Do common values at all exist?

Article published on Jan. 13, 2009
community published
Article published on Jan. 13, 2009
© "Novaja Europa" journal © Minsk Café Babel Local Team During Minsk Local Team presentation occured an interesting discussion on the Belarussians' identity: can we call ourselves European? do we have legitimate grounds to do it? or may be we are not Europeans at all and our identity is unique? The question is still open, there is no final answer.
And the Minsk Team invites you to discuss this topic.

You can watch below the video from the presentation and read the Olga Shparaga's text on the common values.

Olga Shparaga, candidate of Philosophy science, philosopher, editor of "Novaja Europa" journal, prefessor at European Humanities University.

Watch the discussion


Andrej Borodin: We say we are a special country. Than we say: “we are just like the Europeans, with nil differences, we are no different than you are, we are 100% Europeans”, even though I don’t think so. We have this deep-seated layer, but it’s not European. So, what we say is: are we pure Europeans, or are we Asian or are we partly…

Olga Shparaga: I believe this is what we have to discuss, there no ready-made answers. We are concerned.

A.B.: There is some editorial concept. You say “European-themed texts, but look “ we are European as well”. We have two legs, two arms, we can wonderfully live in Germany. Later it turns out, though, our fellow compatriots don’t get settled well there for this or that reason.

Aliona Zuikova: There is a common basis, the substance is different for every one. The French and Germans are substantively already different. Those living in the bordering areas share more commonalities, but differences grow as one gets further away from the border… 

O.Sh..: The question is whether there is more difference or more commonality. This might be the most appropriate question to start the discussion with since it relates the most to the issue of national identity..; there’s been 14-15 years of discussion and concepts on the issue of national or post-national identity – this is something that can be discussed within the pan-European framework. The issue of identity always refers to the issue of others perceiving us. We draw a limited picture by confining the discussing to only national level. To be able to understand what we are, the idea could be to offer our self-perceptions and see how these will be looked at by the “Others’Eyes”. In other words, within this open project we can get together and try to articulate who we are with the help of the Europeans.

A.Z.: In this case, it is important to add to our goals the goal of “ search for self-identification” the search for the answer. We can make a certain post on the topic, to continue the discussion in the blog.

Andrej, the painter:I promise to visit your blog.

shparagaOlga Shparaga's opinion

The question on the values is especially acute when we encounter new circumstances or when others start evaluating our behavior and thinking. Belarusians are mainly familiar with the following situations that occur whenever they are abroad.

A conversation with a foreigner starts with a staunch critique of the political situation in Belarus and ends with confirmatory attempts to prove it’s not all that is bad in Belarus as it is illustrated or that the situation in Belarus is not much different from that of in other European countries or the US. For instance, there they equally have corruption, lack of freedom for mass media and civil society in its majority is passive.

Is it possible to be self-critical yet maintain the own identity? Are there at all any common or universal values, which civil society representatives may agree on with regard to the most salient issues? And if these do exist, how do they relate to the values, which are difficult to share with others?

Political and Cultural values

We shall start with the fact that the critical evaluation of Belarus with regard to the existing political system should not necessarily ruin the constructions of the Belarusian household concept. So, first and foremost, the Belarusian political system distinguishes us from our Western neighbours. Belarus doesn’t possess market system, the system of checks and balances and accountability, including the accountability of all the civil society subjects and the government to the law, civil community, which has kept a keen eye on the market and government activity. Yet the pronouncement of all of this does not rid us of being Belarusians; because the identity is not based on the political values, like human rights, but on cultural.

Social theorist Seile Benkhabib states that the construction of culture-based identity envisions narration about the belonging to one or the other community, which is distinct from other communities. Citing the 20th century political scientist Isaya Berlin, “our community drinks coffee, while yours- tea, and let us not quarrel over whether coffee is better than tea. This being said, let’s not pretend we don’t accept those who drink tea”.

The fact that the representatives of the other community are those drinking tea allows us to conclude that their community has its intrinsic and distinct values. Berlin claims acknowledging other values is characteristic of pluralism and warns us against mixing pluralism and relativism. Relativism is when one thinks there is no difference between coffee and tea. With relativism, the coexistence of different individuals and communities is a more complicated matter as each of these communities is sure to have identical values, which means the community is neither keen on being distinct nor acknowledge the distinctiveness of other values.

Monopoly up, relativism down

How does the situation with pluralism and relativism look in the contemporary Belarus? The authorities monopolise the interpretation of identity. Thus, according to this interpretation, the Belarusian state derives its statehood from the Soviet times, possesses a no worse democracy than the rest of the European nations and is a rather homogenous entity in the social and cultural sense. Those who share a different vision of the Belarusian identity don’t have any means to articulate it publicly. As such, the Belarusian authorities impinge on our rights for diversity.

Indistinctiveness of our identity leads to the lack of understanding of our difference from the other and the association with the Belarusian political system.  

Pluralism, in its turn, envisions understanding of and struggle for diversity (pluralism) of our household vision. Despite the commonalities that we share with other people – such as the fact that we walk on our feet and not heads – we, nevertheless, will never be similar in perceiving ourselves and the world around us. This means among different people conflicts may arise on a constant basis to be resolved. 

Acceptance of political values refers mainly to regulating the difference in the values of our household vision, both individual and communal (cultural). This, quoting Behkhabib, allows us to understand why, among the values of the Western states, the main are the values of respect, tolerance and solidarity among the participants of civil society in defending their rights in the public sphere, which is another principal political value.

These very values allow, on the one hand, to keep and defend the difference of each individual and local community, yet, on the other hand – to coexist with other communities, avoiding conflicts. This makes the values common, while the process of their settlement allows at the same time to be different from and similar to the Europeans.