“Without allies from outside, it is difficult for any stomped-on member of a community to escape. And the focus on that individual, instead of the community to which they are forced to belong by birth, is central to every progressive and humane development in the centuries since writers in France and Scotland created the Enlightenment out of little more than hope and anger. Everywhere the values of the Enlightenment are threatened, mocked and diluted - in our country not least. If you believe the values of the Enlightenment, which stress our common humanity and shared - but not communal - rights, are necessarily racist, European, or discriminatory, then naturally you will disagree with me.” – Mihir S SharmaIn the whirl of debate surrounding the PEN Charlie Hebdo award, I’ve seen numerous arguments framed in terms of celebrating and defending “Enlightenment values.” Many of the substantive arguments themselves I generally agree with, but over the years I’ve become increasingly wary of the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values.” I believe this rhetoric is dangerously misleading and has several unfortunate consequences.
First, I’ve never been too impressed with claims that “Enlightenment values are universal values.” If the values at issue are in fact universal and the primary point is to present them as such, I wonder, why bring up the connection to the Enlightenment at all? Why not just refer to more or less specific values themselves? It seems undeniable that the phrase “Enlightenment values” suggests a connection to, and origin in, Europe and the philosophical work of a collection of white European men. That’s implied whether or not the speaker is claiming their universal applicability.
Moreover, the argument that “Enlightenment” values are universal pretty much inevitably carries the underlying implication (and often the belief) that they’re a sort of gift from Europe to the rest of the world, whenever those other cultures are sufficiently mature to accept them, and casts non-European struggles based on these and related values as derivative of European ones. This isn’t just remarkably arrogant and condescending, but rhetorically counterproductive. It puts non-Europeans in the position of accepting or rejecting values identified as external (European), unnecessarily drawing these values into political struggles. People in non-European countries can then, cynically or sincerely, lead others to believe that contesting these values is an act of liberation. Again, this is a natural consequence of the rhetoric. It’s of little use to keep insisting that “Enlightenment values” aren’t European but universal when the whole idea contains the message that they’re European but potentially universalizable.
Second, Enlightenment figures and philosophies, and the thinking of people following more or less consciously in the “Enlightenment” tradition, are complex and varied. Even when these thinkers broadly share a given value, their views about its meaning or the best means of realizing it don’t always agree. Many Enlightenment philosophers held beliefs that were racist, sexist, and speciesist, and contrary to what’s commonly thought of as the positive contribution of the Enlightenment. Sometimes, these beliefs were fairly marginal to their political and ethical philosophies, but sometimes they’re at the philosophical core. When false beliefs and prejudices fundamentally distort a philosopher’s argument, it’s wrong to suggest that their ideas about democracy or equality are fundamentally sound and just need to be expanded to include those previously excluded. In many cases, the arguments themselves have to be critically reevaluated and reformed.
Here again the notion and rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” cause problems. They create confusion about which arguments exactly are being asserted or defended. Could there be a subtext or racism, sexism, or speciesism in the rhetoric of Enlightenment values, or at least the implication that such issues are tangential to the basic argument, in any given case? (In some instances, people’s related statements or writing on other contexts make it explicit that their understanding of Enlightenment values is perfectly compatible with sexism, racism, speciesism, and homophobia.) The invocation of “Enlightenment values” is more vague than it might immediately appear, and opens the door to misunderstanding and misuse.
Third, the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” interferes with and distorts critique and its reception. Critical work - including feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist analyses – has engaged with the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and their “descendents,” questioning, challenging, disputing arguments, calling attention to prejudices that undermine positive projects, and building on useful ideas. But some critical thinkers have taken the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” too seriously and mistakenly accepted the idea of a monolithic Enlightenment tradition. Recognizing that some ideas espoused by people associated with this tradition are contrary and even hostile to positive values, they’ve sometimes framed their criticisms of those ideas as criticisms of the Enlightenment as a whole.
The rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” can misshape and politicize the response to critical approaches. Even those critical analyses that are grounded in the very values claimed for the Enlightenment have been seen and/or represented as attacks on the values themselves, understood as sacred and timeless in their “original” “Enlightenment” form. Often, these responses are thinly veiled defenses of the status quo – perversely, the rhetoric of “Enlightenment values” allows values claimed to be inclusive and universalizing to be employed as a weapon against contemporary liberation movements.
