David Cameron, after his election as British Prime Minister in 2010, argued that Britain needed a stronger sense of identity if it was to confront the menace of Islamist extremism.
Cameron argues that Western nations need to champion a “more active, more muscular liberalism”. This involves acknowledging and defending institutions and beliefs such as the Westminster democratic parliamentary system, natural law, the separation of church and state, and Christian values such as the sanctity of human life.
Western civilisation is grounded in such ideas and offers a foundation that ensures peace, prosperity and basic legal and political rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Yet many cultural relativists in the West seem unwilling to defend such values and beliefs.
During the 1970s and ’80s radical students on American campuses sang, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go!” Within Australian universities a rainbow alliance of neo-Marxist, feminist and post-colonial theorists also decried Western civilisation, arguing it was oppressive, misogynist, Eurocentric and binary.
It is still the case today that Western civilisation, especially Judeo-Christianity, is criticised by many from the cultural left. Take the example of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), which represents many academics, subjects associations and educational researchers with a special interest in the school curriculum.
In response to recommendation 15 of the review of the Australian national curriculum, which calls for a greater emphasis on Western civilisation, ACSA argues it is wrong to privilege one civilisation over another. The association justifies its response by saying: “Many Australians do not have a Western, so-termed ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’. Such a recommendation ignores the multicultural, multi-faith composition of contemporary Australia, and recommends privileging one over another, when any pluralist would recognise that one interpretation of civilisation and its heritage should stand equally and alongside any other.”
In ACSA’s journal, Curriculum Perspectives (Vol. 35, No. 1), Deborah Henderson from the school of curriculum at Queensland University of Technology criticises recommendation 15 for its “Eurocentrism” and, supposedly, for marginalising “those forms of knowledge from or about other cultural traditions”.
In the same journal, Michael Kindler, a one-time head of the ACT’s curriculum branch, argues that because Australia is a multicultural, multi-faith society, Judeo-Christianity is simply one belief system alongside “Islamic, Buddhism, agnostic and atheist beliefs”.
Ignored is the fact, based on the 2011 census, that Christianity is the leading religion in Australia, at 61 per cent, compared with Buddhism at 2.5 per cent, Islam at 2.2 per cent, Hinduism 1.3 per cent, Judaism 0.5 per cent and no religion at 22.3 per cent.
The first point to make, as noted by Pierre Ryckmans in his 1996 ABC Boyer Lectures, is that “multiculturalism is a pleonasm and a tautology”. Ryckmans argues that, with one or two exceptions, all cultures are multicultural as, to prosper and grow, they incorporate a range of external influences, beliefs, innovations and customs.
Western civilisation is a variegated culture, existing since the time of ancient Greece and Rome, which has drawn on and assimilated a host of different beliefs and ideas. In relation to the English language and literature, for example, influences include Germanic, Scandinavian, Norman French, French, Latin and Celtic.
To accept that Western cultures such as Australia’s are multicultural should not lead to cultural relativism, the belief that it is impossible to make judgements of relative worth.
The Indian caste system and practices such as suttee, child brides and infanticide are morally unacceptable and run counter to Western concepts of natural law and the sanctity of life. The more extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism such as female genital mutilation, killing unbelievers, banning homosexuality and carrying out fatwas against those who offend the Prophet Mohammed are also barbaric and have no place in Western civilisation.
As proved by events such as the European slave trade, colonial imperialism and the Holocaust, it is true that Western civilisation is far from perfect, but it is unique in that it has the ability to critique and overcome cruelty and injustice. Arthur M. Schlesinger jnr notes: “The crimes committed by the West have produced their own antidotes. They have produced great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat racism, to defend freedom of inquiry and expression, to advance personal liberty and human rights.”
The idea of the right to a fair trial illustrated by the Magna Carta, for example, can be traced back to British jurist Henry de Bracton, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, Italian priest St Thomas Aquinas and to Roman law.
Western civilisation also champions universities as centres of learning that since the medieval period have acted as sanctuaries for academic freedom, debate and research.
These are the universities in which so many academics espousing cultural relativism, like cuckoos in a nest, champion anti-Western theories.
Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and co-chaired the federal government’s review of the Australian national curriculum. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian on July 11, 2015.