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Social Justice Warriors and the Taliban

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Wendy Doniger writes that traditionally in India it was common for Hindus to worship at such places as shrines to Sufi saints and to include and incorporate these holy figures so that they became an element of their religion.  What struck me about this custom is that if individuals in the West were to engage in such a practice it would be labelled ‘cultural appropriation’.  They would have Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) denouncing them and attempting to ban them from engaging in such practices in the name of ‘diversity’.  Yet what could be a greater expression of diversity than a willingness to embrace elements of other religions and cultures as well as one’s own? 

This leads one to reflect on the strange way in which advocacy of ‘diversity’ in the West has such an exclusive nature.  Diversity seems to mean a collection of groups each of which has an exclusive right to a particular set of beliefs and customs.  As with multiculturalism, diversity does not seem to include the possibility of syncretism or the evolution of new forms of culture out of existing forms.  This is extremely odd because if there is anything the study of history tells us it is that when cultures interact individuals from one culture invariably take things from other cultures, be they words, customs, food or religious ideas.

The Western philosophical tradition owes much to ideas which have come from outside of it.  For example, Christopher Beckwith has argued that the recursive method or argument, so important in medieval thought, comes originally from Buddhist Central Asia.  This is in line with Remi Brague’s characterisation of Western Civilisation as being composed largely of intellectual traditions which came from elsewhere.  The essence of the West has rested on its capacity to absorb ideas which, in origin, are not its own.  The capacity to absorb ideas from other civilisations, and to make them its own, is the mark of a dynamic energetic civilisation.  ‘Cultural appropriation’ is both normal and an indication that a civilisation is in a healthy state.


If Brague is correct, and I think that he is, then Western civilisation is to be defined less by its geography, or what one might term its ‘spirit of place’, than by its intellectual, cultural and artistic traditions and, by its capacity to absorb what is best from elsewhere.  Absorption does not mean ‘appropriation’ but taking something from elsewhere, absorbing it, and invariably putting it to a new use.  It demonstrates respect.

At the same time, one must recognise tendencies in the West, best exemplified at the current point of time by SJWs, to impose a restrictive and limited approach to the world on its members.  This comes out of another tendency in Western civilisation which is to insist on the exclusive truth of certain ideas and beliefs.  This ultimately to the idea that A necessarily excludes non-A, leading to a culture which emphasises either/or.  Even worse, there has been a tendency in the West to persecute, and even to kill, those individuals who have challenged the keepers of orthodoxy.  These protectors of The Truth have proclaimed that it was their way or the highway, or even worse, the stake.  SJWs are the current embodiment of that tradition.

It is worth pointing out that despite those who would impose their particular way on everyone else the West has also always nourished in its bosom a variety of intellectual and cultural traditions.  For example, alongside Christianity, there have been traditions of ‘metaphysical religion’, derived from the ancient world, especially Neo-Platonism.  And of course, despite its many travails, Judaism has long been an essential part of the West; despite their treatment Jews have enriched Western civilisation way beyond what one would expect given their relatively small numbers.

It could be said that there has been a long struggle in the West between those who would restrict its range of ideas and cultural practices and those who were not only developing new ideas but also importing them from other civilisations. 

This brings us to the notion that perhaps SJWs are best understood as the Western equivalent of the Taliban.  Olivier Roy has argued that a defining feature of Islamism has been its desire to eradicate all those other traditional modes of Islam which do not fit into its scripturalist version of the religion.  This means eradicating much traditional Islamic culture in the name of Islam, and includes a very negative attitude to Sufism.  Islamists violently oppose what is best described as the culture of traditional Islam.  They wish to purify the religion of what they see as its dross.

Just as Islamism appeals to young Muslims who are inspired to purify their religion, the cult of the SJW in the West is largely a student phenomenon.  Its religion is that of political correctness, or the desire to purify culture by making its speech pure.  Johnathan Haidt has pointed recently out that while political correctness was once associated primarily with authority figures such university professors, the initiative has passed to the students who now actively monitor what their professors say.  The SJWs are flexing their muscles.


In other words, SJWs are the Taliban of the West.  They see their culture as impure and in need of reform.  They see themselves as being righteous, and the vessels who will cleanse the Temple of its impurities.  Increasingly, their behaviour indicates a willingness to use violence to achieve their aims. 

What unites SJWs and the Taliban is an impatience with the realities of the world in which we live and which can never be perfect.  They both have a real problem with ambiguity and with the ironic nature of human existence.  In both cases, there is a desire to create a pure world.

The danger in both cases is that in the drive for this purity they threaten to destroy much that is of value to both Western and Islamic civilisations.  Roy argues that Islamist education leaves out much traditional Islamic learning.  In their hatred of what they see as the racist and misogynist West SJWs would throw away large chunks of the Western tradition; they actively seek cultural impoverishment.

It is worth reflecting as to why such movements have grown up in both the West and Islam at this point of time.  Why do young people seek to jettison so much of value and reject it as simply dross?  Of course, all cultural traditions are imperfect but they are also enormously rich and of immense value in their very variety.  SJWs are, in many ways, as great a threat to Western civilisation as the Islamists.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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