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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Cultural Values
• Tom Kilcourse

universal values

In a previous article for Hackwriters I remarked that ‘…the governance of the European Union is fundamentally flawed in that it has spread far beyond the original membership to embrace countries that differ widely in social customs, political conventions and economic development.’ Today, I stand by that claim, but the cultural difference between the various member states are as nothing when compared to the chasm that exists between European cultures and those of people now forcing their way onto the continent.

I was reminded of this a little while ago when I heard the American Secretary of State, John Kerry speak of our ‘universal values’. My immediate response was to deny that such a concept is valid. In my reasonably long life I have mixed with and worked alongside people from a range of cultures and, though I have always found some common ground, there has usually been significant differences in values, often on fundamental points. When living in France, our nearest neighbour, I was conscious of how French friends’ perceptions differed from mine.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, dated 21st November 2015, columnist Charles Moore draws a distinction between what he calls the Particularists and the Universalists and, interestingly to me, he also criticises John Kerry’s use of the term ‘universal values’. Moore classifies Kerry as a Universalist and claims that ‘If Mr. Kerry’s side wins, our civilisation will lose’. I agree, and the problem does not end with the views of one American. There are many in our society who are sufficiently keen to promote what they call ‘universal values’ that they play down or ignore features of our culture. For instance, many are reluctant to call the approaching festival as Christmas, using instead the word ‘holiday’, or some other euphemism. My latest copy of The Economist newspaper carried a flyer urging me to ‘This holiday give a 1-year gift subscription….’

I am not a Christian, but Christianity has undeniably been a major influence on the values that I share with many other Britons. For good or evil it has been a significant building block in British and European cultures. My belief that we should not apologise for that, or for holding the values that it inculcated, marks me as a Particularist, to use Moore’s term. Attachment to my culture does not imply disdain for people with a different heritage, but it certainly doesn’t mean that I should deny those differences and pretend that we hold values that are somehow objectively indistinguishable.

As a Particularist I believe there exists a gradation of difference between cultures. During our fifteen years living in Normandy my wife and I developed friendships with natives, though I never once thought of myself as French. The differences between us and our neighbours were clear, but sufficiently small to permit understanding. The same can be said of others from Western Europe, with differences becoming more numerous and noticeable the further we move eastwards. When dealing with a Russian, say, I find the behavioural clues less comprehensible than those given by a Frenchman or Irishman.

As I wrote the last sentence I had the feeling that I was stating the blindingly obvious, and wondered for a moment whether or not it was worth saying. It was obvious to me because I am not one of Charles Moore’s Universalists. I do not subscribe to the notion of universal values and I believe it is dishonest, or self-delusory, to pretend that there is no gradation of difference between cultures. Therefore, I cannot subscribe to the view that there is no difference between an immigrant from a European, Christian tradition and one from Africa or Asia. If that appears to be racist to a reader I have to say that we have a different interpretation of that word.

In my view, racism is the presumption that an individual person shares the values and characteristics that one attributes to all people of their racial origin: that is, stereotyping. Such a stance is stupid and indefensible, but it is equally stupid to ignore the cultural differences that may exist. It is also disingenuous to claim that my position is subjective, and therefore inferior to the presumed ‘objectivity’ of the Universalists. Anyone who argues that values are universally held is subjectively choosing to ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The extent to which Universalists are culturally blinkered and myopic occasionally beggars belief. As a result we have allowed into our western, Christian societies practices that most natives of those societies would condemn as uncivilised. We have in our midst people who value and practice female genital mutilation, people who see patriarchy as natural to the extent that a daughter who ‘dishonours’ her father deserves death. We have others who believe in witchcraft to the degree that they are prepared to subject children to a torturous, brutal process of exorcism. Of course not everybody from those cultures supports those practices, but to deny that they have cultural roots is every bit as subjective as is my abhorrence. Their existence is evidence enough that the values behind them are not universally held, and evidence too that our own principles are similarly parochial.

just pray

Occasionally, it is suggested that we should welcome the intrusion of alien cultures because we once forced our own culture on others through conquest and the development of empire. In my view that is a quite different argument that does not require us to deny the existence of cultural differences. Whether we ‘owe’ people a welcome is open to debate, and I am no apologist for the sins of my forefathers. I would simply say that throughout the history of mankind cultural imperialism has existed. That is no reason for modern Britons to become subject to the process by default. Sadly, the cultural deniers are in the ascendancy. As I write, I learn that three cinema chains in the UK have refused to show a sixty-second film on The Lord’s Prayer in case it offends non-Christians. Is that not an acknowledgement that our values are far from universally held?

© Tom Kilcourse Nov 25th 2015

Tom Kilcourse

Every action has consequences, some good, some bad and many unforeseen. Those consequences do not always occur in the domain where the action was taken because, in a sense, everything is linked to everything else.

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