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Karel van Wolferen Headshot

Down With 'Western Values'

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While China remains the great potential adversary in the eyes of a Washington that says it is pivoting toward East Asia as it considers policies for healthy international relations, and while West Asia continues to be wracked by strife, you may expect world news to be littered with references to 'Western values' as a legitimizing excuse for all manner of initiatives and interference.

The term should be thrown out of political analysis and discussion. Its absence will improve political hygiene for the entire world. As a source of confusion, hostility and even hatred, its use is by itself a harmful complication. It is used for priming the emotions with easy indignation. And in daily usage it means almost nothing.

'Values' in its current common usage, has always been something vague. It was popularized by sociologists in the middle of the twentieth century, who needed a standard unit of account as they believed they were introducing scientific method to what they were doing. It simplified a huge complexity. The 'values' concept is a repository for all manner of things -- principles, beliefs, likes, dislikes, prejudice, sentiments, distaste, hobbies, morals, ethics, and more - that may direct our conduct. Using these defined terms instead, would render commentary about social affairs and politics much clearer and thus more useful. In the way 'values' is bandied about, it may refer to a predilection for rock music, or to the deepest religious beliefs that govern all activity. Social scientists aspiring to 'rigor' in their analyses compressed all of these meanings into something that could then be used in a most trivial manner (e.g. the values of a particular teenage club) as well as made to stand for something beyond critical scrutiny, something sacred or semi-sacred, something that justified and gave contours to that other vague new quality known as 'identity.'

Especially now the Soviet Union has been replaced with new enemies we should dump the term, as it has dangerously begun to overlap with what Washington believes are security imperatives. Fighting for 'our values' has a sonorous resonance, far more compelling than fighting for oil. It implies that the military apparatus is used in the service of the deeper meaning that ties together much of what used to be called the 'free world', us Westerners, heirs to the Enlightenment, or Christianity.

The moment you replace the amorphous 'values' with a more closely defined term, which forces serious consideration of the issue at hand, the whole argument about incompatible cultures because of incompatible values begins to disintegrate.

What gives the notion of clashing values its demagogic potential is the leeway it gives the hearer to fill it in with personal imagery and prejudice. Hearing about the values associated with 'Islamofascism' you may conjure up a mental picture of a woman dressed top to toe in black with a slit for her eyes to peek through. You may think of child labor, wife burning, female circumcision, adulterers being stoned to death, elections being tampered with, and whatnot. To get a sense of the arbitrariness of this values talk, one should bring to mind some nations where these undesirable things can actually be found; the chances are that it will be a 'trusted ally' in the struggle for preserving Western civilization. Or chances are that with arbitrary incarceration, tampering with voting results, intimidation of journalists, suspension of habeas corpus, corruption in high places, business bribes, exploitation of the poorest, forced self-censorship, long-distance extralegal 'execution' and whatnot, it is characteristic of the very leader of the values preservation struggle, over which Obama presides. What precisely are the values that separate enemies from friends?

There appears to be a lot of disagreement as to what 'Western values' might actually consist of. Also in the United States, which after all hosts what is called a 'culture war', and certainly in Europe where what are believed to be basic values in Lithuania only haphazardly conform to those of Spain, to pick just two arbitrary examples. It appears as though it does not really matter what Western values are, as long as you have them. They are simply never wrong since they need not be examined, unlike political principles. A popular theme on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean is the so-called Enlightenment values that are said to be under threat because radical Islam does not share them and is against them.

It is true that the Enlightenment of the 18th century represented a crucial and laudable intellectual and moral development in Europe. But it consisted of a reaction to beliefs and attitudes that were also European. When we talk about Western values, we should include those that were contrary to the ones of the Enlightenment, like absolutism, intolerance, obscurantism, puritanism. They very much deserve inclusion as all evidence points at their re-appearance with the Republican right-wing and right-wing evangelism in the United States.

The Enlightenment was about tolerance, against superstition, and against the authority of the clerics -- the servants of the church, and the unthinking servants of the state. So, in essence, the Enlightenment wasn't so exclusively European. I have met lots of people in different Asian countries who devote themselves to the same ideals.

This is where we arrive at the crux of the matter: What those who worry about the loss of Western values overlook is that there is an amazing correspondence among the basic beliefs of people all over the globe. This sameness makes it possible for people born in Europe or the United States to live in Asian countries and makes it possible for Asians to feel not threatened, when they live in Europe. There exist in some parts of the world tribal customs -- like stoning supposedly unfaithful women to death -- which obviously are a throwback to a cruel primitive human past. But it is significant that these evoke disgust on all continents. There are notions of fairness that are widely shared across the boundaries of civilizations. There are fundamental human ideas about good and bad, which also resonate throughout the main world religions. There is a human taboo on murder. Practically everywhere it is considered bad to take something that doesn't belong to you.

Belief and sentiment go together with most things, so it seems, all over the world. And human sentiments are very similar the world over. Once upon a time, fighting among tribes in tribal societies was deemed inevitable and heroes who fought very well were glorified. But while warrior cults may have existed through most of history, they do not make any sense today, to anyone. In the first half of the 20th century, waging war against other countries could -- in some European countries -- still be portrayed as an honorable and even uplifting activity. But we are some three generations away from that. Were 'Western values' switched off and on again?

Today among ordinary people almost everywhere the notion of war is treated with horror. That is why the United States has lost so much of the prestige that it still possessed when the last century ended, and why in April 2003 people came out in the hundreds of thousands in many places around the world protesting against the impending invasion of Iraq.

We are justified to conclude that being against war has become a general human sentiment. People everywhere want to be safe, they desire economic prosperity, they hope that their children will learn things so that they may reach higher positions in society, they like friendliness around them rather than rudeness. Love between two human individuals is recognized as a worthy emotion, and generally respected everywhere. Then why talk about Western values or Asian values or American values? When American 'threat to the West' writers use the term, what is usually in their mind are not-so-much basic human beliefs, but beliefs about how society controls sexual matters and how the economic system should be run. What is collectively referred to as 'American values' in a lot of commentary concern methods and arrangements associated with predatory and parasitical capitalism. But these weren't at all things that were generally accepted in 1945 in the United States, or for that matter in 1965. And it is idiotic to think that societies all over the globe should be organized in the same way as the European Union and the United States have organized themselves around business power today.

The sociologists I mentioned earlier unwittingly encouraged a degradation of thought. The term 'values' has in a major way helped to corrupt political processes. In Europe it discolors and brings to a hostile pitch discussions about immigration problems. It allows Republicans to think they occupy the apparent moral high-ground with their appeals to 'American values' or 'family values,' which the electorate translates into imagery of a better past in which there was greater job certainty, feminism had not yet changed the social order, homosexuality was condemned, God was in his heaven, and all was well in a world that never questioned the right of ordinary people to own guns. As long as this undefined abstraction is given such a central place, political debates can avoid substantial things. It helps give the American foreign policy debates their comic book quality.

Once again: away with it!