a game of cultural tug-of-war

Future wars would be fought not between nations or between political or economic ideologies but between cultures and religions. This was the prediction of Samuel Huntington in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

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I’ve recently been wondering about how accurately these claims map onto the state of the world today. With the growing prominence of non-state actors (giant companies, terrorist organizations, etc.) and intergovernmental organizations (the UN, ASEAN, OPEC, the EU, the African Union, etc.), this prediction seems to be on point.

It’s the war of ideas on a grand scale. Of course there’s room to dispute this claim but I’d like to wonder about it. It’s undeniable that, generally speaking, there are unique culturally-based societies and that in our increasingly globalized world, these differing societies are interacting more frequently and closely.

What happens when two highly different and in some ways antipodal cultural structures come into significant contact? It’s a similar, but in many ways different question to ask what happens when two individuals of opposite values come into contact.

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It’s easier for individuals to learn to live with one another than it is for societies to do the same. In 1915, Theodore Roosevelt stated that “the one absolutely certain way of bringing [the United States] to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing as a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

Huntington goes on to say that in the current day, “the leaders of the United States have not only permitted but assiduously promoted the diversity rather than the unity of the people they govern.”[1]

Furthermore, he says:

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It seems that the current political climate is the result of a massive tug-of-war game between the opposing spectrums of this conflict.

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It’s taboo to even broach such questions but I find them interesting to grapple with. The legitimacy of cultural relativism, the idea that an individuals’ beliefs and actions should be understood within the context of their culture rather than from another, is difficult to argue with. But as people worldwide are becoming more mobile, cultural relativism requires real-world practical practice, not an easy task.

As of yet, I have no answers on this topic, perhaps the largest question of our time. But I wonder about it. And hopefully, if you’ve made it this far, you will too.

Perhaps that is enough. It’s better to wonder than to pretend to have the answers.

[1] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 1996, pg. 306.