It's a fact of life that where people perceive things to be bad in some way, they try to make them better; they work to change them. Perhaps at first they only criticize those bad things, criticism being an initial step towards effective change: if you can persuade others that the thing you think is amiss actually is amiss, this can improve the chances of getting something done about it. The thing that's wrong (or that you think is wrong) might be close to home or it might be further away, even quite remote; and you can have different kinds of reasons for thinking it should be changed. One kind of reason could be a moral principle concerning how people ought to be treated, or how certain matters should (and shouldn't) be arranged, or run, or dealt with, or responded to.
Truisms. But truisms because they are uncontroversial statements - or so they seem to me - about a human attitude to the world, an attitude for which we should be grateful. It is now the fashion in some quarters, however, to lament this attitude when, roughly speaking, Western leaders or other commentators speak critically about something they think worthy of criticism that is in some loose sense far away. Who are we, the lamentation goes, to lecture them about whatever it happens to be? Such is the column, today, of Simon Jenkins.
Two familiar variants of the 'Who are we?' objection don't withstand much scrutiny. One is the frankly relativist variant that would forbid us from applying 'our' standards - on human rights, democracy, etc - to another culture which supposedly doesn't share those standards. The relativist argument fails for the simple reason, among others, that it treats the culture in question as a monolith. In virtually every case of this kind there are people within that culture who are themselves proponents of the criticisms coming from without and of the values in light of which these are being levelled. To say of some external 'we' that it's none of our business is in effect to argue for leaving such people, local critics of dictatorship and oppression, unsupported against the upholders and beneficiaries of dictatorship and oppression.
A second variant of the argument says that our real business is to concentrate on political sins and omissions close to home - where (the implication often is) we are more capable of making a difference for the better. Apart from the fact that the one focus doesn't rule out the other since you can object to injustices in your own society while giving what support you can to movements against injustice elsewhere, this argument is usually one of mere convenience anyway. Most of its sponsors don't genuinely believe that, for example, the work of the anti-Apartheid movement internationally was misguided, or that people in Britain should ignore the appeals of Amnesty International concerning prisoners of conscience in far-off places. They're just wanting to discomfit some political interlocutor over a criticism he or she has made, the force of which they'd prefer not to have to acknowledge.
Simon Jenkins gives us a third variant of the 'Who are we?' trope. This is that, given our own faults, we have no room to speak critically about the shortcomings of others.
We are not so clean that we can lecture others on how they should govern themselves...Again:
There are too many blots on Britain's escutcheon for its leaders to go lecturing the world in terms redolent of the new interventionism. There may be beams in the eyes of other democracies and motes in ours, but their beams are not our business.Contrary to what Jenkins says, reasons why those who represent even flawed democracies - and all democracies are flawed - may continue to exercise the general right of criticism and speak to democratic deficiencies in other countries include the following. First, as a general maxim his 'We are not so clean...' would silence everyone except out-and-out saints, if there are any. Second, some countries have stronger and longer democratic traditions than others; it isn't the case that all the blemishes on the democratic record of the countries of the world are equal. Third, there are globally agreed human rights standards and these include many of the constituent norms of democratic life. It is one of the ways of encouraging the spread of, and fidelity to, these norms that actors on the international stage speak up for them.