There is an astounding sentence in S. C. Gwynne’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. The book describes the final and violent clashes between the ever-expanding Anglo settlers and the Comanche Indians resisting their encroachment on land they claimed. In this decades long struggle, the Comanches frequently took white captives. One, Rachel Plummer, wrote a record of her time with the Indians after she finally returned home. In describing this record, Gwynne makes his surprising confession:
“It is impossible to read Rachel Plummer’s memoir without making moral judgments about the Comanches.”
Gwynne, must be given credit for his even-handed treatment of whites and Indians, but throughout the book he tries to conform to the now-accepted social rules that require one never to exalt one culture over another. In post-modern thought, no culture has the standing over another to judge it. For how can any of us play judge? We all set up rules that are suitable to our culture, but nobody’s rules are better than another’s. The only way one could have a just judgment would be to have a judge that stands outside and above all the participants. And where might one find such a judge?
But how does one describe the actions of a people that gang rapes women captives. Or likes watching people scream in agony? Or tortures babies and enjoys it? For this was Comanche culture. Can one describe it as evil?
Westerners who write books are very conscious of the fact that Westerners have imposed their culture on other foreign peoples with varying results. From the time of the great European explorers, when Westerners came in contact with other cultures, it was the Europeans and their offspring who prevailed. Many books have been written trying to fathom why this was so. Some have made the observation that Westerners are the only culture that is so self-examining. We are, after all, the ones who came up with the idea that we should not judge among cultures. The Chinese have no such lack of self-confidence.
During the 15th and 16th century explorations, the Western explorers were confident that they did have a superior culture, and that culture in large part was based on Christian ideas. Embarrassingly, it turns out the Europeans were not very faithful to these ideas and behaved quite barbarically at times. And they succeeded in extinguishing many native cultures they encountered.
When Cortés encountered the Aztecs, they were daily ripping the hearts out of living victims, perhaps as many as 20,000 a year. This was their culture. It is no surprise that the surrounding tribes aided the Spanish in their conquest of the Aztec, for the cultures of those tribes promoted the idea that one should avoid having one’s beating heart cut from one’s body. The extinction of the Aztec culture was a boon to every other culture in the area. And Cortés felt strident moral clarity in his mission—even if this also included the possibility of personal benefit.
Westerners today, however, are totally unsure of their moral bearings. The Bible is no longer a divine book but one of many that purports to be the counsel of a Supreme Being who probably doesn’t exist. We have disqualified ourselves from being the arbiters of moral decisions because we have failed to live up to the moral standards we have proposed. We no longer have a sure standard by which to judge right and wrong. So now we judge by general consensus. Thus comes Gwynne’s unexpected sentence and implied plea: I don’t want to judge the Comanche, but can we at least agree that these things are bad?
And here is the question: Once you agree that something is evil, do you have a moral obligation to stop it? May you put your moral will on other people on other cultures. May an imperfect person judge another imperfect person?
If you think you are making up your own rules, you cannot arrive at moral clarity. But if your rules come from a source above you; if they are not morally self-serving, that is, exempting you from rules others must observe; if the rules stand whether you are able to live according to them or not; then you can have moral clarity. And you can act to enforce the rules of that morality.
What happens when a culture loses its moral clarity? This: U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies
The words of General Napier, who served in India in the 19th century, have been oft quoted when others have commented on this story. If you have never read them, they are a bracing reminder that right and wrong can be discerned. This story comes from History Of General Sir Charles Napier’s Administration Of Scinde by Sir William Francis Patrick Napier. Suttee was the Indian ritual of burning a widow with the body of her dead husband in the funeral pyre.
“He also put down the practice of suttees….For judging the real cause of these immolations to be the profit derived by the priests, and hearing of an intended burning, he made it known that he would stop the sacrifice. The priests said it was a religious rite which must not be meddled with—that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a sacred one. The general, affecting to be struck with the argument, replied,
“‘Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!’
“No suttee took place then or afterwards.”
That is moral clarity.
Michelle Zama says
Things we don’t think about very often, but should. and should discuss with our kids. We need to teach them facts, not feelings.