Good values, bad values and common values

Jun 1, 2022
values laid out in colourful geometric shapes
Values such as freedom and equality are nothing more than universal values, more commonly enjoyed by wealthy countries than those struggling in poverty. Image: iStock

In the wake of Stephen Fitzgerald’s thought provoking article “Getting the Australia-China Relationship back on track” which mentioned our new Prime Minister speaking in a megaphone manner in Tokyo of Australian values, this is perhaps a good time to talk about values.

Exactly what those values are has never been clearly enunciated either by this or previous Australian governments. There are of course common democratic values like equality, freedom (speech, movement, religion etc.) or human rights. However, there are also many other important values that are lost in the ill defined use of the word in geopolitics. As Confucius said, common values are the cement which bind people into communities. The cement that binds can also be used to proscribe others who do not share the same culture or world view. 

Just to clarify matters, the Macquarie Dictionary describes social values as “… the things of social life( ideals, customs, institutions, etc.) towards which the people of the group have an affective regard. These values may be positive … or negative …”. While we share many good values with the US, we also share many negative ones. A commonly shared negative value is the propensity for political dominance and the need to wage wars, often preemptively, on those that do not share our political views. 

War was made on Iraq on the excuse that they possessed weapons of mass destruction which was subsequently found to be untrue. It was an invasion by any definition. Australia made war on a country that was far away and did nothing to harm us. Up until 2013, Iraq was buying wheat from Australia. The war cost in excess of a hundred thousand Iraqi lives (there has been no definitive figure). The most fundamental of human rights is the right to life.

For all the vaunting on common values, there are however innumerable values of a fundamental nature that differentiates Australians from Americans. The most glaring difference is reflected in the tragic, heart-rending, news that came out of the US in the last several days about another school shooting. This time in Texas where an 18 year old shot dead 19 children ( many of whom were under 10) and 2 teachers before he was brought down by the police. Yet CNN (26/05) reports that Republicans dismiss the possibility of gun reform. This is obviously a history derived area of values that we do not share with the Americans. They fought for their independence with armed militias and have ever since associated the idea of freedom with the right to possess arms, a right which they enshrined in their constitution (the 2nd Amendment). 

Another point of divergence is the value Australians put on equality in our democracy. We have always been a more egalitarian society and we are unlikely to want to see a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor as has been happening in the US. The two big pillars of liberal democracy, justice and fairness, have been compromised significantly in the US by the poorly fettered practice of neoliberalism. Wealth and power have shifted significantly to the upper end of their social strata compromising justice and fairness. 

It may upset the Sinophobes for me to say that in this respect we share some commonality with our prescribed enemy, China. How often do we hear Australian leaders, or even American ones, concede, “Yes, Xi Jinping (or China) has lifted 100 million people out of poverty but …” Why do we find poverty alleviation commendable if we do not share any common values?

The practice of good values is not a zero sum game. They are shared human constructs that are often prioritised according to specific needs. Many of the ASEAN countries call themselves democracies but the practice of the basic democratic essence of freedom, equality and justice are constrained by specific socio-cultural, religious, racial phenomena that are specific to different countries. Issues of region, race and monarchy are sacrosanct and strictly controlled to prevent the country from falling into chaos and killings. Dividing countries according to shared values, i.e. democracies and autocracies, are mere dogmatic assertions weaponised to divide the world into “friends” or “foe” for geopolitical gains.

Truth, another pillar of liberal democracy, has seen significant damage in recent years in some Western democracies. Yet if truth be told, moral values are as questionable in the Western democracies as in the “arch of dictatorships’. Since the advent of Trump style politics, truths have been confused with spins and conspiracy theories. This has been brought out in a wonderfully written book by Jon Sopel titled “If only They Don’t Speak English” (BBC Books, 2017/8). Any media reports that do not accord with Trump’s views are labeled “fake news”. Sopel calls this the post-truth world. Of even greater concern is his observation that “…it’s not the lies that get told, it is the indifference – or lack of awareness – of the people who are hearing them that is most remarkable. Or the willingness to believe anything you are told if it fits with your worldview.” (p. 296). 

The much vaunted values such as freedom and equality are nothing more than universal values, more commonly enjoyed by wealthy countries than those struggling in poverty. While it may be seen as an excuse, one is reminded that the freedom in Western democracies was fought for over a long period of time, especially since the Renaissance and Reformation going back to at least the 16th Century. It is not appropriate to expect them or force them on the developing economies that have different priorities and needs. 

A much better method of evaluating the merits of a particular system of government is to focus on the outcomes of their management of basic human needs. Another is to watch for tangible changes over a period of time. A country with improving levels of freedom and justice has greater promise than one which was rated high on the scale but on its way down. All human needs are the same and values are the motivating factors that will decide how well we meet these needs. To use them as weapons is damaging to our common humanity.

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