Over this last weekend one of the regular contributors to the Patch wrote a blog about cultural understanding and the role the U.S. has played in the forming of the attitudes that many others have about America and Americans. The author of that post was accused of being an apologist for the acts of violence committed against Americans, the latest being the murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya. The author appears to be a committed pacifist and he was pointing out some uncomfortable facts about us; including our long standing foreign policy and the overriding belief, which many Americans have in American Exceptionalism.
Personally, I am neither a hawk nor a pacifist, but I think we need to look at what drives societies, cultures and people to settle disagreements and differences with or without violence. To do this we need to look at our species and what most people would call human nature.
It is pretty evident that the species Homo-sapiens is consistent with our primate ancestry. We, like the other primates, are social in nature, living in various groups. Our most basic social structure is that of the extended family. This is supported by our knowledge of our earliest social structures of hunter-gatherers. An important trait of all primates, including humans; is our practice of ethnocentrism; in group verses outgroup. Our banding together into social structures of families and communities is one of our most important survival strategies.
Looking over the course of our specie’s history, our social organization has developed in response to the physical environments in which the groups of humans adapted and evolved. We live our lives in three primary environments:
- The physical environment
- The technological environment
- The social environment
All three environments are interdependent with the physical environment being the primary driving force of the other two, creating adaptive behavior within the human communities. Culture is an element of the social environment and includes: selective and group perception, religion, morality and ethics, folkways, traditions, economic activity, and approaches to education. Since culture develops uniquely in each population of humans, then it’s not surprising that when cultures come into contact there is a high probability that conflict will occur.
Most conflict doesn’t occur strictly over cultural differences, but over resources and access to those resources. Widespread warfare did not begin until human communities became sedentary agriculturalists and populations began to grow. Warfare usually occurred over agriculturally productive land and the water to support such productivity. Agriculture activity also contributed to the growth of technology in two primary ways; 1) Structural and material means to increase crop yields and food security, and 2) The development of better weapons to protect vital resources or access to such resources.
Over the course of human history, adaption and evolvement has spread through contact between groups. This includes social structures, customs, technologies, language, etc. Trade between groups and communities has always proven to be a prime facilitator of cultural and material exchanges. Those communities that have good trade relationships tend to be less hostile to other groups and are more willing to transfer cultural elements as well as material goods. Transfers of this nature take time and will result in a blending of new adaptive structures. However, what happens when foreign ideas, technology and material goods are thrust upon groups that haven't had time to adapt and assimilate such changes? It is probably best illustrated by the current situation between Western European based cultures and Islamic based cultures.
Global populations that are dominated by Islamic religion and tradition have been bombarded with an onslaught of culturally significant information, via the Information Revolution and Age; that they were not prepared to receive. Secularized social structures and societies are confronting a social and material culture that hasn’t had significant change in many centuries. The cultural differences between Islam and the West are significant and are resistant to rapid change, but that is what is being forced. Even in the Western cultures where the New Age began, the rapid change brought about by the Information Age is also proving to be overwhelming to many, resulting in a conservative backlash of sorts. In short, no one should be too surprised by the reactions by less prepared cultures, including chaotic responses.
The Internet, social media, and general use of cell phones have created the immediate information age. Something on one side of the globe can occur and almost at the speed of light is shared all over the globe. There are no limits to the type of information shared, its veracity or cultural context. Thus, a despicable video made in Southern California has international consequences with deaths and demonstrations resulting. Here we have a classic cultural conflict. In Western society, where free speech is celebrated and encouraged, comes into direct opposition to Islamic cultural prohibitions. The westerner doesn’t understand the impact and can’t see it as sufficient reasons for such violent reactions from the Islamists. The cultural misunderstanding has now taken the differences to an entirely new level. I’ve seen and read where westerners are calling the Islamists as barbarous, blood thirsty, immoral brutes. The Islamists are accusing westerners of directly attacking that which they hold sacred in an effort to humiliate their religion and traditions. The Islamists who are negatively reacting don’t fully comprehend that the cyber universe has no borders and very few limits. The westerners are equally guilty of unwittingly offending because they don’t understand the universality of the Information Age.
What meaning does this have with regards to future misunderstandings and conflicts? First, no one should be surprised by these reactions. From a western perspective, self-censorship may be the best means to avoid lighting the fuse of conflict. I am not advocating official censorship, but just like screaming fire in a crowded theatre is not protected speech; generating certain types of media will have a similar impact. It’s better to self-limit rather than create circumstances where governments exercise such limits. Second, we do not have to idly sit back and just absorb such attacks. We have every right to defend ourselves and appropriately deal with each situation as it comes up.
My answer to the problem is directly confront the cultural differences and misunderstanding through open dialog. The more we talk and engage each other, the quicker a mutual understanding will be reached. Over time all cultures adapt to the new order, things will eventually begin to return to a stable and ordered society. Just be prepared that this may take many generations. Patience is the best course to follow.