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Western values as decadence

The view of the West as quintessential!}' decadent is encapsulated in a satirical article that ran in the South Wales Echo in December 2011 with the headline, “‘Civilised’ by our Western values.” It was part of the debate in the United States and Europe on when to withdraw forces from Afghanistan following the post-9/11 invasion in September 2001. The writer, Derek Hanlin, suggested as benchmarks the following transformations of the Afghan society:

The elders are put into old people’s homes and left in urine-soaked sheets for days. Women are free to roam the streets in the early hours of the morning drunk, shouting obscenities and having sex in shop doorways. Families are broken up.... The Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Welsh Baptists all invade the country with their missionaries and the mosques are turned into bingo halls.

Hanlin was obviously being satirical in the mold of Jonathan Swift. Yet his benchmarks approximate the conception of “Western values”

All things decadent are Western 45 by its critics. It is the non-Western dimension of cultural chauvinism. Just as the West appropriates political and civic virtues to itself, non-Westerners claim social and cultural superiority.

The negative conception of Western values paradoxically co-exists with an envious and even covetous attitude toward the West. Western countries are among the most developed and industrialized countries, they have the most advanced economies and stable political systems, and they are the trailblazers in technological innovations. Accordingly, they are magnets for the youth in developing countries and people seeking safe havens from wars, civil unrest, and poverty. But to critics, what the West offers comes with the baggage of decadence and cultural decay.

Not surprisingly, the harshest critics of “Western values” in both the political and cultural dimensions are despots and clerics. But they are not alone. Civic groups, social critics, and intellectuals also routinely express their discontents. They question whether “Western values” are good values and whether they are appropriate for their respective societies. Critics are particularly concerned that the West is pressuring non-Western countries to accept social practices that the West itself only recently began to accept. And most of such practices still engender unease and opposition, sometimes by a substantial majority of the citizens of the Western countries.

Generally speaking, it is rarely a compliment in the non-Western world to be labeled Westernized. It connotes a range of uncomplimentary characteristics such as being aloof, brash, arrogant, rude, uncultured, and disrespectful of social norms. In China, people deemed Westernized are called bananas, meaning they are yellow outside and white inside. The term is derogatory in much the same way as the word “Oreo” as used by African-Americans to describe people who are “black outside but white inside.”

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