Friday, November 26, 2010

A Billion Wars, part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

The next time you hear someone bemoaning the inevitable uniform flattening of world culture, take a step back and think about all the people you spoke to today, where they’re from, how they think, what they value, where they’re going, and compare it to the likely selection of people you would have interacted with in the same place 50 years ago. Which image seems more “uniform” and “flat”? Diversity is blossoming all around us. But in the end these might be very dark blossoms indeed.
Someone sure is thrilled to see tourists...
Don’t think that my belief in the exponential growth of diversity means I’m suggesting we’re entering a brave new world of tolerance and the breaking down of social walls. While the fabric of cultural identity is being transformed, the foundation of conflict has not budged. Even as the behavior becomes more strained and contrived, we are still determined to see the world from an “us” and “them” perspective. In the past “they” were often a faceless symbol on the other side of the world, and “those damned Russians” and “Remember the Alamo, kill the Mexicans!” was a manageable and natural way to maintain a close-knit society. But suddenly the Mexicans are living next door, the Russian is your landlord, and don’t forget the Indian, Vietnamese, and Iranian who own the nearest shops. Sadly, the fact that “they” suddenly have a face and humanity (although “strange” and “not quite right”) has not bound us together into a world of peace and good will, it has made us all more threatened by the proximity of such foreignness. In a world of increasing contact between vastly different perspectives and lifestyles, the potential for conflict is heightened within a rapidly shrinking psychological space. There will be increased reactions against "them," because "they" are suddenly in our backyards. There will be countless new lines of conflict as the breakdown of cultural, ideological, religious, and ethnic integrity within groups triggers the splintering into smaller and smaller social cells. There will be increased frustration with the "exoticism" we morn, because they‘re “just so weird“ or "refuse to live in the 21st century!" While the demons of conflict, violence, and hate were once often forced to journey from nation to nation or culture to culture, they can now hop lightly from door to door, where a different culture, religion, lifestyle, skin color, and language is already residing! The dry beams of society could so easily ignite into one fiery purge after another, jumping to the slightly stronger side of one social division after another, until - too late! - it becomes clear that everyone is a “them” in one way or another.  
Look at that body language!

Can’t we all just learn to get along? Certainly we can! Will we? Very questionable, considering the rate and direction we’re going. But my reasons for believing that are part of another story.
However, within these age-old and suddenly imperative problems a possible source of help is emerging. On the forefront of these developments are the people that author Pico Iyer names "The Global Souls." They are raised without a specific national, cultural, or even linguistic identity, and can only consistently consider themselves to be citizens of the world. People like the young girl in the beginning of part two of this post are increasingly common, having a passport from one country, a language from another, a skin color from a third place, and a cultural identity from yet another. They are still rare, yes, but as the boundaries of the world continue to blur, their numbers can only increase. You probably know a few already, although you’ll have to think hard to identify them, as one of their gifts is to blend into whatever social context they’re in. One the inside, however, they know that they belong neither here nor there completely.

At least the expectations are clear...
She almost didn't make it out alive.
 Because of their inherent independence from any one identity, these Global Souls present unique possibilities in the evolution of society. As this young girl grows up, with her head in Japan, her papers in Thailand, her soul in Brazil and the Philippines, and perhaps even a toe or two in Portugal and America, let's say there comes a time when Japan enters into conflict with China... or, to make it more interesting, with Brazil. Whose side will she fall on? She certainly won't be pulled along with the mindless “It‘s us or them!” crowd, whichever crowd that may be. Her tendency will most like be the opposite of nationalistic, or judgmental, or even invested. The easiest way is to not take sides at all, and as she's increasingly reminded that Japan is not where she belongs, perhaps she will even leave for another "half-home" in Thailand, or Portugal, or somewhere else entirely. And here is the possibility these Global Souls present. They don’t care. They will not be pulled into "Us vs. Them," because they are always "Them." They will not go with the herd mentality that pulled most Americans into hating the Russians, or most Germans into blaming the Jews, or most Jews into demonizing the Pakistanis. They will see both sides, and often, when forced to choose sides, they will leave.

Too much culture.  We are NOT amused.
The Global Souls offer an new approach to the increasingly volatile "in-group/out-group" mentality that has thus far defined human society and will eventually destroy us as all the groups are mashed together. In the end it could go one of two ways: The Global Souls can lead us into a different way of seeing the world and each other, a world-view that expects and thrives on strangeness instead of being threatened by it. They are not invested into any of our silly little "in-groups," and therefore don't have to care about our silly conflicts. On the other hand, the fact is that they don't have to care at all, and as the conflicts, fear-mongering, and wall-building continues, they could just as easily check-out, live as untangled lives as they can manage, and watch us destroy ourselves for identities and ideas that they can't quite understand.

Future leaders of a bright new tomorrow, or simply not part of problem in a world of a billion little wars? I don’t know, but they have managed to divest themselves of the borders and boundaries that toss most of us against each other, so there’s hope in that at least.

For myself I am just as susceptible to frustration and knee-jerk reactions against those who are different than me as anyone, if not more so. I’m not writing to reveal the answers, I don’t have any. But we all need to be part of the discussion on this one, to observe, consider, explore, and one by one to discover a way for our billions of new worlds to exist on one shrinking planet. If we fail, as a society, as cultures, as individuals, there can only one alternative.


  1. Great observations as usual. So what body language are you refering to? That the guys are open and the gals are closed and protective?
    Much love, Dad

  2. Thanks!
    Yeah, closed is a massive understatement! Here it's a broad simplifaction (and probably one that will get me hate-mail), but if you see a young, fair, western girl walking down the street with a local guy, you basically have to only ask if she picked him up (common), or if he's trying to pick her up(more common, but not by much). Sometimes, it's not hard to know the answer. Here, backpacks in front: they're nervous being on the street in Africa. Hands over their backpacks/chest: protective and closed. Averted eye contact/trying to send useless unspoken messages: they're new and afraid, they can't/won't assert themselves. The guys... everything the opposite. Amazing how you don't need to hear a word to know know everything about a coversation, even better than if you heard the words!
    It took the guys about 5 minutes to get the message, pretty far down the street, but then another group of western girls was passing the other way and they latched on to that group and passed me again (very similar picture) less than 10 minutes later. Ah, international relations!