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A Humble Plea for the Appreciation of Diversity

The world remains a rich tapestry; it remains a rich topography of the spirit. These myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being you; failed attempts at being ‘modern.’ They are unique facets of the human imagination. They are unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And when asked that question, they respond with 6000 different voices, and collectively those voices become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.

– Dr. Wade Davis, anthropologist/ethnobotanist

Wade Davis with Kofán shamans in Ecuador

I remember a few years ago, vigilantly traversing down a typically frenetic sidewalk in Moscow’s Center, walking from Russian class with a couple of expat colleagues, when they started giving me this gushing clichéd spiel about how “people are the same everywhere.” Terrified that they would next subject me to their incredibly novel and profound revelation that they had at long last discovered their “true spiritual selves” from their heroic and comprehensively unique travel experiences, I proceeded to withdraw into my own musings about their theory and quickly awarded it the attributes of being both base and naïve.

Sure, nearly all humans share certain basic urges and experiences – we all laugh and cry and hunger and thirst and lust and love. But these are visceral desires, and they are universal amongst humans because they have a biological basis which is common to us all. Perhaps the extent to which some of them are felt make us unique as human beings. But it is opinions and values that make us unique as individuals, and these things can have a strong cultural basis, varying significantly between different societies. The way we relate to authority, family, religion, time, justice, the environment, work, love, and identity all contrast massively across cultures.

But doesn’t globalization mean that there is supposed to be a universal convergence of values, a ‘global culture?’ With the benevolent Western gifts of “McDonald’s in Moscow and Coke in China,” isn’t the whole world now Westernized,  McDonaldized, “flat”? Perhaps every capitalist country does have a somewhat common, and admittedly Western consumer culture (‘McWorld’) or business culture (Davos Culture), but that encompasses only one aspect of life. Simply because someone is drinking coffee at Starbucks while listening to Kanye West on their I-Pod, wearing Nike shoes, checking their Facebook account, and sending an e-mail in English to a foreign business associate, does not mean that they are ‘Westernized’ or share common values. You can’t change hundreds or thousands of years of unique history with a few consumer goods and popular culture fads. Technology undoubtedly renders the world a smaller place, but it is still unfathomably huge in its diversity.

The incredibly erudite Wade Davis comments on this:

“A number of books over recent years have paid homage to the global sweep of technology and modernity, suggesting that the world is flat, that one does not have to emigrate to innovate, that we are fusing into a single reality, dominated by a specific model of economics, that the future is to be found everywhere and all at once. When I read these books I can only think that I must have been travelling in very different circles than these writers. The world that I have been fortunate to know, as I hope these lectures will demonstrate, is most assuredly not flat. It is full of peaks and valleys, curious anomalies and divine distractions. History has not stopped, and the processes of cultural change and transformation remain as dynamic today as ever. The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.”

The World Values Survey has been conducting face to face interviews consisting of 250 questions regarding people’s fundamental values in a series of 5 waves starting in 1981, and including 97 societies representing 90 percent of the world’s population. One interesting finding of this study is that between 1981 and 2007 there is almost no evidence of an international convergence of values, which runs directly in the face of the global culture argument. In fact, many values, such as interpersonal trust and the importance of family, have actually experienced a substantial international divergence over the past 30 years. In other words, we may in fact be growing more different from each other.

But with the steady progress of economic modernization throughout the world, coupled with the increased global interconnectedness from the forces of globalization, shouldn’t we all have common Western, secular, liberal, democratic values by now? Social scientists from various fields have found that modernization does indeed lead to cultural change, but that this change occurs along a subjective path, interacting with local cultural values. Hence, instead of referring to a single modernization, some theorists, such as Charles Taylor, are now speaking of “multiple modernities.” This means that perhaps we should discard our preconceived traditional notions of what modernity, development, and progress are.

It is simplistic, patronizing, and even dangerous to talk about a global homogenization of cultural values. Simplistic, because it looks solely at superficial, surface values, such as the products that one buys or the music one listens to. Patronizing, because it assumes all cultures of the world want our help to become more Western, and because it confuses modernization and Westernization. Dangerous, because it presumes that we are all taking the same path to the same goal, and thus those who take a different path are not tolerated.

I do not intend in any way to promote the dangerous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ paradigm, namely that cultural differences will become the foremost cause of conflict in our lifetimes. Huntington’s thesis is hazardous because it mistakes political sources of conflict for cultural sources. Political actors such as Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosovic, and Osama bin Laden often invoke ancient civilizational fault lines to garner support against their political enemies. The Gulf War, the violence following the breakup of Yugoslavia, and al Qaeda’s violent actions against Western countries all had/have political or economic origins, not cultural. Having said that, perhaps Huntington’s notion that the increasing social, political, and economic interactions spurned by globalization “intensify civilization consciousness and awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations,” is true. Where I differ is by seeing this as a positive development, not a negative one.

I merely wish to contend that we are all fantastically different. And thank goodness. Receptivity to outside innovations has been shown to be a trait in highly successful societies. As Jared Diamond elegantly postulates in Guns, Germs, and Steel, it has been cross-cultural interactions that have accounted for most new innovations, and the success of Eurasian civilizations has been largely the product of a lack of geographical and ecological barriers to the transfusion of technology and ideas. Anthropologist Ralph Linton speculated that external cultural influences account for as much as 90 percent of any culture’s content.

