11 October 2007

Values? What values?

Some discussion has been excited by a debate on Tuesday about 'Western values', and the question of whether these should be considered 'superior' to other values.

A number of speakers at the debate argued passionately in favour of this proposition. The audience seem to have been convinced, and the motion "We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of Western values" was carried 465 to 264 for.

The idea that Western values need defending, and that multiculturalism and relativism may be flawed, has been circulating for some time. It was expressed, for example, in a book published last year and co-authored by former Culture Minister Chris Smith, Suicide of the West.

Now it is all well and good to praise old-fashioned principles such as liberty, tolerance and secularism — which, in its broadest sense, could be thought of as independence of law from ideology. But isn't this all a little like breast-beating after the horse has bolted?

We are no longer in a position to boast about our unalloyed support for principles such as free speech, tolerance of dissident viewpoints, or freedom of the law from ideological pressures. Therefore we are no longer in a position to preach about it to other nations.

Transmitting democracy to other countries is all very well, but what kind of democracy is it which is nowadays being exported? I for one would not wish to impose the system we have at present in Britain on a foreign country.

It takes more than universal suffrage and a party political system to generate the conditions of a genuinely liberal democracy. For all I know, some other countries which don't have democracy could have more respect for the freedom of the individual than we or the USA do at present.

In his opening speech of the debate, Ibn Warraq mentioned the following as being among "the great ideas of the West": rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, and freedom of expression.

Support for rationality has to be distinguished from the belief that only certain positions (e.g. atheism) are rational. And genuine analysis has to be distinguished from spurious philosophical 'proofs' that particular positions (e.g. that state intervention is ethically required) are validated by logic. This is not to argue for relativism, but merely to insist that where there is no genuine proof either way, it is appropriate to be agnostic. However, such genuine agnosticism is becoming increasingly unfashionable.

Self-criticism of a specific kind is popular in the West, but it is confined to questioning capitalism and bourgeois concepts. The real cultural hegemony (leftist anti-bourgeois ideology) is not criticised to any significant extent.

the disinterested search for truth
Universities are now openly called on to pursue research with a view to meeting political and 'ethical' objectives. Research which might undermine favoured intellectual positions is unlikely to be supported.

the separation of church and state
Christianity may no longer have much influence on politics or law, but an alternative quasi-religion with its own belief system and moral ideology is beginning to occupy the same position that Christian ideology used to, in various areas under state jurisdiction including education and the arts.

freedom of expression
We may have had this once, even as recently as twenty years ago, but we do not have it any more.

I agree with Warraq's argument that "economic, social, political, scientific and cultural success" are based on these values and similar ones. Whether we ourselves still possess them sufficiently to be in a position to pass the baton, however, seems doubtful.

Criticising Islam as contrasting unfavourably with Western liberalism is a red herring. Perhaps it makes sense as an argument to present to (say) Iranians, or Burmese: wouldn't you rather have the freedoms we (still just about) have, than the authoritarianism of your own countries? As a debate for ourselves, it avoids the real issue: we are sliding towards that same authoritarianism, and it has little to do with the presence of foreign cultures in our country. What is often erroneously referred to as 'multiculturalism' is merely an expression of a movement towards a more tribal type of society which many of us seem to want to embrace anyway. Hanging this desire to become more tribal on the convenient hook of 'other cultures are equally valid' is a deception which critics should try to avoid falling for.