:: Article

Why Not Everything Can Be Shades of Grey

By Max Dunbar.


Steven Lukes, Moral Relativism, Profile Books, 2009

In the aftermath of the second world war a shattered and broken Europe climbed to its feet and began, blinking and trembling, to comprehend the blood and fire of the Holocaust. How could anyone ‘move on’ from this? How was it possible to live a normal life, never mind a happy one? How to prevent such horror and evil from ever recurring?

In 1947 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights drafted a document that would function as the baseline for the existence of every man, woman and child: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was perhaps the simplest and most beautiful political document ever written, guaranteeing the right to life, to free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. Yet there were problems. How could human rights be ‘universal’ when the concept was derived from mainly Western traditions of thought? Was it not arrogant, even racist, to assume that our Western ideas were ‘universal’? To impose our academic Enlightenment ideals on cultures and traditions that went back thousands of years, and that maybe didn’t put such a big value on human rights?

Indeed, Steven Lukes tells us that the American Anthropological Association didn’t like the idea at all:

The executive board… submitted a statement proposing that the forthcoming UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘be applicable to all human beings and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America.’ The declaration, they argued, should be ‘a statement of the rights of men to live in terms of their own traditions.’ Man is free, they confusingly declared, ‘only when he lives as society defines freedom.’

In other words: if you believe that women should have acid thrown in their faces for not wearing a veil or that the sun requires a daily human sacrifice in order to rise, carry on: civilisation isn’t going to do anything about you, or for your victims. The AAA’s suggestion was dismissed out of hand: perhaps the spectacle of people forced to live under Hitler’s definition of freedom was still too raw.

There are lots of relativistic idiocies and Lukes lists a few in his elegant little book, purely for sake of example. Anthropologist Richard Shweder, writing about the live incineration of an eighteen-year-old Indian woman in 1987, speculated that the unfortunate widow ‘experienced her immolation of as an astonishing moment when her body and its senses, profane things, become fully sacred, and hence invulnerable to pain’. The Inuit custom of killing their elderly when they have outlived their practical usefulness was likened by anthropologists, frivolously, to euthanasia, and the Sudanese tribal tradition of burying their religious leaders alive compared to giving blood: ‘it is in a good cause,’ wrote John Kekes, ‘and both the altruistic victims and beneficiaries see it as such’.

Lukes could have filled his entire book with examples like this. The opinion pages of newspapers teem with justifications for one or another form of hideous cruelty, providing that it takes place very far away. The obvious example is female genital mutilation: euphemised as ‘female circumcision’ and even, by Richard Shweder, as ‘female genital modification’, this is not simply a Third World version of the Jewish ritual: Aayan Hirsi Ali writes that ‘if male circumcision meant removing the glans and testicles, and adhering the remains of the penis to the empty sac, the comparison would be valid.’ This is an image for gentlemen to keep in mind should they ever feel tempted by cultural relativism.

Cultural theory professor Terry Eagleton watched brainwashed suicide bombers destroy themselves and others in Israeli nightclubs and drooled, ‘Blowing yourself up for political reasons is a complex symbolic act, one that mixes despair and defiance… What more breathtaking form of omnipotence than to do away with yourself for all eternity?’ Guardian writer Madeliene Bunting, in an interview with cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, skimmed over his support for terrorism and his frothing homophobia to claim that ‘Secularisation seems to be a profoundly foreign concept to a man whose mind is steeped in the discipline of his faith… Qaradawi and western governments have a strong mutual interest in the struggle against Islamic extremism’. Slamming the Council of Ex-Muslim’s statements on the punishment for apostasy, Nesrine Malik fumed: ‘you would think that the death penalty is being gratuitously and frequently applied to those who renounce Islam or harbour thoughts of apostasy.’ In fact: ‘the death threat is invoked only rarely and more for political reasons rather than religion ones.’ Malik, a Londoner working in finance, illustrates Lukes’s point that ‘[t]hose who most loudly proclaim their anti-monarchism rarely reject the whole package.’ Just as creationists will ‘fly in aeroplanes, and surf the Web on computers’, defenders of terrible cultural practices nevertheless prefer to keep them at arm’s length.

It helps if you can draw equivalence with an unpleasant aspect of your own society. Talk about the crazed bigotry of many Islamic clerics and you can expect a Karen Armstrong-style response along the lines of ‘Well, fundamentalist Christians say some nasty things too.’ Atheists are routinely likened to religious fundamentalists, wife burning to domestic violence and forced marriages to dating agencies. Responding to the riots, arrests and threats of violence provoked by his critique of Islam, an exasperated Johann Hari declared:

Already I have had e-mails and bloggers saying I was ‘asking for it’ by writing a ‘needlessly provocative’ article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?

