Recently, addressing the United Nations, President Obama defended the importance of free speech in response to the Middle Eastern protests over the Youtube video Innocence of Muslims. “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence,” he declared. “…We believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values, or Western values, they are universal values.”
Are they? While there is certainly no justification for mindless violence, does the President of the U.S. truly have the right to declare “self-determination” as a universal value?
Western civilization – the term given for North America, the majority of Europe, as well as countries
settled by these powers such as Australia and New Zealand – indeed has a unique culture with
unique values. Unlike the majority of other civilizations, political power has not been isolated in
blood relationships and marriage over the centuries, but instead very early found its way into various
representative associations, religious and otherwise. Additionally, the West has made the concerted
effort to secularize state power from the influence of the church (with many glaring exceptions
throughout history). In contrast, Eastern countries place greater emphasis on collectivist thought, the
East Asian countries influenced by communitarian thought and Middle Eastern countries by Islamic
President Obama’s statement reflects an assumption that people of all nations are guilty of – that one
civilization’s set of values is more morally correct than others’. As the next generation of global leaders
to represent the United States, we have the power to be agents of cultural understanding. We need to
examine the cultural composition of our American identity, and consider the validity of the identities of other cultures.
Do “universal values” exist? If so, how do you determine which values are universal and which are culturally independent? Can one universal value differ in priority among nations?