Today’s biggest debates are about justice. Terms like “social justice”, “economic justice” and “racial justice” permeate discussions on what needs to change in the world. Young people, usually the hungriest for justice, arguably have more of a voice than ever in history, thanks to social media. While it is welcome news that justice dominates debate, the narrative contains an underlying contradiction which no one is prepared to address: that we always seem to end up holding the West to higher standards of justice than others without ever quite explaining why this ought to be the case.
This is strange if we claim to care about people everywhere rather than just those in particular places, as liberals especially claim to do. It is also paradoxical to hold today’s progressive position that it is racist for Western societies to think themselves more “advanced” while simultaneously holding them to higher standards of justice than others. Such contradictions abound because in our debates over justice, we are reluctant to admit the truth: that while Western societies are not fair, they are pretty much the fairest humanity has built so far. And fairness is the best measure of justice we have.
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Societal fairness itself is difficult but not impossible to measure. When it comes to economic fairness, Europe is the most equal of all regions with the top 10% pocketing 35% of income in 2019, according to the World Inequality Database. In contrast, those figures in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa are 56%, 54% and 50% respectively; the US, at 45%, is a negative outlier in terms of income equality in the Western world.
For social mobility, OECD analysis suggest that if you’re born into a poor family in Sweden, it would take you three generations to reach the average national income; in Canada it would take four generations, in Britain five. In China, South Africa and Colombia, it would take seven, nine and 11 generations respectively. So, while you don’t want to be born poor anywhere, your chances of escaping poverty in the West are significantly higher than in most other places, bar a few notable exceptions, mostly in East Asia.
Where are you likely to be treated most fairly if you’re a woman? Sadly, you may face unfair treatment in every part of the world, but you’re least likely to experience it in the West, according to the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, which measures factors ranging from female access to political power and jobs to education levels and forced child marriages. You are also less likely to have your abilities doubted in the West, according to the latest World Values Survey. In my fatherland of Nigeria, for instance, 75% of the population believe “men make better political leaders than women”, a similar figure found in Pakistan. Over half of Russians, Turks, Indonesians and South Koreans agree. Just 8% of Germans and 12% of Australians share this bias.
There are exceptions, and countries like Rwanda vastly outperform Western nations in female political participation, women constituting 62% of Rwanda’s national legislature, compared to 34% in the UK. However, while it is not easy to be a woman anywhere, it is probably safe to say it is generally less difficult in the West.
What if you’re a sexual minority? In 2019, UCLA’s Williams Institute compiled a Global Acceptance Index, ranking countries from least to most accepting of LGBT people, and Western countries were by far the fairest. Small wonder that they dominate the list of countries deemed “safe” on the LGBTQ+ Travel Index.
Race appears to be the West’s Achilles heel when it comes to justice. While some societies like Britain are fairer than others, there’s no use dancing around the fact that there persists an informal racial hierarchy positing white people at the top, black people at the bottom and everyone else somewhere in between. While only three European nations gather data on race — Ireland, Finland and Britain — widespread discrimination against blacks and other minorities in Europe is well-documented. I think most fair-minded Brits would agree there is a significant justice gap when it comes to race in the West.
This gap, however, has increasingly less to do with personal attitudes than with the massive wealth and resultant power disparities that have emerged between racial groups over the past 500 years, including as a result of slavery and colonialism. As I’ve written before, median white British household wealth stands at £314,000, compared to £66,000 for the median British-Bangladeshi family and £34,000 for the black African family. Similarly, a typical white American family owns eight times the wealth of a typical black American family and five times that of a Hispanic family. These disparities position the average person of colour weakly in a capitalist world where money is the key to autonomy. It is also worth mentioning that there are vast wealth differences between Britain’s ethnic minority groups, with median Indian households on average being as wealthy as their white British counterparts, for instance. In both the US and Britain, those of Indian descent now have higher incomes than their white counterparts, if not overall wealth.
