Monday, October 19, 2015


221. A counter-narrative for Europe?

Voices are calling for a counter-narrative for Europe, to counter anti-European narratives from Putin and ISIS. That is not helpful. The good things in Europe are diminished by narratives, and what is bad cannot be repaired by narratives.

‘Narrative’ is a flattering term for bullshit. It entails a distortion of truth to hide weaknesses and to burnish an image.

A core European value, adopted and adapted from the Enlightenment, is to seek truth, not hide it, to use arguments, not narratives, and Europe should stick to that value. Leave the narratives to those who have something to hide or distort.

Elsewhere in this blog (items 20, 21, 197) I resisted ideas of the (radical) Enlightenment of a purely rational and fully autonomous individual. I adopted the view that rationality and free will are limited and that individuals are socially constituted. Truths and values should not be taken as absolute, i.e. strictly universal and eternal. They are context-dependent and historically and culturally contingent. However, I still plead for universals in a more modest form, and open to shifts, and for recognition that for all its sociality the individual is constituted as unique, with some scope for autonomy. I will return to these issues in later items in this blog.    

What Europe should retain, in the spirit if not the letter of the Enlightenment, is the dedication to being reasonable, seeking truth even if we cannot fully attain it, as warranted assertibility, seeking arguments, not lies, in support of a position.

European nations should have more self-confidence concerning their virtues of liberal democracy. The flood of refugees to Europe is evidence enough. They vote with their feet. Facts count for more than narratives.

ISIS enthrals some people by offering the lure of transcendence, with narratives to promote a missionary zeal for an absolute, uncompromising ideal, for the chosen, the true believers, to be rewarded in heaven. Europe managed to develop away from that, growing up, accepting the imperfection of humanity, modesty concerning absolutes, and appreciating diversity.

All this does not mean that all is well with Europe. First, Xenophobia is rising along with populist nationalistic sentiments. Second, there is a blatant democratic deficit in the EU, with a virtually powerless European parliament, overwhelmed by the councils of ministers of finance and government leaders from the member states. Third, there is sense in outside criticism that with its neo-liberal capitalism, consumerism and hedonism Europe has lost spiritual, non-material values. Is that what our freedom has produced?

These problems should be faced and not glossed over with narratives.

Earlier (in item 205) I ascribed xenophobia to ‘parochial altruism’: altruism within the group at the price of suspicion and discrimination regarding outsiders. Europe should attempt to widen the sense of the group to include people from other cultures. The absorption of refugees, if successful, will bolster this.  

Europe should stick to the striving to be more inclusive, extending the group, in a pluralism of values that can be mutually criticised and debated, and tolerated when remaining different, within limits, in what I called debatable ethics.

The democratic deficit in Europe also does not call for narrative but for political action. The only way forward that I can see is a further progress of political integration, with a strong parliament and leaders elected from parties at the European level. A fully federal Europe is currently not feasible politically, in view of the revival of nationalism. But if there is no progress in that direction Europe cannot maintain its claim of the moral superiority of liberal democracy.

I have no idea how to reverse the present condition, pervasive but thankfully not universal, of self-absorbed, self-indulgent, materialistic, shallow, mindless consumerism with its thirst for hype, excitement, narcissistic self-expression, and emotion as the central values. Cosmetic narratives, dishing this up as freedom, in the stupefaction of advertising, will not help.