In the Paint
Join Date: Dec 2007
Vaclav Havel dead
Damn. Another brilliant intellect gone.
This was a speech he gave in 1994, regarding the state of the world. It seems pretty distant now, although there perhaps is some twinkling of such ideas gaining new life with all of the protests of the past year. Nobody filled me with a greater sense of hope than this guy did in the 90's.
Let me begin with a memory from long ago. In the 1960s, when I was travelling in the Central Asian republics of what was then the Soviet Union, I had the powerful feeling that I was passing through the last great colonial empire in the world. It was obvious to me that the process of liberation going on in the rest of the world must one day assert itself in this empire too. My guess then was that it would take about fifty years. It happened in twenty five. I mention this to emphasize the connection between the two most important events of the second half of the 20th century: decolonization and the fall of communism. From the world's point of view, of course, the fall of communism has many dimensions of meaning. One of them is that the fall of communism was the final stage in the process of decolonization.
This is not the only connection between those two world-shaking events. Another one follows from the first, or is related to it: Like the fall of communism, decolonization has made our world a multipolar one. If decolonization brought an end to the long European domination of the planet, then the fall of communism brought an end to the injustice into which that earlier injustice colonialism became transformed in the 20th century that is, into a bipolar division of the world. Thus both events decolonization and the fall of communism can be understood as two great, interrelated steps toward genuine cultural and political plurality in the world. And thus it can be said without much exaggeration that it is only now, at the end of the 20th century, that a genuinely new era of modern human history is beginning an era during which a single culture, or the two great powers that emerged from it, no longer dominates everyone, making room for real multiplicity. What specific shapes and forms this new epoch will assume over time and what system of world organization will gradually be created we of course do not know at this moment. Our progeny, those who will live in the next century, will know more about it.
Multiculturalism and multipolarity are nothing new in history. On the contrary, for thousands of years, different cultures and civilizations have lived parallel lives on our planet. Some of them knew almost nothing about anyone else; some simply took no notice of others; some waged war with one another; some influenced one another. But none of them could, in and of themselves, determine or influence the fate of our planet as a whole.
The multicultural era on whose threshold we find ourselves today will differ radically from all eras preceding it. It comes to life within the framework of a single global civilization. Whether the expression of it is good or bad, it can fundamentally affect the state of the world. In this lies its absolute historical originality, making it a watershed not only in modern history, but in the history of the entire human race.
This originality of the coming epoch naturally places and will continue to place entirely new and as-yet-unknown demands on humanity and on each individual. It is a historically unprecedented challenge to the human race. Faced with this challenge, we have a chance to pass our greatest test so far. I surely do not need to paint in lurid colours the apocalyptic consequences that failure to pass this test could bring.
I shall merely try to outline briefly the situation in which we find ourselves on the threshold of this new era.
Today's global civilization undoubtedly began with the European modern age, with its reliance on rational cognition, the idea of progress, and the development of science and technology. This modern European age grew rapidly to become a phenomenon that we might call Euro-American civilization. Through its influence, and its often predatory expansion (which, however, is a product of its spirit) it came to encompass the whole world. Thanks to television and other communications systems, individuals today are linked informationally better than, until recently, a small country used to be. The whole world is crisscrossed with thousands of networks of commercial and currency relationships that form the basis of a single integrated economic system. Whatever happens in an important bank or an important stock market anywhere in the world has instant repercussions everywhere. Identical or similar manufactured goods, industrial technology, means of transportation and infrastructure systems now cover practically the entire planet. Not only that, this informational and economic globalization necessarily means standardization of social behaviour, of habits and lifestyles, and of environments. In the big cities of the world, similar skyscrapers have sprung up. Advertising is similar. People from the most diverse corners of the earth long for the same standard of living.
The globalization of a rapidly evolving civilization of course also means the globalization of its other face, that is, of the great dangers this development brings with it. Precisely because of this, life on our planet is in graver danger today than ever before. Just as the benefits of civilization are global today, so are all the dangers of that civilization, be they economic, social, demographic, ecological or any other. In short, all of humanity is in the same boat, and almost everything that happens anywhere directly or indirectly touches everyone.
This completely new circumstance makes new demands on the human spirit. It requires something that has never in history been required of it with such urgency, and which, moreover, goes quite beyond the spiritual framework of the very civilization that has created these requirements. It demands a completely new type of responsibility.
It is not my intention today to explain why this demand goes beyond the standard horizon of our present rationalistic and as many would say materialistic civilization, nor to analyze this demand or speculate on ways to satisfy it. It is enough, in the context of what I want to say today, to merely state that it exists.
My concern today is with a single aspect of the present situation, one I already mentioned: the question of multipolarity and multiculturalism within the context of a single global civilization.
One of the serious threats to the world today is the increasing number of conflicts among nations, ethnic groups, cultures and religions. These conflicts are especially dangerous now because of their great potential to spread. Many quarrelsome factions would have no problem acquiring an atomic weapon, and any local conflict can, thanks to television, instantaneously mobilize a million more people who in another era would probably never have heard of the conflict. There are, of course, many different reasons, from social to historical, for these conflicts. I would like to mention two.
