Sunday, February 13, 2011

David Round: Multiculturalism and Diversity - part 4

Philosophies ~ the sort of philosophies we read about in textbooks of philosophy and political science ~ express the feelings of their age. We tend to think of philosophical ideas as being very rarefied and other-worldly ~ that is the way they are often expressed, and certainly they may well so appear to later centuries, when we may well have lost sight of the big political and social issues of the day. But at the time, they express ~ often in elevated, complex and obscure language, to be sure ~ the ideas of their time.

This is as true of our own age as it is of any other. The main philosophical movement of our own time goes by the general name of ‘post-modernism’. (This is an absurd name, by the way ~ ‘modern’ is now, one cannot get any more modern than modern.) The argument of the ‘post-modernists is that ‘modernism’, the philosophical view of the last couple of centuries that objective truth and absolute standards are knowable, is now outdated and discredited. There is, post-modernists say, no absolute truth, no standard by which truth and falsehood, right and wrong, can be assessed. There is no truth, only ‘truths’ ~ this is true for me, that is true for you.

Such is the gist. Books are written along these lines, and post-modernism is notorious for its often complete incomprehensibility. But the general idea is the abandonment of the search for truth ~ the abandonment of any desire for truth ~ based on the claim that it does not exist, or at the very least (much the same thing, perhaps) that it cannot be found.

Now if we think about this idea at length, which I must leave you to do in your own time, for this is not a philosophy lecture, quite a few objections may spring to mind. One is that the idea that there are absolute standards of truth and right and wrong is not just an idea of the last couple of centuries, but rather extremely ancient, as old as civilisation itself.

Another is the point that if you carry this attitude to its logical extreme, then you would never be able to criticise anything or anyone. Post-modernism involves the complete rejection of immutable objective standards of right and wrong, appropriateness and inappropriateness. This is the way things are done here or there, and no-one else has any right whatever to criticise. This people practised human sacrifice? That people burnt wives on their husbands’ funeral pyres? These people were cannibals? That was their culture. End of story. Post-modernism forbids judging any culture on any terms but its own.

(That being so, if that rule were truly followed, then our own culture could not be assailed either, nor any acts in our own history judged by any standard other than that prevailing at the time. But post-modernists do not worry about a little inconsistency here, and are all too ready to condemn us while absolving everyone else. You see what I mean about the inferiority complex…)

But my chief point here is that this philosophy is the ideal one to justify the pursuit of diversity and multiculturalism. It is also the obvious and indeed inevitable philosophy for the situation Western Europe finds itself in.

What is that situation, the situation of our ancient civilisation? In the twentieth century civilised Europe tore itself apart in two murderous and indeed suicidal world wars, both of which, and the second in particular, were accompanied by horrors that had long been thought to have been put permanently behind us. These reversions to barbarism not unnaturally prompted many people to wonder whether our civilisation was indeed superior to others, or even as good as others. We certainly did not seem in any position to judge. Some of these horrors ~ by no means all ~ were justified by a pernicious doctrine of racial superiority and inferiority, and racism has ever since been seen with unprecedented disapproval. After the second of these ruinously expensive encounters Europeans lost the empires which they had spent centuries establishing, and populations from those imperial colonies began to enter the imperial heartlands in great numbers. It was necessary, indeed, to import ‘guest workers’, under one name or another, to rebuild shattered Europe and later to do the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. Europe’s populations were failing to maintain themselves; immigrants from countries whose populations were rapidly expanding wanted a better life. Many of these new immigrants were from Muslim countries on Europe’s periphery in North Africa and Turkey and the Middle East. When these new immigrant populations began to establish themselves in large numbers in Europe, and showed themselves to be necessary, there to stay, and with no obvious desire to integrate into European society, it became necessary to have a theory, an explanation of social organisation and value which did not disparage them. At the same time, the Cold War which the West and the Communist bloc were fighting all over the world made it necessary, again, to flatter and woo third world countries. More recently, international capital has been arguing that the free movement of people is just as necessary as the free movement of capital for ‘prosperity’ ~ prosperity for some, anyway, although generous immigration inevitably drives down wages and conditions for working people in host countries. Again, a philosophy is necessary to justify these movements of peoples, to accommodate them in their new countries and defend them against disgruntled impoverished locals.

