Reclaiming the Centre Through Word and Deed

In an op-ed for today’s Straits Times, Bilahari Kausikan intuits that European liberalism is failing, but I sense he jumps to the wrong conclusions. He says:

In West Europe, for instance, the political arrangements that we now call liberal democracy were arrived at only after several centuries of an often violent process of accommodation between different varieties of Christianity, each of which claimed a monopoly of divine revelation. These accommodations are now subject to the political, economic and cultural pressures generated by immigration – legal and illegal – from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from other parts of Europe. That large numbers of these new arrivals are ethnically distinct and Muslim are additional complications.

European liberalism, indeed all varieties of Western liberalism, have proved inadequate to deal with contemporary challenges. This is because liberalism prioritises one system of values and places it at the head of a hierarchy of value systems. But it is precisely this hierarchy that is now being contested – and contested not only by the new arrivals.

The liberal democratic value systems that formed the basis of late 20th century Europe’s political accommodations are now under pressure from European electorates. Hence, the rise of extreme right-wing – sometimes neo-fascist – movements across Europe. Their emergence points to a gap between the values of European elites and substantial numbers of their peoples that needs to be bridged if is not to metastasise into something darker and more malignant.

Across Europe, multiculturalism – an ideology derived from liberalism – is giving way to pressure for assimilation or integration. But assimilation or integration to what? What is, or ought to be, the core and what is the periphery? These are not abstract questions.

Since Kausikan will not mention what this ‘system of values’ and ‘hierarchy of value systems’ are, let me spell it out.

European culture is indeed based on democracy and Christianity: one man one vote, separation of Church and state, freedom of speech and expression, respect for minorities, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.

These immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East carry a different set of values based on Islam and Arabic norms: tribe above all, the majlis is the state, do and say nothing that will bring dishonour upon the tribe, minorities must submit to the majority through tax and slavery in exchange for ‘protection’, women are far less important than men, and the House of Islam and the House of War.

These aren’t simply a ‘hierarchy of value systems’ — these values are incompatible. They were developed in different lands, over different time periods, with a different set of historical baggage. Many immigrants entering Europe, especially the illegal immigrants, do not wish to integrate and become Europeans; instead, they are bringing their cultures into their new homelands, living by the old ways in the ghettoes and no-go zones instead of co-existing with their new neighbours.

Barely a century ago, humans used to call this ‘colonisation’.

Multiculturalism is indeed giving way — but not to assimilation. Assimilation is a symptom. Liberalism is giving way to nationalism: the outright rejection of immigrant culture and values, especially those from Africa, in favour of local cultures and values. The ‘centre’ of this loose ideological movement probably would have little objection to immigration, so long as the immigrants assimilate into the culture of their new homes and adopt their norms.

Specifically comparing the staff of Charlie Hebdo and their murderers, Kausikan says:

Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion?

I pointed out that even from the point of view of freedom of expression, a double standard was at play. France, like many other European countries, has laws against the denial of the Holocaust. When the law was challenged on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that it was justifiable as necessary to counter anti-Semitism. Even the United States prohibits hate speech.

The central argument of Western political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is that there is not only one Good, but that there are multiple Goods and these often contradict each other and so cannot be simultaneously realised.

If this idea is accepted, the goal of a movement of moderates cannot be agreement or even consensus, only peaceful co-existence; a modus vivendi that allows for peaceful co-existence between ultimately irreconcilable systems of values. Such a modus vivendi is necessarily always tentative and constantly needs to be renegotiated. To seek a still, unchanging point of eternal nirvana is not only futile but to court an extremist response.

So how do we get to where we all want to go? The Langkawi Declaration on the GMM (adopted by Asean leaders in April this year) prescribes certain approaches, among them outreach programmes, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues, sharing of best practices and information and academic exchanges.

What is only partly and indirectly stressed is the role of the state. There is no country that is today homogenous. Attempts to homogenise a country are today frowned upon: It is called genocide.

Notwithstanding education and the promotion of understanding, conflicts of values, including values that define core identities, will therefore inevitably arise. When this occurs, it is the role of the state to act as neutral arbiter, to hold the ring between different conceptions of the Good and to maintain whatever modus vivendi pertains at that point, if necessary by exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, including the pre-emptive or prophylactic exercise of such powers.

