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5 June 2007

Do you really consider yourself human?

Tim Collins dips into Huntington's Clash of Civilisation

By Tim Collins

I want to draw the reader’s attention to a worrying and, I do concede, age-old trend that I see not only in global society in general, but more depressingly perhaps, among a certain ‘educated elite’ with whom I study, associate and work. The trend I refer to is people’s inclination to see and encourage difference between ourselves, rather than see the things we have in common. This occurs, often unconsciously, at all levels of human interaction.

Take how fans of rival football teams sometimes identify themselves. I’m sure that statements like – oh, I don’t know – ‘I’m a Rangers Man’ are familiar to many of us. Now, supporting a football team and going so far as to identify oneself as a Rangers Man [or Woman] is probably a fairly innocuous pastime. More alarming for me are the contemptuous, if not outright hostile utterances about say, the ‘Celtic Man’, that all too often accompany the Rangers Man’s pledge of allegiance. As trite as the Glaswegian football example may be, it accurately describes a trend one may observe in the way the people of the world consistently [mis]treat others who are in any way, shape or form different from themselves.

I was both surprised and depressed to witness the broad currency and persistence of this trend in a recent discussion at St Andrews.

“Do you really consider yourself human?”

The question came from a stunned classmate of mine in response to my apparently nonsensical claim that my highest level of affiliation was to the human race. Firstly, a point on context is in order.

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We were discussing Samuel Huntington’s much-critiqued Clash of Civilizations thesis and the concept of identity. My inquisitor identified himself as ‘British’ and another classmate – an Englishman – indicated a preference for a ‘European’ identity. I said that if we were talking about our highest level of affiliation, then yes, I would have to say ‘human’. I could not in all honesty say anything else.

Of course, as my British classmate himself conceded when he said that travelling in Asia makes him feel ‘Western’, one’s identity is determined partly by context. I will happily admit that I can foresee few circumstances where it would be appropriate to identify myself as ‘human’. Indeed, in recent times I have described myself as a student to someone asking what it was that I did; a Sydneysider to a fellow Australian I met in the UK recently; a former bike rider to a current bike rider; and, for the purposes of this blog, a Campus Radical. Much to the offence of my cosmopolitan sensibilities, I have even classified myself as ‘other white’ on sundry pieces of paperwork since relocating to the UK.

Anyway, back to my classmate’s question. Judging by the laughter it generated, I had apparently introduced a concept – that is, cosmopolitanism – that was totally unfamiliar in both name and meaning for many in the class. Understood here not only in terms of a broad political community, cosmopolitanism refers to a community where subjective racial identifications are not abandoned, but rather are accommodated in a broader conception of identity.

Did my comrades not recall Kennedy’s “we all inhabit this same earth” speech, I wondered? Owing to the complete absence of understanding of cosmopolitanism, many of those with whom I was talking suggested that any intellectual or political effort that strove for a broader political community, or wider fields of affiliation and identity was, by definition, assimilationist and homogenising to the point of eliminating all difference. Clearly, such an outcome is not desirable, and unsurprisingly, such reductionist thinking misses the point. Neither I, nor the great cosmopolitan thinkers of the past nor present advocate a disavowal of difference. The point for me – or, at least one of them – is the emphasis one chooses to place on the undeniable differences that exist between the peoples of this world. In short, whether one chooses to focus on difference or likeness.

In a 1998 lecture at the University of Massachusetts entitled ‘The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations’, the late Edward Said argued the point that I recently attempted to make.

During the question and answer session following the lecture, Said illuminated what for me has always been a fairly obvious point. There is, he said, a great deal of difference between homogeneity and a situation – as described and forecast in The Clash of Civilizations – where everything and everyone is in conflict. Culturalists, Orientalists, nationalists, and bigots everywhere seem to be either thoroughly ignorant about, or at least in denial of, the existence of the alternative. To be fair, so too are the integrationists and assimilationists who occupy the opposite end of the spectrum. Quite simply, the alternative envisages the coexistence of different peoples, with a concurrent preservation of those differences.

For many of my St Andrews comrades, the third option argued by Edward Said, and one that I wholeheartedly endorse, simply did not exist. There was the assumption that the peoples of the world are fundamentally and irreconcilably different, and in many cases, incapable of coexistence. Anything that deviated from this path was said to entail a process of mass assimilation or homogenisation, where all difference was subsumed by a new, collective, and assimilated identity.

That this binary and simplistic thinking predominates in the world is unsurprising if we consider that education is very often deeply nationalistic in ‘our’ society and ‘other’s’. I use the term education in the broadest possible sense, because it is not just state-driven education that conditions our nationalistic conceptions of identity, but the concurrent processes of conditioning that may be witnessed in the perpetuation of national, racial or group traditions and lore.

An awareness of these traditions, and even a subjective preference for one’s ‘own’ traditions and heritage over another’s traditions and history, is not in itself problematic. The world would be a pretty boring place if there existed no perceptible difference between an American and a Briton, or an Arab and a Persian, and so on. However, their needs to be an acknowledgement by the peoples of the world that their identities need not sit in opposition to another’s identity.

While I do not think that Samuel Huntington’s thesis will necessarily ever drive ‘rational’ policy choices, it would be foolish and erroneous not to acknowledge the Clash of Identities that has marked the history of the Western experience with its various ‘others’. Sadly, this clash is still continuing and it is being given tremendous impetus both by those who continually prioritise and emphasise their own identity and difference, and by their opponents who seek a homogenised society as a way of eliminating difference, and thus the roots of any future clash or conflict.

The only way out of this pattern is to embrace the alternative I have discussed. As my recent discussion confirmed for me, the realisation of a world based on coexistence with the preservation of difference will involve a great deal of effort. Edward Said claimed in his lecture that it requires the reversal of a deeply entrenched position – observable on whichever side of the identity divide one chooses to look – which says that ‘we’ are the centre of the world. As long as this thinking predominates, coexistence between the Rangers Man and the Celtic Man, the Briton and the Asian, the Sunni and the Shi’a, The Palestinian and the Israeli, the Catholic and the Protestant, or the Australian and the indigenous Australian, to cite but a few examples, will remain superficial in nature – if not unrealised – and the often times uneasy relations between the aforementioned peoples will persist.

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