Why all this contemporary craziness? One explanation is that the dominant narrative of the post-9/11 world is anti-imperialism. Bush and Blair prosecuted their wars with the language of human rights. Yet we also saw detention without trial, the use of torture and the mass killings of civilians. Politicians’ talk of ‘humanitarian intervention’ provoked reasonable cynicism, and yet justified outrage over the hijacking of human rights discourse shaded into a general contempt for the very concept of human rights. Naomi Klein, the most perceptive antiwar thinker, saw this coming in 2005:

[I]t disturbs me that a lot of progressives are afraid to use the language of democracy now that George W. Bush is using it. We are somehow giving up on the most powerful emancipatory ideas ever created, of self-determination, liberation and democracy.

Like the American anthropologists of 1947, twenty-first century relativists saw human rights as an imperial construct, imposed by force on confused natives. Madeliene Bunting attacked what she termed, in a lovely phrase, ‘muscular liberals,’ who ‘raise their standard on Enlightenment values – their universality, the supremacy of reason and a belief in progress… It is an ideology of superiority that is profoundly old-fashioned – reminiscent of Victorian liberalism and just as imperialistic.’ Nonbelievers got a rhetorical kicking: according to Bunting’s Guardian colleague Seumas Milne, we were ‘increasingly using atheism as a banner for the defence of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001 to assert its dominance.’ And blogger Richard Seymour (currently valiantly struggling to contort his anti-imperialist narrative around the Obama era) declared faith ‘an enabling narrative for liberation struggles’ and atheism ‘an ideological accessory to empire’. (Never mind that so many anti-imperialists don’t even understand imperialism: as the French feminist Caroline Fourest says, ‘During the colonial period, the occupying nations rarely modified the habits of the occupied countries. They maintained most traditional provisions in the name of that cultural differentation’.) Again, note Lukes’s dissonance: many on the pro-faith left are agnostics and atheists who are nevertheless happy for people in the developing world to blow themselves up at the behest of seven-century madmen as long as it puts a dent in Western domination.

The result has been a climate of ugly realpolitik where the crimes of the Islamic ruling class are defended or explained away and Muslim dissidents are dismissed as CIA stooges or Uncle Toms. Like so many who claim to be anti-establishment, modern relativists take their cue from the establishment norms of other societies. It doesn’t help that religion is now a form of identity politics and that criticism of faith is treated as racism.

This sorry tale has been told many times and Lukes takes our knowledge as given. Instead he investigates the roots and contradictions of moral relativism. One of those roots is simple naivety: it is depressing to recognise that large parts of human history and culture have yielded almost no real progress. Is it not better to see progress in every culture? Also, there’s the widespread belief that natural equals good: as Jeremy says in Peep Show, ‘nothing natural ever hurt anyone. That’s a scientific fact.’

Lukes explores the conflict between moral and conventional norms, concluding that most people see morality as social (everyone else is doing it so it must be right) and provoking the reflection that it’s this, more than anything, that leads to the death camps. And that relativism is often based on suppressed machismo. Having met so many apparent left-liberals who embrace casual misogyny, it’s a conviction of mine that many of these people would love the dark liberation of being able to indulge in rape and woman beating because these, in Lukes’s words, are ‘things that a man just does’.

He examines the problems of multiculturalism, and how natural creative diversity can descend into a system of chafing monocultures. He destroys Samuel Huntingdon, noting a true equivalence between his neoconservative ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis and the worldview of the Islamists whom Huntingdon affects to oppose. He shows that values don’t always involve a tradeoff – you can’t ‘assess a particular friendship in relation to a sum of money’ – and therefore demolishes the idea that we can exchange liberty for security. All of this is done with wit and economy, and throwaway lines that illuminate more than an entire treatise (‘Both Quakers and the Mafia, after all, value friendship’).

Lukes’s book is a fascinating one, and timely, because relativism will be with us for a long time yet. Remember those American anthropologists who tried to subvert the Declaration of Universal Human Rights? Well, in 2008, the Declaration’s sixtieth anniversary, an Islamic bloc of countries not famed for their human rights records successfully proposed a resolution urging all countries to adopt legislation against ‘defamation of religion’ – in effect, an international blasphemy law. The UN also passed a motion requiring the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to ‘report acts of racial or religious discrimination’ that constitute ‘abuse of freedom of expression.’ As Johann Hari said, ‘Instead of condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, [the UN] will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.’

This was the strange death of human rights, opposed not by Western commentators but by NGOs in many Islamic countries; virtually unreported everywhere apart from the websites of human rights organisations and secular left blogs. The clerics achieved what the anthropologists couldn’t. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience: gone. We’ll miss you.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 15th, 2009.