Laura E. Adkins

The symphony of civilizations

The article that follows arose out of my deep discomfort and eventual agitation with the classic article by Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations?, originally published in Foreign Affairs in 1993. I do not attempt to refute Huntington’s claims one-by-one (although I will address some of the more erroneous ones), but rather seek to counter some of his more troubling assumptions and implications throughout the piece.

I must admit that I did not stumble upon Huntington’s article out of my own volition. The “short” piece on the future of conflict was assigned for a class, and I begrudgingly carved a generous portion out of my Sunday afternoon to nestle down with my laptop and a cup of strong coffee.

Huntington’s piece is first and foremost an attempt to address an all too common theme of history: the clash of those in power. In Huntington’s own words, the underlying premise of the article is “that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic… [but] will be cultural.” This bold assertion at once requires the acceptance of two important things. 1) difference leads to conflict. 2)the most potent conflict arises from cultural differences.

Even if one forgives Huntington for glossing over the troublesome nature of prediction, from the outset his arguments are rife with forced paradigms and historical inaccuracy. Let us assume for a moment that Huntington’s first assertion is correct. From the outset of Huntington’s piece, he seems to ignore (or be blind to) the difficulty of the ever-illusive nature of “culture.” As even the most casual student of Anthropology knows, an attempt to predict the future on the basis of cultures we don’t fully understand is a slippery slope at best and an absolute distortion of reality at worst.  As my professor Mark Smith, Chair of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University once quipped, no one in Japan speaks of “the Japanese culture.” The idea of a culture that can be readily defined and which permeates all aspects of society requires liberal use of assumptions and stereotyping, and is more often than not applied by those with only a fleeting view of the civilization[s] which they are attempting to define.

Not only is it difficult to define a specific culture, but even defining a civilization is not as simple as Huntington makes it seem. Huntington defines a civilization as “the broadest level of identification with which he intensely identifies.” The example he uses is an Italian living in Rome who identifies “with varying degrees” as “a Roman, an Italian, a Catholic, a Christian, a European, a Westerner.” The implicit assumption is that this figure will first and foremost identify as a Westerner, because this is the one identifying category not part of any broader cultural entity. This ignores the reality that we are complex and multifaceted individuals, who feel most strongly different things at different times; I am a Sicilian, a sister, a runner, a Jew. When I’m in the middle of the deeply moving Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur, I am first and foremost a Jew. I feel the deep history of the Jewish people at a visceral level; I do what I am doing because I am a Jew. But a few weeks ago when I was in the 24th mile of the Miami Marathon, where the temperature and humidity were both in the high 80s, I was not thinking as a Jew. I did not complete those final miles, on a conscious or unconscious level, as a Westerner, as an American, as the grandchild of immigrants. I completed those final miles because I am a runner and runners finish their runs.

Let us now address Huntington’s first assumption: difference leads to conflict. Huntington argues that “the interactions among peoples of different civilizations enhance the civilization-consciousness of people that, in turn, invigorates differences and animosities stretching or thought to stretch back deep into history.” First and foremost, conflict seeming to arise from encounters with difference are not unique to the interaction of civilizations (assuming one can even speak of such a phenomenon). More importantly, and contrary to what Huntington supposes, it is not encountering difference at all that brings forth discomfort, but experiencing irreconcilable separateness. In the words of Eric Fromm in The Art of Loving, “The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety. Being separate means being cut off, without any capacity to use my human powers. Hence to be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the world.” An instinctual response to something foreign to us is often fear and suspicion. This is why we form to groups, and eventually “civilizations” arise in the first place; we seek to protect ourselves by carving out a place where experience and values can be shared and appreciated. Thus, it is not difference which brings discomfort, but the inability to unite — under the condition of autonomy. To quote Fromm once again, ““The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love– is the source of shame. It is at the same time the source of guilt and anxiety.” Even if one can conquer his separateness by becoming a member of a group (or union or civilization), If one cannot maintain his autonomy, the opposite problem occurs; instead of being assailed by his separateness he is smothered by homogeny.

Thus, Huntington’s chief fallacy is the failure to acknowledge that we are not simply members of a collective, but rather, we are all individuals. I am not a “Westerner,” or “a Jew,” even if I do certain things that other “Westerners” or “Jews” also do. Huntington’s Roman certainly does not think, “Togatus sum, ergo sum,” but “Cogito, ergo sum.” Our identity is too fragile and transient to be held in the clutches of a definite culture. Huntington is attempting to be a sketch artist of civilization, working on second hand information, and his sketches often miss critical details.

Huntington also speculates, perhaps quite rightly, that “the processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities.” He then assumes that fundamentalist religion will become the new source of identity. Why though do we take as natural law that polarization is necessary? Sure, fundamentalism has and probably will always occur in all parts of the world. But so is secularization; as a recent pew study reports,  “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion also has grown in recent years; indeed, about one-fifth of the public overall – and a third of adults under age 30 – are religiously unaffiliated as of 2012. Fully a third of U.S. adults say they do not consider themselves a “religious person.” And two-thirds of Americans – affiliated and unaffiliated alike – say religion is losing its influence in Americans’ lives.” It would appear that though some fundamentalist movements are indeed growing, large sections of the world are moving in exactly the opposite direction as Huntington vehemently asserted that they would.

Huntington also asserts that “efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations. Decreasingly able to mobilize support and form coalitions on the basis of ideology, governments and groups will increasingly attempt to mobilize support by appealing to common religion and civilization identity.” Even in Huntington’s own time this was simply not true; was the CIA’s overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala the act of a force for democracy and liberalism, or simply an attempt (and a successful one at that) to monopolize the fruit market? Civilizations, like people, are motivated by religion and identified values, but also by money and power. Huntington also humorously uses the fact that many Arab leaders supported Saddam Hussein as a proof that the struggle in Iraq was a case of the West against Islam. While there is certainly some truth to this, does he forget we in the US funneled money and weapons to Saddam for years? Things certainly don’t seem as easy to simplify as Huntington would have us believe.

Bottom line, Huntington attempts to squeeze the world into an incredibly overgeneralized cultural framework. Very bleak is Huntington’s idea that we need to protect, to separate, to insulate ourselves from other cultures and religions rather than collaborate. The one time Huntington begins to stumble upon something worth discussing comes very near the end, and almost accidentally: “It will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.” Yes, Huntington, yes! And this is the beauty of a multidimensional world. Unity, even peace if I may be so bold, will come when we are able to interact within the boundaries of our shared views, and collaborate with one another even while maintaining our distinct identities! Perhaps the old aphorism “opposites attract” isn’t too far off base; to quote Fromm one last time, “if we lack the courage to be individuals, we will never achieve love, since ‘love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity.’” Conformity is not the answer to avoiding a clash of civilizations, and neither is isolation. If we truly wish to move forward, together, we must turn this cacophonous clash of civilizations into a sonorous symphony of civilizations. In the coming era, our progress will come not from isolation and protection, but bold collaboration.

9AdarLOGOfullThis post is part of the 9 Adar project, an initiative of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, part of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Click for more 9 Adar posts about Constructive Conflict.

About the Author
Laura E. Adkins is JTA’s Opinion Editor. She was previously Deputy Opinion Editor at the Forward, where she wrote about data, Orthodoxy, kosher wine, and built interactive maps. Laura has also served as the editor of Jewish Insider and an assistant blogs editor at The Times of Israel. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, SELF, the New York Observer and elsewhere.
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