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Western civilisation is adrift in the world of ideas

By Pete Mulherin - posted Thursday, 14 January 2016

Western civilization is adrift in the world of ideas. Uncoupled from religion for over a century, the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition which endured - albeit, once it had been absorbed into a secular, modernist rationale-is under existential threat from within. The Twitter-lynching of Chris Gayle, the asylum seeker crisis in Europe and connected sexual violence in Cologne and other cities on New Year's Eve, and the increasing frequency of attacks by Islam-inspired jihadists are all in their own and disparate ways symptoms of the same ailment.

Although perhaps well intentioned, the groupthink of Left orthodoxy is accelerating the demise of liberal values on which Western culture was built. While the Left may be more purposeful in severing the links that tie the West to its philosophical and religious past, the 'right' is not without fault. Its silence as liberal values become corrupted and discredited implies complicity; its retreat to behind the walls of neoliberal economics concedes defeat as fiscal short-termism is prioritised at the expense of reflecting on the the power and importance of ideas.

The dilution of Western values can be seen most prominently in the mainstream media and its role as a censor, rather than facilitator, of public debate. Pick any contentious topic - from gay-marriage and abortion to the role of Islam in terrorism or issues of race or gender - and you will hear only one side of the story, the politically correct angle. Dissenters beware, presenting an alternative view, or even questioning why the dominant view is dominant, will result in outrage and judgement. There is no such thing as truly free speech under such circumstances - no dialogue, no alternatives to the impulsive and dogmatic Left's cause du jour, whatever its promoted crusade of the month might happen to be.


Sure, there may still be de jure freedom of expression-being 'an Islamophobe' won't see you end up in prison, not yet anyway. But the threat of public embarrassment and excommunication from all 'civilised' conversations won't seem like 'freedom' to many. By far the easiest thing to do as the Left colonises institutions and shuts down debate is to do nothing at all.

To return again to the media's role, the Fourth Estate not only shapes the societies on which it purports to report, it also represents them: news organisations not only give us what they want us to hear but also what we want to hear. We wish to believe, for example, that a religion whose values are antithetical to the West's traditions of secularism is nothing to worry about, that its oppression of women is but a quaint and colourful manifestation of ethnic diversity. The media will make sure that the nothing-to-see-here narrative is given pride of place. Maybe we should pause and ask ourselves, 'What are our values? What is the West, and what makes it unique? What do we stand for?'

Irving Kristol, American intellectual and 'godfather' of neoconservatism, wrote in 1973 of the 'depletion of moral capital' in the West. Arguing against the rampant and damaging individualism present in Western society at the time, he warned that 'society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.' Once expended, the foundations of the society would be uncertain at best.

Kristol was writing during a time in which the current West must have been unimaginable, so his prescience is startling. Today we see the culture of postmodernism in the final stages of its journey from university campuses of the Seventies to dominating discourse and 'acceptable' opinions in wider society. Rather than allowing debate and discussion about what is right and wrong, what liberty and freedom mean and what defines the West, defenders of the old, allegedly illiberal order have seen the baton seized by representatives of an even less liberal one.

Postmodernists initially sought to do away with concepts of right and wrong, but all they really did was redefine them - and not according to any particular religious or philosophical tradition. The nihilism they originally championed was quickly discarded, as rewriting the rules was infinitely more interesting than having no rules at all. It is in this context, for example, that there arose the current fascination-a remnant, no doubt, of Marxism-with assuming that the West is to blame for everything, and that traditional Western values are by default inferior to those of any and all other cultures.

Western guilt, this compulsive self-flagellation, views Judeo-Christian values as comparable, if not inferior to those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam-take your pick. And if you think this comparison between values is the result of careful thought and discussion, you are wrong. Tearing down the values of the West is the end in itself, what replaces them is beside the point. The very least we in the West can do is to spend some time thinking about ourselves, our values, and our history.


This isn't as easy as it sounds. Most of us in Australia are rich and comfortable. Why should we bother with a task as onerous and disquieting as self-reflection? In this world of instant gratification, thinking can be a real chore. That makes it so easy to forget which ideas and values are the foundation of Western society because dialogue about them is absent.

So, I ask again, what is the West? What are its values? Are there better alternatives or not? Can we grow out of the ludicrous belief that all values and societies are equally good, or is moral and cultural relativism here to stay?

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This article first appeared on Quadrant Magazine Online.

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About the Author

Pete Mulherin works as a casual research assistant at Deakin University. He is a doctoral candidate in International Relations, writing a thesis on Australia's foreign policy towards the Islamic State.

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