Across the western world, a liberal belief in the importance of caring about our fellows has taken hold — empathy is its core motivation, a desire to avoid giving offense in any way, its outcome. Yet, even acknowledging the power and importance of this perspective (compassion and caring are hallmarks of our moral heritage, particularly in the light of past national excesses and crimes against weaker groups and disenfranchised individuals), can this way of thinking go too far?
The events of 9/11 in 2001 brought home to many of us just what can happen when aggrieved groups decide their grievances outweigh feelings of fellow humanity while the continued terrorism by Islamic jihadists across the globe since, and the rise of terrorist states like ISIS and Iran, reinforce that message. In the West we want to look past all that and say to the aggrieved “we feel your pain,” “we care,” “we understand” — but it seems to carry no weight with those who have decided to hate us and seek our destruction for their own historic reasons.
Trump’s ascendance in America and the rise of similar leaders in various other nations in the West reflects a growing realization on the part of Western populations that there is a price to pay for the openness and seeming self-loathing that so often fills the gap in our souls when guilt replaces reasonable concern for our own and our national self-interest. We don’t want to turn away those who are suffering, particularly when we think that we have somehow had a hand in it through past western actions. But if we don’t balance this with a reasonable concern for the values and beliefs of our own societies, how can we preserve this kind of thinking in the face of a concerted effort to damage it? Do we really imagine that the Islamists who seek to rattle the West to its very core merely desire to redress past perceived grievances? Or are they after something more, namely the replacement of our society and its values with their own?
Certainly no one in the West, not even those most committed to caring for the “Other,” can imagine that the Islamist extremists mean to build a better, more tolerant society on the bones of the one they explicitly tell us they are out to destroy. Surely even those of us most sympathetic to what we take to be their grievances (whether we think these justified and real or merely imagined) do not believe that the society they dream of substituting for our own rests on the values we have come to admire and pursue in the West. And yet, so many of us still reflexively side with people who mean to tear down our Western culture and institutions through bloodshed and terror.
Donald Trump was recently excoriated in the press for having referred to problems in Sweden stemming from unbridled immigration to that country from Muslim lands. Aside from his usual imprecision (he got his reference wrong) there is a general revulsion that he would even speak about such things. We mustn’t explicitly suggest that it is Muslims, the thinking goes, who perpetrate such acts — or that immigrants from that part of the world may come to ours with different values and goals than we have. Aren’t we all human? Don’t we all share the same needs and values?
Apparently, if we look at certain parts of the world, we don’t. And that’s the problem. It’s not that some people from some parts of the planet aren’t human like us. It’s just that culture really does matter. How we teach our children to think about others and what we, ourselves, care about, all of this, is culturally constructed.
In some parts of today’s world the culture isn’t as ours is and somehow we miss this important factor. Often we welcome people into our homes who live in different cultural worlds than we do without really thinking about what that means. We tell them to come here and not to worry about embracing our culture and the values it holds dear because theirs is just as good, there is no better culture, only the culture any of us happen to prefer. But in doing this we forget the importance culture plays in all of human life, the importance value plays. We do it at our peril.