Surplus to Requirements

Norm makes a good point, one that I’ve been vaguely wanting to make for awhile. He’s commenting on Michael Howard’s piece in the Guardian yesterday. Howard:

What do I mean by being proud to be British? At its core is a profound respect for, and allegiance to, the institutions that make Britain what it is, and the values that underpin those institutions.


The point I want to make is simply that it’s not because the values Howard mentions are British values that we owe them allegiance, but because they’re good ones – democratic, liberal, universally defensible. They are superior to those values which, for example, countenance the treatment of some people as inferior to others, or the silencing of dissenting voices, or the murder of the innocent. No one, however, need be loyal to such British values or traditions as cannot be upheld on a morally principled basis. The idea that something is to be supported just because it is British is defenceless in face of the counter-suggestion that other values and traditions are… whatever in fact they are, but in any case not British and preferred by the person who is asserting them. There’s no avoiding the discussion of the merits and demerits of the values or traditions themselves.

Exactly. Obviously, and exactly. That’s why I’ve been wanting to make the point for awhile: because there has been a lot of what seemed to me fairly muddled talk along those lines – talk about Britishness, and allegiance to Britishness, and allegiance to British values, as if they were all the same idea. But it doesn’t matter whether those values are British or not. That’s not the point. The point is whether they’re any good or not, not what nationality they are. If they’re crap values, then allegiance to them is a bad thing, not a good thing, and the fact that they’re British, or Samoan, or Peruvian, is irrelevant.

People need to pay more attention to what’s irrelevant and what isn’t, when they talk – and when they think. It’s clear enough that Howard’s real subject in that piece is – as it should be – the values in question, not their provenance. What he says would make more sense and might well be more persuasive if he kept that in mind.

This is exactly the same point I’ve been making about the stipulation – that women’s rights are okay and acceptable and permissible and a good thing – as long as they don’t contradict Islam. As long as they are on the right side of the divide between what (according to someone or other) pleases Allah and what angers Allah. Or God, or Jesus, or Athena – it doesn’t matter. The problem is the same. That’s beside the point. It’s irrelevant. It’s extraneous – utterly and completely extraneous. It’s the wrong question, the wrong criterion, the wrong standard. It’s like saying ‘You mustn’t put garlic in the gazpacho because the bishop can only move diagonally.’

It’s just a really really bad idea to try to talk about centrally basically important human subjects like values – like how we are going to treat each other and be treated – on the basis of criteria that have nothing whatever to do with the merits of the values themselves. You know? It’s just stupid. It may well be that the intelligent beings who live on a planet that orbits Alpha Centauri would consider our values – justice, equality, freedom, peace, prosperity – to be terrible, contemptible, evil, rebarbative values. But so what? We’re the ones who have to live with and according to them. Not people from Remulac, not Allah, not Jesus, not anyone who doesn’t live on planet earth – just us. We have to live here, and we have to do our best to do it in ways that minimize suffering and misery and horror instead of maximising it. We don’t accomplish that by blowing people to bits on tubes and buses, or by leaving small bombs all over Bangladesh, or by torturing children who are accused of witchcraft, even if (some people think) a deity thinks we do. If the deity thinks we do, the deity is wrong, and that’s that. So all those irrelevant adjectives need to be thrown out. British, Islamic, Christian, whatever – they add nothing to the equation. There’s no avoiding the discussion of the merits and demerits of the values or traditions themselves.

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