When conflicts of values lead to violence, it is usually due to state failure: Because the state or government was caught by surprise; because the state or government was too weak or too timid to take decisive action; because the state or government was unable to resist the temptation to seek political advantage by privileging one group over another; because the state or government was hamstrung by its own ideology.

Of course the West does not practice freedom of speech fully. I recall reading an observation that Greeks of 7th century BC Athens enjoyed more freedom of speech than a modern-day American. This is due to the West’s obsession with liberalism. Holocaust denial offends Jews — therefore, it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at blacks offends blacks — therefore it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at Islam offends Muslims — therefore it must be censored.  The key word here is ‘offend’, as in, ‘hurts the feelings of’. Not speech that incites to violence, merely speech that someone can interpret as insulting.

But if you look at how hate speech is actually defined and prosecuted, one would see roots in liberalism’s respect for minorities. Hate speech against whites, men, and Christians goes unpunished and uncommented.

This points to two things: the West is weak, and states cannot be trusted. The latter is not a Western notion either. In Malaysia, the government punished Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee for posting a photo of themselves eating pork during Ramadan, but did nothing about a group of Muslim protesters who demanded that a Christian church take down its cross. In Uganda, the government passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, condemning all convicted homosexuals to lifetime imprisonment.

The state cannot play the role of a neutral arbiter because it is not neutral. The government running the state will have to pander to its support base, the people that confer legitimacy upon it, to remain in power. If the support base do not believe in unlimited freedom of speech then the government will not respect that freedom either. And if that support base screams that it is offended, then of course Big Government will step in to save the day.

It means more Kill the Gays bills — and any attempt to criticise it will be slammed as anti-Christian. It means more Alvin Tans being jailed while Muslim mobs walk free — and any attempt to criticise this will be slammed as anti-Muslim. It means more people being enslaved, tortured, and enslaved by Daish, the Lord’s Resistance Army, drug cartels that worship Santa Muerte, and other such groups — and attempts to criticise them will be slammed as anti-religious. And from these criticisms come punishments, to tell everybody else to keep in line – or else.

Unlike Kausikan’s thoughts, people cannot have it all. Rights and values need to be measured against each other. If you want freedom of speech and protection of human rights, you cannot have protection of  religion. If you want protection of religion, you cannot have freedom of speech. If you want the state to intervene, it will act in the interests of the government and then the interests of the people. Freedom is not freedom only for the ideas you find palatable — that would lead to tyranny. Freedom must be freedom for all.

So, what can be done to reclaim the centre?

The centre is representative of society as a whole. The values the centre embraces must in some way represent the values that bind society, so the first thing to do is to determine what values guide society. And different peoples must decide what societies they want to live in.

I believe in a society that seeks to maximise the rights of the individual while balancing that against obligations to the state. The society would respect the rights of groups while ensuring protection for the individual. It grants every individual the potential to influence the direction society is going, while preventing any interest group from hijacking the rest of society and undermining its core values.

By necessity, this is a society that respects rights over feelings, freedom over censorship. No religion should be protected from blasphemy, and equally representatives of every religion are free to respond to criticism in the marketplace of ideas. The state will plays a role as an arbiter, but it does not police all speech. it monitors instead speech that incites to violence — religious or not, racist or not, the motivation is unimportant — and takes appropriate measures to defuse the situation: counselling wayward attention-seekers, ignoring harmless moonbats, and in the gravest extreme prosecuting terrorist ideologues. The state must serve all people, not the group that keeps it in power, and the best to do that is to limit its role to words and deeds that would harm people, no matter the source. And by ‘harm’ I mean violence against people — not the temporary heartscrapes caused by hearing people express different opinions. Within the state, there must be checks and balances to ensure that it will uphold its duty: ombudsmen, a Supreme Court actually interested in justice, a body that consults with the people to ensure that the government is in touch with the citizens.

The state will probably fail in its duty as protector. It would likely be prejudiced in favour of the group that put it into power, overreact, or fail to act at all. It is inevitable: the mechanisms of state are run by people and people are imperfect. But in such a society, the media and the people would be free to point out the failings of the government in a bid to rectify it — and in this society, the government cannot crack down on such people on the grounds of alleged hate speech without consequences.

Reclaiming the Centre Through Word and Deed
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