Redefining otherness for the 21st century

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Often attributed to Niels Bohr

And so, we come, at last, to the question we began with: What can people in the first quarter of the 21st century learn from comparing the Axial Age and Modernity?

Perhaps most significant, societies across the world continue to experience a jarring jump in social complexity and the challenges it brings. Growing populations and accelerated industrialization continue to increase global warming and industrial pollution. Resource, water, and food scarcities may also strike, no matter how clever technology becomes. And the availability of advanced weapons to groups with a grudge will continue to make international terrorism a threat. At the same time, intensive globalization – to a degree unique in human history – is making nations across the globe deeply interdependent. And billions of people can feel and see this interdependence when they access the Internet’s truly worldwide web.

The challenges produced by this interdependence demand a level of international cooperation that doesn’t yet seem possible. Some thinkers1,2,3 predict a “world government.” Others suggest a transformation to transnational government, where sovereign nation-states won’t cede political independence, but will lose the thoroughgoing autonomy that makes them the “sacred cows” of international relations. In many ways, the inability of the international community to move effectively in that direction is the biggest story of the last hundred years. That story began with the failure to stop World War I, moved to the inability of the League of Nations to stop Hitler, and continues today as the United Nations cannot end the civil war in Syria.

Is there a lesson that this study can offer to a world that seems unable to develop the cooperation it so deeply needs? We think there is. And we want to end this book with some thoughts on what people across the globe can begin doing.

It’s important to recognize how unsure the future that we face is. The community of nations can take any of many paths in the first quarter of this century. Cultural identity could combine with scarce resources to lead the world into the conflict suggested in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order4. Or improved technology and international cooperation could result in abundance, as Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler describe in their book, Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think5. Many other paths are possible.

We want to suggest actions that can improve the outcome, no matter what path unfolds. Those actions concern one of the key questions answered by world stories: What does it mean to be members of the group in which one forms an identity, and how should members treat other members and outsiders? Ever since modern humans emerged more than 50,000 years ago, these identity groups have provided the context in which all of us have come to understand who we are and how we should act. Every identity group – from the family to groups of friends, from organizations to nations – gives people the opportunity to learn in their interaction with other members of the group how they should act in any situation. Identity groups also let people know how to act toward those who are different – the Other.

In this way, identity groups are the keepers of the culture – the set of values, ideals, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes that are characteristic of the particular community, whether a society, religion, organization or family. Such a culture enables people to create shared meaning, store it, and pass it from one generation to another through living networks of signs and symbols accepted throughout that community. Thus, culture defines how well meaning, trustworthy members of the community, behave. In such identity groups, people develop what Edward Hall calls a “cultural unconscious”6(43). Among other things, this cultural unconscious defines the Other, whose peculiar behavior marks him as “slightly out of his mind, improperly brought up, irresponsible, psychopathic, politically motivated to a point beyond all redemption, or just plain inferior.”

Such “peculiar” behavior may be as simple as whether a burp at the end of a meal is thanks to one’s host or pure rudeness. It can also be as complex as the behavior that comes from the very different understandings of the idea of Law in China and the West. In either case, it can help define whether a person is worthy of trust and respect or fear and disdain.

One function of human history’s periods of transformation has been to redefine identity groups and Others. During the Agrarian Revolution (c. 11,000-5,000 years ago), for example, human identity groups transformed from hunter-gatherer bands of perhaps 30 and mega-bands of about 200 to cities of tens of thousands and states of hundreds of thousands. Expanding the size of an identity group this way required a shift in human consciousness. People in hunter-gatherer bands know everyone in their identity groups. Anyone who is not immediately known therefore becomes Other and dangerous. To live in a pre-axial city of more than 10,000, on the other hand, people had to redefine what made up an identity group, expanding it far beyond those they knew. Similarly, to live in a post-axial city of 100,000 or a modern city of a million – or a modern nation of 100 million – the concept of identity group had to expand.

In the modern era, an important shift occurred in the way Western Europeans defined their identity groups. When the period began, religion was the major element establishing large-scale identity. People were Christian or Muslim or Jewish, and that defined who they were and what they were allowed to do or where they could live. However, after a century and a half of religious war, and especially the Thirty Years War, the dangers of defining group identity through religion became obvious. Religion then transformed into a matter of personal identity7.

During this same century and a half, countries such as England, France, Spain and Holland were experimenting with national states. The feeling of nationalism that resulted from this experiment wove together ethnicity and a common language, shared history and the myth of a “homeland”8, becoming the key factor of group identity, dividing people into “we” and “they.” Between 1500 and 1800, the most successful states in Western Europe would be the nation-states.

As Western Europeans traveled the world, beginning in the 15th century, people in post-axial states, such as Qing China or the Ottoman Empire saw them as “barbarian” Others. By dismissing them this way, those societies underestimated the potential of Modernity. By the middle of the 19th century, however, these “barbarians” had humiliated the Chinese and begun their domination of the Ottomans. Over the next hundred years, these older societies would also redefine group identity in terms of national cultures, as did many societies of Central, Southern and Eastern Europe.

Most people living today live their lives in terms of their national identity. And even a hundred years ago, that seemed reasonable. After all, before 1914, the vast majority of people spent their lives in the cultures in which they grew up.

