Liberalism and Cultural Imperialism

Liberals rightly fear being culturally imperialist. But there is a difference between promoting the superiority of one's own culture and promoting the idea that people’s lives are better when they enjoy the benefits of liberalism. Unless, of course, you think the ability to think freely and critically about one’s own culture and traditions is a purely Western trait or that only Westerners are capable of running their countries democratically. In which case: Congratulations, you're not a relativist liberal, you're a racist.

"Liberals", as I use the term, are people who believe in things like democracy with a system of checks and balances to control government power, necessarily supported by fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, press, expression, association, religion, etc. This refers to most people in so-called "Western" countries. By this term, most members of both the Republican and Democratic parties in America, or the Conservatives and Labour in Britain, would be liberals.

Many of the people I've described here rightly fear "cultural imperialism", which is the belief in the superiority of one's own culture and attempts to spread this culture elsewhere. As a result, many have opted for "cultural relativism" instead, which defines as "the theory that beliefs, customs, and morality exist in relation to the particular culture from which they originate and are not absolute". This sounds like the proper way of looking at things if you believe in freedom of opinion, belief, speech, etc., as you will if you're a liberal. It is the recognition that differing cultural practices, mores, and tastes in food are mostly just that: different, not better or worse in any objective sense. There's just one problem: If this idea is taken too far and the liberal ideas above are also considered to be true only in a Western context, cultural relativism becomes a sort of lazy racism rather than tolerance.

Liberal values like secularism, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, expression, and the press, checks and balances on the power of states, the rule of law, and democracy are products of the Enlightenment in Europe, with some extending even further back. They could thus be viewed as “European” or “Western” ideas. But liberal values reflect a relatively new way of thinking, one that often went against other traditional values and practices, including within Europe. To assert that one’s taste in food or literature or the facial features of one’s own group of people are superior is indeed culturally imperialist and racist. It is not racist, however, to assert that people’s lives are better, all other things being equal, when they enjoy the benefits of freedom of speech, expression, press, assembly, and religion as well as democracy. Unless, of course, you think the ability to think freely and critically about one’s own culture and traditions is a purely Western trait or that only Westerners are capable of running their countries democratically. When stated aloud, the inherent racism in such a line of thinking immediately becomes apparent.

Many ideas are closely linked to the cultures from which they spouted. They are exclusionary. Liberal ideas are not. They are instead ideas about how multiple cultures and peoples can get along with each other. Freedom of religion and the separation of church and state in America came about not because these were long-standing traditions or values of the Americans from their colonial past. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many different religions wished to be dominant and their proponents would surely have preferred that their particular religion be sanctioned by the state--to the exclusion of others. They also realized, however, that if the followers of all the different churches were to live together without bloodshed, they would need to separate church and state and freedom of religion would need to be protected. These ideas are a triumph of reason over harmful cultural practices, not the triumph of one culture over another.

What about Iraq?

The Iraq War did serious damage to those wishing to stand by the promotion of liberal ideas. Democracy promotion at the barrel of a gun looks very much like classic imperialism, never mind cultural imperialism. Two things stand out, however. The first is that (literally) forcing liberalism onto people should be understood to be a violation of the very liberal ideas one is claiming to promote. The Iraq War is not what I, and most other liberals, mean when we talk about promoting liberal values. The second is that "forcing" democracy on people is an oxymoron. By its very nature, democracy is about freedom and choice. It cannot be implemented in places where a majority of voters do not want it (they can easily allow a new dictatorship to form instead). It therefore follows that, where democracy has succeeded, the will of the people was given voice. The problem with the Iraq War was the fact that it happened and how it was carried out, NOT that America and its allies attempted to turn the place into a democracy when they left. Indeed, having invaded and toppled the government, surely any self-respecting liberal would have been displeased had any other form of government been attempted?

Liberals can proudly stand behind liberal values and freely argue for their wider adoption. This is not a form of imperialism, of disrespect for others. On the contrary, it is to respect others greatly enough to say: "We have thrown off the shackles of our traditional ways of thinking and we think you would benefit from doing the same. Listen for a moment, and see if you agree." (One might also add: "If you don't agree, tell me why and let's talk.")


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