Sunday, October 24, 2021

Putin Comments on Western Values

The textbook case of cognitive dissonance is when somebody you can't stand says something you agree with. What are you supposed to do? You can dislike them less or find some reason to disagree with what they have said, or both -- it is hard for human beings to hold conflicting thoughts. You want to be on the same side in everything, or on opposite sides. It's basic psychology: we want our thoughts and feelings to be consistent.

This crossed my mind as I flipped through yesterday's Washington Post and encountered a headline:

Putin slams trans rights and other values of the West.

(Online version: "Putin slams ‘cancel culture’ and trans rights, calling teaching gender fluidity ‘crime against humanity’") This is the least surprising thing in the world, isn't it? Of course Putin opposes rights for transgender people and "other values of the West."

Putin stressed that his country should adhere to its own “spiritual values and historical traditions,” while steering clear of “sociocultural disturbances” in the West.

These statements of Putin's do not induce the slightest amount of cognitive dissonance in an American reader. I do not like Putin and his authoritarian ways, I would not want to live in Russia, and I also like Western values and think "sociocultural disturbances" tend to be healthy for a community, strengthen individuals' sense of autonomy, freedom, and strength, and they are fun. I don't like him and I disagree with him: no dissonance.

Republican readers also will feel no sense of cognitive dissonance upon reading Putin's statements, but for the opposite reason. He embodies their ideal as a strong and manly leader, and of course he opposes trans rights and other values of the West, which they also oppose. They like him and agree with him: no conflict there.

I don't know if Republican leaders get literal envelopes of cash from literal Russian oligarchs. I don't know if Putin has his people call their people every morning to tell them what to do and say. I don't know how it works, but clearly there is a well-funded and well-organized global movement to eliminate individual freedom, to assign more power to the state and to the very rich, and Putin is a leader of this movement and one of its least embarrassed spokesmen. Because the movement opposes Western values, American politicians have to veil their motives, hiding behind religious privilege and using words like "truth," "patriotism," and "freedom" in ways that are the opposite of their usual meanings.

The global authoritarian movement has infiltrated American society in a way that I would never have imagined, growing up during the Cold War and after the Allied victory against the Nazis. Putin's words here would be unusual for an American, we normally speak up in support of personal freedom, we encourage differences among people and individual uniqueness as a cultural foundation. Our country's history has been a story of the broadening of acceptance for people as they are. Where Constitutional rights were initially awarded to the small group of white male landowners, over the centuries the gift of freedom has expanded to include more people. We rejected the ownership of human beings and gave rights to the descendants of freed slaves. We eventually gave many rights to women, including the right to vote. Our country recognizes that sexual orientation and gender identity are not qualities that should affect someone's right to participate freely in our society. The goal of Western values, I think I can say, is for "we the people" to explicitly include all the people. It is not a goal we have attained yet, but our historical momentum marches incessantly in that direction, even against constant opposition from the outside by leaders like Putin, and from within by Republicans, Nazis, white nationalists, and others.

I kind of like the ring of that phrase, "sociocultural disturbances." It is almost as if the West engages in some kind of ongoing revolution, pushing back against the suppression of liberties, one sociocultural battle after the other, expanding its definition of freedom until just about everybody has it. This is disturbing to the Putin/Trump authoritarians who feel they have the right to determine the standards and values that everyone should comply with, and it is empowering for the rest of us. This empowerment of the ordinary citizen can only come under democratic rule, where voters decide how policies will be implemented.

The simpler term instead of "spiritual values and historical traditions" would have been ideology. The are many kinds of "spiritual values" in Russia, as well as in our country; in the US these are not broadcast and enforced by the government, though Americans aligned with Putin's values do endorse the merging of church and state (as long as it's their church). "Spiritual values" in this kind of context comprise not only attitudes toward deity and the afterlife, but judgment and punishment of our fellow citizens as well. There is obviously nothing in Christian, including Orthodox, scripture about transgender people. Yet Putin as well as many evangelical Americans consider it a "spiritual value" to despise certain of their fellow citizens and to make their lives as miserable as possible, to deny them rights solely because they fail to comply with a particular in-group's social gender norms.

Western values encourage the expansion of history, as well. It is generally held that "history books are written by the conquerors," but an enlightened, scientific history is one that tells the story of a society without taking the point of view of one participant or group over another. Conquerors tend to be cruel, and the history of that cruelty can be told from the perspective of the colonialists or from that of indigenous, conquered, or exploited populations. This is the conflict behind the current Republican opposition to "Critical Race Theory" or any teaching where white people might have been unkind or unfair to a minority group. Western scientific values promote a historical narrative that is objectively accurate, not one that glamorizes the victors with fictions and half-truths.

Putin's allies are working hard to undermine our Western values in the US. Supporters of his ideology are moving into official positions in the states and counties, poised for the moment when they can eliminate the troublesome habit of a democratic vote and install their leaders regardless of the will of the majority. They are disrupting and changing the norms of our federal government processes to accommodate outbursts and violence, defying norms and laws, ignoring the dignified protocols that have evolved in centuries of governing by officials who respected Constitutional law. These opponents of Western values make up a small minority of our population but they are relentless, sneaky, and dangerous.