Euroviews. The two layers of Western society ǀ View

The two layers of Western society ǀ View
By John Borstlap
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Should Western culture (its ways of life, its traditions as developed from the past) be central in the West?


Behind Yaluk Yildiz’ excellent article about populism lays a more general problem, which has haunted multiculturalism, liberalism and populism since their birth, a structural problem of the West which goes back some two ages and which has implications for both politics and culture – culture in the sense of the way in which people live their lives and how they inherit or create their identity.

The more worrying populist development in the West is the emergence of rightwing extremism which practices 'white identity politics' and thinks that 'the West' should consist of homogeneous white ethno nations. One thinks of the 'AltRight' movement, born in the USA, or the 'identitarian movements' in Europe. Totally ignorant of the nature of Western civilisation, these people imagine that they defend it by undermining its greatest achievement: the formulation and upholding of universal civilisational values, creating a framework of rights and laws whereunder different cultures can live together in peace and mutual respect.

Should Western culture (its ways of life, its traditions as developed from the past) be central in the West?
John Borstlap
Classical composer and author

Civilization is the framework of values protecting individual freedoms, rule of law, and the free movement in public place, all based upon the dignity of the human being, entirely independent from ethnicity and ways of life. This latter notion falls under the definition of 'culture' in its anthropological sense: the way people live, their customs, how they experience their identity, and the way in which they form their communities. Also the arts fall under this description of culture as an important tool of identity formation.

The civilisational value framework is mainly abstract and based upon ideas as developed in the Enlightenment (18th century), and appeals mainly to the intellect: it is a collection of rational ideas and ideals, and not something based upon direct practical experience on the ground. Culture however is mainly an emotional thing, since ways of life are being transferred from generation to generation, and form the bonds between people and create the nature of communities. Culture, the arts, traditional ways of life, the way how people deal with each other in practice, their identity in many forms, all this is mainly emotional in nature. This means that the overall framework is the decisive structure which garantees peace in societies and which makes it possible that - especially in the megacities - very different people can live in the same public space and can deal with each other without problems, with freedoms limited by the freedoms of other individuals, and public space strictly protected by the rule of law.

Everywhere in the world where circumstances develop to economic levels where people can begin to think about how to live better, more dignified and more meaningful and fulfilling lives, the influence of these universal values begins to be felt. Such value frameworks can be created over every type of culture, and we see this happening on many different places on the planet. Also we see the frictions that these two layers of society create, from which only one conclusion can be drawn: where culture conflicts with an overall civilisational value framework, it has to adapt to the requirements of the framework - the alternative would be the destruction of the only value structure that garantees peace and development. In practice this adaptation to the overall value framework means for instance that, in the West, religion is a private matter, and that certain aspects of religious world views which claim power over the framework, have to be dropped and considered no longer compatible with the modern world and modern, Western civilisation. Rightwing extremists who want to 'defend the West', don't understand how non-Western people and cultures are Westernised by adaptation to the overall civilisational framework and thus, become Western, while still being able to maintain meaningful elements of their non-Western culture.

This civilisational framework, as developed in the 18th century (the Enlightenment movement), was immediately criticised by German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who claimed that all those ‘beautiful’ ideas with their abstract ideas completely ignored the reality of people's culture and traditions, and that these abstract ideas were inevitably of the same nature as local ideas about society everywhere in the world - in other words: they don't formulate universal values. The question whether there exist universal values has since been a subject of debate and in the last century got renewed energy in the perspective of cultural relativism: any idea about society or culture has equal value and there is no universal value as if considered outside of any cultural sphere, there is no 'archimedean point of view' outside our own culture and tradition. But practice shows that this is not true: people are, in terms of their most important needs - be them physical or psychological - the same everywhere, in spite of differences on the surface of ethnicity, culture or traditions. In other words: what binds people together is profoundly universal, and their differences are relative surface phenomenae. To have discovered this distinction, is one of the greatest achievements of Western civilisation and thus potentially a basis for a world civilisation, which could put an end to war, poverty, destruction of the environment, - in short: the necessary tool for humanity to survive its own inadequacies.

The value framework of the West is thus universal in nature and on another level than culture, which can only exist in harmony with the framework: the ‘umbrella structure’ that protects culture underneath. Therefore the best defence against rightwing, destructive populism, is education, where this two-layered structure is made understood - both within the West and elsewhere.

This leaves one question unanswered - which is the source of so much rightwing extremism: should Western culture (its ways of life, its traditions as developed from the past) be central in the West? Because under the universal value framework, it cannot have a higher position than any other culture since the equality of different cultures is a condition of living in peace together. Here we have the problem of people in Europe getting worried that the quarter they live in, begins to look like Tunis. An answer could be found in the theoretical question: should Indian culture be dominant in India? Or should it only exist in some abstract, international thought cloud? To disconnect a culture from its local roots, is violating its energies and inspiration, much of which come from history. So, indeed, Indian culture should be central in India: it would be absurd if the overall framework would cut culture's roots, since it should protect and preserve the different cultures under its roof. From which it follows that under the umbrella of a civilisational value framework, as a compromise, local cultures should be protected from erosion, and indeed should be central. But that does not mean that they cannot be surrounded by other cultures, as Western-style cultural elements are also present in India.

This compromise has implications for the way governments support identity-building activities like the arts: in an egalitarian world view, which is an extreme form of the Enlightenment universal value framework, it seems to be unfair to give priority - in the context of a Western society - to something like classical music over the financial needs of rap, musicals or pop groups, forms of culture with a much greater and wider appeal than the 'difficult' art of the concert hall. For instance, where the symphony orchestra is no longer the cultural centre, in its aspirational symbolism of a civilised community, the universal framework has cut the roots of culture instead of protecting it from erosion.

From all of this follows that the development of a universal civilisational framework has an inbuilt paradox, which makes it necessary to be treated with caution and nuance. Only a balance between the framework and the cultures it is supposed to nurture and protect, can the framework have a constructive function; where it impairs the cultures under its roof, its own viability becomes undermined, and it will provoke extreme instinctive reactions which want to destroy it, because Enlightenment as a mere abstract idea stops to be a civilisational one.

It will be clear that in the search for a right balance between the two layers, there can never be room for extremism of any kind, as there can be no room for a destructive abstractionism which destroys the spiritual sources of cultures.

John Borstlap is a classical composer and an author on cultural subjects.Visit his website:


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