And while this is far from perfect, there is ethnic economic inequality outside of the West, too, arguably more so; a study by academics at Harvard, Brown University and London Business School, concluded that “Sub-Saharan Africa and East and South Asia host the most ethnically unequal countries. In contrast, Western Europe is the region with the lowest level of ethnic inequality.”
When it comes to personal attitudes towards people of other races, Westerners are often among the most open-minded. When asked in the World Values Survey who they would not like to have as neighbours, 3% of Americans and Germans, and 4% of Australians mentioned “people of a different race”. In China it’s 18%, in Pakistan 25% and Turkey 41%. Two-in-three Vietnamese said they would object.
When it comes to respecting human rights, nowhere is this taken as seriously as in the West, as we can see from the UN’s Universal Human Rights Index. Growing up in Nigeria, I was from a young age depressingly aware that “human rights” were just words on a piece of paper to those in charge – and not much has changed since then. Since current president Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015, the country’s security forces have killed hundreds of Nigerian civilians, including unarmed youths protesting police brutality last year.
Whether it is Nigeria’s government brutalising its citizens, China herding Uighur Muslims into “re-education camps” or Libyan slave markets actually auctioning black people like cattle in the 21st-century, injustices elsewhere often provoke muted responses from Western progressives — certainly, nowhere near the outrage that accompanies even much lesser injustices in the West. This from the same people who profess to care about all of humanity, not just those living within their borders.
Are there logical reasons to hold the West to higher standards of justice? Its wealth is certainly one, since it is easier to enforce the rule of law, respect human rights and create a generally more equitable society when you have the resources to do so. This year, the NHS alone has a working budget seven times the size of the entire national budget of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Even if Nigeria’s government had angel intentions, it simply lacks the resources to build an equitable society for its 200 million citizens. And there are many countries in the world much poorer than Nigeria. To expect the same standards of justice from them that we expect of the West is completely unrealistic.
However, there are quite a few very wealthy non-Western nations, among them countries like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, or the likes of Singapore, Japan or South Korea. Yet while these rich non-Western nations tend to provide high standards of living and are attractive in many ways, they rarely offer the level of individual freedom and societal tolerance often found in the West.
One justification for holding the West to higher standards that I often hear from my non-Western friends is that Westerners claim to be more just than others. They love hailing “Western values” and proclaiming their societies as fair and tolerant, and this warrants subjecting them to more critical scrutiny than others. There’s a logic here and it is difficult to reconcile, say, America’s claim to be the “shining city on a hill” with its criminal invasion of Iraq (supported by Britain) which ended up causing immeasurable suffering for millions. And yet we know those who invaded will never be held to account, for who can hold powerful countries to account?
However, while such actions understandably foster cynicism towards Western moral declarations, would we rather that Western nations declare, Trumpesquely, that from now on: “No more morals or values. We will simply use our military and economic power to ruthlessly pursue our interests. We no longer care what others think of us.” Would we then happily lower our assessment standards for the West because it is no longer hypocritical? In practice, a West that shed all moral pretence would deprive others of the ability to deploy the argument of hypocrisy against it, leaving the weakest nations pretty much helpless in the face of brute power. That would hardly make for a fairer world.
While many white progressives are ashamed of their societies for its past sins, and feel it responsible for today’s global problems, many of my non-white friends acknowledge the West’s relative fairness in private, especially those who have experience of life elsewhere. However, they believe that as people of colour, we should refrain from acknowledging this publicly, because that could only weaken our position in the quest for racial justice. Wouldn’t that encourage white whataboutism? And wouldn’t we be emboldening the white supremacists who claim that Western civilization is superior to others? How is any of this in our self-interest?
These are valid fears I share, but if we want to have an honest debate about race and the West, then it cannot be built on pretending we don’t see or know certain things. Our assessment of how fair Western societies are should itself be fair, to give credit where it is due as well as criticism. It should factor in what is going on elsewhere in human civilisation. Not because of a desire to give Westerners a pat on the back so they can feel good about themselves, but because any other type of assessment is conveniently arbitrary, and arbitrary justice is no justice at all.
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