THE VALUES QUESTION
‘Now that you are in our country, you should adopt our values,’ seem to be the sentiment among European societies who fear that the ‘values’ of their nation would be threatened by the influx of people from other cultures.
The tension can be located in, for example, policing of the public wearing of hijabs in France, which is perceived as going against French values of gender equality. Yet another example would be a Muslim boy in Switzerland who was forced to shake hands with a female teacher, as his refusal to shake hands with a woman would go against the Swiss values of gender equality.
How do you draw the line between allowing immigrants to live and express their values and adhering to the national ones? Who decides which values are acceptable & which values are not?
What seems to create a tension between the values brought in by the new comers and the values upheld by the host society is confounding civic values from cultural values. When national values are considered as ‘cultural’ values tied to an ethnic group — French values, German values, British values, Swiss values, then inevitably it creates a tension between cultural values of the nation and the cultural values brought in by people from other cultures. But when the national values are ‘civic’ values — such as values of equality, inclusion, freedom, tolerance, rule of law, democracy, pluralism, they have the power to unite all groups under the umbrella of shared civic values.
In a civic nation, the unity of the nation, therefore, wouldn’t be threatened by the influx of other cultures, whereas in an ethnic nation — where the source of its solidarity is based on a singular ethnicity — its unity is bound to feel threatened by the influx of people from other cultures. And when a civic nation loses its strong consciousness of civic values, its unity was also bound to feel threatened.
Looking back on my journey of integration into American society, there was no tension between the ‘values’ that immigrants brought with them to America and the 'values' of that America upheld as a nation, because the values that immigrants brought with them were ‘cultural values’ — which were respected as an individual choice — allowing individuals to arrive at a combination of cultural values from one’s former culture as well as one’s new culture at their own pace. There was no group that could impose which cultural values were acceptable and which cultural values were not, nor was it necessary to try to delineate them, because it was the civic values that drew the line between what was acceptable and what was not. Civic values and cultural values in America occupied different planes and didn't interfere with each other.
What made the distinction between civic values and cultural values easier was that America was a civic nation, not an ethnic nation. The distinction was also clear for ethnic nations that adopted civic values from the West, where cultural values often jarred against civic values. What made the distinction challenging for European nations was that they were both ethnic and civic nations at the same time, and cultural values and civic values were intricately bound up and used almost synonymously.
But its ethnic identity superseded its civic identity and ‘civic values’ were being claimed as ‘cultural values’ of the nation. David Cameron's 2014 article on “British Values” captures how civic values are being claimed as cultural values of the nation: 'The values I'm talking about — a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law — are the things we should try to live by every day. To me they are as British as the Union Flat, as football, as fish and chips.' Of course, people will say these values are vital to other people in other countries. And of course, they're right. But what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop.’
The problem with claiming civic values as cultural values of the nation was that it implied the ethos of assimilation — ‘Now you’re in our country, you should adopt our values.’ It implied that civic values were to be practiced and taught to the immigrants because they were cultural values of the nation. This was different from the ethos of the society that upheld civic values because they believed in the progressive values that all societies should strive for.
So instead of imposing on immigrants ‘Now you’re in our country, you should adopt our values’ and policing behaviors that go against the ‘cultural values’ of the nation and demanding cultural allegiance from the immigrants, like ‘French First & Muslim Second,’ it would be more effective for the society to simply focus on practicing and educating ‘civic values’ to the natives as well as the new comers — not because ‘Now you’re in our country, you should adopt our values,’ but because the civic values were progressive values that all societies should strive for.
Rather than forcing the Swiss Muslim boy to shake hands with the female teacher in the name of 'cultural values' of the nation, it would have been more helpful to make him understand what implication refusing to shake hands with a woman has in terms of civic values of gender equality — whether he has ever questioned it, and letting him arrive at what he feels comfortable at his own pace, rather than punishing his behavior for not following ‘our values.' It had nothing to do with 'our values' or 'their values,' but arriving at an understanding of a civic value.
Besides, the Muslim boy's refusal to shake hands with a female may have had nothing to do with his misogynic beliefs about women, but simply from cultural conditioning. Just as it took many years upon arrival in America for me to get used to giving hugs to other people — as people don’t touch when greeting others in Asia, America let me take my own pace in arriving at a point where I did feel comfortable in hugging others. And it took many years for me to get used to wearing a bikini or a tank top in public, as I was not used to exposing too much skin or wearing something too tight through cultural conditioning in Asia, and America let me take my own pace in arriving at what I felt comfortable wearing in public.
The society didn’t need to worry about how one greeted or what one wore in public — a spectrum of cultural expressions. Rather, it simply focused on creating an environment where everyone felt included and equal, and teaching its civic values to the natives as well as the new comers, while leaving the new comers to arrive at a combination of cultural values from their former culture and their new culture at their own pace.