TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Value of Values

In recent years, questions of values and cultural conflict have frequently occupied the center of public discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, and these debates have taken on varied political shadings. The German discussion of a Leitkultur and, elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, the politicized expectation that immigrant populations acquire some familiarity with the language, culture, and values of the host country have often reflected underlying conservative assumptions. In contrast, in France, the defense of republican values has been more a matter of the Left and its tradition of adamant secularism, while more generally, advocacy on women’s issues and human rights have typically tended to arise on the Left (even if, in an interesting political development, they have begun to slide toward the Right). This political indeterminacy makes the topic all the more interesting. The question of values does not lend itself to easy political categorization. A broader account is called for to explain how Western political cultures—with their own internal range of positions and hardly monolithic—face sets of pressures in the context of globalization: immigration is only one dimension of a framework that includes enhanced international trade, new global media (the internet), and global environment questions, not to mention security and energy policies, even if debates typically erupt most dramatically around immigration-related topics.

If we could identify a shared conceptual framework for these problems, it would sound something like this hypothesis: the wider global context relativizes the standing of local narratives and undermines their stability. Given that degree of generality, there is no reason to assume that there is one single policy solution that would apply uniformly in different countries and to different topics. What we might achieve, however, is a framework for comparative discussions of related if nonetheless distinct topics in varied circumstances. Should societies expect new immigrants to internalize the host culture, and if so, what is the degree of appropriation that could be set as a norm: thorough? partial? minimal? A Leitkultur expectation that all immigrants reach university-level knowledge of host-culture history is probably unachievable, but that does not imply that expectations should be lowered to zero. Culture is after all not only distant history but also the way that one lives in historically formed institutions. Should there, for example, be any educational outreach to explain to immigrants the legal rights they have? Such rights may not have obtained in the countries of origin and therefore represent something distinctive about the host environment. Assuming the host culture takes its own rights seriously, it ought to be willing to explain them. But then what about the host-country history that led to those rights? That too should be part of the cultural outreach. If immigrants do not have access to knowledge of their rights—which are surely not fully separate from cultural values and their historical evolution—then discrimination and, in response to that, an attendant radicalization can only follow. In other words, to refrain from any project of cultural integration necessarily leaves immigrants vulnerable to exploitation and practically stripped of their rights. That is the point where superficial multiculturalism, fearful of denigrating other cultures and therefore unwilling to assert the host culture’s advantages, in effect traps immigrants in marginalized ghettos.

But if one concedes that immigrants might benefit from knowing that the host society values, for example, non-discriminatory labor practices, and that therefore if they face discrimination they would have some recourse and, more importantly, understand how to obtain it, should the same immigrants also know that the host society similarly values women’s rights? What about free speech or gay marriage? But actually the real question is not immigration and what immigrants should know but rather why western societies turn out to be strangely bashful about their own value contents. All these goods—anti-discrimination, free speech, women’s rights, gay marriage—are enlightenment legacies, established through social conflict and cultural change, and embedded in histories of controversy, some distant and some—think of gay marriage—very contemporary. None of these achievements of emancipation was easily won, and, when all is said and done, none has ever been fully accepted; there has always been some repressive undertow eager to limit freedom. Gay marriage is, again, the most current example, but the backlash against feminism is hardly a secret, and antisemitism never disappeared from secular and tolerant modernity. Similarly, before we celebrate western advocacy for something as seemingly irreproachable as free speech, let us remember how quickly western institutions were prepared to cave in on the publication of The Satanic Verses. The challenge before us today is this: to what extent will western societies, with their specific enlightenment legacies, but now facing a global context that includes significantly repressive cultures and political systems, choose to adjust to it by ratcheting down their own values? Does an anti-emancipatory global context mean that western cultures should roll back their own rights?

The phrase “the Value of Values” invokes the double meaning of the single term. It implies, correctly, that humans live in cultures where values are in play. The values are of course not frozen or simplistic, nor are they however fully atomized and privatized: values operate somewhere between the extremes of absolutely singular and infinitely malleable. These cultural goods, the standing of which is at least partially subjective—hence our stereotypical anxiety about “value judgments” because of a misplaced reluctance to insist on something as allegedly subjective as values—are confronted however with a more objective, notionally quantifiable version of value understood as worth or even cost. “What is the value of values?” means “What is the cost of having a culture?” or “Are the goods, allegiances, and principles that one holds dearly—one’s values—important enough, valuable enough, to imply a willingness to defend them?” And before you respond with too much outrage at the provocative verb “defend,” I want to point out that it does not necessarily imply military defense, although at times that might be valuable as well. For now, however, let’s just consider an argumentative defense? Or a political defense? The challenge of the title “The Value of Values” is to ask whether there is any substantive content, any imaginable value, for which we ought to be willing to exert ourselves at all; or—and this is the alternative—are “values” simply not worth the effort? Not worth the effort: because we imagine that we could achieve some greater profit if we could overcome the limitations imposed by seemingly arbitrary value-allegiances. It is the simple utilitarian calculation when culture gets in the way of business, captured eloquently by the apt logic of Groucho Marx: “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . . well, I have others.”

