Here's a second offering rescued from the archive. This essay, first published in 3:AM, was inspired in part by an epic thread on freedom of speech over at Open Democracy. It is, I think, still pertinent. Written in the wake of the Muhammad cartoons hysteria, the piece outlines the dishonesty of cultural equivalence - a belief that is widely held yet rarely stated clearly, and therefore rarely analysed. To the best of my knowledge, the essential point being made here made has yet to be refuted, though it has been ignored. And hence the reposting.
"Presumably, Enlightenment values are fine for Guardian columnists, but wrong for poor women in rural Pakistan. And, given Madeleine Bunting’s recent Hello-style interview with the Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who insists that disobedient women should be beaten, albeit 'lightly', perhaps we can assume she’s prepared to accept similar chastisement, all in the name of the moral relativism she claims to hold so dear?"
Last week, during a conversation about the ‘cartoon jihad’ uproar, I used the phrase “emotional incontinence.” This did not go down well. I was promptly told, in no uncertain terms, that I mustn’t “impose” my own cultural values. Apparently, to do so would be a form of “cultural imperialism”, an archaic colonial hangover, and therefore unspeakably evil. I was, apparently, being “arrogantly ethnocentric” in considering Western secular society broadly preferable to a culture in which rioting, murder and genocidal threats can be prompted by the publication of a cartoon.
As the conversation continued, I was emphatically informed that to regard one set of cultural values as preferable to another was “racist” and “oppressive.” Indeed, even the attempt to make any such determination was itself a heinous act. I was further assailed with a list of examples of “Western arrogance, decadence, irreverence, and downright nastiness.” And I was reminded that, above all, I “must respect deeply held beliefs.” When I asked if this respect for deeply held beliefs extended to white supremacists, cannibals and ultra-conservative Republicans, a deafening silence ensued.
After this awkward pause, the conversation rumbled on. At some point, I made reference to migration and the marked tendency of families to move from Islamic societies to secular ones, and not the other way round. “This seems rather important,” I suggested. “If you want to evaluate which society is preferred to another by any given group, migration patterns are an obvious yardstick to use. Broadly speaking, people don't relocate their families to cultures they find wholly inferior to their own.” Alas, this fairly self-evident suggestion did not meet with approval. No rebuttal was forthcoming, but the litany of Western wickedness resumed, more loudly than before.
This tendency to replace a coherent argument with lists of alleged Western wickedness and an air of self-loathing is hardly uncommon. Indeed, in certain quarters, it is difficult to avoid. In her increasingly baffling comment pieces, the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting has made much of bemoaning "our preoccupation with things; our ever more desperate dependence on stimulants from alcohol to porn." (One instantly pictures poor Madeleine surrounded by booze, drugs and pornography – and tearfully alienated by all of those other terrible material “things” she doesn’t like having, honest.)
In one infamous recent article, Bunting - a “leading thinker”, at least according to her employers – waved the flag for cultural relativism and denounced the idea of Enlightenment sensibilities: “Muscular liberals raise their standard on Enlightenment values – their universality, the supremacy of reason and a belief in progress… It is an ideology of superiority that is profoundly old-fashioned – reminiscent of Victorian liberalism and just as imperialistic…” Bunting’s argument, such as it is, suggests no objective distinction should be made between democratic cultures in which freedom of belief and education for women are taken for granted, and theocratic societies in which those freedoms are curtailed or extinguished. As, for instance, when Islamic fundamentalists took umbrage at Western-funded school projects in Northern Pakistan and promptly destroyed the offending schools, on the basis that illiterate girls were being taught ‘un-Islamic’ values.
Nor, apparently, should we notice that restricting the education of women and their social interactions has obvious consequences for healthcare and prosperity, both of which Ms Bunting seems to disdain. Indeed, she has explicitly argued to this effect, insisting women in the developing world should reject the evils of capitalism and material advancement as this disrupts their “traditions of keeping children with them in the fields” - traditions which, of course, we must respect and, better yet, romanticise, albeit from a safe distance.
Perhaps Enlightenment values, including tolerance, education and free speech, should only apply in the nicer parts of London, but not in Iran, or Sudan, or Saudi Arabia. Presumably, Enlightenment values are fine for Guardian columnists, but wrong for poor women in rural Pakistan. And, given Ms Bunting’s recent Hello-style interview with the Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who insists that disobedient women should be beaten, albeit “lightly”, perhaps we can assume she’s prepared to accept similar chastisement, all in the name of the moral relativism she claims to hold so dear?
During her tirade against ‘muscular liberals’, Bunting argued that Enlightenment values should be “reworked” (in ways that were, mysteriously, never specified), then said: “One of our biggest challenges is how we learn to live in proximity to difference – different skin colours, different beliefs, different ways of life. How do we talk peacefully with people with whom we might violently disagree?” This sentiment echoes those of Ken Livingstone’s race advisor, Lee Jasper, who maintains that “you have to treat people differently to treat them equally.”
But judging by Bunting’s own assertions, and the claims of those who share her views, perhaps we should assume that “reworking” Enlightenment values means pretending they don’t exist in certain kinds of company. Perhaps we should pretend we don’t disagree at all - as demonstrated by Bunting’s own flattering interview with an Islamist cleric who advocates suicide bombing, the murder of apostates and the stoning of homosexuals. Though one can’t help wondering what would have happened if Ms Bunting had actually dared to challenge Qaradawi’s prejudices with any rigour. How would he have reacted? And what would this tell her – and us – about the limits of moral relativism?
