European values

Image: Eberhard Grossgasteiger


Eurocentrism makes a degrading caricature of the rest of the world

One of the characteristics of dominant thought is to contrast the principles it subscribes to with the practices of those who oppose it. In modern times, it all began with the colonial expansion of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries by the Portuguese and Spanish under the tutelage of the Vatican. Missionaries, discoverers, conquerors announced the "good news" of a religion considered to be the only true religion, whose principles guaranteed the equal dignity of every human being in the face of divine creation and the right of everyone to free themselves from superstition and embrace the new civilization, and access all the benefits that flowed from it.

The supposed universal quality of the values ​​they carried was as salient as it was evident the contrast between them and the practices of native populations, practices considered savage, barbaric, primitive, cannibals, sinners, whose eradication justified the “civilizing mission”. An abyssal line so separated European principles and values ​​from these practices that native populations could not even be considered fully human.

Therefore, not treating populations according to these principles was not only not contradictory, but was the only logical solution. If they were sub-human, it made no sense to apply to them the principles and values ​​proper to fully human beings. The universality of principles was asserted by denying their application to subhuman beings. With regard to these, the important thing was to evangelize them, to get them to abandon wild practices, which became easier and more convincing after Pope Paul III recognized in a bull of 1537 that the Indians had a soul.

This colonizing device carried out two crucial operations: it prevented the recognition of principles and values ​​different from European ones; prevented contrasting European principles and values ​​with the practices of Europeans. It was a new version of universality made up of two caveats that denied it, but whose negation was effectively made invisible. just read the Very brief account of the destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de Las Casas, published in Seville in 1552, to get an idea of ​​how this device operated, and the crimes, atrocities, destructions and looting it justified.

Las Casas eloquently shows the two truths hidden by the colonial device. On the one hand, the shocking contrast between the principles proclaimed by the European conquerors and their own practices; on the other hand, the false or partial portrayal of indigenous practices and the refusal of Europeans to recognize that these peoples had principles and values ​​that rivaled, sometimes with advantage, those of Europeans. Both the scandal of Las Casas's work at the time it was published and the success it enjoyed in the following century show the extent to which the colonial device proper to dominant European thought, despite being unmasked, continued to prevail as if animated by hypocrisy. structure that, instead of weakening it, became its source of life. Until today.

From the point of view of their genesis, European universal principles and values ​​(more recently also called Western ones) are a contradiction in terms because, if they are European, they cannot be considered universal and, if they are universal, they are not European. But this contradiction is probably characteristic of other non-European principles and values. And the same can be said of the hypocrisy or structural duplicity that inhabits any set of principles and values ​​formulated in the abstract. What distinguishes European principles is the political, economic and cultural dominance of the group of countries that, since the XNUMXth-XNUMXth century, have arrogated to themselves the right to claim them as their own and to impose them on others under the pretext of being universal. This set has varied over the centuries. It started out as Iberian, then became European, and has been Euro-North American since the end of the First World War. They deserve, therefore, a specific reflection. There are many devices that ensure duplicity and put it at the service of the interests of the hegemonic power.

(1) Universally asserting universal values ​​is a duty of peoples who recognize them as their own. The imposition, even if motivated by self-interest, must always be legitimized by benevolent reasons and in the interest of the victims of the imposition. It was with this justification that international law emerged, through the pen of Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546), to justify the colonial occupation of peoples who, despite being human, did not know how to govern themselves (such as children) and should therefore , to be the object of protection and tutelage by the colonizers.

(2) The hierarchy of values. All values ​​are universal, but some are more important than others. With John Locke (1632-1704), at the dawn of capitalism, the right of individual property precedes all others. Although Locke initially limited the natural property right to the fruits of labor, this right was extended to cover everything necessary for production, and this consists in the creation of exchange values. Since then, the hierarchy between values ​​depends on the situational conveniences of those who can impose it. If in some cases the defense of the sovereignty of States is a priority, in others it is the defense of the self-determination of peoples. In turn, national security (a recent concept that has replaced the concept of human security) has come to prevail over the rights and freedoms of citizenship, just as food security has been imposing itself on food sovereignty.

(3) Selectivity and double standards in invoking universal values. Between 1975 and 2000, the global media silenced the atrocious human rights violations of the Timorese people (which had just gained independence from Portuguese colonialism) by Indonesia, which invaded the country a few days after Henri Kissinger's visit to Jakarta. For the US, Indonesia was at the time a strategically important country to stop the advance of communism in the region, and this fact justified the suffering imposed on the Timorese.

In Ukraine's current war, many war crimes will have been committed by both parties. But the silence about crimes committed by Ukrainian troops contrasts with the incessant news about the crimes of Russian troops. The news of May 13th went unnoticed in the unsuspecting Le Monde: had just confirmed the authenticity of the video in which Ukrainian soldiers kill unarmed Russian prisoners of war in cold blood, a very serious war crime under the terms of the Geneva Convention. We'll see if it will be punished like all the others that have been committed. The same selectivity occurs in the case of another universal value, the right to self-determination of peoples. As we have seen, in some cases it is rightly defended (the case of Ukraine), while in others it is unfairly denied (cases of Palestine and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic).