If we were to talk about values and individuals, we could approach important topics of moral evaluation and ethical life. We may admire someone who has the character to stand on principle, or—this is the nagging worry—perhaps that hard-headed moralizer is just being stubborn. Or we may be suspicious of someone who always only seeks out strategic advantage, unless we were alternatively to admire that agility of an opportunist never constrained by commitments. In common parlance, one often appreciates knowing where someone else stands, because we value clarity, and there is a commonsensical rejection of individuals who are “two-faced”—those who hide their values or motivations. Yet a century of psychoanalysis has taught us nothing if not that there are always ulterior motives, especially desiderata or desires, unknown even to the actor, which however suggests that every principle or value is also a repression. However, not even psychoanalysis would regard that insight as an argument against values, or the value of values.

Individual ethics is one side, but there is also a geopolitical version of this problem. Western energy policy—driven by so-called post-material values—limited development of fossil fuels and significantly blocked nuclear energy. This has only enhanced western dependence on regimes in areas of the world rich in oil and gas, and poor in liberal values: the Arab world and Russia. The pressure to accommodate their illiberalism through a reduction in democratic expectations will only grow. Senator Schumer’s recent suggestion to acknowledge Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe is a taste of things to come, cut from the same cloth as Russian energy politics in what used to be the New Europe. [1]

That sharp distinction between the values of the ethical individual and social morality is tenuous at best—I will return to it. My concern now however is neither the morality of individual values nor the values side of geopolitics, but rather the standing of values in contemporary societies in light of the context of globalization. Let us consider the social dimension in between the individual and the geopolitical in terms of the public debates and institutional articulation of values. I would like to distinguish between two models, one is opportunistic and strategic, the other is mimetic and transformative. In both cases, the “society in transition” is understood as composed of multiple actors with various, even conflicting values. I will try to describe how responses to globalization can be understood in quite different ways.

In the first type, the occasion of a specifically “global,” i.e., a largely distant and typically hostile, reaction to particular events, provides an opportunity for local actors to pursue a strategic agenda. In other words, the news of a distant response is appropriated in the service of a domestic political program. The simple version of this is regularly apparent when accounts of criticism of this or that US policy, or even just foreign public opinion polls regarding attitudes to the US, are turned into vehicles for domestic political competition. To be sure, this is a particular US issue, reflecting the highly partisan domestic political environment and the near obsolescence of bipartisanship in foreign policy: the global becomes the local in the next news cycle. World affairs are spun so as to serve best as pretexts for local competition.

Of greater interest are the dynamics at work around some of the more dramatic controversies of the past decades. The tepid response in parts of the political leadership to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie gave expression to an underlying disregard, to say the least, for literature, but the religious communities saw this as an opportunity to pursue their own agenda to limit blasphemy and other public denigrations of religion. In another context, it would be worth tracing the failure of that strategy: in parts of the West (let alone elsewhere), hostile caricatures of Christianity and, to some extent, Judaism face no prohibitions, while criticisms of Islam can lead to prosecution. One is free speech, the other is hate speech. So the widespread ecclesiastical refusal to stand with Rushdie was probably self-destructive. A more recent example involves the controversy around Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address; by now it is clear that the way the speech was reported on the BBC and other radio programs in South Asia effectively obscured the difference between the Pope’s words and a quotation in his text in a way that magnified the hostile reception. This context provided opponents of the Pope and, more broadly, opponents of Catholicism a strategic political opening. It is arguable that the character of the broadcasts was intentionally designed to be provocative; in other words, an intra-western “local” values conflict—Ratzinger had enemies, as did the Church—generated the global controversy for strategic reasons. In a third case, the Danish Cartoon War, this dynamic is incontrovertible: the global controversy did not erupt until a specific lobby, a group of Muslim clerics from Denmark, drummed up hostility abroad, while embellishing the publications from Jyllands Posten with images that had nothing to do with the original event. The real casus belli had to do with the restrictive immigration policy of the Rasmussen government rather than any values conflict around the cartoons.