Not anymore. Walk out on the streets of Prague or Paris, Moscow or Philadelphia, Beijing or Buenos Aires, and you find yourself surrounded by a medley of cultures. Especially with the Internet, billions of people can learn what is happening almost anywhere in the world, sometimes instantly. They can also learn how people in other cultures behave. We have entered a world of cultural choice. For perhaps the first time in human history, most people can choose their identity groups.

As a result, people need to redefine the concept of identity groups. For one thing, with international travel and the Internet, almost anyone can see that people who are just as trustworthy as those of their own cultures have very different stories about how to live their lives. For another, in a world of challenges that demand international cooperation, people can no longer afford to see the Other as “irresponsible, psychopathic, politically motivated to a point beyond all redemption, or just plain inferior”6. For both reasons, people throughout our globalized community of nations need to realize that the Other behaves differently because he or she lives with a different cultural story, not because of psychosis or malevolence.

For the coauthors of this book, this is not a matter of creating a common, homogeneous global culture and abolishing the Other. Human cultures are deeply woven into all people’s lives. Jablonka and Lamb even suggest that long-standing cultural habits can spill over into genetic change9. So we suggest another approach.

As noted in Chapter 1, human beings experience the world in terms of the network of stories that they accept. All of us need these stories to guide our behavior, and our brains are constructed so that, without conscious thought, we transform experience into coherent stories10. As long as people remain unaware of this fact, they remain slaves to their stories, because they assume that their stories are the realities they were created to explain. Mistaking a story for the reality it explains is exactly why Hall’s cultural unconscious is so powerful.

Yet once people become aware that culture does depend on stories they have collaborated in creating, they can understand each other’s behavior differently. My cultural stories and yours are different because they have different histories and offer different survival strategies. Yet your stories can be as valid for you as mine are for me. At this point, it becomes possible to discuss our differences, not as deviations from the One True Way, but as differing adaptations developed in different circumstances. Rather than surrender to Huntington’s clash of civilizations, we can build a platform on which people from different cultures can examine how their differences interfere with communicating so that they can begin to address their common challenges.

As opposed to Huntington’s clash of civilizations, this approach can allow people throughout the community of nations to begin building a “confederation” of civilizations. As they begin building such a confederation, they can test it, just as people have tested all the other social experiments of periods of historical transformation11.

This effort can be part of the emerging world story that, for example, students of big history are beginning to tell12,13: The human race comes from a common origin, going back to the Big Bang. Our cultural differences enabled us to adapt to different circumstances. Those differences have helped us thrive in the arctic, desert, and jungle, the mountains and river valleys. Yet we share much from these common origins — from the majority of our DNA to our compulsion to transform events into coherent stories to our common heritage on this planet.

Such an effort may at first seem impossible. After all, it means that people must let go of the implication of enemy that has been built into the Other, which has existed as long as we have been fully human. Can we see the Other as someone like Us, who merely found a different story? Without such a redefinition, it seems unlikely that people from different cultures can come together with the degree of trust needed to address the challenges of our industrialized global world.

Fortunately, there is one model for building this type of cross-cultural trust. Until about 1500 BCE, Egyptians thought of themselves as the only island of order in a chaotic world14. Then, trade and political contact with the Minoan and Western Asian civilizations became more and more frequent. But how were the Egyptians to trust these “barbarian” peoples who had different gods and, so, could not swear on the Egyptian gods? Eventually, people form all these cultures noted that many of their gods were much more alike than they had realized. Egypt’s Ra was like Mycenae’s Apollo. Their “cultures might differ, but the gods remained the same everywhere”14(55). Spurred by their need to be able to trust each other in their commercial dealings, they were able to create a platform for “translating” the names of the gods and, thereby, to trust that the Egyptian’s swearing on Ra was almost identical to the Mycenaean’s swearing on Apollo.

Today, the international community again needs to “translate” cultures so that we can establish trust. The “Rosetta Stone” for this translation exists today in the study of stories, developing in fields from evolutionary anthropology to neurobiology and biosemiotics. Of course, learning to translate cultural stories is a much more difficult task than merely translating the names of gods. At the same time, the human community has so much more at stake. In fact, we face the very real possibility of creating the same kind of crises that led to the dark ages in the Eastern Mediterranean world three millennia ago. If we cannot overcome our habit of thinking in terms of the nation-state’s absolute supremacy, it will be extremely difficult to address the challenges that threaten societies across the globe as they continue to become more and more highly technologized. And changing that habit of thought will require both accepting each other’s cultural stories and transcending Modernity’s “sacred cow” – the belief that the nation-state must be autonomous in international law and relations.

N.K. Sandars described the collapse of Mycenae, leading to those dark ages, as an “essentially artificial way of life . . . unable to take the strain” of a variety of natural and social pressures15(197). Yet, how much more artificial is 21st century society? As Jose Ortega y Gasset notes, the collapse of a society so dependent on technology will not be like the fall of Mycenae, where most people could simply go back to subsistence farming16. Billions of people today depend on technology to survive. What will happen without the resources to operate our power plants, clean our water, and transport our food?

The stakes are, indeed, very high, well worth any effort in learning to understand and trust each Other. Even though we cannot predict our future, we must make the attempt, if not for ourselves, then for the sake of our children and grandchildren.