(4) The sacrificial character of defending values, that is, the need to violate them in order to supposedly defend them. It was in the name of democracy and human rights that a sovereign country, Iraq, was invaded and very serious war crimes were committed, today documented thanks to the revelations of Wikileaks. The same happened in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and, previously, in Congo-Kinshasa, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, etc. But it all started much earlier, from the beginnings of colonialism. The genocide of indigenous peoples was always justified to save them from themselves. And Afonso de Albuquerque, second Governor of India, always justified the conquest of the spice trade, hitherto controlled by Muslim merchants, as a victory of Christianity over Islam.

(5) The importance of maintaining a monopoly on the criteria for deciding on normal situations and emergency or exceptional situations, given that in the latter it is legitimate to violate some of the universal principles and values. After the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, many countries were led to adopt, regardless of local conditions, exceptional measures in the fight against terrorism, namely to enact new norms criminalizing terrorism (the “criminal law of the enemy”) that violate constitutional principles of the rule of law. Many countries took advantage of this exceptional legislation to eliminate or neutralize political opponents, now considered terrorists. This was the case of the indigenous Mapuche militants in Chile for defending the integrity of their territories.

(6) The legitimate interpretation given to universal values ​​is the one ratified by the hegemonic power of the moment. Authorized freedoms justify the repression of unauthorized freedoms. It is known today that the Libyan regime was violently eliminated because General Gaddafi intended to give political consistency to the African Union and replace the dollar in oil transactions. Likewise, many countries, especially Latin American, Central American and Asian countries, know through tragic experience that democratically electing their presidents does not protect them from interference, coups and even the imposition of dictatorships, if the US sees the election as a threat to its interests. economic or geo-strategic.

(7) When it is not possible to silence violations of universal values ​​by allies of the hegemonic power, such violations must be trivialized or justified by reference to other supposedly superior values. The colonial and illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel – one of the most serious violations of international law in the last sixty-five years – has benefited from many direct or indirect justifications by Europe (unable to more honestly face its responsibilities historical) and by the US (“Israel is the only democratic country in the region”). State crimes, such as the recent murder of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, hardly deserve more than a footnote, even if such crimes meet a standard. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Information, 45 journalists have been killed by Israeli forces since 2000.

(8) Documentally exposing the violation of universal values ​​by those who advocate them and, with it, the reigning hypocrisy and duplicity is considered an enemy act and raises an implacable reaction that no universal value can limit. Not even the right to life. Julian Assange is today the living symbol of this duplicity. Having exposed the war crimes committed in Iraq and defending the anonymity of his sources made him a target to be shot down without mercy. With his action, Assange defended one of the universal values, the right to information and freedom of expression. The crimes he denounced should be immediately investigated and punished in national and international courts. Instead, he is the one who is punished and will likely be eliminated. In a recent video, his wife claims to have information that the CIA plans to kill him if he is not extradited to the US. In any case, under the conditions he is in, his death will never be a natural death.

(9) Universal values ​​are a catalog that can be consulted by everyone, but only the hegemonic powers decide what goes into it. On the one hand, Western values ​​and principles are considered, which are often not European in origin. Its appropriation almost never stems from horizontal intercultural dialogues, but often involves ideological distortions and selectivities. Greek philosophy, which we all cherish, was only considered in the mid-nineteenth century as Europe's exclusive and distinctive heritage. Until then, it was consensual to recognize its roots in the ancient culture of North Africa, namely Alexandria, and Persia. It was also recognized that without the cooperation of Muslim Arab culture, Greek philosophy would not have come to our knowledge: from the House of Wisdom of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad in the ninth century to the school of translators in Toledo in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Christianity is also considered a Western heritage, despite having been born in what is now the Near East.

On the other hand, since the XNUMXth century, non-Western contributions that are not subject to appropriation (or rather, expropriation) have not been admitted to the catalog of universal values. The reason for this situation results, as I mentioned, from the global, economic, social, political and cultural dominance of the European world since the XNUMXth-XNUMXth century. At a time when China is emerging as a power capable of vying for Western global dominance, it is timely to ask how long the catalog of universal values ​​will remain under Western domination and with what consequences. The transformations will not necessarily be for the better, and may even be for the worse, especially for the cultural region that has dominated the world until now. It is unsettling to imagine that Western countries will be the ones to suffer tomorrow from the duplicity and hypocrisy of universal values ​​in the hands of new “owners”.

It is possible that the West's degrading caricature of the East (a caricature denounced by Edward Said in orientalism) be replaced tomorrow by the equally degrading caricature that the East will make of the West (Occidentalism)? Will there be a shift from Eurocentrism to Sinocentrism? Or can we finally aspire to a world without cardinal points or hierarchical centers where cultural, political and epistemic diversity is possible, under the aegis of emancipatory values ​​that do not allow themselves to be violated according to the convenience of those with more power?

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).

Originally published on Journal of Letters.


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