Monday, January 13, 2014

The Peculiar Values of the West

What are we studying, when we study human civilization? Although seemingly simple, this question eludes easy answers. If we speak of Western Civilization, we note first that the earth is a sphere, and any one point on a parallel - on a line of longitude - is to the east and to the west of every other point on that line; both Senegal and Sierra Leone are to the west of Spain, Portugal, and the rest of continental Europe; Africa is to the west of Australia. There is certainly nothing a priori about the direction west on the magnetic compass that gives it cultural or societal priority over the other three.

If, instead, we speak of the European Culture, we encounter similar difficulties in analyzing this definition. The roots of such culture lie outside of Europe - neither Moses nor Hammurabi, neither Jesus nor Cyrus ever set foot in Europe. Even the initial sparks of intellectual brilliance which we associate with the archaic Greeks were often located outside of Europe - Homer, Thales, and a handful of pre-Socratic philosophers lived in Asia Minor, not in Europe. In the twenty-first century, we find this culture's peculiar values - the value of each human life, personal freedom and individual liberty, due process, etc. - all around the globe. The Americas, Australia, parts of Asia and Africa - it is not limited to Europe.

A third attempt at defining civilization's progress is to use the phrase "Judeo-Christian tradition," which is as problematic as the first two. The characteristic values of this tradition, which have significant elements in common with European Culture's values, are however now embraced by a wide range of people who are neither Jews nor Christians. A diverse spectrum of people now embrace these values: people with other religions like Hindus and Buddhists, people with no religion like atheists and agnostics, and people with unusual religions like Unitarians and Scientology followers.

Whatever we call it, and however we define it, this Western Civilization has introduced its peculiar values to the rest of the world - values which dictate that every person is entitled to humane treatment, even in prison; that a society should work to ensure personal freedom and individual liberty for each citizen; that every human life is valuable, precious, and should be respected and its dignity acknowledged. Ironically, Western Civilization has spread these values, at times, by violating them.

It was precisely because India had been dominated by the British that Gandhi learned to see such domination as wrong. While committing sins against the Indians, the British had also exposed them to a great train of thought - from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Bill of Rights of 1689 to Wilberforce's principled abolitionism in the early 1800's. Gandhi accused the English of violating their own principles in their treatment of the Indians - he did not accuse them of violating Indian principles. Indeed, prior to the arrival of the British, and of the Portuguese before them, the Indians had been treated worse at the hands of their own leaders and thought nothing of it.

The native inhabitants of South Africa learned their slogans - "home rule" and "majority rule" and "integration" - from their uninvited European colonizers. Their desire for freedom, and their expression of such desire, was learned from the very powers which violated their freedoms. Anti-colonialism, the force directing itself against the West, is a product of the West. Jacques Ellul writes:

This is a point we must be quite clear on. If the world is everywhere rising up and accusing the West, if movements of liberation are everywhere under way, what accounts for this? Its sole source is the proclamation of freedom that the West has broadcast to the world. The West, and the West alone is responsible for the movement that has led to the desire for freedom and to the accusations now turned back upon the West.

Consider the outrage which emerges when it is suggested that an American soldier has in some way violated the rights of a citizen - whether a citizen of the United States or of any other nation. Among the most diverse political gatherings, consensus quickly emerges: an American soldier should never humiliate or maltreat anyone. We need not here get sidetracked into a detailed discussion of the precise definition of 'torture' - by unanimous consent, Americans, civilian or military, should not commit even less severe forms of abuse.

But this outrage is peculiar to Western Civilization. In other parts of the world, torture is not only permitted, it is positively demanded by law and custom. Public torture is considered, in parts of Asia and Africa, to be an appropriate part of legal justice. While Europeans are shocked, appalled, dismayed, ashamed, etc., at discovering that one of their own might be guilty of committing torture, other civilizations are not shocked: torture is expected among them. Americans are shocked if there are unproven rumors of torture at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. No resident of the Middle East is shocked to learn that governments there routinely flog, beat, or brand their prisoners; no pretense is made of hiding or denying such activities - indeed, they are advertised as part of the justice system there.

Today men point the finger of outrage at slavery and torture. Where did that kind of indignation originate? What civilization or culture cried out that slavery was unacceptable and torture scandalous? Not Islam, or Buddhism, or Confucius, or Zen, or the religions and moral codes of Africa and India! The West alone has defended the inalienable rights of the human person, the dignity of the individual, the man who is alone with everyone against him. But the West did not practice what it preached? The extent of the West's fidelity is indeed debatable: the whole European world has certainly not lived up to its own ideal all the time, but to say that it has never lived up to it would be completely false.

There is deeper significance to the oft-told tale of Marco Polo's meeting Kublai Khan than merely entertaining children with an odd scrap of world history. Polo's arrival in China, around 1275, was an intersection of individualism and collectivism. The Italian explorer marveled at the Chinese culture, and the Chinese probably marveled at him, not merely because of strange clothing, language, food, or customs. Polo came from a culture which acknowledged and validated the individual and the individual's freedom. To be sure, the West's acknowledgement was then, and is not, not perfect, but it was an identifiable principle which was unfamiliar to the east Asians.

It is this confirmation of individuality, and the equal value of each individual as a member of the human race, which motivates the opposition to torture. Only a society which clearly conceptualizes the individual as such can see torture as a violation of the individual. If the collective whole is seen as an undifferentiated mass of humanity, then any one thread in that cloth can be treated arbitrarily without hesitation. If individuals are merely the indistinguishable atoms of a social body, each can be treated capriciously without remorse.

In any case, that is not the point. The point is that the West originated values and goals that spread throughout the world (partly through conquest) and inspired man to demand his freedom, to take his stand in the face of society and affirm his value as an individual. I shall not be presumptuous enough to try to "define" the freedom of the individual. But there is no need that I should: we know well enough, without verbalizing it or defining it, what that freedom means. Look at the way societies have developed. We can legitimately say that all of them have moved from monolithic structures toward more flexible ones in which old bonds are broken; from a stage in which individuals are not distinguished from one another toward true individuation of the members; from an "original community" toward a sum-total of distinct and separated men and women; from a complete absence of freedom and independence toward a progressive assertion of this freedom and an affirmation of the self that brings with it an exigency for liberty and independence.

Western Civilization has, in fact, earn rebukes from other cultures; it has at times sinned against them and violated their rights. But Western Civilization taught the world how to deliver such rebukes - it taught the vocabulary of rights and freedoms, of the dignity of each individual human life. The rest of the world did not have the conceptual apparatus to critique the West until the West enunciated principles of liberty and individualism. While the West is not xenophobic, it did, however, originate the practice of self-critique.

This characterization of the West is significant in the light of educational trends at the end of the twentieth century, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century: a large number of schools, colleges, and university have conformed, or have been conformed, to a programmatic defamation of Western Civilization. Students are taught to be dismissive of the cultural products of the West. If they are taught about the literature and history of West, it is only in the form of a critique.

Admittedly, the West is not perfect. But whatever crimes it may have committed, it is also true that it generated within itself a series of concepts - liberty, rights, freedom, individuality - and formulated these concepts clearly. Distinguished by these concepts, the West shared them with the rest of the world. Sometimes it transmitted these values accidentally, or even in the course of committing oppressions, but it is nonetheless the source of these singular societal principles. To be dismissive of Western Civilization is to be dismissive of human dignity. To critique the West for its sins - a critique which it deserves - is to embrace and use the principles of the West.