What Do We Mean When We Talk About European Values?
The common people (..) so jealous of their liberty, but like the common people of most other countries never rightly understanding wherein it consist. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Today, as many times in the past, the Western world and Europe in particular are faced with a situation in which other cultures, values, and traditions come in contact with the ineffable, yet very often invoked “western way of life.” Europe is facing significant waves of immigrants from, among other regions, countries where the predominant religion is Islam. The recent surge in immigration is no doubt occasioned by the conflict in Syria and palpable instability of the Middle East in general. Yet it is obvious that the current phenomenon is a harbinger of what is yet to come. Ageing Europe is in need of rejuvenating its labor force if it hopes to preserve the unprecedented social welfare programs it administers. The economic differences between Europe and the surrounding continents, their geographical proximity, and improvements in technology will attract ever more migrants to the European continent. Their chief motive will not be political or one of survival, it will be economic. The distinction between the various motives, perhaps with the exception of fleeing from war and political persecution, has always been, of course, to a great extent artificial. Or is the desire to escape poverty and secure a better life for one’s children any less understandable and urgent than the other motives?
More or less xenophobic motives are veiled in proclamations of the need to protect European, alternatively Christian, values. The question at hand is obvious. How exactly to respond at a time when large numbers of immigrants are entering the West and how to ensure that the western values are upheld? Yet firstly, it has to be asked: what are these western values? What role does Christianity have to play? Is there actually a danger? If so, what kind of danger are we talking about and what are the challenges that the West faces? Are the challenges only external or do we have to deal with challenges at home? Is our own inadequate thinking one of those dangers? What role does intellectual laziness have to play? I do not wish to pretend that these are the only relevant questions, nor do I intend to claim that they are entirely free of certain biases and expectations. But they are asked and I believe that they can, when viewed through the prism of critical analysis, lead to a fruitful discussion that will enable Europeans to consider their heritage. This heritage is by no means homogenous and any generalization is bound to be imprecise in one way or another. Still, I wish to offer a perspective, arguably biased and my own, on the question of European values. I do believe that the term is not devoid of meaning and ask the reader to bear with me throughout my analysis.
Even though there is a deep and profound connection between the Christian tradition and the culture of western values, the two are certainly not the same thing. As I see it, the concept residing at the center of the culture of western values is the notion that every individual human being is worthy or, as the German Basic Law puts it, that “human dignity is inviolable.” This notion is crucial not only because it in one way or another reappears in various constitutions and lists of human rights. Importantly, it puts the undeniable power of critical and independent analysis in the hands of each and every individual, ignoring plights for identifying any Supreme Truth by acknowledging that an endless clash of subjective perspectives and viewpoints stands above more or less preposterous invocations of objectivity. Indeed, western thought is to a large extent centered around the individual. By that term, we do not mean any euphemism for egoism because there is a major difference between egoism and individualism. While egoism describes the disease when one thinks of only himself, individualism emphasizes that every single human being is worthy and capable of doing good for others. The appreciation of the value of the individual went hand in hand with another intellectual development that emerged through centuries of religious wars, political persecution, and self-righteous ideologies, i. e. that nothing besides the individual is really sacred. Every human being is unique and every human being, with a little bit of effort, is capable of her own critical analysis. Some analyses may be deeper than others, and by that virtue deemed more interesting to learn about, but already the fact that practically every human being is capable of this critical analysis justifies that individual’s singular worth. As has been said before, the development of this crucial western value, i. e. individualism in the sense that only the (and every) human being is sacred and matters, has, indeed, a lot to do with Christianity.
