What are Western values and should we defend them?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


The recent abandonment of Afghanistan by the UK and the US is widely seen as a humiliating defeat for the West. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the hurried exit and its consequences have led to a soul-searching discussion about what the West really means today. Are we prepared to fight for Western values, and do we even agree on what Western values are?

The failure in Afghanistan is not just seen as a blow to foreign policy – many describe a more profound sense of the decline, arguing that an existential crisis threatens the universal influence of Western values like freedom, democracy, civil liberties. The enemy seems less likely to be the Taliban and more a combination of internal self-doubt and domestic hostility. Any time a politician talks about the importance of citizenship classes or socialising a young generation into a particular cultural or social outlook, all hell breaks loose. For many, we seem to have lost not only the ideas about what we stand for, but the confidence to believe in them.

Indeed, within Western societies many seem increasingly uncomfortable with the traditions and ideals of Western civilisation. According to journalist and author Tim Stanley, ‘the West feels lost. Brexit, Trump, the coronavirus: we hurtle from one crisis to another, lacking definition, terrified that our best days are behind us’. Stanley argues that ‘we can only face the future with hope if we have a proper sense of tradition – political, social and religious’. But the notion of tradition itself is contested by some, as elitist, Eurocentric, and a coda for white privilege.

The norms and customs of modern democratic societies, based on the gains of the Enlightenment period, have also been called into question. Populist uprisings and controversial elections have led to a disenchantment with democracy – can voters really be trusted, or does majoritarian rule deny minority rights? Unimpeded individual liberty is castigated as leading to selfish individualism, at odds with social equality or economic fairness. Long before the pandemic, a defence of freedom gave way to concerns around safety, with a focus on the need to protect citizens from terrorism, crime or even dangerous ideas. Unlimited free speech is increasingly portrayed as a breeding ground for hate speech, portrayed as a threat to the wellbeing of minority groups and in need of limitations if deemed offensive. Even the idea of universalism is seen as a cover for power relations. Instead, relativism and identity politics exert increasing influence.

Stanley’s injunction that we ‘ignore our past at our peril’ immediately clashes with the reality of how history has become one of the major battlegrounds in the culture wars. Some have argued that we seem to be embroiled in a war on the past. But what is wrong with creating new norms based on social justice, or new values forged around ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’? After all, tradition previously dictated that marriage was confined to people from the opposite sex. This has all changed – and public sentiment more broadly has become more openly welcoming of sexual minorities. We’ve moved on to reject traditional views of women as the weaker sex, no longer confining them to the home, and we’ve also sought to come to terms with history’s dark side – from slavery or militarist colonisation to removing taboos and ‘stigmas’ about everything from mental health to our biology. Surely this is a new enlightenment?

How does all of this help us understand the demoralisation of Western values? Without historic traditions and agreed cultural values, how can individuals become part of a shared community? How can society nurture a bond between generations and a sense of common purpose and solidarity if we’re constantly calling into question our fundamental values? Can we defend crucial principles such as free speech and democracy against nihilistic destruction or well-meaning challenges? Or is it time to consign the West – and Western civilisation – to the dustbin of history, and start again?

Professor Aaqil Ahmed
director, Amplify Consulting Ltd; professor of media, University of Bolton; former head of religion, Channel 4 and BBC

Dr Stephen Blackwood
founder and president, Ralston College, Savannah; author, The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation and Democracy Under Siege: don’t let them lock it down!

Jodie Ginsberg
chief executive, Internews Europe

Tim Stanley
columnist and leader writer, Daily Telegraph; author, Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, Belonging and the Future of the West

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!