I have not blogged since the change of Prime Minister in this country, because I have not felt the same degree of anger, frustration and disgust since Abbott left office. Indeed, Turnbull’s positive approach is most welcome after the fear-mongering of his predecessor; and no one likes a whinger! But now Abbott is to the fore again - demonstrating by his remarks about Western culture and values that among the many things he is not we should include being an historian – and has said he will continue to speak out. So I guess, more blogs from me.
Abbott says that there needs to be “restoration of cultural self-confidence in those who are supporters of western civilisation, all cultures are not equal and frankly a culture that believes in decency and tolerance is much to be preferred to one who thinks that you can kill in the name of God”. Well, who could possibility disagree with the latter sentiments, but which particular cultures is he talking about? Is a culture of decency supposed to be part of ‘western civilisation’? There is a politico-philosophical tradition, part of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, where ideas about a society in which people should be free from interference by governments, be a able to vote for the government and have various other (freedom) rights, including not being killed in the name of god. These notions were expressed in the ‘west’, namely western Europe, in France, Britainand Germany for instance, and found expression in the constitutions of Franceand the US.
Cultural relativism is a theory/ideology which maintains that one cannot compare cultures, and judge one better than another, because there is no none question-begging way of doing so. Abbott would be accused of presupposing that ‘decency and tolerance’ are to be preferred to the imposition of religious belief if he were to argue that a society informed by the former is better than one which includes the latter. I am not a cultural relativist and would want to argue that a culture that does not involve the imposition of such a belief system is in fact better, but that argument is quite a long and difficult one. So I note here that there are significant intellectual and theoretical questions raised by the Abbott interview, which I suspect he is entirely ignorant of.
But coming back to practical questions as to which cultures actually embody these ‘western values’, we may note first that the fact that they were formulated by western philosophers did not stop western European countries, and the US, from gaining colonies and empires, and from not applying the Enlightenment ideals about freedom of government – and of course freedom not be invaded and conquered - to Asians, Africans, South Americans, and of course indigenous Australians.
The Poms came here and not only stole the country from people who had lived and survived here for many millennia, but re-wrote history to pretend that no one was here when they arrived. ISIS is proposing to establish a caliphate in the Middle East, a society based on (a given interpretation of) Islam, and steal Syria, Iraq and other countries. If successful, the inhabitants would be forced to conform to the prevailing religious dogmas. Is that worse than coming to Australiaand pinching the country from those who lived here and imposing an alien way of life on the survivors? Both are pretty awful things to do. But apologists would say that the ‘culture’ of the Poms is superior to that of ISIS and Islam. And this brings us back to the debate about cultural relativism. The issues are difficult ones. It is not obvious that we have any real grounds or mandate for criticising ISIS, and we should have. Our behaviour, the behaviour of Western nations in pretty dismal, as indeed is that of radical Islam. Simple-minded homilies like Abbott contribute nothing to our understanding of these issues.