Fourth, although Enlightenment philosophies arose in relation and opposition to European oppression, the “Enlightenment values” rhetoric tends to sideline that oppression or relegate it to the past while misleadingly suggesting the cherished values as the legacy and meaning of the “real” Europe. Furthermore, the claimed promotion of “Enlightenment values” has often served, and continues to serve, as a justification for European crimes, either as a cynical pretext or a sincerely held motive. Imperialist violence and oppression are still frequently couched in the language of bringing “Enlightenment values” to backwards people – through invasion and occupation, “modernization,” “development” and so on.1
Those exploited, oppressed, and victimized by these self-proclaimed champions of enlightenment – and those who see what’s going on - have good reason to be suspicious of the Westerners’ passion for, or even ability to understand, freedom, equality, and justice. They have good reason to suspect them of having motives vastly different from the values they proclaim, and to be very wary of those who speak in the name of “Enlightenment values.” Simply “explaining” again and again that “Enlightenment values” aren’t themselves racist or imperialistic doesn’t address this problem, and in fact contributes to it as it denies the real-world deployment of this rhetoric in the service of imperialism.
Fifth, “Enlightenment values,” ultimately, are abstractions. They capture some aspects of a politics of liberation while ignoring some others. They’re not the be all and end all of political philosophy or practice. Attempts to build societies that fulfill real needs can draw from sources far beyond the past several centuries on a single continent. Peter Kropotkin’s ideas about anarchist communism, ethics, and science, for example, draw from the practices of communities throughout European history and elsewhere, nonhuman animals, the work of non-European scholars,…
And of course liberation movements didn’t begin with Enlightenment philosophy. Movements against slavery didn’t originate with Europeans or from Enlightenment philosophy, but amongst slaves, based on a desire for freedom and self-determination and growing from ideas in African political cultures, indigenous American cultures, and communities being formed in oppressive conditions. The same is true of other liberation movements, as well as those defending the natural environment.
Recognizing this does not, as the “Enlightenment values” rhetoric often suggests, mean rejecting or ignoring the ideas about freedom, democracy, human rights, etc., developed by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, or denying that many of these ideas have been and will continue to be important to liberation movements. It’s simply a matter of appreciating and respecting the diverse sources of valuable ideas and practices. The rhetoric of “Enlightenment values,” in contrast, implies that these diverse ideas about democracy, freedom, equality, and so on and related efforts to fulfill people’s needs are unimportant, uninteresting, or even threatening.
So the use of “Enlightenment values” rhetoric causes several problems: It claims positive values as universal while implying that they’re not actually universal in the sense, which is the only meaningful sense, of having roots and growing organically in non-European cultures. It falsely gives positive values a European pedigree and an import status, thus supplying ammunition to the enemies of freedom who can claim that in rejecting them they’re fighting foreign domination and advancing the cause of liberation. It interferes with relationships of equality and solidarity across cultures. It leaves the substance of the specific values being defended unclear. It misleads both criticism of philosophical arguments and the reaction to critical work, sometimes letting the latter become a cudgel with which to bash liberation movements in the name of sacred liberatory values. It tends to distort European and global history. It ignores the concrete history of how this rhetoric has served as a cover or justification for violent campaigns of oppression, exploitation, and looting. It ignores or dismisses the people pointing to this history, or, worse, accuses them of being opponents of liberation. It narrows our focus to a small portion of potentially valuable global and historical sources of ideas, while downplaying the persistent European sources of oppression and challenges to liberation.
I believe that instead of becoming trapped in this rhetoric we should begin with and continue to focus on specific, concrete needs and values, and be open to considering diverse historical and contemporary sources of liberatory ideas and practices while trying to be as aware as possible of how “Western” cultural traditions and actions have not only promoted but also stood in the way of these values and goals. What’s lost in a sense of cultural superiority is compensated for by real solidarity and...enlightenment.
1 In this violent and tragic history, moreover, Europeans have crushed democratic and liberation movements when these threatened their power, while intentionally (or inadvertently but thoughtlessly) promoting and institutionalizing the most oppressive forces; they’ve then pointed to those forces as evidence of the unenlightened backwardness of the “natives.”