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Value Pluralism? No thanks

A commenter suggested Harry’s Place might repost this piece by ‘paulinlancs’ which has been attracting some discussion in a recent thread.  (I assume the slightly delayed flurry of interest was spurred by this recent post on Normblog.) Obviously one couldn’t repost without seeking permission, and in any case I can’t say it would make a good HP fit.  It opens:

‘Why on earth do some left-wingers side with Islamists, when Islamists are so evil?’ is an on-going question-cum-accusation, levelled [by] people like Nick Cohen at people like…….well, people like me.

He goes on to quote Nick Cohen and Carl Packman (both making perfectly sensible points about the deficiencies of the far left), and eventually makes this key assertion:

Indeed the Secular Respectable Left is, I will argue (following John Gray p.125-6), more reactionary, more unhelpful to the cause of emancipation that they profess to espouse than are the far/liberal/mainstream left at whom they throw this same accusation.

At this point, as a rather Laodicean sort of Decent who occasionally thinks Flying Rodent makes some quite good points, I was still reading in a vaguely receptive spirit.  Now comes a long quote from Habermas.

The important thing now is that the individual advances in emancipation reveal in hindsight the ideological function that human rights had also fulfilled up to that time. That is, the egalitarian claim to universal validity and inclusion had also served to mask the de facto unequal treatment of those who were silently excluded. This observation has aroused the suspicion that human rights might be reducible to this ideological unction. Have they not always served to shield a false universality – an imaginary humanity, behind which an imperialist West could conceal its own way and interests (p.119-120).

Instinctively, I felt the answer to that last question was ‘no’ (and Kellie Strom makes an excellent and pertinent point about this contention in the comments).  But even if it’s  (sometimes) ‘yes’, that doesn’t mean that the advances aren’t good and important. Moreover there is an implication here (which I’d agree with) that a) there is some notion of universal rights which is worth thinking about and b) things, at least in parts of the ‘imperialist West’, have been moving in the right direction in that respect. 

This is when I started to get really annoyed:

In this reading, what the Secular Respectable Left see as a betrayal of liberal values and human rights can be seen simply as an acknowledgment by some on the left that there are other worldviews, which do not depend on the primacy of the individual, which are potentially as valid.

He quotes Lucy Lips quoting Khaild Al-Fikri.

Don’t be misleaded [sic] and misguided with those kaffir people who says it is freedom and you are a free man. They are kuffar. And when they say, and poison your mind with the word freedom, they mean there is no God. “Do whatever you want.” Because they are kuffar. … You need to protect your deen [religion] and iman [faith] because there are many things which will affect you, will come against you. Somebody will say to you “democracy, socialism, freedom”………And again for my sisters. Don’t be misguided. Don’t be misleaded [sic] by the kaffir theories and attitudes. You are very free when you are home with your husband and your kids. … Don’t say “I am a free woman, I want to run house, I want to work, I want to get money”. No! This is the duty of your husband.

Paulinlancs offers this analysis:

Now, to my eyes, and to the eyes of most people reading this piece, this is pretty unpleasant reactionary stuff, at least at first reading. But stand back for a minute, strip away the insulting ‘kuffar’ term, and what you’re left with is little more than an expression of what Habermas has suggested: that the concept of ‘freedom’ is some kind of trap; that it is a Western invention aimed at diverting people from the true path of the divine; that Muslims should retain their own core ethical standards, even if they have to defend them against corrupt Western ones.

‘At least at first reading’.  FFS. I can imagine arguments asserting, from a left wing perspective, that it is possible to over emphasise freedom which I could at least partly go along with – attacking the effects of neoliberalism, or pointing out that freedom of expression or freedom to vote may seem rather hollow rights if you don’t have enough to eat. (As long as this point isn’t being used as a way of justifying those freedoms being curtailed of course.)  But for paulinlancs the fact that women are being targeted in this sermon, that completely different roles are being prescribed for the sexes, is something which it’s not even worth mentioning.  (I’m sure he would have something to say if someone suggested that it would be a good idea to have a permanent serf caste, or wanted to reintroduce apartheid.) The same is true for the writer he goes on to cite, Haidt, who also brushes aside the small issue of women’s oppression as part of an ‘ethic of autonomy [which] now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused.’ 

