Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Imperialism of Universal Values

We shouldn't pretend that everyone shares our values.

Values are not universal. It is simple as that. The imputation of our values, even the most rationally derived and well-meaning, to others does not mean they are shared by them. We can claim that there is a basic human nature that intrinsically shares some values. But even then, others may have different priorities, so that even if they share many individual values, they might rank them differently, preventing us from claiming any basic set as absolute or universal. Indeed,  ideologies are notoriously powerful in re-arranging our values, to the point of valuing death over life.

The brief interlude of enthusiasm for universal rights, in the wake of World War 2, might seem to belie this philososphy. But really, it was more of an exercise in victor's justice and idealism, as well as cultural imperialism, than it was a free response of all countries around the world to the new concepts of inalienable human rights. Half the signatories to the declaration of human rights were, after all, totalitarian countries of various stripes. And it came under immediate protest from Islamic countries.

This informs the debates about Muslim responses to Charlie Hebdo, other cartoon provocations, and the West in general. Others may simply not rank free speech as highly as religious belief and cultural tradition. We in the West have a hard-won rationale to prefer our ranking, religion being a font of sensitivities and claims to power that, given precedence, tend to grow endlessly, gobbling up all other rights and ideologies. But the Muslim world has its centuries-long experience as well, which can't simply be disregarded and overrun for the sake of what we call progress. Even if we ideally could take a poll of each affected Muslim to truly, democratically, figure out what they want, as opposed to what their various mouthpieces, governments, and leaders want, that presupposes the validity of democracy, which itself is a contested value.

The same issue extends to the treatment of women. The current Western dispensation towards liberation and equality is extremely novel, even in the West, so whatever its moral virtues in our eyes, and even those of Muslim women if that be the case, it can't claim any intrinsic universality.

This is all to say that the attacks by Muslims on offensive authors and artists can not be addressed by lecturing them or the Muslim world on the sanctity of free speech, human rights, and obvious morality. There may be an argument to make from within the Muslim tradition. The Quran expresses occasional mildness towards unbelievers, instructing to treat them fairly and ignore them otherwise. Unfortunately, such arguments stand little chance against the major themes of the Quran, which pours hatred and scorn on unbelievers and apostates on most other pages.

So perhaps the better argument is simply one of cultural self-preservation. We have a right to our values, whatever they are, and while it would be ideal to convince others of their goodness and rationality, that is far from a guaranteed course. Perhaps these defenses of free speech and rights of journalists are really directed to the choir, to buttress the values we already share, in the face of a terroristic challenge. Which is in fact straightforward cultural warfare, seeking to displace our values with others, and tactically to turn our virtues of openness against us.

The hijab is a particularly effective and notable aspect of this cultural war, being fought in Europe for the most part, the frontier between Middle East and West. While migrants are desperately seeking the safety and economic refuge of Europe, many of those already there seek to carve out cultural islands separate from the larger society, (though often perforce, being discriminated against), and sometimes, to hear what is going on in European mosques, against the larger society. The hijab is a public reminder and marker of this social segregation and power, showing a separate sub-society in the midst of the larger one, even while it relies paradoxically on the freedom the larger society makes possible. It is a message that may be read in various ways, but one way is surely as a rebuke to the dominant values, as many other religious movements have expressed through European history, incidentally.

How do these values relate? If the rebuke being offered were of a constructive nature, as nuns and monks have embodied for centuries, (at least if one takes a charitable perspective!), complete with distinctive clothing, it would not raise much ire. But the offered value system seems, at least to the West, highly distasteful, based as it is in the bigotry of the Quran and the bitter patriarchy, dysfunction, and closed-mindedness of modern Islam. For they have their imperialistic, universal values as well.

It just remains for us to reject those values, without assuming that those who are trying to displace them actually, paradoxically, believe in them. And to protect ourselves physically and socially from their proponents. What makes it tricky is that the Muslim community in this instance is not monolithic, like some army of Mongols at the gates. Many seek to assimilate, the vast majority are peaceful and appalled by their own coreligionists. So it becomes a policing issue of detecting insurgents within the gates; something that, while surely corrosive to our assumptions and traditions of openness, is hardly unprecedented in the history of the West, going back through the Cold War to the history of Venice, which in its heyday had particularly effective intelligence services.

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