Unity in Diversity and the Idea of World Culture
Michael K. Iwoleit <firstname.lastname@example.org>
with contributions by Amir Sepahran, Tom Baxter,
Tomas Juriga, Sven Kloepping, Horst Pukallus & Wikipedia
It is said that the well-known Buddha and Shiva are two different substances.
They are indeed different, yet how is it possible to recognize their difference in a glance,
since the truth of Jina (Buddha) and the truth of Shiva is one.
They are indeed different, but they are of the same kind, as there is no duality in Truth.
Mpu Tantular: Kakawin Sutasoma
A spectre is haunting the world. It’s called multiculturalism.
There has been much talk about the so-called clash of civilizations in recent years. The US American political scientist Samuel Phillips Huntington (1927-2008) gained bestseller status with his book The Clash of Civilizations (1996) and his claim that world policy in the 21st century will not be dominated by political, ideological and economic struggles but by the conflicts between different cultures. If nothing else, Huntington’s book is a striking example of how to turn reality upside-down. That a dubious figure such us Huntington, a notorious presidential adviser and supporter of dictatorships who, among others, devised the horrible urbanization strategy during the war in Vietnam – meaning to forcefully drive rural people into the cities to control them better –, strikes the beat for global political discourse in a time when inter-cultural encounter and merging increases as never before in history, is a remarkable fact in itself and could be a cause for cheap laughs if it weren’t that sad.
The claimed clash of civilizations is in fact only a pretext to distract from a much deeper and more far-reaching conflict. The only clash that really happens is the global clash of the haves and the have-nots. More than one billion of the seven billion people who inhabit the world today live in slums and squatter communities, excluded from any regular participation in global economics and prosperity. Each day the equivalent of a small town’s population dies worldwide of hunger and violence, to a large part children. Even in the world’s richest countries the number of people who cannot earn their living in their own right is increasing. The world is about to be turned into a drab streamlined consumer culture, marginalizing the weak and all what doesn’t fit in. But there’s a counter-current gaining in force and momentum that strives to conciliate cultures with each other, to facilitate dialogue and understanding, to solve conflicts. This movement is based on the concept of multiculturalism. Let’s first make clear what this is.
What multiculturalism is – and what it is not
It has been a historic achievement for modern secular societies to replace dependency on specific beliefs and social values with a general set of rules of human conduct that are binding for anyone regardless of his faith, convictions, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. It may turn out that those are right who claim that this historic achievement has to be defended anew by each new generation. We may regard the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a first yet incomplete attempt to define and enforce such a general set of rules for the whole human civilization. In order to establish a more human and tolerant world society one day, no minorities or majorities can be allowed to claim special rights for their own groups that are not as valid for any other group. As a price for the security and the freedom of religion and world view that they are entitled to expect e.g. religious communities have to endure that they will be confronted with opinions and ways of living that they may regard as offensive or godless (deliberate malicious offenses or appeals to pursuit specific groups are another matter). Who strives to restrict the rights of others for his own short-term advantage will ultimately sacrifice his own universal human rights. We may discuss in detail what these rights are and how they can be enforced – but as a basic principle of civilized conduct, we think, this should be a starting point that all people of good will can settle upon without sacrificing much (except, maybe, their feeling of superiority). That’s at least what the originators of this manifesto think and take as their basis of multicultural and inter-cultural collaboration.
The concept of multiculturalism has been attacked with similar stupid arguments as the ethics of pacifism. Pacifism doesn’t exclude the right to defend yourself. Nobody claims that the only true pacifists are those who like the Amish people not even defend themselves when under attack. It rather means that you will never attack yourself and that you will only do what is absolutely required to preserve your integrity. Multiculturalism doesn’t mean to uncritically accept everything as long as it comes from a minority or a different culture. It isn’t political correctness in disguise. As little as we may know of the others, we can be sure they have their dark sides too, just like ourselves. Multiculturalism, however, means to listen first and to judge then. It means to enter an ongoing dialogue of people of good conscience. It involves the willingness to be changed and to change others. In our densely interconnected world of increasing conflicts and cultural tensions it’s more than a pleasant daydream of some social romantics but may turn out to be a matter of pure survival. The cause of the next big war that could easily be the last one in our history will probably be water, diminishing resources in general – and the drive for cultural dominance. We need even intenser dialogue and exchange, a deeper mutual understanding of cultures and subcultures, of majorities and minorities, of regions and countries, of arts and traditions. We cannot accept the current limits of tolerance. We have to push them further in order to act as one humanity, to participate in each others achievements and to drive back fanatics and radicals that are everywhere.
World culture – the very idea
We deliberately avoid to speak of races here because this term is misleading. There are no human races but only slight variations of the same basic pattern. Modern science has discovered that all human beings living today have more in common than even our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Despite all outer differences the average genetic deviations between two arbitrarily chosen humans in the world are less than between two individuals in any chimpanzee troop in Africa. There are hints that in recent geological past, probably due to a massive supervolcano eruption with global consequences some 75.000 years ago, a human world population of several millions has been reduced to some 10.000, maybe just a few hundreds. All living humans are descendants of a small group of survivors (probably in East Africa, there may have been a second surviving group in South India). We’re all children of the same disaster that could have wiped out our whole species. Barely enough time has passed to actually split us into different races. Our differences are essentially cultural ones, based on nature’s greatest gift to our species, our almost limitless ability to create. The most rewarding way to mutual understanding is thus to experience our arts and cultural traditions.
