By , 12 February 2010 6:30 pm

I have referred quite frequently to the issue of cultural values in various blogs but I want to return to it today. Two things have prompted it: first, the successful trial and prosecution of Police Commander Ali Dezai for ‘misconduct in a public office’ and ‘perverting the course of justice’. The second was an interesting article entitled No tax please, we are Greek on the BBC website, detailing the appalling levels of chronic fraud within the Greek political and cultural system.

Reading the post-trial coverage of the Iranian-born Dezai and how he rose to power I was struck by how he seemed to exemplify the very worst of Middle Eastern culture; those things I came to know and detest. There was a habitual and flagrant flaunting of the law, an overriding preoccupation with personal honour, and obsession with getting your own way to the point that bullying became a normal mode of operation. The article on the Greeks pointed out how endemic corruption was and how almost nobody paid tax.

Both cases point out the existence of very different cultural values. We don’t talk much about cultural values in the UK, partly because it leads into discussions that can become racist (but race and culture are very different things) and partly, I think, because it leads to that uncomfortable awareness that cultures are not mysterious belief sets that suddenly appear from nowhere but that they derive their values from the prevailing religion. For a nation that aspires to have no religion this is somewhat worrying.

British culture is, of course, shaped by the fact that for nigh on 500 years we have been a society whose ultimate source of authority has been the Bible. Oh you may have loathed the Church of England, you may even have been a practising atheist, but when it came to culture we were, in truth, all singing from more or less the same hymn sheet. The result was a number of distinctive values and I want to list some of them here because I fear in British post-Christian society they are quietly slipping away.

  1. Truth comes before personal honour. In many parts of the world the most important thing you can do is make sure that you do not lose face. Honour trumps telling the truth every day; rather than admit to a mistake or a failure, lie. It was not previously thus.
  2. Humility is good, pride is bad. It used to be held that the ultimate achievement in life was to do something wonderful but still be mistaken for a nobody. This has now been inverted so that if you are a nobody you should proclaim yourself to be someone wonderful.
  3. Serving others is good. In the Middle East you will almost never find anybody who wants to be a nurse. Bedpans? Mopping up vomit? Slaving over the sick? Leave that for the immigrant labour. Now, here we find that the service ethos is being eroded. Even in teaching, it now seems to be held that we should be over our students rather than serve them.
  4. Life is about duty and doing good rather than personal fulfilment. This is another enormous one. My understanding is that in the past you were supposed to aspire to do what was right and, God willing, you might find you actually enjoyed it. Now the rule is seek your own personal fulfilment and do what you want to do. This of course totally undermines the concept of being in the Armed Forces where dying for others is sadly not an improbable fantasy.
  5. Wealth is not to be flaunted. In the old days if you did have something like a Mercedes you were vaguely embarrassed if it was a new car. Now you are embarrassed if it does not proclaim from 300 yards that is the very latest, top-of-the-range model.
  6. All human beings have value. There are no second-class human beings. The poor the weak, the foreigner; all have ultimate significance. Increasingly I sense an us-and-them type attitude; we are something, they (said in a suitably contemptuous voice) are nothing.

I could go on and I’m sure each one of these could be expanded and developed. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not engaged in the sort of ‘Merrie England’ fantasy that some of our right-wing papers love to engage in; the idea that all was once sweetness and light in these isles. No, there were crooks, there were frauds, and there was a dreadful class consciousness. Nevertheless there were ideals that people were supposed to hold to which shaped the cultural values. And of course these values were not due to the surpassing excellency of British genes, climate or public school. They came from Scripture and it would be a fascinating exercise to try and put texts to each one of the six.

There are lots of questions that this raises and it would take a book to even try to answer them. But our culture derives from what we worship. We now have become hedonist consumers; is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

2 Responses to “”

  1. Terry says:

    “…it would take a book to even try to answer them.”

    There you are, Chris – could it be that you’ve dropped the gauntlet on yourself? I can think of several groups in society that might embrace such a study, and I can imagine such a book under the “required reading” section in college syllabuses everywhere.

    But you would know better than I if that’s realistic.

    Take care,


  2. A student says:

    Hi Chris,
    There certainly is a parallel between Ali Dezai and the worse imitation of Middle Eastern culture. But I think you can come across such people in anywhere if they can get away with it e.g. Eastern Europe, South America, South Asia… I think it is more to do with the culture of “if you like it and can get away with it then do it” which is imprinted in some people’s head.

    Although I am absolutely not qualified to comment on British culture in the past 400 years in the British Isles (I could comment on British culture outside the Isles), but I assume social immobility and exploitation for personal benefits was rife. If I lived in that Britain I wouldn’t have reached where I am now.
    In my opinion most people try to fit their religion and culture with almost equal influence from both and different Churches around the world is an evidence. I have seen it being done in a religion like Islam and I am sure you have seen Middle Eastern Christians who behave similar to their Muslim neighbours.
    I don’t know were a particular culture comes from. Possibly it is a mixture of past and present religions, history, rituals, legends, hearsays etc. all amalgamated.

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