I’m sure there is space for a reasoned critique of (aspects of) ‘decency’ – from Ben Six perhaps.  (For example, going back to that first Habermas quote, I think it might be reasonably be argued that some Western outrage at, say, the ill treatment of women in colonial India or modern Afghanistan, is inconsistent, or selective, or opportunistic.) But this isn’t it.

So, after careful reflection, I have formulated an answer to the question posed by the author at the beginning of his article.

So what is a more ‘mature’ analysis of how some on the Left come, apparently, to side with the anti-human rights baddies against the goodies?

But I won’t supply it in case Michael Ezra is reading this. 


As there were so many good comments, I thought I’d add a sample to the post.  I’m particularly focusing on points which directly respond to paulinlancs and which engage with Habermas.


That’s it? Really? Ideas/views, however destructive, counterproductive or unfair, and even if demonstrably false or mistaken, not only have worth just because some people believe in them, but deserve respect as the basis for organising a system of power over people’s lives?

But, why? If this is the case, one could use the mere existence of any view or philosphy to justify it, including those which paulinlancs seems to think he is critiqueing, and thus there is no practical value in applying the label ‘valid’ at all. ‘Valid’ becomes meaningless as a word.


As pointed out, PaulinLancs doesn’t really know his Habermas, who is probably the least relativist and po-mo of the thinkers to have (in his case only partially) descended from the Frankfurt School.

Habermas once in a fit of common-sense accessibility stated the unoriginal but sound principle that if you come out with a general view that is in fact advantageous to yourself, you should always double-check your arguments. Individually and in terms of group interests people have a tendency to like views that flatter them and provide justifications for a good self-image and even status/material interest. Any honest thinker will self-check for that, although the criteria are intellectual not psychological, and it certainly does not follow that just because a person advances views that might be deemed self-interested (e.g. an Oxford graduate defends the existence of Oxford, a Catholic defends the pope, a capitalist defends a low corporate tax rate, a Westerner asserts the superiority of liberal western values) these views are therefore necessarily ideological in the worst sense and without merit. That way lies the slough of cod-Marxist or cod-po-mo relativism, which is not only anti-rational but always faux relativism, because in practice the people/positions attacked – “unmasked” as merely self-interested or in some more mystic discursive way merely bearers of an illegitimate diffused will to power, are only ever the people disliked by the critic, who takes his own innocence of such distortion completely for granted.

But it cuts both ways if it is ever to cut at all. If Western universal rights discourse, in criticising Mr. Al-Fikri’s sermon to women, is the mere mask of hegemony, then what are we to make of Mr. Al-Fikri’s sermon itself? (especially when I am sure that Mr. Al-Fikri is quite unwilling to countenance for a moment any “potential validity” of Western world-views). Could not Mr/ Al-Fikhri, as an imam and particularly as a male, be considered to be acting to his own advantage (material, power, self-image) in embracing and promoting his views of sacred male authority and the undesirability of freedom for women?

Alex Ross

One of the key features of Habermas’s thinking is a defense of the potential of universalism (e.g. legal equality, morality, scientific rationality) combined with a recognition that such ideas have either often been misused (e.g. used to justify colonialism) or only applied selectively (e.g. excluding marginalised groups). This is what separates him from his mentor, Adorno, (who offers no analytic way to separate the claims of universalism from power and domination) and made him something of a heretic amongst more hardline Marxists in the 1980s,

Even if we look within the cited quote we have this…

“So-called equal rights may have only been gradually extended to oppressed, marginalized, and excluded groups. Only after tough political struggles have workers, women, Jews, Romanies, gays and political refugees been recognized as “human beings” with a claim to fully equal treatment.”

Clearly he is seeing human rights advances as a good thing, but the “so-called” qualifier is added only because the project is as yet incomplete.

James Conohan

What a terrible article. It rests on a logical fallacy: an argument from authority. He presents Jurgen’s opinion as something that must be true because Jurgen’s an intellectual celeb. The quote has no evidence to back up the absurd claim that universalism is simply a ploy to subjugate others. That which is presented without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

He describes horrifying misogyny as a “valid expression of an ethical standpoint.” You are either for or against the enslavement of half the human race, there is no middle ground and no shades of gray and he’s made it clear which side he is on. If we accept that all his criticisms now and ever are null and void. After all if advocating the subjugation of women is simply expressing an ethical standpoint then the same holds true for any opinion. By his post all views are equal and there is no truth and no clearcut morality. By that reasoning his own ideology is worthless (but you don’t have to accept his post to render it worthless human history has already done that for you).

Hat tip: Bialek