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The hidden meanings behind ‘our way of life’

Defining the phrase in cultural terms can exclude disempowered groups, but an inclusive vision can welcome outsiders

November 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

Since the attacks on Paris on Nov. 13, a chorus of talking heads on both sides of the Atlantic has been reiterating the need to protect our way of life. By attacking a sport stadium, restaurants and a concert hall, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant assaulted not only innocent people but supposedly also this way of life.

But who are we, and what exactly is our way of life, beyond personal preferences and timeworn customs? Perhaps most urgent, how do ideas about our way of life change citizens’ willingness to welcome refugees and other new members of the community? To answer these questions, it’s important to understand the relationships among security, culture and politics.

When French President François Hollande calls on citizens to resume normal lives, he is referring to security. The way of life implicit here can be understood as nothing more or less than an aggregate of habits, everyday choices and commercial transactions that should not halt. In other words, citizens should have a right to go about their lives without constant fear. “Our way of life” is thus a stand-in for security.

Maintaining security almost invariably means the state will encroach on some civil liberties. In many Western democracies, security is not distributed equally; it exhibits preferences toward some members over others. Surely, there is a sense in which the state itself is an exclusionary institution. But beyond that very general critique, speaking of our way of life in terms of our security is relatively uncontroversial.

Then there’s culture. When we hear about defiant French citizens who continue to visit cafés and restaurants despite perceived threats, it’s not just any civic choice that is involved: A particular kind of leisurely consumption that constitutes our way of life is at stake. In this scenario, a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau may be the most potent of protections for our way life.

While the sentiment conveyed by these statements is understandable, it’s not entirely inclusive. Not all French people are as enthused about eating out — at least not in the same way in which all French people require and expect security.

Conceiving our way of life in cultural terms, then, can exclude disempowered groups and especially potential new members of the community. Perhaps the best examples of this are the calls of conservative politicians, both in the United States and in Europe, to accept only Christian refugees. The rhetoric is cast in terms of security, but it’s not about that. Those who aim to solidify certain (Christian) characteristics of public life at home more easily conceive of other Christians as their allies.

The Israeli legal academic Liav Orgad defends this point of view in his recently published “The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights.” In a related paper, he declares, “the influx of migrants, together with globalization forces, the expansion of minority rights and the rise of multiculturalism, has led to a reality in which the protection of the majority culture is no longer self-evident.”

‘Our way of life’ is up for an interpretative battle. It is far from predetermined that those demanding exclusion will carry the day.

Muslim immigration to Europe in particular, he contends, reflects risks to democratic culture. To illustrate his point, he marshals evidence of the supposedly misogynic and homophobic orientation of Muslim immigrants, including asylum seekers, as well as their alleged hostility to basic norms. And the information he provides goes even further. “One study has found that 32 percent of Muslim students in Britain believe that killing in the name of religion is justified, while just a slight majority (53 percent) believes that it is never justified (15 percent are ‘not sure’),” he writes.

Quoting an American judge but also echoing the more explicit alarmism best identified with French author Michel Houllebecq, Orgad warns, “In the fast-changing circumstances of our day, today’s majority may be tomorrow's minority.”

This defense of our cultural way of life that claims to defend democracy is in fact deeply undemocratic. Purportedly rooted in descriptive, social-scientific fact, it is imbued with controversial normative assumptions about the cultural superiority of particular religions. Sidestepping criminal law’s focus on legally prohibited acts, it uses culture to stigmatize entire populations on the basis socially prohibited opinions. This is in turn used as a purported prognosis of criminal behavior.

Furthermore, it clusters majority groups who may fundamentally disagree on a great many things — issues as varied as support for torture or environmentally destructive policies. Appealing to our way of life thus appears as a way of advancing a particular set of values held up by an illusory majority that defines itself in opposition to outsiders.

Once we understand the role of “our way of life” in distinct questions of security and culture, it becomes clear that to invoke our way of life is ultimately to make a political claim. This, the speaker says, is what we should stand for. Answering the question “What is our way of life?” is also answering the question “What do we want our way of life to be?”

Understood this way, “our way of life” can still surely be exclusionary, racist, misogynic or xenophobic. But it can also represent hope that Western countries will significantly increase access for refugees. “Our way of life” is up for an interpretative battle. It is far from predetermined that those demanding exclusion will carry the day.

This is not an original point. President Barack Obama employed the political rhetoric of “our way of life” in his press conference, rejecting distinctions between refugees on the basis of religion as “not American.” It remains to be seen if the United States will appropriately increase the rate of resettlement, but the words capture a progressive vision of our way of life.

The idea of a nation of immigrants or a nation of refugees has a long history that reflects a political understanding of “our way of life” in relation to foreigners. Here, “our way of life” is not merely about a commitment to not discriminate on the basis of religion. It is also conceived of as welcoming new members of the society: part and parcel of our way of life. This set of political choices has remained, to some degree, aspirational. The United States’ historically discriminatory immigration policies against Chinese and Indian immigrants reflect how this commitment has been only imperfectly met.

But talking about a nation of immigrants is just one among many options that can reflect a collective commitment to a measure of openness. One might choose to speak of our way of life as members of a formerly persecuted group (e.g., Jews), members of groups formerly interned on security-based pretexts (Japanese Americans) or citizens of formerly colonizing empires. One can invoke our way of life as Muslims living in Western countries. The relevant question will be what political alliance will ring truer to constituencies at home and mobilize more support. Questions of security and of culture will inevitably be crucial in determining this, but ultimately who we are remains an open question. 

Itamar Mann is the national security law fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. He is author of the forthcoming book “Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).    

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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