In all these cases, what appears to be a values conflict between the West and the World turns out to be something much less essentialistic: particular western interest groups instrumentalize distant opinion in order to pursue a specific domestic political agenda. Indeed one can surmise that in some instances, the distant opinion is manufactured by westerners intentionally for western consumption. The larger question, which I cannot pursue here but of which this problem is one variation, involves how domestic political forces may engage with actors overseas in order to influence events so as to maximize their own political opportunities at home.

The second description of the social response to the global context is mimetic and transformative in the sense that it involves significant transformations of cultural values and practices in order to imitate or at least accommodate global sensibilities, typically in the form of immigrant subcultures. So while the first model depended on the invocation of distant responses, the second concerns the local cohabitation of different population groups. What is at stake is that unlike earlier eras in which a primary expectation involved the assimilation of the immigrants to the host culture, the contemporary multicultural era has reversed this to call for an adjustment of the host culture to immigrant expectations, with significant consequences for social values.

Of course change takes place in both directions, but the erosion of established democratic values has become a matter of concern in several areas, most prominently around questions of gender. Now it is true that the so-called cultural defense in cases of honor killings has met with extensive resistance; at the same time, the plausibility of the cultural defense is symptomatic of a shift in legal thinking, an accommodation to an aspect of the global environment, that is changing the legal status of women. The recent controversy in France around the legal status of virginity in marriage is another example. The 2001 debate in Norway regarding the incidence of rape by immigrant men prompted anthropologist Unni Wikan to describe Norwegian women as “blind and naïve” toward non-western immigrants. She continued: “I will not blame the rape on Norwegian women, but Norwegian women must understand that we live in a multicultural society and adapt themselves to it.” [2] The implication is that the erstwhile Scandinavia of sexual freedom belongs to the bygone twentieth century and should make way for a new culture of modesty in order to meet immigrant expectations. Interestingly, other research in Norway by Kristin Skørten suggests that cases of honor killing involving romantic love and marital choice receive wide coverage, while the public shows less concern for honor killing involving adultery and divorce. [3] This could suggest that the rollback in attitudes toward women involves at least two dimensions: the regressive attitudes of immigrant men but also an underlying ambivalence in the host population, not as thoroughly committed to women’s rights as its most progressive representatives might wish.

Related processes are hypothetically at work in reports of heightened rates of anti-gay violence in European cities formerly known for their tolerance, and there is no doubt that post–World War II condemnation of antisemitism in Europe has effectively been revoked by the impact of Muslim immigration. The issue here is not so much how to explain antisemitic attitudes in this population—the answer is complex and has as much to do with religion as with politics—but the willingness of European cultures to accept it. As with the question of violence against women, the dynamic of the new antisemitism presumably includes a mixture of both an element of accommodation to heteronomous values (what immigrants think) and some lingering indigenous legacy (what the local population never stopped thinking).

Both models of social values, strategic and mimetic, operate in the complex rhetorical setting of globalized media. What one says in one context may appear immediately (or very soon after) somewhere else altogether. Just last week attention has been paid to the sad case of Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian Minister of Culture, who declared in the Egyptian Parliament that he’d like to burn Israeli books, standard fare there, but it was reported in Paris, where Hosni is a candidate to head UNESCO. He backtracked, faced reverse attacks, and backtracked again, and then again. [4] A new ping-pong diplomacy? The global environment evidently requires supple personalities, which brings me back to a closing comment on the topic of the ethical individual. For all the propaganda and media hype about a global community, modern life is not above all communitarian. Far from it. At times it is brilliantly dynamic, replete with new opportunities; at times it involves drastic dislocations and loneliness, and these are two sides of the same process that can be brutally isolating. Ethical life mitigates that ruthlessness through goodness. This is where values become valuable, not on the level of prescribed identity from the political or cultural institutions, which are about as far away from genuine values that one can get. Indeed a distinctive feature of globalized modernity is the enormous distance between the elite administrative management of society, where values are proclaimed abstractly, and the lived lives of humanity where values matter.

This talk was presented at a conference on “Societies in Transition: Adjusting To Changing Global Environments,” June 26–29, 2008, Stanford University.


1. Charles Schumer, “Russia Can Be Part of the Answer on Iran,” Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2008.

2. Mark S. Berger, “Mener norske jenter frister til sex,” Dagbladet, Sept. 6, 2001.

3. Beret Bråten, “Tragedy & Honour,” KILDEN, Sept. 1, 2006.

4. “Talk Like An Egyptian,” Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2008.

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