Perhaps we should assume that when faced with bullies and bigots we should say nothing, do nothing, and pretend everything is fine. Though quite how that polite little lie will help the victims of bullying and bigotry isn't entirely clear. And one has to raise an eyebrow at those who will happily bask in the advantages of values that they refuse to defend and pointedly disdain for the sake of appearance. But such is the nature of cultural and moral equivalence, and those who espouse it.
Cultural equivalence came to fruition of a sort in strands of postmodern leftist theory, obscurantists like Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard, and in anthropological studies, where it was essentially suggested that the local meaning of certain practices should be determined for greater insight. All well and good, one might think. But in terms of leftist political rhetoric, cultural equivalence has broadly come to mean than no objective judgment should be made as to whether those practices and beliefs are better or worse than any other, or have consequences that are measurably detrimental given certain criteria. The actual moral and practical content of a given worldview is, of course, to be studiously ignored, as this would imply some kind of judgment might be made. In common usage, this assumption reduces analysis to mere opinion and is corrosive to critical thought for fairly obvious reasons. In order to maintain a pretence of ‘fairness’ and non-judgmental equivalence, there are any number of things one simply cannot allow oneself to think about, at least in certain ways.
One could, for instance, imagine a hypothetical culture which ascribed great meaning to the assumption that the Sun revolved around the Earth. However deeply held this belief might be, and however much cultural significance might be attached to it, it would nonetheless be wrong, and demonstrably so. And one is under no obligation to pretend otherwise, or to start revising textbooks in order not to give offence.
Perhaps more to the point, advocates of cultural equivalence don’t actually believe in it. It’s frequently just a façade for grumbling about capitalism, or consumerism, or choice, or whatever it is the person in question doesn’t like, but nonetheless indulges in, and upon which their own livelihood generally depends. The titans of cultural equivalence clearly wish to identify with (or be seen to identify with) the perceived underdog, and to find suitable explanations for why those cultures don't function particularly well - say, in terms of child mortality, education or life expectancy. In order to do this, they must construe their own cultures as malicious, vacuous and predatory, even when they’re not. (Cue the term "hegemony" and "Bush-Hitler" T-shirts.) Almost any assertion can be made, regardless of its incoherence or deviation from reality, provided one arrives at the preferred conclusion. Which is to say, whatever the problem is, it is always and forever ‘our’ fault.
This prejudicial outlook and willingness to overlook the obvious can have surreal and grotesque effects. As when the faded Marxist Terry Eagleton informed Guardian readers that suicide bombers are actually “tragic heroes” who “have no choice” but to arbitrarily kill and maim for Allah. Eagleton went further, insisting these “tragic heroes” are morally equivalent to their victims - say, the 57 unsuspecting guests who were killed at a Jordanian wedding party.
Oblivious to this curious moral inversion, Eagleton happily attributed these acts of homicidal ‘martyrdom’ to “despair”, which, naturally, suits his own Marxist narrative and view of ‘imperial oppression.’ He was, however, careful to avoid any reference whatsoever to the religious ideology that actually drives the phenomenon and shapes its expression, despite the fact jihadists invariably mention it as their motive. (Oddly, ‘martyrs’ don’t usually mention “despair” as a motive; quite the opposite in fact. But Eagleton knows which conclusion one is supposed to arrive at, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.)
In such an atmosphere of pretension and mental disarray, it’s no great surprise that conspiracy theories flourish. As when the Guardian’s Al Kennedy salaciously implied that "on 9/11 covert US government intervention killed thousands of innocents [in the WTC] and handed the country, if not the world, to a ... torture-loving, far-right junta." Unhampered by things like evidence, Ms Kennedy also believes that the British government seeks to “harass and murder Muslims anywhere [it] can.” Doubtless she and Mr Eagleton have much to talk about.
Despite their evident lunacy, these culturally equivalent postures are almost obligatory among a certain kind of middle-class leftist. Curiously, the academics and theoreticians who advocate moral relativism, or variations thereof, seem reluctant to illustrate their theories with practical examples. One fashionable CE advocate, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, has advanced the notion of a “cosmopolitan” approach to morality. But, again, it’s all but impossible to find any explanation of how “cosmopolitan pluralism” – which sounds wonderful, of course – would actually address radically conflicting values. How would moral relativism fare when faced with jihadist demagogues or practitioners of voodoo who beat small children to exorcise bad spirits?
A ‘cosmopolitan’ moral worldview is obviously appealing, at least superficially - provided conflicting values never actually meet. Relativism must seem quite plausible if one is a well-heeled moral tourist and can flit from one culture to another, nodding appreciatively at the local colour and whistling about diversity, while committing to none of the values in question. But what happens when incompatible views bump into each other on the same piece of turf, and over something rather important, like the education of women or freedom of speech?
And what, I wonder, would Professor Appiah or Madeleine Bunting make of the following real situation? In a crowded shopping centre, a man sees an apparently unaccompanied woman shrouded in a niqab stumble and fall down. He extends a hand to help the fallen woman and asks if she’s alright. This enquiry is met with a look of horror and the man is angrily waved away by the woman’s husband, who promptly berates his fallen wife for reasons that aren’t clear. Does this reaction – which we’re supposed to respect – foster basic civility and encourage strangers to help? If we memorise the various conflicting religious and moral codes of each minority, will we learn to hesitate before offering to assist an injured woman? Will we have to first search out the husband and ask for his permission? Or, more likely, will we learn to ignore her altogether? And will this make us better people?
© David Thompson 2006
First published in 3:AM Magazine, March 2006