In an incident that could easily be pigeonholed as “Acts of Divine Justice” or “The Darwin Awards for Stupidity”, four Western cyclists in southwestern Tajikistan were recently intentionally mowed down and killed by Moslem activists. But why don’t we stop for a moment and think just what it is in our consciousness, wisdom or experience that insists: “Don’t go biking in Tajikistan”?
Tajikistan is a beautiful country. It has roads good enough for biking. There are people around, which means that there is probably water, food and shelter as well, and a relative dearth of dangerous animals. Even tools, spare parts and medicine could probably be located, useful in an emergency. And these cyclists were experienced, having already biked through Africa and Europe. They had made meticulous plans and were excellently prepared and well equipped for their task. So why are we so disparaging towards these, as we like to call them, adventurers? What is so patently wrong with biking through Tajikistan? Well, obviously, it is the people. We are prejudiced against the Tajik. Jay Austen and Lauren Geoghegan were not, and they are now dead.
Liberalism teaches us not to discriminate, not to make a difference between people, a difference between the people we know and strangers. Especially people acting publicly, people acting visibly, should not be allowed to discriminate. Other people mustn’t discriminate. Since the state of Alabama was wrong in discriminating against Rosa Parks, all discrimination is, according to liberal dictum, obviously and necessarily wrong. And so bikers die in Tajikistan. Because the prejudice against Rosa Parks and the prejudice against Tajik jihadists cannot be separated. It is prejudice based solely on group-level distinctive superficial differences, where one person of a certain apparent kind is supposed or expected to act in a similar way to another person of the same apparent kind. This is the prejudice that informs us that it is obviously stupid to go biking in Tajikistan.
Mr. Austen and Miss Geoghegan found magic on their trip around the world. They found beautiful landscapes and vistas, created by nature and by men. They expected to find, and did indeed find, unexpected help from people who recognized the predicaments their absolute and voluntary naïvety repeatedly placed them in.
Little did Mr. Austin recognize that the reason that these people were willing and able to invite them into their homes was that they had not gone off on a liberal adventure spree, but had worked hard at home to accumulate the capital Mr. Austin could reap a part of the interest off.1 They did not live as Mr. Austin, self-obsessed in a tiny (private) house.
In South Africa, Mr Austen and Miss Geoghegan were saved by a security guard, using the resources of his employer, who discriminated against them in seeing their predicament camping on a highway in the middle of winter. In Botswana, they were saved by a man who observed them biking through a desert at 35° Celsius, discriminated their supposed thirst and gave them water he had, as opposed to the biking couple, been wise enough to have secured the presence of. In Spain, the couple biked in heavy rain and someone discriminated their being wet, borrowed them a towel and offered to dry their clothes. Only in Tajikistan did their encounter with a discriminating world end not in their favour.
If you take a simple average of Mr. Austen’s and Miss Geoghegan’s encounters with the unknown, they were clearly winning. In reality, they died. On “average”, liberalism, the mindless acceptance of everything new and unknown, is advantageous. But in life, we don’t get to make an average over time. In life statistics, there is no ergodicity.
Exactly this, the unbearable presence in our consciousness of the knowledge of our own vulnerability, is probably what makes us inclined to adopt the liberal stance in the first place. Why can’t we just live together? That would solve the problem. But it is a dream, a dream designed to dampen our angst. It is a life lie. If you take it to the last consequence, like Mr. Austen and Miss Geoghegan did, you die:
“You watch the news and you read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place. People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil. People are axe murderers and monsters and worse.
“I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own — it’s easier to dismiss an opinion as abhorrent than strive to understand it. Badness exists, sure, but even that’s quite rare. By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind. No greater revelation has come from our journey than this.”
So, does this mean that it was right to ask Rosa Parks to give up her seat because of her skin colour? Of course not. But it was wrong to generalize this local solution to a local problem into a universal principle applicable in all contexts. The laws in Alabama before and after the Rosa Parks incident were both approximations of an ideal system of laws allowing all to just live together in peace. Instead of making bold generalizations in abstract terms long parted from the reality they were created to represent, we should continue to improve our local approximations, step by step, detail by detail.
1. Mr. Austin and Miss Geoghegan also, in Europe, took part in organised and discriminatory coachsurfing.↩