February 5, 2006

The In-Your-Face to Feel-Your-Pain Gradient

The In-Your-Face to Feel-Your-Pain Gradient -- The Dane-Muslim cartoon controversy illuminates one of the less understood dynamics in the modern world, which I call the In-Your-Face to Feel-Your-Pain Gradient.

All over the world, peoples differ in terms of how in-your-face they tend to be. The ultra-polite Japanese, for example, who might be the most sensitive people on earth to other people's emotional discomfort, are deeply distressed by the kind of brusque assertiveness that's common in South China. Thus the Japanese developed elaborate forms of business entertaining, while the South Chinese businessmen love to bargain aggressively when stone sober.

But the particular gradient that's most relevant to us is the one that runs between the Middle East and Northwestern Europe. Northwestern Europe and its overseas offshoots are probably second only to Japan as being Feel-Your-Pain cultures where people don't like social friction and don't like to see others upset. In contrast, the Middle East is perhaps the most in-your-face place on Earth. Here's P.J. O'Rourke's memorable description in The Atlantic of a Red Cross attempt at food distribution during the 2003 Iraq Attaq:

I was outside Safwan [in Iraq] on March 28, on the roof of a Kuwait Red Crescent tractor-trailer full of food donations. Below, a couple of hundred shoving, shouldering, kneeing, kicking Iraqi men and boys were grabbing at boxes of food.

Red Crescent volunteers provided the boxes, gingerly, to the mob. Each white carton would be grasped by three or four or five belligerents and pulled in three or four or five directions—tug-of-Congolese-civil-war.

Every person in the mob seemed to be arguing with every other person. Giving in to impulses to push themselves forward and push others away, shouting Iraqis were propelled in circles. A short, plump, bald man sank in the roil. A small boy, red-faced and crying, was crushed between two bellowing fat men. An old man was trampled trying to join the fray.

The Iraqis were snatching the food as if they were starving, but they couldn't have been starving or they wouldn't have been able to snatch so well. Most looked fully fed. Some were too fit and active. Everyone behind the trailer was expending a lot of calories at noon on a 90° day.

Looking out, I saw irrigated patches in the desert, at about the same density as the patches on the uniform of a mildly diligent Boy Scout. The tomatoes were ripe. Nannies, billies, and kids browsed between garden plots. Goat bolognese was on offer, at least for some locals.

There was no reason for people to clobber one another. Even assuming that each man in the riot—and each boy—was the head of a family, and assuming the family was huge, there was enough food in the truck. Mohammed al-Kandari, a doctor from the Kuwait Red Crescent Society, had explained this to the Iraqis when the trailer arrived. Al-Kandari was a forceful explainer. He resembled a beneficent version of Bluto in the Popeye comics, or Bluto in Animal House.

Al-Kandari had persuaded the Iraqis to form ranks. They looked patient and grateful, the way we privately imagine the recipients of food donations looking when we're writing checks to charities. Then the trailer was opened, and everything went to hell.

Al-Kandari marched through the donnybrook and slammed the trailer doors shut. He harangued the Iraqis. They lined up again. The trailer was opened, and everything went to hell.

Al-Kandari waded in and closed the trailer doors again. He swung his large arms in parallel arcs at the Iraqis. "Line up!" he boomed; "Queue!" he thundered—the Arabic-speaking doctor speaking to Arabic-speakers in English, as if no Arabic word existed for the action.

Al-Kandari took a pad of Post-it notes and a marker pen from his lab-coat pocket. "Numbers!" he said, still speaking English. "I will give you all numbers!" A couple of hundred shouldering, shoving Iraqi men and boys grabbed at the Post-it notes.

The doctor gave up and opened the trailer doors. I climbed the ladder behind the truck cab to get a better view.

Aid-seekers in England would queue automatically by needs, disabled war vets and nursing mothers first. Americans would bring lawn chairs and sleeping bags, camp out the night before, and sell their places to the highest bidders. Japanese would text-message one another, creating virtual formations, getting in line to get in line. Germans would await commands from a local official, such as the undersupervisor of the town clock. Even Italians know how to line up, albeit in an ebullient wedge. The happier parts of the world have capacities for self-organization so fundamental and obvious that they appear to be the pillars of civilization. But here—on the road to Ur, in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, where civilization has obtained for 5,000 years longer than it has, for example, at a Libertarian Party confab in Phoenix—nothing was supporting the roof.

What I saw, however, wasn't anarchy... The Iraqis didn't try to climb into the tractor-trailer or break through its side doors. Red Crescent volunteers, coming and going from the back of the truck, were unmolested. Once an aid box was fully in an Iraqi's control and had been pulled free from the commotion, no one tried to take it. I saw four boxes being guarded by a young boy.

I watched a confident gray-haired man push toward the trailer gate. He had wire-rimmed glasses on the end of his nose and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He dove for a box, his glasses flying, cigarette embers burning various gutras and dishdashahs. He disappeared for the better part of a minute. Then he came out on the other side of the throng, box under one arm and glasses somehow back on his face (but minus the cigarette). The gray-haired man looked around and delivered an open-handed whack to someone who, I guess, had indulged in a late hit.

I stared at the rampage for an hour. Now and then I'd be noticed on the trailer roof. Whenever I caught someone's eye, I was greeted with a big, happy smile. The Iraqis were having fun.

Now, this is not solely the fault of Islam. Non-Muslims in the Middle East are also quite brusque. For example, I used to work at a marketing research firm where the most brilliant executive was a Lebanese Christian immigrant, who was constantly upsetting lesser employees by pointing out their mistakes in no uncertain terms. I had to counsel employees that you had to grade Magid on the curve -- that I'd known a half dozen Lebanese (all of them Christians, I believe) and he was the most considerate one of the six, so by the standards of his Levantine upbringing, he was practically David Niven for grace and good manners. Similarly, Israeli Jews are remarkably in-your-face, so Islam isn't totally to blame for why Middle Easterners are the way they are. (It may play a role, though -- the Hindus of Bali are said to be a lot nicer on average than the Muslims in the rest of Indonesia.)

In a culture like Iraq's where everyone is constantly asserting his and his family's rights at the top of his lungs, it's hard for anyone to have rights if anything is to get done. In a culture like England's where each individual is reticent about asserting his rights or the rights of his family or clan, it's much easier for everyone to have rights.

You can see the problem that then develops when people from the in-your-face end of the gradient immigrate to the feel-your-pain countries. When immigrants bring their Middle Eastern hostility and assertiveness, the natives in the northwest are reluctant to vocally protest right back at them, because, well, it's just not done. They just give them That Look that causes their fellow Northwest Europeans to feel guilty that they've caused their neighbors discomfort. But it doesn't work on the Middle Easterners. They just see the failure of the natives to do anything substantial as proof of their bland white bread inferiority.

But the truly catastrophic problem for the Northwesterners is that their empathy and politeness makes it very difficult for them to publicly discuss the problems that immigration of Middle Easterners causes for them. To say out loud, "Maybe we shouldn't let in more of these people," is seen as being rude toward the people we've already let in. The ones that are already there will get angry and cause a scene, which we just can't bear, so we'd better just not talk about immigration policy at all.

Of course, that means the problem just keeps getting worse.

Now, the Japanese get around this problem by not letting in immigrants at all, not even perfectly pleasant Filipinos. Instead, they build robots and program them to act like Japanese, which is a lot easier on the Japanese and their fragile emotions.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

No comments: