Time passes. Things change. Time passes. Times change. Time passes.
Science tells us time is a constant. Times, the times in which we live, however, move on at variable rates relative to human activity, proclivity and choice. Times change repeatedly and, increasingly, in rapid succession. Each newly identified era puts values in the spotlight. The temper of the times derives its character from the rearrangement, reassessment, revitalisation or renegotiation of established values. Change is a question of which values alter or adapt or how values are contested. Now times move on so swiftly their temper is known simply for coming after what went before. Times are post the past passé: we are post-industrial, postmodern, postnormal. But what is to be made of values now that dictionaries define the times as post-truth, the word of 2016, while fake news has become the word of 2017? If this is the sum of our times what earthly good can come of it?
The origin of post-truth times is not hard to find. With hardly a raised eyebrow there was consensual agreement we have entered post-truth times, ushered in and epitomised by the presidential campaign and victory of Donald J Trump. The ability of a candidate for the most powerful office in the world to lie glibly, unashamedly and repeatedly without hesitation or equivocation, sans apology despite the proffer of compelling video evidence of his inexactitudes, mesmerised media and general public alike. Yet this was not the real meaning of post-truth. The true temper of post-truth times was not the lies and hyperbolic incoherence of what Trump said but that so many of his devoted followers openly acknowledged that they did not take him literally, did not necessarily expect him to do what he promised and were unconcerned by any proffered evidence of his lies and dissembling. No matter what the truth, a sufficient constituency existed determined to vote Trump regardless, and this constituency had no difficulty in identifying itself as ‘values voters’ who cherished Trumpism for its political incorrectness.
Herein resides the chaos, complexity and incoherence of living post-truth. Even Marvel comics, upon introducing Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year old, Pakistani-American superhero, as the first female-Muslim protagonist to captivate the comic world, grappled with fractured reaction from US fans, mirroring the political maelstrom. In this issue, Esra Mirze Santesso applauds Marvel’s attempt to undo negative stereotypes, which ‘illustrates one of the basic dilemmas of the American society: it shows the prevalent push towards celebrating multiculturalism as an essential American value while exposing the Islamophobic attitudes that have been normalised as part of a broader nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.’ With post-truth so entrenched in popular discourse, fans were simply unable to distinguish between Muslims and extremism, ‘a phenomenon that haunts the Muslim American experience today.’
It is important to note that having jettisoned truth, Trump’s electioneering nevertheless clung to values. Candidate and constituency of this new era were at one with the long standing tradition that political rhetoric is always laden with the invocation of values. The general dictum being that aspiring candidates should talk in broad concepts and value statements. ‘Making America great again’ is sloganeering shorthand for an appeal to traditional values. It does not enumerate – the less defined and detailed the appeal to values the wider the appeal. Voters are free to think, believe or imagine whatever they themselves consider the appropriate ‘values’ contained in the recaptured greatness being offered. Does ‘stopping cold attacks on Judeo-Christian values’ that Trump promised mean anything more than reinstituting saying ‘Merry Christmas’? Rowan Williams’ essay exploring pluralism suggests that Trump may well have missed the point. The electorate can free-associate the language with any meaning of their choice. The temper of our times is the confusion of living in virulently partisan self-selective worlds of beliefs, meaning and ideas. The means and endless opportunities exist to hear nothing but that which confirms what we already know or choose to believe while denying, denouncing or deriding anything other than what we wish to acknowledge. Our times are awash with the rhetoric of values but how are any values meaningful when detached from common shared understandings that distinguish truth from fakery and falsity? Or put another way, values have to be the stuff of earnest debate, questioning and critical examination not the rhetorical flourish of self-evident, self-explanatory givens.
There is an easy presumption that values are a given, that like time they are a constant. Values are traditional, they are what we inherit not only from our forebears, the generations that went before, but from our foundational beliefs. Therefore the presumption leads to the firm conviction that values have to be defended as moral, cultural and social constants, restraints on the exponential change of things and new-fangled ways of doing and being. Values are thus constituted as constants because they are the bedrock of identity, the way we know ourselves as human: that is their value and purpose. C Scott Jordan’s dreams of postnormal chimera could lead one to an understanding of values that stutters inevitably to an impasse. Or more accurately multiple, insoluble and irredeemable nightmarish impasses if his sci-fi inspired vision for a future dramatically altered by artificial intelligence is to one day come to fruition.
Let us retreat from the not-so-distant future and begin the great conundrum of post-truth: how are values to be evaluated and understood beyond the entirely subjective without any notion of agreed truth? How can there be any evidentiary basis for debate on whether values are being upheld, violated or perverted when anything that deviates from personal belief is consigned to the category of fake news, the dissembling of those who would defy all we hold dear? Post-truth is a rallying cry to the barricades to stand against legions of straw men, spooks and frightening imaginings. It is a tidal wave of fear of an oncoming deluge after which there can be only catastrophe.
The recovery of the value of truth, the validity of facts is the obvious antidote, except that the enduring question seems to be whose truth, whose facts? I find it interesting that the global 24 hour news network CNN has taken to showing a station identification advert proclaiming ‘facts first’. The advert consists of an apple. In one version we are asked not to be distracted by those who try to convince us the apple is a banana, which on the face of it appears an entirely reasonable request. The nagging problem here is the symbolism of the apple itself. Surely it was eating the apple which caused humanity’s fall from grace in the first place consigning human beings to a world of toil, strife and uncertainty? And don’t people eat apples to keep doctors at bay – which might not be so bad as a way to stem an opioid epidemic caused by over-prescription but could it also signify the frailty, flaws and irrelevance of experts? And anyway isn’t CNN itself part of the problem being a remorseless portal for the endless dissemination of speculation, posturing and unresolvable oppositional diatribes while providing platforms for opinion masquerading as impartial ‘news’? To put it bluntly: isn’t CNN just anti-Fox News, a contender in the values battle, certainly my preferred contender, but a contender nevertheless not an impartial network of record.
It cannot be denied that values are tied to tradition, they are known to us as received behaviour, beliefs and ideas; they come with symbolic and semiotic baggage. An apple may not be a banana, but it is an apple and thereby hangs inordinate history and context that cannot be taken for granted. Values are not complex because they are taken as constants. The complexity of values is that they have history, deep history that has multiple influences on how they are understood and what meanings are assigned to them as well as how values are connected and interrelated to form sophisticated worlds of knowing, doing and being. It is here, with history and context that the dilemma posed by values truly resides. The trouble with history is there is so much of it and in general the public knows very little about what really happened in history. The average believing Muslim is by no means alone in the vagueness of their grasp of the history of ideas and interpretation of Islam. Islam as religion is both eternal guidance and a function of human construction in history. How many Muslims make the mistake of asserting that Sharia is ‘God’s Law’ when in fact Sharia is an entirely human construct of interpretation of text in changing historic contexts, that has been fixed and ossified only by pervasive increasing ignorance of and unwillingness to explore the intellectual pliability possible within the moral universe of Islam? Muslims are by no means alone in this modern predicament. Fundamentalism exists in all faiths and everywhere seeks to bring fixity and absolutist definition to the understanding and operation of values whatever the circumstances. On examination, traditional values in any faith turn out to be far less traditional in the sense of unchanging through history than conservatives and social and cultural preservationists are prone to believe and argue. The ways of knowing, doing and being that are claimed as fixed tradition derive from a context, a context they were adapted to serve and, when looked at carefully, in such context may have had virtue and been of service. Transported unchanged to different times and places, as Samia Rahman’s Last Word on traditional values illustrates, in the different circumstances of the times in which we live today doing what went before, living according to our understanding of the past has less and less virtue and needs to be open to increasingly critical scrutiny.
It is not only people of faith who must wrestle with the history and context of ideas. Postmodernism sought to displace all over-arching narratives to establish the cardinal value of doubt, perpetual existential doubt. It built on the secularising tradition of modernity to entirely complete the process and declare the end of history. Little wonder then that magical realism, the intermingling of fantasy with fact became its literary genre of choice to emphasise the relativity and subjectivity of thought and understanding of the lumbering isolated inchoate individuals who make up our species. Magical realism was the ability to appropriate and imagine all possible worlds, to inhabit and enjoy them simultaneously or serially at whim. There is a reason, a causal connection that explains why post-truth comes after postmodernism. The pathway to arrive at post-truth was made clear by the ethos and aesthetic of the postmodern. In which case I was somewhat surprised to hear Salman Rushdie bemoaning the era of post-truth. Indeed, Rushdie declared on the American television show Real Time with Bill Maher and on BBC TV’s Newsnight that it was time to forget magical realism. The time had come, said the man who used magical realism to cause havoc in the world in general and Muslim world in particular, for novelists to explore reality in a factual way and re-establish the idea of truth. I would prescribe a large dose of careful examination of causation, of laws of unintended as well as inevitable consequences in history, Mr Rushdie. But how postnormal have things become when one finds oneself taking common cause with Rushdie?
Post-truth times, with ignorance abounding in all systems of belief and thought, seem to demand asking the most basic questions about values. What are they, what are they for? It seems to me the significance of values, moral and ethical principles, their goals and objectives, is not their fixity but that they are active agents, the operative principles of one’s worldview. Values are the agents of discernment by which adaptation of what is enduring, perennially worthwhile is crafted to make the best of change, to effect progress as moral uplift and human betterment in the context of one’s time. Values are not for regurgitation of the thought and action of the past, they demand the contemporary exercise of the ingenuity and sophistication shown by thinkers in the past. Values as tools of discernment require recognition that the past was not perfect, that it is possible to go beyond the limitations and flaws of the past. History is cumulative, so too is the sum of human knowledge. Making sense of both, past influence and inheritance as well as translating burgeoning knowledge into understanding and wisdom, is the challenge of our times because it is the timeless challenge of human existence. Drawing on his research into the works of Shaykh Jawdat Said, a Syrian proponent of nonviolence within and across religious traditions, Mohammad Moussa examines the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to show how values travel from the margins of a tradition to the centre. He illustrates the way in which moral visions perceived to be heterodox in terms of originality and reinterpretation of their religious texts and symbols, acquired canonical status in the USA and India respectively. For values, how they are enacted and brought to bear upon the problems of our times, are instruments of judgement and critical consciousness. The task at hand is to deliberate how they can, should or ought to be employed to right the wrongs of the world and make things better for the common good. Unfortunately, the antithesis is more often the case, as demonstrated by Maha Sardar’s sobering list of ten most persecuted communities of all time.
Values, those favourite flourishes of political rhetoric have become wedge issues, the essence of difference, a source of dispute and denigration of others. This is another of the great conundrums of the post-truth era. Values divide because they have become nationalised, particularised, the definition of closed identities cherished by closed minds. Donald Trump will make America great again by putting America first and is cheered to the echo by his supporters. Building walls excluding and expelling those deemed different are the operational principles of nationalised values that have no space for mutual dialogue, mutual respect nor any conception of universalism. The nationalisation of values is by no means just an American phenomenon. British values require Brexit because it is impossible and intolerable to be British while constrained by Europeans who would not only take our jobs and overrun our public services but would undermine our very identity. On the other hand President Macron urges France, sans irony, of the need to defend the values of openness, tolerance and democracy or lose them. Macron argues that liberal values have the power to solve France’s problems. One is entitled to question how fully the France of laicité actually embraces and embodies openness and tolerance of so-called liberal values?
The retreat to nationalised values is a bulwark against fear of a globalised world and one of its most obvious features: immigration. It is the most perverse and pernicious betrayal of the meaning of values and it is becoming pervasive. What is it that makes values American or British or French? Custom and practice derived from shared history domesticate and familiarise values as the acceptable and ideal patterns of behaviour, attitudes and ideas. The grievous mistake is to suppose these familiar conventions exhaust the possible operation of values, or even more heinous that the familiar local embodiment of values is the best and highest form of their potential expression. The retreat to national values and closed identities is laden with undertones of the attitudes bred by empire and colonisation, redolent of the hierarchical hubris it inculcated. It is a fundamental category mistake founded on a profound misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of values.
The mistakes and misunderstandings come in varied forms. First, values such as justice, equity, honesty, probity, compassion, respect, tolerance, openness, the entire gamut of what is best in humanity are active agents in making, regularising, and operating relationships with fellow citizens. This is what we call society. The world has never been made up of discrete societies that are not only a law unto themselves but unconnected to societies beyond their borders. The essence of values is their universalism, their applicability to all humanity. Values condition the encounter with the Other, instruments of outreach. The post-truth world is becoming ever more churlish, unwilling to celebrate values as a distributive expression of common humanity and basic decency that is extended to everyone irrespective of their origin. In an increasingly interconnected world how can there be cut-off points, no-go areas and persons who need not apply to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated?
There we observe another aspect to the universalism of values. It is the most profound point that is denied by vaunting national values. Quite simply all people, no matter what their race, ethnicity, culture, or religion have values, codes of justice, equity, probity, compassion, respect, openness and tolerance. How they operate these values may manifest itself in unfamiliar ways, with customs and mores that appear strange. Difference most definitely does not mean an absence of cherished values. And just as with our own values they are intentionally universal, meant to be offered and operative for all. Where has there ever been a society that did not value kindness and generosity? It may require an effort to comprehend how prime values operate without shared reference points, and what is self evident to the stranger may not be so obvious to their new neighbour from a differing background or tradition. Yet, basic human values are, or should be, the meeting point where we engage in debate about how we can cooperate to achieve the best outcome for everyone. In the era of post-truth and nationalised values such urgent and necessary debate never gets started
Tradition is not all that values can be but we would be foolish to presume that tradition has nothing to offer to our times. In many parts of the world the presumption that modernity meant the necessary wholesale adoption of Western standards and procedures to deliver values as the West had established and come to understand them has proved an uncertain and flawed dispensation. The challenge of modernity has impacted societies throughout the globe, but the charge that the Muslim world is in desperate need of a Western-model Islamic Enlightenment is, to Christopher de Bellaigue’s mind, quite erroneous. In his essay he outlines the navigation of modernity by the Muslim world as taking place under its own volition and in earnest from the nineteenth century, only to be halted in its tracks by the First World War, which ‘obliterated them physically and the victorious allies tried to subjugate them politically’. Examples of similar negotiations of modernity also exist in the non-Western, non-Muslim world. Traditional custom has in many places showed its resilience and capacity to operate and deliver some of the most significant values. Think of the case of Rwanda. In the aftermath of the appalling genocide, the international community was anxious to establish a tribunal to mete out justice. Some 100,000 cases were identified and the alleged perpetrators were rounded up and languished in prisons while the system struggled to cope with the realities of handling such an immense task. Eventually it became evident that the tribunal, based in Arusha in Tanzania, could not offer effective competent justice. In 2002 the Rwandans came up with a solution that turned to the traditional system of moot courts to offer justice as a participatory undertaking capable of offering both retribution and reconciliation close at hand on the site of the offenses. It is tradition adapting to the circumstances and context of the times, being the active operative principle in the present to offer hope of a better future. Examples such as Rwanda are not instances of tradition calling people back into the past, they are evidence that the true definition of tradition is change and progress using the familiar to move with and meet the challenges of new times.
Tradition is no panacea, not in the West that considers itself developed nor in what is called the developing world. The challenge of change confronts all people everywhere. All societies have flaws, failings and foibles. Values are an essential part of deliberating how change should happen but all societies need to be able to engage in free earnest debate. Not about what values should guide the course of human progress so much as what values mean, how they can be constituted, organised and operated by what manner of means are they to be delivered and made real in the actual lives of the people. Such debate is as urgent and necessary in the West as anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately just as values are a vexed and divisive series of issues in Western society so they are between Western and non-Western societies. The move to nationalise values returns to the old dispensation of undermining any sense that there are commensurate values differently expressed and ordered. National values have become an instrument to harangue, marginalise and demonise migrants as outsiders, irredeemably Other who must change and conform to earn the right to inclusion. It is both a closing of the mind and a glaring failure of understanding and imagination.
The entire point of values is not their fixity but that they are active agents of adaptation. The values derived from faith traditions have gone on to influence philosophies and ideologies good, bad and horrendous as much in the Western nations as elsewhere. As Shaista Aziz argues, society’s values are, rightly and very belatedly, being decolonised. Nurturing, developing, adapting and expanding the meaning and understanding of values is a common human quest. It is not made easier by the growing tendency to pay lip service to the concept of values, to treat it as a rhetorical flourish rather than the most meaningful challenge we face personally, individually and collectively as societies. She charts the palpable energy among young people that is taking us to the cusp of a new dawn. Imperialist colonial values that have long demanded conformity are being cast aside to make way for alternative spaces that challenge the supremacist status quo. Values must necessarily be grounded in context and circumstance, open for debate and change as we try to ascertain if new ways of doing things are really progress, additions to human betterment, or poisoned chalices containing as yet undisclosed or vaguely perceived threats. Progress is not mere change: it is qualitative improvement. Progress is a judgement call that has to be tested against a critical understanding of what is valuable and worthwhile. Finding the conviction to set a course for human betterment has always required the humility and willingness to learn from the ideas and experience of others, to be inclusive and expansive in search for answers. There are always any number of voices proclaiming that they stand for and are armoured in value-laden righteousness and rectitude. Saying it does not make it so and before any conclusions can be drawn there is the need to recapture a clear understanding of what is true and what delusion. It is hardly a ringing testament to our times to say we are befuddled by fakery, bamboozled by claims of authenticity, and confused about the meaning and implication of contending value systems. Precisely because truth has gone missing the responsibility falls upon us all to be constructive participants in truth-telling polylogue.