There is only one man in
and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world
and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world
and the child’s name is All Children. —Carl Sandburg, from “The
Family of Man”
To suggest that the universal
civilization is in place already is to
be willfully blind to the present reality. —Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author
Local Culture, Global Change
A world without borders, a global marketplace, a global village—it all sounds quite exhilarating. That's especially true for Americans, whose language, culture, products and dollars are not just surfing the global wave, but are actively propelling it forward. Yet for members of many smaller, less commercially competitive cultures, that wave can look awfully frightening—threatening to obliterate their languages, to challenge their teachings, to alter their relationship with their land and water, to change their ways of eating, of healing, of working, of worshipping, even of thinking.
Poor, out-of-the-way peoples are not the only ones affected. In the cities and towns of the world's wealthiest countries, linguistic and religious minorities are facing the same sorts of pressures. As millions enter the global marketplace, cultural differences blur. Young people can no longer speak the languages of their parents or grandparents, let alone sing the old songs or recite the old prayers.
People often talk about these changes as if they were an inevitable consequence of modernization, the growing pains of an advancing civilization. We hear of this or that group "entering the 21st century" or "joining the modern world." The assumption is that western consumer culture is somehow universal, post-cultural. But the culture that is spreading so rapidly across the planet has its own history, its own rules and values, its own particular notions about what it means to be human.
Despite its advances, that culture has not yet succeeded in taking
over the world. Local culture can be remarkably resilient. Foreign
influences are often held at arm's length, or absorbed or altered
without destroying what came before. Indeed, for many people, contact
with other cultures deepens, rather than weakens, their appreciation
of their own cultural identity.
Scholars argue about the origins of globalization. Some trace it to the birth of agriculture 8,000 year ago. Others say it began with the rise of imperial Rome, or Europe's colonial expansion in the 16th century, or the launch of the first communications satellites. Certainly very little of what we today call globalization is entirely new. But there is no question that we are living in a time of unprecedented cultural change. Television, roads, satellites, cheap travel and liberalized trade have brought new products, new information and new ideas to what were once the most isolated of places. Pacific islanders watch Xena: Warrior Princess ; Andean herders sing "Happy Birthday" in English. African villagers hear Eminem as they walk from their homes to their mosques.
Cultural change doesn't only arrive via the marketplace or the
airwaves. Sometimes it comes in the form of seeds, or economic
theories, or foreign aid. Or it's carried by missionaries, or volunteers,
or family members returning from work overseas. Or it's imposed
by national leaders under pressure from international lenders.
Or it enters in the blood or semen of truckers or sailors, oil
workers or tourists.
Too often change is brought by violence. In some countries, governments
pursue policies of forced assimilation, ethnic cleansing, even
genocidal slaughter. Populations are displaced, leaders are imprisoned,
languages are banned, rituals are outlawed. Elsewhere, native
and minority groups see their homelands occupied, their forests
cut down, their waterways polluted, their holy sites desecrated,
their villages razed to make way for plantations or ranches, mines
or dams, subdivisions or resorts.
Even in America, local culture is under enormous pressure. As we spend more time sitting at computer screens and television sets, as we shop at chain stores and eat at chain restaurants, concepts like "community" and "connectedness" become abstractions, or selling points for products on offer by marketers or gurus.
What's at stake?
The effects of all this are profound and far-reaching. Linguists predict that half the world's 6,000 languages will die before the end of this century. Most of the rest will fall terminally ill. When languages die they don't go alone. They take with them histories, geographies, genealogies, mythologies, taxonomies—entire ways of conceiving the world.
For many, the death of a culture is more than just a local loss.
It's part of an unfolding tragedy of global proportions. For just
as biological diversity protects ecosystems from disease and invaders,
so does cultural diversity protect humanity. Homogeneity, the argument
goes, leaves us vulnerable in ways that we can only begin to imagine.
For others, though, diversity can be an impediment to progress.
Aren't most wars the result of tribalism or ethnic chauvinism?
Aren't many traditional societies abusive and unjust? Doesn't interaction
expand our horizons, broaden our choices and enrich our lives?
Even some of the staunchest critics of "cultural imperialism" are heartened by the ways in which vulnerable groups are using the tools of global power to empower themselves. The same forces that have delivered Baywatch and Burger King to the farthest corners of the earth are giving marginalized peoples access to markets and services, to political allies and financial benefactors. Global communications have made it more difficult for tyrants to steal elections or abuse their people. Imported ideas about human rights are helping women and minorities break bonds that have held them captive for centuries. Foreign music, art and movies have inspired local artists to do remarkable and important work. International languages are allowing people to connect with one another in ways that were unimaginable before.
For members of most small cultural groups, the question is not
whether these global processes are, on balance, good or bad. It
is how to cope. Strategies vary. Some groups have taken up arms
to protect their homelands, or to fight for autonomy or independence.
Others have tried to advance their fortunes by competing in the
global marketplace. Still others have focused their energies inward,
seeking to strengthen
their cultures in preparation for the challenges ahead.
A host of non-government organizations have stepped up to help
indigenous and other minority groups defend their rights and interests,
whether by mapping and titling their territories, training their
leaders, conserving their knowledge, promoting their products or
publicizing their plight. Some of these groups have joined forces
to become influential political players, in their own countries
But many more traditional societies have simply given up. Nomads
have settled in towns; hunter-gatherers have learned to farm. Rural
people everywhere have fled to cities, just as urban dwellers in
poor countries have escaped by the millions to the global north.
Even here, though, the record is mixed. From London to Los Angeles,
from Paris to Perth, immigrants have created vibrant and distinctive
hybrid cultures. Interest is growing in small-culture languages,
food and arts. Racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric has not disappeared,
and pressures for assimilation remain strong, but the trend in
many countries is unmistakably toward pluralism. In these places,
the challenge is not how to defend a way of life against an overwhelming
outside force, but how to manage diversity.
Where does humanity stand? Some scholars see the current upheaval
as part of a grand historical shift, in which traditional centers
of power are weakening and smaller groups are finally taking a
place at the global table. Others see it as part of an equally
momentous polarization between haves and have-nots, or between "McWorld" and jihad.
Still others warn of a drift toward bland uniformity, or of a splintering
into tribalism and violence.
What will the world look like a generation from now? Will it be
a giant multicultural shopping mall, predictable and sanitized
but loaded with choice? Or will it be a cultural battleground,
fight fundamentalists and globalizers fight
globalizees? Or will it be a place where differences are protected,
where diversity is seen as a source of strength? Who will decide?