In the US Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote, in regards to the Bill of Rights, that: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.
Jefferson’s words present a powerful truth and have heartily stood the test of time. They have been echoed by revolutionaries and freedom fighters across the world for hundreds of years. Even Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam during the 1950s and 60s, began a speech with these words when they gained independence from French rule.
As Jefferson himself put it, this truth is “self-evident”. What should be obvious given the context and wording is that the phrase in no way implies that “all men are equal”. I don’t want to spend much time pointing out the obvious but it should be apparent to anyone capable of comprehending written English or basic reason that not all men are equal. Some men are stronger, faster, more intelligent and better looking than others. Each individual is vastly different from any other and Jefferson’s words apply merely in regards to men being born with equal and unalienable rights.
The paradigm presented that “all men are created equal” has had a massive impact on the world view of Western Civilization. If all men are created equal, and men comprise cultures then surely all cultures must be created equal as well. But just as it does not mean “all men are equal” it does also does not imply that “all cultures are equal”.
If not all cultures are equal then what makes one better or worse? This is a difficult question to answer because there are good and bad aspects to all cultures, just as there are good and bad aspects to all men. It is difficult to say whether or not some cultures are better or worse but it is clear that they are though what makes them better or worse is not always obvious.
I have spent much of my life traveling. It is my most fervent passion. There is nothing I love more than traveling and experiencing what different cultures have to offer. I have visited 18 countries total and I plan on visiting many more. As an American, one of my favorite places to travel to is Europe. European culture is very similar to American culture, so much that many people in Asia simply identify Europeans, Americans, Australians, etc. as “westerners”. Though there are many similarities between America and Europe both culturally and politically there are also glaring differences that strike you upon traveling in different nations. A part from the obvious (people looking different and speaking different languages) there are tons of things that set us apart from one another.
Germans, for example, have a lot of faith in the governmental institutions and their system as a whole. Americans are mostly skeptical and pessimistic about their government. One of the most paramount rights afforded to Americans by our constitution is the “Right to keep and bear arms”, which to most Europeans is seen as a recipe for disaster and the cause of a societal affliction that is the cause for mass shootings. Most Europeans value universal health care and regard it as a basic human right. Americans disagree on this issue a lot but it’s clear that many, if not most, Americans don’t see it as something the government should have any involvement in. I could write a book highlighting the differences between Americans and Europeans but the simplest way to summarize our differences is this: Europeans as a whole tend to value civility and openness more while Americans tend to value freedom and autonomy.
Are European cultures better or worse than American culture? It really depends on what you value more. I myself definitely hold American values of freedom and autonomy more than I value civility and openness. I love Western Civilization and Western Culture but that does not blind me to our culture’s flaws either. Political correctness is rampant across the west and is a cultural disease which has led to censorship, especially online. The openness of Westerners has led to the opening up of our countries to people and cultures that may be hostile toward us or hold our values in contempt. Political ideologies have come to replace the vacuum left by the decline of religion. We are by no means perfect and there is a lot we can improve.
Comparing different first world nations does not clearly define whether or not certain nations are better than others. While many westerners hold nations like Japan and Korea in high regard due to the highly functional, well educated and technological advancement in these nations. They certainly have a lot of positive traits. They are very homogeneous cultures, the crime rates are very low, their currency is strong, people work hard, the food is excellent, the countries are safe and they respect basic human rights. One thing that really struck me in Japan is that there is almost no theft. My friend once got drunk and lost his wallet at a bar. The next day he returned to the police station in the area where he lost it and someone had turned it into the police, with all of his cash still in it. It was amazing to me.
Despite the positives of East Asian Culture there are still a lot of negatives which can make living there quite difficult. Birth rates are dropping significantly to the point the government is creating initiatives to encourage people to procreate. Pollution in Korea is a major problem that causes illness and environmental damage. Both cultures have an extremely strong work ethic but one that is incredibly taxing on their native citizens. When I lived in Korea I was working 50 hours a week, which I thought was a lot. I came to learn that many people were working much longer hours than I was, up to 80 hours per week. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons that suicide rates in these nations are so high. Again, what makes these cultures better or worse from Western Cultures isn’t obvious but it can be made depending on what you value most.
The distinction between better and worse cultures can be more easily understood when comparing and contrasting the cultures of third world nations with the cultures of first world nations. No matter whether you’re an American who values freedom more, a European that believes civility is paramount or an East Asian who holds hard work and tradition in high regard, government sanctioned gang rape to punish criminals is never considered okay. Cultures where that is permissible are, indeed, worse than others.
There are many cultures like that out there. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are prime examples of this. In The Democratic Republic of the Congo a woman was once gang raped to death for serving fish in her restaurant on a Sunday. Homosexuality is punishable by death in many African and Middle Eastern nations and executions are often carried out in brutal and inhumane ways. A few years ago people around the world applauded when women and Saudi Arabia were finally afforded the ability to drive cars, which is a undoubtedly a step in the right direction but still far from having equal rights to men. In most Muslim countries it is punishable by death to leave one’s religion. The atrocities committed in these nations goes on and on but you get the idea. Countries that do not honor people’s basic human rights, where suffering is brutally and needlessly inflicted upon people, where daring to think for yourself can get you killed have worse cultures.
People then often wonder: “What is the solution then? How do we make these cultures better?”
The answer is you don’t.
For centuries the West has intervened in the affairs of other nations and, though in some ways were successful, they mostly were massive failures. If history has taught us anything it’s that mingling in the affairs of other nations makes everyone worse off. Colonization in the Africa failed to bring about stable civilizations. Colonization in the Americas led to uprising and rebellions against the European Imperial powers. Interventions by the US and Soviet Union resulted in civil wars in Latin America. US involvement in Vietnam was a decisive defeat for the US and resulted in communist take over of the country. The US involvement in the Middle East was a resounding failure and the Western intervention in the Arab Spring in 2011 was also a massive failure that only made conditions there worse. Even simple acts of altruism like Western Nations sending shoes to impoverished African countries have only served to undermine the local economies and put hard working people out of business.
So when it comes to worse cultures harming themselves, when Bashar Al Assad bombs his own citizens, when child slaves are forced to mine diamonds in Sierra Leone, when an atheist in the Arab World is killed for leaving his religion and people ask “what should we do”. The correct answer is “absolutely nothing”. It may sound mean or cruel but it’s not your place to care and provide for the downtrodden of the world. It’s a mistake that the West and other imperial powers have made time and time again and are now reviled for. Let other cultures be worse if that’s what they are. It’s on them to change, not on you to change them.