The idea of world culture is based on the fact that out of their unity of mental and biological facilities human beings were able to create a tremendous diversity of music, literature, visual and performing arts that widens and deepens with each day. No minority or ethnic group has been too small or too marginal not to produce outstanding examples of human ingenuity. Who ever has tried to really open his eyes and see what’s there on our very planet may have found that there are not just worlds but whole universes of wonder and excitement to discover, unknown to most of us. Modern mass media, the Internet especially, have made it convenient as in no earlier time in history to experience writings, music, drama, paintings and crafts from around the world. Most of it, however, is marginalized and ignored by mainstream consumer culture with its focus on what’s hip, what’s cool and what’s new and its short memory span. Occasionally there are glimpses of what an established world culture could achieve. In the mid-eighties e.g. there was a short boom of ethnically influenced pop music and people who would never have done so under different circumstances became aware of Mory Kanté or Ofra Haza. The one-hit-wonder “Seven Seconds” may have interested many new listeners in the extraordinary African rock music of Youssou N’dour and in African music in general. Fine. But consumer culture that so much depends on sensation and newness usually turns to other things fast. World culture, however, is here to stay. But it’s a challenge. It demands personal efforts. Even in the age of Internet it requires a lot of determination and persistence to find out, say, what filmmakers in East Africa do, what great rock bands there are in India or Malaysia, what inventive electronic music was produced in South America. Most of world culture still lies idle, hardly accessible to all those who might be interested.
However, things are starting to change, mightier and faster than you may think. The world music movement that originated in Jazz contributed much to make music from other parts of the world accessible to music lovers in general. In our dear genre of science fiction – where some of this document’s originators started their careers – there’s a growing tendency off from the commercial Anglo-American mainstream toward writings from other parts of the world. What world culture needs for a breakthrough may be a focus, a central information and resource site for anybody who wants to learn more of the world than the mass media usually offer. To try and establish such a resource is the purpose of this document and this website.
There are people who would regard the idea of world culture as cultural cross-pollution. Whether explicitly or not they presume a concept of cultural and/or ethnic purity that never had any foundation in reality. Mixture and merging of peoples and cultures, mutual influences, cultural cross-breeding, splitting-up and reuniting again etc. have always been the major forces driving cultural evolution throughout history. The extraordinary stability of Chinese culture may be due to the Chinese’s ability to assimilate invaders so thoroughly that there wasn’t much distinction from the Chinese people left two generations after invasion. One of the most controversially discussed books published in Germany in recent years has been Thilo Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Gets Rid of Itself). A fellow writer made us aware of a major historical blunder of this book: Germany is not about to get rid of itself. It has already done so four hundred years ago when during the Thirty Years War up to a third of Germany’s population was wiped out and, to keep things going at all, had to be replaced with French or Slavic people. Considered ethnically the European population is a complex blend of Celtic, Germanic and Slavic tribes and when the Greeks set the foundations of Western Civilization they did so on site of an even older indigenous population. Today we see an influx of people from Northern Africa and the Middle East not only in Germany and there’s absolutely nothing special about it in itself. Only indigenous peoples in the remotest areas of the world that never had contact with outer civilization may have preserved cultural isolation for a long time (and even this could be our misconception). For the rest of us: if we have ever been “pure” at all, this state resided so far in the past that for all practical purposes it’s a delusion. Whether we like it or not, we’re a mixed breed and as long as we don’t attempt to cripple human nature we will never be anything else.
Learning from example: Web culture and the Open Source movement
It’s easy to imagine the sceptic’s objection against all what was said above: This sounds nice but isn’t it a little naive? Aren’t especially the conflicts between the Western and the Islamic world in the last two decades a proof that there’s indeed a clash of civilizations? That there are cultural values incompatible with each other that simply have to be fought out? Neglecting the true causes of conflicts for a moment (they may not be what we are told in the news), the answer is: It may seem so only if you ignore another stream of developments that took place in the last twenty to thirty years. We have entered an era of information which basics have been laid in this time. In 1983 Richard Stallman announced the GNU project, the foundation for the whole free software movement. In August 1991 Tim Barners-Lee posted his first draft for what finally became the World Wide Web. In 1991 Linus Torvalds started work at his own operation system that would soon spawn a whole new market and shake the established software industry. In 2000 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger founded the Wikipedia that has since then bloomed into the largest general information source ever created by human beings.
It’s not exaggerated to state that within a ridiculous short time span of about twenty-five years these brave and visionary people not just influenced industry and media but changed the course of history (while most of them are still young, alive and kicking only later generations may be able to judge the full scope of their achievements). An estimated third of today’s world population has access to the Internet and the number can be expected to grow. The great Internet projects that all originated with the ideas of individuals or small groups can be taken as a proof for the Internet’s tremendous potential to not just provide users with all that’s hip and new and cool but to actually change the world in ways never before possible in world history. To improve the average living conditions of all people in the world and to provide for justice and equal opportunities will probably not be possible without the aid of Internet technologies. Only time can tell if a World Culture Hub has the potential to grow into something that can hope to, say, match the Wikipedia in its scope and richness some day. But it may be worth an attempt.
And may be worth your contribution.