'Our Faith in Western Liberal Democracy, and Our Belief That It Possesses a Superior Moral Truth, Have Blinded Us to Countries with Other Traditions': If You Say That Different Cultures Are Entitled to Their Own Views on Right and Wrong You Will Be Howled Down as a "Relativist". but since When Did the West Have a Monopoly on Wisdom?

By Byrnes, Sholto | New Statesman (1996), October 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

'Our Faith in Western Liberal Democracy, and Our Belief That It Possesses a Superior Moral Truth, Have Blinded Us to Countries with Other Traditions': If You Say That Different Cultures Are Entitled to Their Own Views on Right and Wrong You Will Be Howled Down as a "Relativist". but since When Did the West Have a Monopoly on Wisdom?


Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)


There is no thought-crime greater today, it seems, than sympathy for relativism. To label an argument "relativist" is to dismiss it instantly, to imply that the argument's proposer has fallen into such moral jeopardy that no further rebuttal is required. This is curious. One might have thought that the relativist position--to judge a society by its own cultural and ethical customs--was not only sensible, as our understanding of other societies will be severely limited if we do not take these customs into account, but also the genuinely liberal position. Do not liberals pride themselves on their willingness to accept that others may have different ideas about how the world should be ordered?

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But we are all worshippers at the altar of western liberal democracy now, and the paradox at the heart of this supposedly tolerant creed is that it is intolerant of any society which orders its affairs according to different principles.

Our faith in western liberal democracy, and our unshakeable belief that it is the unique possessor of a superior moral truth, have blinded us time and again to the realities in countries with other traditions. Furthermore, it endangers our own security. Seeing the world through this prism, we are unable to concede the force of other bonds, such as religion, tribe or a non-democratic form of hierarchy. We may admit that these factors carry some weight in parts of the world where the United States and its deputy sheriffs, Britain and Australia, so arrogantly assume the right to interfere, but we consider them to be no more than veils of ignorance to be swept aside. Then, we say, the peoples of these countries will gladly embrace our values as surely as medieval man would have accepted that the earth was round, not flat, had he been privy to the wonders of modern science.

Only it doesn't quite work like that. The mystery is that we persist in our belief in the universality of western liberal democracy in the face of consistent evidence that other parts of the world have deep attachments to different value systems. Some may say that we ought to look to our own house given that, under varied forms of our treasured faith, the wrong US president was elected in 2000 and the Labour Party gained a large majority in the House of Commons with the lowest share of the vote in British electoral history earlier this year. But the more salient point is that there is no tradition of anything approaching western liberal democracy in many countries. Why should they be so desperate to adopt it? Especially when our attempts to persuade others of its merits are often accompanied by threats, to withhold aid, trading rights or the like, thus leading legitimate reasoned argument to degenerate into bullying.

Convinced of the universal appeal and application of our creed, we ignore local historical and cultural factors. So we remove Saddam Hussein (whom no one disputes was an evil dictator) and are then surprised when liberal democracy does not instantly flourish in the soil of ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, as Iraq falls apart, its population demonstrates an appetite for using the democratic process to vote for parties whose express purpose is to set up an Islamic, not a liberal democratic, state. Already the cause of women's rights has been seriously set back. (One of the positive aspects of Ba'athism, from a western point of view, is that it is a secular and, at least in terms of equality between the sexes, a modern political philosophy. Yet we are not interested in finding areas of common ground; liberal democracy does not negotiate.)

Whatever colours are flown by an eventual Iraqi government--assuming there is an Iraq left to be governed--we are deluded if we expect them to bear any similarity to the tricolour of liberte, egalite and fraternite. Throughout most of the Middle East, the popular alternative to dictatorial or semi-dictatorial regimes is not our system of government but Wahhabist or Shia theocracy. …

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'Our Faith in Western Liberal Democracy, and Our Belief That It Possesses a Superior Moral Truth, Have Blinded Us to Countries with Other Traditions': If You Say That Different Cultures Are Entitled to Their Own Views on Right and Wrong You Will Be Howled Down as a "Relativist". but since When Did the West Have a Monopoly on Wisdom?
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