There are two ways in which Christianity played a crucial role. Firstly, as the aforementioned intellectual tradition clashed with Christianity itself, it, to an extent, grew out of it. The humanists reformed, and in important ways rebelled against, medieval Christianity when they put the individual at the center of their analysis. Crucially however, and this should not be forgotten, Christianity was and remains an important philosophy that significantly inspired the value of the individual. Most humanist thinkers thought that they were improving Christianity by returning to its roots when they proclaimed that man himself should take charge. The central tenet of Christianity is unconditional love. This concept probably reflects thousands of years of human experience (and perhaps human nature, however problematic this term may be) because it fosters cooperation and makes people the social animals that they are. One cannot speak of valuing every single individual and embracing every individual’s worth unless the words love thy neighbor dwell on his mind. Secondly, Christianity, unlike Marxism and other deterministic schools of thought, makes it clear that every single individual has to work to make herself better. There is salvation (this can be seen as a metaphorical reward) but one has to try to be a good person, love his neighbor and then, one can rightfully call himself a good Christian. In Mahatma Gandhi’s words, one must strive to be the change one wants to see in the world. Lastly, Christianity includes the tenet that every human being is fallible and this proposition has been stretched to the degree where people are described as sinners. It has thus been demonstrated that the central value of the western civilization, the individual’s worth, evolved at least partially because of the long interaction that intellectuals repeatedly entered in with Christianity. In that sense, Christianity is an important part of the European heritage. However, and this is the crucial point, the seminal European values that are worth protecting are not just Christian values. They have grown out of the interaction with Christianity but they stretch well beyond Christianity. When we talk of protecting western values, we do not primarily concern ourselves with Christian doctrines. We are concerned with values that surround the central value of the individual’s worth, among which secularism is more likely found than Christianity.
And so the danger that Europe is currently facing is not that the followers of prophet Muhammad will build their shrines or that they will dress in clothing of their choice. To be sure, that activity is most certainly no more problematic than the decision of a Christian group to build a church. Despite the fact that rules requiring a certain dress code in schools, for instance, have entered certain European countries’ legislation, secularism as well as religious freedom are the only justifiable principles. Everything else, with very few exceptions, is an inability to learn to live with something new, a euphemism for xenophobia. The West should not concern itself with whether women wear a particular kind of clothes or whether they veil themselves. It should rather be concerned with ensuring that every woman has the choice not to veil herself if she so chooses.
The challenge that Europe faces is twofold. Firstly, it is that Europeans themselves will follow xenophobic leaders and thus betray their own values of tolerance and religious freedom. It is the danger that Europeans will not understand what values the West needs to protect – the individual’s worth rather than Christianity per se. Many, if not most, Europeans are agnostic, and so to suddenly embark to protect Christian values smacks of Pharisaism. The problem Europe needs to tackle, and this is particularly true of the leaders, is intellectual laziness. Far too many have chosen to embrace simple consumerism instead of thinking why it is that Europe has been enjoying unprecedented prosperity. This choice has been unnoticed and perhaps never consciously made, yet its effects are palpably present. Indeed, what a pity that those who are so ready to proudly defend their freedom cannot face the toils of realizing wherein their liberty truly lies. They are more concerned about acquiring a new cell phone than about understanding the values that made Europe the free continent it has become, forgetting that their cell phone may not have come into existence without it. That is the danger – if Europeans forget what is special about their civilization and culture, then we could be lost already.
The second challenge is to protect the true value, i. e. the value of individualism, the value of every individual’s worth. What that requires is that we reject to tolerate intolerance. The policy of many European countries has been to hope that culturally diverse communities will naturally assimilate. It has now become palpably clear that this has actually not been a policy, but lack thereof. What we have to do is to be careful not to tolerate intolerance, we are justified to demand that every person living in Europe respects the secular nature of our states and that every woman, for instance, is treated fairly in whatever European country or family or faith she lives in. This is because the value of an individual’s worth is above any and every religion. We have not necessarily done that. We have hoped that communities will simply assimilate and values will be accepted.
Let us not forget that freedom of speech is crucial. It is crucial because it embodies the value of an individual’s worth through critical analysis – every individual has the ability to critically analyze his surroundings. That is why wide-ranging freedom of speech such as portraying any religious figure or sacred symbol in whatever caricature must be protected. These symbols are not sacred, the individual’s critical mind that leads him or her to draw such cartoon is. After the riots caused by a caricature in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and murders at Charlie Hebdo, undoubtedly well-meaning voices have suggested that we be more careful in our expression, for humor must consider its potential to hurt the followers of various ideologies, perhaps the most salient of which is religion. Yet to accept this tenet would be to betray the very logic of freedom of expression. Where does the freedom of expression end? It does not end where the other person’s feelings are severely hurt, nor does it end where the other person is appalled and disgusted. If it did end there, it would cease to exist because almost all speech might disgust someone somewhere at some point. Freedom must only end where it touches (and potentially limits) another person’s freedom. Let us not be afraid to criticize anything and everything. Nothing is sacred, no religion, no symbol. The only sacred value is the individual’s worth. This is the challenge of our time – to recognize what it really is that is worth protecting and to protect it vigorously. The odds are great but we cannot afford to lose.