The first is more or less external: the order in the world created by colonialism and the hegemony of Europe. It was, of course, an unnatural order, often enforced by violence on whole continents, an order that suppressed the autonomy of many parts of the world and forced an entirely different culture on them. Still, it was an order of sorts and as such it tended to limit the possibility of conflict. The sole latent conflict that is, the conflict between the ruling power and the suppressed in fact pushed almost all other conflicts into the background.
The same thing applies to the era of the bipolar division of the world. This division, too, was a kind of order (or to put it more precisely, a pseudo-order) imposed upon the world, and it necessarily muted a variety of conflicts that were the world not divided in this bipolar way might have exploded with far more force.
Thus decolonization and the fall of communism also meant the end of an artificial world order. That order, however, has not yet been replaced by another, more natural order. It could be said that at this point the world is going through a transitional phase that allows all latent conflicts to come out in the open.
The upsurge in these conflicts, however, has in my opinion another, a far deeper cause; somewhat paradoxically, it is the circumstance that our world is now enveloped by what is essentially a single civilization. Not only does this civilization bring everyone closer together, it if I may put it this way pushes everyone almost too closely together. A logical result of this is the growth of intolerance. Compare two people in a hotel room and two people in a prison cell. In the hotel room, they would certainly not get on each other's nerves as much as they would in a cell, where they might have to spend months in close physical proximity with no chance to escape, even for a moment, into solitude. This homogenization and "enforced proximity" brought about by the integrating nature of the civilization in which we all whether we wish it or not find ourselves, and from which there is practically no escape, clearly induces a higher awareness of mutual "difference". If the autonomy and identity of various cultural spheres is smothered, if these spheres are squeezed together, as it were, by thousands of civilizational pressures and forced to behave in a more or less uniform way, then an understandable response to this pressure is an increased emphasis in these communities on what is proper to them and what makes them different from others.
As a result, their antipathy to other communities grows stronger as well. The more the diverse, autonomous cultures are drawn into the single maelstrom of contemporary civilization, the more vigorous is their need to defend their original autonomy, their otherness, their authenticity. But against whom are they to defend it? Against civilization as such? That is truly difficult to do and would scarcely make any sense. So they defend their authenticity against a substitute enemy, that is, against the authenticity of another. Again, I would compare it to conditions inside a prison. When I was there, I often observed that the prisoners took their hatred of prison or their jailers out on one another.
What is the way out of this vicious circle?
If the world today is not to become hopelessly enmeshed in increasingly horrifying conflicts, it has, I think, only one possibility. It must deliberately breathe the spirit of multicultural coexistence into the civilization that surrounds it. There is no need at all for different peoples, religions and cultures to adapt to one another. It is enough if they accept one another as legitimate and equal partners. If they respect one another and respect and honour one another's differences, they need not even understand one another. In any case, if mutual understanding is ever to come about anywhere, it can only happen on the terrain of mutual respect.
Many Europeans and Americans today are painfully aware of the fact that Euro-American civilization has undermined and destroyed the autonomy of non-European cultures. They feel it was their fault, and thus feel they have to make amends through a kind of emotional identification with others, through accommodating them, through trying to ingratiate themselves, through a longing to "help" them in one way or another. To my mind, this is a false way of going about it, which can only lead to further unhappiness. It contains albeit in a hidden and somewhat negative fashion the same familiar feeling of superiority, paternalism and fateful sense of mission to help the "rest of the world". It is, again, that feeling of being "the chosen." It is, in fact, the other side of colonialism. It is an intellectual dead end. I think we will all help one another best if we make no pretences, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honour one another, just as we are.
The salvation of the world cannot begin with the invention of mechanisms for coexistence, that is, through the technology of world order. The only way to begin is by seeking a new spirit and a new ethos of coexistence. It is only from this that the techniques and mechanisms can gradually emerge, by which I mean the appropriate international organizations and negotiating systems. Only on the basis of respect for one another can we seek what unites all of us, a kind of common, worldwide minimum whose binding nature would make it possible for mankind to coexist on a single planet. This could only work if the commitment grows out of a climate of equality and a common quest. It is no longer possible for one group to impose it upon others. The only kind of imposition that makes sense is when the reasonable and more responsible majority of humanity demands those standards from the unreasonable and less responsible minority, something that happens within every nation and in every culture.
It seems to me that we are already seeing the first signs of the multicultural climate I am talking about. I have observed more than once, in various parts of the world, that the dramatic and terrifying conflict between the original culture and the universal civilization suddenly begins to transcend itself and grow into what I would call an amalgamation of cultures. Things originally quite heterogeneous seem suddenly to be able to coexist side by side and create a new and unusual quality, a kind of post-modern culture of coexistence, as yet unremarked upon and uninterpreted. A coexistence that receives its meaning and its order precisely because no individual, no enlightened spirit, has attempted to give it a unifying meaning and order. Such indications, I feel, are the signs of a new world spirit, a spirit of peaceful coexistence of cultures in a single global civilization. The spirit of a multicultural and truly multipolar world. The spirit from which a new world order should gradually emerge, in which there will still be the large and the small, but in which no one will interfere with anyone else, let alone stifle them simply because they are different.
As I have already said, if our world is to face up to the great threat looming over it, we must find within ourselves the strength for a new type of global responsibility. The climate of multicultural coexistence, if it can be created, could be the first expression of this new responsibility, and could at the same time provide a proper environment for its development.