Contradictions in Civilizational Pride, Multiculturalism, and Human Rights

Typically, those most opposed to the idea of human rights are those who claim to be most proud of Western Civilization and most disdainful of other civilizations, while those who most broadly disparage Western Civilization and celebrate multiculturalism are those who most outspokenly champion the idea of human rights.

 

This is a complicated issue, but I will point out the clearest, most obvious flaw I find in both opposite (and unfortunately popular) views: Human rights are not a universal conception, but a very Western historical idea that is literally integral to the Western experience.

 

To the Western chauvinists who disdain human rights: how can you possibly say you love your Civilization while you simultaneously disparage one of the fundamental concepts that most differentiated it from other civilizations? From the individualism bequeathed us by Greece, and republicanism bequeathed us by Rome, and the dignity of the human person bequeathed us by Christianity, everything that has made Western Civilization unique has been its unique commitment to the sanctity of the individual.

 

Granted, a commitment to the sanctity of the individual cannot be ALL that holds society together- there must be shared institutions of unity and order. But these are in no way unique to Western Civilization- every civilization across time has had these at its core. They don’t make Western Civilization particularly special, and indeed there is as much to learn from Ibn Khaldun and Xunzi on this topic as there is from Thomas Aquinas.

 

To the West-disparaging multiculturalists and human rights crusaders- how can you possibly cherish human rights as the most unifying concept of humanity, when it is nothing other than a Western construction descended from the thought of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians, three groups which irrevocably shaped our Western heritage? For all the pain and intolerance which Western Civilization has wrought upon itself and the world, it has always been the incubator of the ideas of individual liberty that so animate activists the world over today.

 

Moreover, how can you despise the West but worship its rivals with such vigor? For all their grand contributions to civilization and intellectual history, all the other great civilizations only started producing any sort of thought about the political rights of the individual after contact with Western Civilization! They have all had their strengths in their own ways, but none of them has ever valued pluralism and individual dignity to the degree that activists the world over claim they do.

 

It’s an interesting set of contradictions not easily resolved by even the most philosophical of individuals.

 

As for me, here is my imperfect and deeply flawed reconciliation:

 

 

I will forever be a Westerner, for that is the civilization of my birth and upbringing. But I will always be something of a false Westerner, for though I admire and appreciate the respect for individual dignity my civilization has brought to the great conversation, I have never considered that respect for individual dignity to be either the pinnacle of human thought or the focal point of human striving. It is a wonderful addendum, wherever it is possible; but wherever it is not, it should not be necessary. Order suffices on its own, and brings a relative and acceptable degree of liberty.

 

Instead, I judge my own civilization and every other civilization by its capacity to keep a reasonable order, a sort of chaotic harmony which forestalls the descent to our natural state of barbarism. And while the West has certainly produced great thinkers and great works on this subject, so has every civilization and society worth its salt. All are worth appreciating, respecting, and borrowing from, of course within reason.

 

Thus, when it comes to the great questions of civilizational identity, I would have to say that I am something of a Westerner who happens to be a multicultural conservative, who appreciates but does not worship the idea of human rights.

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