I was participating in a seminar discussion recently on the issues that confront us today around the globe or may confront us in the near to medium future. One of the participants opened his comments on the Middle East with that now almost cliché phrase “clash of cultures.” And upon hearing the words, it struck me that this was a cop out – a sound bite that unburdened the speaker and listener alike from the risk of having to do any more thinking about the subject. There is a lot of this kind of thing going on these days – substituting a catchy sound bite for thoughtful analysis – for various reasons that possibly include our intensive use of electronic media rather than the printed page (pause here for the sound of irony).
This very idea of course was advanced first and most strongly by Samuel P. Huntington in the 1990s in a lecture and finally a book. Today it’s so clichéd that it has its own Wikipedia article and is regularly cited in jeremiads on how difficult it is for us (the superior West) to get along with these other (hidebound traditionalist) cultures and civilizations and their unacceptable demands that we change our ways (not to mention Western demands and hopes that the other “cultures” should change to suit our ways of thinking). Hearing the long arms of the windmills creaking as this breeze built up, I placed my shaving bowl firmly on my head, mounted my gallant Rocinante, and couched my lance.
My first thrust should be pretty obvious (even without the hint of my title above) – civilizations/cultures do not clash, they do not make war. People clash, people make war. Civilization/culture is an inanimate construct, an artifact of the human mind, without mind, body, or a will of its own. It consists entirely of ideas proposed and shared by the members of that civilization/culture. And being a product of the human mind it is mutable – it can be altered by the people who adopt, adapt to, and follow its mores – thus constituting a civilization. The history of any civilization will show that they change and adapt frequently over time, responding to the changing ideas of its members.
I also object to the phrase as I noted above because it eliminates thought in favor of a sound bite. In so doing, it suspends any requirement or expectation of further thought, study, or analysis. It’s too easy and too pat to be a real answer. It is a phrase that reduces an incredibly complicated subject (and in this case a whole complicated book!), i.e., the nature, means, and content of interactions and exchanges between social groups today usually called nations to a few syllables. And cynically, it does so with an added sense of inescapable inevitability to that “clash”. History, if you choose to study it, is replete with examples from the past in which the thought that a clash with another culture of civilization was inevitable after some period of time brought forth the reality of that up until then hypothetical clash. The story of the years leading up to the long anticipated and expected “inevitable” war between Germany and Britain – 1914-1918 – should provide sufficient lesson to discourage anything that smacks of repeating this error.
According to some scientists, the human mind apparently comes already hard wired to put things in categories, a reality that perhaps inspired but which is certainly reflected in the Bible’s Book of Genesis in which Adams is called upon to give names to the beasts of the world. It would appear from what we know of human history, that having cataloged the beasts of the fields and the plants mankind began sorting out, its fellow man as well. There was family, kin, lovers, friends, acquaintances, all good, but eventually there were those who were “other” than any of these and sometimes were actually enemies. Sometimes they were the “other” simply because they were new and not previously known to those doing the sorting and labeling, and sometimes because there had already been incidents of violence between “them” and “us”.
The real issue is not that such mental behaviors exist, what is critical is what people do about them. Just like civilization itself, these labels, now days often called stereotyping, are human artifacts – human creations. History shows that the making of such distinctions can lead to bloodshed but they have also been overcome more than once in human history. The United States, with its experience of the melting pot, should of all countries be able to recognize that differences can be overcome if we emphasize the things we share.
Which brings us back to the original notion – civilizations don’t clash, people clash. Civilization is just the frequently used source of the justifications people use to explain the otherwise unexplainable reasons for their clashes.