woody Allen, leaving the Metropolitan Opera, declares “I can’t listen to that much Wagner, I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”

One of the most hilarious takes on this subject comes from Larry David in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” When telling his wife about the beauty of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll”, which the composer wrote for his wife, he is confronted by a fellow Jew for his supposed self-loathing in extolling it.

Why are we laughing at the brilliance of these comedians? Like with all good comedy, it’s because of the truth contained within. One can both appreciate Wagner as a great genius, and still recognize that his music will, fairly or not, be forever associated with one of the most violent periods in human history, and the greatest recorded genocide yet seen.  Even in our laughter, we see that Holocaust survivors are not crazy in professing their trauma associated with such music. And furthermore, we have no problem in granting those who simply dislike Wagner the freedom to do so, even if they haven’t listened to enough hours of the Ring Cycle to claim any kind of informed opinion on the subject. Mark Twain once again said it better than most others could in expressing his dislike for Wagner – “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

I completely sympathize with the reflexive want among progressives to take issue with any attempt to try and generalize “Allahu Ackbar” as having only an association with violence, given its soothing, peaceful, and spiritual power for billions of peaceful people all across our planet. But if we can truthfully acknowledge the violence associated with the music of Richard Wagner and simultaneously recognize its association as not the fault of the composer, we should be able to do the same regarding that call which too many people in the west – and far far more people in the Middle East – have heard just before brutal violence has been unfairly visited upon them.

If we are to be intellectually consistent, we should likely find it a bit odd that almost never do we do not take into account the feelings and survivors of the traumas of 9/11 in America and 7/7 in London in a similar fashion, and be sensitive to their associations with the Call as we are with Holocaust survivors’ relationship to the music of Wagner. I have a good friend who lost her father in the fires of 9/11, and interestingly nobody has ever been interested in asking her what kind of feelings the Call to Prayer might conjure for her. The self-appointed warriors for the oppressed never seem to pay much attention to the loves and friends vanished in an instant, and indeed they might get many slaps on the back and pats on the head for a cynical and callous observation that really they deserved it for the sins of our foreign policy anyway. Like with the Holocaust, like with Wagner, we should be able to examine the Call to Prayer fairly, comprehensively, and truthfully – and ideally from a place of real knowledge on the subject, not a superficial ignorance that reflexively defends or reflexively condemns such complicated cultural artifacts one way or the other. If the recent criticism of Dawkins’ has merit, I believe it is in this last category of some ignorance.  But as I said, given that artistic preferences are subjective, Richard Dawkins still has the right to dislike it. And the double standards around the right do so aren’t just intellectually inconsistent, but enable a kind of sinister immune system for truly sinister trends, ones that harm the very groups we seek to protect.

That treating different cultures truly equally is taboo is an interesting reflection on how the left has evolved within the last decades. None articulated this tendency better than economist and author Thomas Sowell –

“If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago, and a racist today.”

About Lucas Lynch 8 Articles
Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News. Lucas is also a writer and podcaster, with interests in science, religion and politics.

2 Comments

  1. While Dawkins is well within his rights to dislike something from another culture, he must also remember that this tweet of his did no good to anyone, and only served the purpose of raking up an unnecessary controversy. Let us not forget the age old wisdom – Speak only if it improves on silence.

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