This is a meaningful issue at the moment because of the Iraq war and our broader confrontation with the culture of the Islamic world. The view of the neoconservatives seems to be that “our” idea of liberty stands for a universal passion. The masses yearning to be free and all that. That’s why the Iraq war is said to be a good bet: if we create the conditions for freedom, the people will naturally take it. Unlike a lot of conservatives, I think that this is true in the case of Iraq, or that it is likely enough to be true to make it a hypothesis worth testing. But I wouldn’t necessarily extend it to every other place in the world or support military action of this sort indiscriminately. And many “liberals” are left in the odd position of arguing that Bush’s invasion was a bad idea because Iraqis just don’t want what Bush wants them to want–what the Enlightenment, in its quintessentially “liberal” form, thought every man wanted. This seems to mark a change from what was almost reflexively believed 20 years ago when “We are the World” was not merely mawkish sentimentality but a genuine credo concerning what we in the West saw as “our” “global village”. ~Andrew Cunningham, I, Ectomorph

I appreciate Andrew Cunninghmam’s post on the problem of universal values and what we might call a ‘crisis’ in confidence in universal values among contemporary liberals, as well as his recommendation of my remarks about Akbar, Islam and religious “tolerance.” In his discussion of this question and his remarks about my Akbar post, Mr. Cunningham wondered what view I might take of the prospects of particular cultural ideals, such as religious “tolerance,” emerging in other cultures to which they have not historically belonged. Thus he writes:

It is too easy, as he [Larison] points out, to forget that the whole world does not share our admiration of tolerance, and that in other places, and other ages, what we call “tolerance” is/was dismissed and reviled as heretical “syncretism”. Of course this was once true in the West as well, but the critical question is whether it disappeared as the result of some inevitable development of the human character that happened to occur here first, or as the result of a chance series of historical events that are unlikely to be repeated anywhere else ever again. My point of departure from what I suspect is Mr. Larison’s properly conservative answer is that even if the truth is closer to the latter than the former, there remains a strong possibility that the lessons can be indirectly learned, if we are aggressive enough in trying to teach them.

My answer on this is that it is entirely possible for new ideals or symbols to be appropriated or incorporated by a culture that did not create them. If a certain ideal appears good to an appropriating culture, and let’s take religious tolerance as an example, they could learn from the Western experience of the religious wars, the Enlightenment and the development of legal toleration in Protestant states and decide that legal toleration and a broader ideal of tolerance make for more successful societies and reduce the prospects of religious violence. (For the purposes of this discussion, I am fudging the rather important distinction between toleration and tolerance, as neither is necessarily considered exactly desirable in traditional, monotheistic societies).

But that assumes that religious tolerance is really desirable for any of the cultures that might adopt it. It is actually only truly appealing to extremely small religious minorities or extremely large religious majorities; all other exclusivist religious groups (which would be quite few) view it as something either to be endured or overthrown. That many Westerners find it to be self-evidently good is neither here nor there.

To value religious tolerance requires a belief that truth and power are basically unrelated, or even that they are opposed, and what is more that truth and social organisation are unrelated. In other words, it is irrelevant for political and social arrangements which, if any, of a host of religions is true. Even if absolutely true, it will receive no privileged status or authority. I submit that to the mind of a traditional society this is lunacy. How could it be irrelevant?

Moreover, even legal toleration is something that is only granted as a condescension by a majority group or sect when it either no longer feels threatened by dissent or no longer believes dissent to be destructive–certainly in the Islamic world these attitudes have not historically been the norm, and the brief secularist escape from sectarianism in the 20th century in some countries remains exceptional and exceedingly fragile. More ingenious efforts to justify such tolerance rely on arguments from within religious traditions to defend an abdication of conviction on expressly humanitarian grounds–truth is all very well and good, but it does not and should not really impose significant obligations on society. Religious tolerance privileges social harmony over religious commitments, which often sounds good to those in government and those not so keen on religious commitments, but for everyone else it sounds rather awful.

There cannot be any exact reproduction of historically contingent developments–this is one reason why history is not a science–and thus all other problems of acculturation and appropriation aside there can never be another cultural transformation significantly like the Enlightenment. There is every reason to imagine that equally significant, albeit markedly different, culturally defined “modernising” transformations can take place in any culture, but what is less certain is that the people who experience this transformation will embrace or flee from those transformations. What is also less certain is that said “modernisation” is actually desirable, whether judged according to the cultural norms of the society being transformed or according to a supposedly more ‘objective’ assessment of the well-being of that society (i.e., whether the transformation causes the breakdown of community and family life, how it impacts the raising of children, whether it undermines traditional religious life).

Among those I tend to call universalists there is the habit of assuming that once a path to greater “modernity” is found most people will desire to take that path. Unlike in our history over the last 300 years, these other peoples have the advantage (or burden, depending on what you’d like to see happen) of seeing the disillusionment, cultural collapse and alienation of modern Western man.

I do not deny that everyone possesses the same nature–this is an ontological and biological truth so obvious to me that I am always bewildered whenever anyone (such as the War Nerd in the latest TAC) denies it. Nor do I deny that, at the very least in a religious and spiritual sense, everyone should desire the same goods. Where I part company from the optimistic universalists is when they easily assume either that all of the things Enlightenment thought holds to be universal goods actually are goods or that culturally bound concepts, such as liberty, which has not even had precisely the same meaning in different parts of Europe, can be translated into a universal idiom without extensive upheaval among the recipients of the concept. I also can’t agree with universalists when they expect that everyone will more or less readily act in accordance with the common human nature that we all share, which is what I take it they are assuming when they claim immediately disproveable statements such as, “Everyone wants to be free” on the debatable grounds that man is naturally free. As it happens, I believe that man is naturally free, but what I mean by that is something all together different from what M. Rousseau and his latter-day adherents mean.

Therein really lies one of the major problems: these terms and ideas continue to be contested among those of us to whose tradition they historically and normally belong, which makes translating any version of them into another culture that much more difficult. We might be very “aggressive” in teaching things, such as “tolerance,” assuming that almost all of us agreed on what “tolerance” was and that it was something that ought to be encouraged (we might all agree on a certain equitable legal toleration, but have very different views on what constitutes an appropriate level of social acceptance of difference, and so on). One of the stumblingblocks in this instruction is that some of us, perhaps many of us, have less and less confidence that some of these ideals are worthy of being taught.

The first tenet, if you will, of any cultural traditionalist is acknowledging that man is extremely changeable and adaptive, almost too much so, which is one of the reasons why he needs the constraints and norms of culture to acquire stablility and identity. The question is not so much whether a new symbol, practise or idea can be taught to and adopted by others, but whether it can ever really be taken over and used as it was used by its original possessors (and for this to be possible I think one has to assume a uniformity among men from different parts of the world that exceeds simple common nature), and whether the recipients find it desirable to appropriate it.