Post-modernism is the result. It is the offspring of, among other things, a rootless, inhumane capitalism. On the whole, post-modernists tend to be left-wing, and see themselves as capitalism’s enemies, but this self-image is just further evidence of their general stupidity . Mrs Thatcher is often condemned by those on the left for her remark, taken quite out of context, that ‘there is no such thing as society’ . But in fact the whole theory of post-modernism is precisely that ~ that there is not, or certainly need not be, any such thing as a ‘society’ which agrees on truth and meaning and purpose. For post-modernists there are only individuals, each with their own understanding and ‘truth’ which can be completely different from that of anyone else. There is no whole, there are only individual and unrelated atoms. This is precisely the attitude of capitalism, which sees only individual workers and consumers, and, money being the measure of all things, attaches no value to belief and custom, social purpose and agreed meaning.

Post-modernism is the philosophy of a civilisation that has lost confidence in itself. No civilisation can survive without a belief in its own superiority. We, of course, are inclined to consider such a belief arrogant. That is precisely my point. We do not consider ourselves better than anyone else; in fact, a couple of generations of indoctrination in guilt and self-loathing have convinced many of us that we are worse than anyone else. But this psychological situation, which seems to us so normal, is in fact abnormal. We justify it as ‘tolerance’, but that is a misnomer. Our official state of mind is not just to tolerate; it is to praise, to embrace, to worship. We do not just allow other cultures here on sufferance, we invite them here, spend money indeed fostering them here, and consider that they have much to teach us, and that we have little or anything to teach them. That is much more than toleration, and, as I say, it is the attitude of a civilisation which has lost faith in itself.

This is not to say, of course, that other cultures do not have their virtues. Of course they have. Nor is it to deny that tolerance is, in principle, an excellent thing. Of course it is ~ as long, anyway, as it does not become the tolerance of the intolerable. Some things should not be tolerated. But in principle, anyway, tolerance, generosity, open-mindedness and hospitality are admirable virtues. Of course. But the point is that, as we have been so often reminded, civilisations are most admirable just before they collapse. That is because the ‘tolerant’ state of mind ~ the generous state of mind that perceives the virtues of the other ~ for that very reason is one which does not consider its own culture worth defending. Once the will goes, all is lost, before a single shot is fired.

A modest example. Several years ago in a jurisprudence tutorial ~ I forget what exactly we were discussing, discussion can be wide-ranging ~ but in this tutorial one student, a bright and otherwise sensible young woman, said ~ and I am not making this up ~ she said ‘I think Hitler was wrong ~ but I don’t think I’ve got any right to tell him that he was wrong’. (One of the young men in the class immediately responded ‘You would if you were in a concentration camp’.) Here is a decent sensible humane young woman carrying tolerance and respect for other people’s cultures and points of view so far as to consider herself unable to condemn a monster who, among other things, launched war against her own people and her own civilisation. How resolute will she be in defence of what we consider to be basic civilised values? She has just told us. She does not consider herself entitled to defend them at all.

The proper attitude here, surely, is of intolerance rather than tolerance. Tolerance is the civilised virtue; but clearly, civilisations contain the seeds of their own downfall. Civilisations are created by people whom their descendants would consider to be less than perfectly civilised ~ intolerant people, assertive, arrogant, actually believing in themselves, believing that they know better than other people ~ and civilisations are abandoned by their civilised descendants. It is in the very nature of things that civilisations are most admirable just before they collapse. The love of other cultures may be admirable, and only a narrow-minded and ignorant person would deny their charms, strengths and virtues; but such love is always to some degree a treason against our own.
(To be continued)

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