Mass migration (and thus intercultural contact) is far from being a new phenomenon, and has in fact been a prominent feature throughout most of the history of humanity. Historian W.H. McNeill writes that the interaction of different civilizations has been the primary theme of history and that “the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.”

According to biological systems theory, the greater the variance within a population, the greater the capacity of that population to deal effectively with changing circumstances. In social systems, homogeneity also restricts the amount of ways in which a society or institution can respond to a problem. According to multicultural theorist Bhiku Parekh, diversity “fosters new sources of energy, creativity and imagination, and enables us to see the strengths and limitations of our own way of life,” as well as providing us with an alternative to our own culture, making us less dogmatic, and fostering tolerance. Even John Stuart Mill attributed the success of Europe to its “remarkable diversity of character and culture.”

The Golden Age of Hellenistic civilization is thought to have occurred as a result of the diffusion of diverse ideas from the civilizations of Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia. European societies would never have enjoyed the success they had without outside innovations such as gunpowder, paper, ship-building, and the compass. The Renaissance is historically attributed to the diffusion of scientific thought and philosophies resulting directly from cross-cultural contact between European and Islamic cultures. Protestant migrations within Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in diversified technical knowledge and improvements in textiles, glass-making, and printing industries. The presence of Jewish minorities had the same beneficial economic effects. Medieval Islam flourished because of its proximity and receptivity to technologies from India and China and previously-forgotten ideas from Ancient Greece. Buddhism travelled from China to India, and astronomy and mathematics from India to China.

And today as well, different societies and cultures have much to learn from each other. Even mighty America, which has rightfully been a beacon of hope for many, has much to learn from the rest of the world. America, a country which is ranked as the most innovative in the world, is also a place where 1100 people per day die from smoking, 32,000 women per month, the vast majority under 21, receive breast augmentations, more people die of obesity and a higher percentage of people are incarcerated than in any other country, and the current generation will be the first which does not outlive their parents.

The rest of the world has so much to offer us. Costa Rica is the happiest country in the world, while managing to use one quarter of the resources that most developed countries use, and obtaining virtually all of its energy from renewable sources. The so-called Blue Zones, those regions with the highest concentrations of centenarians, are in places as diverse as Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Icaria, Greece, and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. The Japanese are perhaps the healthiest people in the world, thanks to their unique seafood-based diet.

Even ‘underdeveloped’ societies and cultures can boast amazing feats. There are Polynesian tribes who can detect the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the horizon simply by observing the reverberation of waves across the hulls of their boats. Natives of the northwest Amazon can smell animal urine at 40 paces and distinguish which species left it.

Islamic cultures constructively challenge Western assumptions about religiosity, democracy, and liberalization. Eastern and African values of spirituality, communitarianism, and filial piety, and Western rational, objective, quantitative, individualistic values also offer a constructive contrast to each other.

This is meant to be a rebuttal to the ethnocentrists, the orientalists, the anti-immigrationists, the nationalists, the racists, the islamists, and the islamophobes. It is an appeal for tolerance and open-minded thought, for liberal immigration laws, protection of minority rights, and the preservation of cultures at risk of extinction. And for diversity. Diversity of thought, of opinion, of belief, of culture. It is meant to be a reminder that diversity has been the fountainhead of progress and innovation of humanity for millennia.

The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (as paraphrased by Wade Davis) said that her greatest fear was that “as we drifted towards a blandly amorphous generic world-view, not only would we see the entire range of the human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought, but that we would wake from a dream one day having forgotten that there even are other possibilities.” Let us not forget.

Margaret Mead in Somoa, 1926

“The World Values Surveys were designed to provide a comprehensive measurement of all major areas of human concern, from religion to politics to economic and social life and two dimensions dominate the picture: (1) Traditional/ Secular-rational and (2) Survival/Self-expression values. These two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance in a factor analysis of ten indicators-and each of these dimensions is strongly correlated with scores of other important orientations. The Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not. A wide range of other orientations are closely linked with this dimension. Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values, and reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Societies with secular-rational values have the opposite preferences on all of these topics. The second major dimension of cross-cultural variation is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies-which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. The unprecedented wealth that has accumulated in advanced societies during the past generation means that an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. Thus, priorities have shifted from an overwhelming emphasis on economic and physical security toward an increasing emphasis on subjective well-being, self-expression and quality of life. Inglehart and Baker (2000) find evidence that orientations have shifted from Traditional toward Secular-rational values, in almost all industrial societies. But modernization, is not linear-when a society has completed industrialization and starts becoming a knowledge society, it moves in a new direction, from Survival values toward increasing emphasis on Self-expression values.”


4 thoughts on “A Humble Plea for the Appreciation of Diversity

  1. Great read Nick! And nicely written. Always learn something from your posts — or at the least, a new perspective. While I agree that fundamentally, humans are same, there are critical factors such as our biology that make that so. Culture, environment, geography and language are far more important differentiating factors.

    Without the right context, I can’t be sure if that’s what your friends were referring to or if they were indeed implying that humans are the same everywhere in every sense, which would be a pretty grandiose generalization.

    • Thanks Furqan. I always find it so peculiar when people are offended when I stress how different cultures are from each other, because I always mean it as a positive thing, not negative. Yes, the Russians love their children too, but the way they take care of them and what they teach them is quite different from the way others do. Sometimes I think people have trouble distinguishing between how they want the world to be and how it actually is.

  2. Pingback: A Humble Plea for the Appreciation of Diversity | Nick Ashdown's Blog

  3. Pingback: Foreigner | Advokat Dyavola

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