themes / Alien Europe

Alien Europe: What are the frontiers for?

Paul Scheffer

Paul Scheffer on post-colonial guilty conscience, immigration, ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, and contemporary cosmopolitanism.

1. “We are over here, because you were over there”

Once a source of self-assurance, colonial history became the cause of deep uncertainty about the significance of European culture. Yet the shock of decolonization had a beneficial effect. European integration would have been unthinkable without that experience. The crucial initiative that brought European countries together was taken by former colonial powers, such as France and Belgium, which saw the integration of the old continent as a means of checking their own decline. Only when they stood alone did they begin to see each other as neighbours. This helps to explain why Britain was so slow to join the European Community. It continued to cherish the illusion of imperial grandeur even when, after Indian independence in 1947, there was less and less reason to do so.

The loss of power in the world led to self-examination in another sense too. British historian Arnold Toynbee was keen to emphasize the limited horizon of the colonial worldview: “The paradox of our generation is that all the world has now profited by an education which the West has provided, except the West herself. The West to-day is still looking at history from the old parochial self-centred standpoint which the other living societies have by now been compelled to transcend.” That self-satisfied attitude could not last, since “sooner or later, the West, in her turn, is bound to receive the re-education which the other civilizations have obtained already”. He wrote these words in 1948 and we can see his prediction as having since been borne out by post-war immigration.

As a young Pakistani man in London wrote on a banner years ago, cutting a long story short: “We are over here, because you were over there.” Europe touched the world and as a consequence it is now being touched by the world.

The one-time colonizers’ ability to adapt is currently being tested in precisely the way Toynbee regarded as desirable. The elites that once commanded a civilizing mission have become so uncertain that they no longer have any clear understanding of their cultural heritage. Who are we – given the moral depths of the colonial period – to judge others? Immigration forces us to think again about the fundamentals of our societies. The coming decades will show whether the shock is being absorbed productively.

There is only one way to prevent criticism of ethnocentrism – which elevates specific traditions to the status of universal truths – from degenerating into a cultural relativism that rejects universality in the name of particular preferences. Anyone choosing to defend a civilizing mission is himself part of that mission; norms held up as an example to the world will inevitably come back to haunt those who disseminate them. The civilizer must become civilized – that duty is unavoidable if we want to continue to defend universalism. It’s unhelpful to speak of the superiority of Western civilization, since an open society relies on a capacity for critical self-assessment.

The imperialism that regarded the dissemination of its own civilization as a mission violently broke through the walls of other cultures and brought them into contact with each other without their consent.

This combination of power and principle has produced a guilty conscience, which reveals itself in the notion that it’s impossible to pass judgement across cultural boundaries. An attitude of this kind means opting for detachment: who are we to judge, let alone interfere?

Universalism and aloofness do not go together. What remains is the conclusion that human rights must be defended globally. This will be possible only once universalism has absorbed the experience of colonialism and digested it. All pertinent questions thrown up by cultural relativism should be taken into account, but to relinquish democratic impatience would be to betray the open society as an ideal. It would surely not be credible to swear loyalty to our own democracies and exhibit indifference to democracy elsewhere in the world.

2. world citizenship

We have to resist the temptation to embrace traditions uncritically, but at the same time we must reject any concept of world citizenship that fails to relate to a community for which a person can feel responsible. It’s proving increasingly difficult to reconcile a cultural heritage with openness to the world, two things that seem to be drifting apart in the richer nations.

Our world is becoming both larger and smaller, bringing people closer together and pushing them further apart. The astonishing mobility of capital, information, goods and people is making societies not only more involved with each other, but more permeated by each other. At the same time the aversion to integration and cultural mixing is increasing and people are withdrawing into their shells.

World citizenship is a remote prospect for most. The central question here is what a contemporary cosmopolitanism ought to look like.

Polish-Canadian writer Eva Hoffman emphasizes the fact that the conditions for world citizenship have changed: “Whereas cosmopolitanism used to defend itself against the narrow-mindedness of provincialism and nationalism, nowadays we are trying to use it as an antidote to the superficiality of globalism and life as social nomads.” She sees a “new betrayal” by intellectuals in “the denial of the desire for meaningful attachment”. Which returns us to the question: What form should an open society take in a borderless world?

There’s a great deal to be said for the attempts that have been made in our own time to expand the community with which a given individual can identify – just as long as it’s a matter of deepening responsibility, rather than a flight from obligation of the kind that’s all too much in evidence everywhere. The current blurring of borders presents more opportunities for self-interest than for serving the needs of communities.

The notion of world citizenship may help to expedite enlightened ways of living together, but it has its dark side. Many people are trying out a comfortable identity as citizens of a global village in the making without asking themselves whether the pursuit of a world without borders is not all too often a way of ignoring those close to them.

The festive embrace of the global village is offset by urgent questions about the conditions for citizenship of a city and a state.

We should value the crossing of frontiers in the knowledge that borders are an inalienable part of our lived reality. We need to contemplate cultural differences instead of denying they exist. People are not prisoners of their origins, but each individual existence has to be embedded in something. It’s a matter of seeing a heritage not as prescriptive but as a prerequisite for independent action. Freedom, after all, needs a context.

A true cosmopolitan tries to embrace that tension between the local and the universal. This is surely rather different from believing in a worldwide market of ideas, each of which can be appropriated or rejected at will. How can we envision and revise our own cultures in the light of those of others? When we try to make comparisons we find ourselves forced to lower our sights. It’s not easy to find a way into a foreign culture, even that of a neighbouring country. Anyone who tries to fathom the often implicit references in a novel originally written in another language immediately runs into difficulties. The reader is required to transpose him- or herself, and that requires effort. As T. S. Eliot rightly observed: “Though it is only too easy for a writer to be local without being universal, I doubt whether a poet or novelist can be universal without being local too.”