Promoting ‘British Values’ – what does this mean?

We hear a lot from our politicians about promoting ‘British Values’. We hear it with respect to initiatives in schools and colleges and also with regard to promoting integration in immigrant communities.

However whenever any of these politicians are asked what they mean by this term they seem to fumble in the worst possible way. They generally say something along the lines of: “Us British are deeply tolerant and fair-minded, we believe in equality, diversity and respect for others”. Which usually leads to a confused and muddled exchange which revolves around the paradoxical idea that if we value tolerance then how do we deal with intolerance in others. Particularly with regard to traditional religious belief systems that are often deeply intolerant to those not following the chosen theocratic doctrine. i.e: Should we tolerate intolerance?

One of the reasons for this impasse is that there is a fundamental confusion between virtue and value. Tolerance is a virtue when it is used to promote that which we value. The question begged is always: What do we want to tolerate?, and if we say we wish to tolerate diversity then the question remains: diversity of what?

To tolerate something, in practice, is largely the same as ‘to allow it to flourish’. Whenever you hear a sentence with the word tolerate in it, try replacing it with ‘allow it to flourish’. For example compare the tone of:

“We have to tolerate traditional oppressive gender roles in immigrant communities”

with:

“We have to allow traditional oppressive gender roles to flourish in immigrant communities”

While I can imagine hearing the former go unchallenged under the banner of multi-culturalism it is difficult to let the latter stand in quite the same way. It seems to jar with something deeper. I think this helps make it clearer that there are definitely beliefs, behaviours, attitudes and customs evident in our society that we ‘don’t want to flourish’.

‘Tolerance’ seems then, too flimsy a concept to build on. We can also note that tolerance always breaks down under stress. To ‘tolerate’ one another is to live separately alongside each other in a “You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone” kind of way. It does not require mutual understanding or genuine care and compassion. After all the lion ‘tolerates’ the antelope and they live alongside one another in perfect harmony until the lion is stressed by hunger! When individuals and communities are faced with economic or existential stress then the first thing that invariably happens is they turn on the ‘other’ who they have hitherto ‘tolerated’.

To build a cohesive and resilient society it is urgently required to articulate what exactly are the universal values that we want to encourage to flourish in our society.

I would like to suggest that the confusing term ‘British’ (or similarly problematic ‘Western’) Values is dropped and replaced by the concept of ‘Modern Values’. It is the promotion of the values that we associate with the best of Modernity that, at the present point in world history, we really wish to promote and encourage to develop throughout our society.

So what do I mean by the values of modernity? and how can they be framed to be truly cross-cultural, non-Eurocentric, and inclusive. We want to build a society where we can find a deeper unity in our superficial diversity and articulate a set of values that represent our best aspiration, a society that includes: modern Christians, modern Muslims, modern Buddhists, modern Asians, modern Europeans, modern Africans, modern men and modern women. A rainbow of diversity all expressing their own unique version of ‘the good life’ underpinned by a common vision.

We desperately need to articulate such a set of values  and it is in the historical project of Modernity that, stripped of its euro-centric biases, that I think we can find what we are looking for.

The next Blog will explore this idea of Modernity as fundamentally about the historical emergence of a set of values that needs to be re-articulated and re-asserted as the very foundation of the modern world.