World Culture, Civilization, and Dialogue

Anis Hamadeh

The Twenty-First Century -

For fifty years we have been living with the TV which has changed our consciousness. It was a revolution, because it created - together with the radio - a new kind of public. Before, there were newspapers and even before that there was typography which had led to comparable mass psychological changes. Today, it is the internet that progresses on this path. What in earlier times had been the encyclopedia is the searching machine today, and while in earlier times we had a frontal public, today everybody, in principle, can participate to a much wider extent in the public discourse and co-create it, and this is also what the internet is about.

Posted Oct 17, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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One of the effects of the internet that can be detected already is that it has become more and more difficult to keep things of social interest secret. Think of the high number of eye witness reports from Palestine, for example, which can be spread with much greater speed than was possible even ten years ago.

The twenty-first century differs from the preceding centuries principally in its democratization of the public through the internet. Moreover, after September 11th, it became clear that the societies of the world all have very similar problems and that they, in order to reach peace, have to cooperate. A world culture, is in the making, a shared international discourse, in which the Asians take part like the Europeans do, and the Africans like the Americans.

TV has always conveyed to us the feeling that we understand the world and that the world is calculable. Rituals like the evening news have fixed the idea that the world, even though it seemed not to be in order, still in a way remained under control. We all subconsciously held the TV experiences to be translations of world affairs, translations into our languages, produced by friendly people who, with warm voices, served us explanations, impressions, and background information, thus sparing us work. People who were entertaining and who gave us security with the ritual.

The internet has changed this discourse and this mentality essentially. Today, you can get an overview of the topics in the daily press within thirty minutes, and you do not even have to leave the house for it. Moreover, you can easily and systematically google the issues of the day or of the month and, in this way, collect and analyze a variety of information and opinions. To a much greater extent than on TV, you will find colliding discourses in the same medium. Here, everybody can expose themselves and their opinions, and there is no censoring entity, as long as the law is not violated, e.g. through the glorification of violence.

In this fertile soil grows world culture. For, in no other medium are the individual group discourses (families, companies, parties, societies, cities, countries, cultures etc.)  so close together, and nowhere else do the discrepancies between individual groups become so clear.  These discrepancies are harmonized away in the medium of TV in order not to endanger the entertainment aspect of the medium.

Many countries are waking up from a sort of provinciality and are moving from the Lindenstrasse (German soap) onto the data highway. The boundaries between the discourses are softening, even language boundaries have never been so soft as today, where the English language became the natural internet language. Many German homepages, for example, today contain English presentations, and they are increasing in number because the internet is the first real international mass medium in the history of mankind. Without wanting to deny the deeds of Alexander the Great, I do confirm that if you want to talk about a world culture, you can meaningfully do so only since the twenty-first century.

- Questions of Definition -

You can tell that a world culture has not yet been created by the difficulties in translating central concepts like “culture”, “civilization”, and “discourse” into other languages. German “Kultur” is something different from British “culture”, and “Zivilisation” is different from “civilization”. Concerning the term “discourse”, it springs from the western, scientific-critical tradition and has no natural pendant in Arabic, although the Arabs certainly have discourses and also concepts for it. On the other hand, Arabic, with terms like “thaqaafa” and “hadaara” has concepts for culture and civilization which, by all means, can be set into a relation and comparison with the western ones.

In order to talk about a world culture meaningfully, it is necessary to harmonize the language and to bring it on a common level, be it through definitions or through the introduction of new termini technici. For this purpose, let us stay with the concepts “Kultur/culture” and “Zivilisation/civilization”, which permeate each other, and which seem to be the most essential concepts. As the essay at hand is written in two languages, it must be explained what the subject matter precisely is, and for what reason.

In the book by Norbert Elias, “On the Process of Civilization”,  there is stated the concept of civilization that I refer to. It is characterized by the progressive control of emotional states (Affektkontrolle) and thereby generation of a sublimation, substitution, and monopolization of violence. Norbert Elias showed in this standard book with many examples out of the German and the French cultures that societies are situated in civilizatory processes that, to a certain extent, can be measured, so that one can speak of levels of civilization.

Very similar is the Arabic concept “hadaara” in the historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (died 1406), as used in his famous “Muqaddima”: Ibn Khaldun speaks about cycles of reign that can be described in a general way, similar to the life-cycles of man. For him, civilization starts with agriculture and ends with the sciences, in which the arts are contained.

- The Problem of Discrimination -

To be able to discover and to describe a world culture, it needs an overall measure so that the individual cultures can be compared. A general concept of civilization can achieve that, I believe. The point is to be able to contradict people who say, for example, that the Islamic culture is incompatible with the western culture, habitually referring solely to the otherness of this culture, without that this behavior would be considered indecent in the public discourse.

When we say here that the cultures and subcultures of this impending world culture can be conceived, described, and partly measured with the same instruments, and when we further want to systematize this in a dynamic theory, like Norbert Elias, who formulated such a theory in a rather clear way, then we will have to confront ourselves with the reproach that it contradicts the equality principle to settle cultures on different civilizational levels in a way that it gives the impression as if some cultures would stand “above” and others “below”. Sensitive contemporaries will - as I know them - also associate concepts like “super-/sub-humans” or forms of national or racist superiority into this thought and rather look for alternatives.

Yet, it is the equality principle that is the aim here, and an awareness of equality can be created with the tool of a critique of civilization. On the contrary, the concept of civilization does equalize the factually existing discriminations of cultures that generally are merely measured by their technology and their gross national product, and this not even openly. Furthermore, there is, by all means, an awareness by the inhabitants of, e.g., Africa and Asia about the notion of progress, and that they - contrary to the West - have not yet reached certain social transformations.

- Values -

In order to speak meaningfully about a world culture, it needs superposed values that are valid for every culture. To the main issues, therefore, belong the questions of how the process of civilization is to be assessed, and what is progress?

We have entered into a time in which the economic markets are largely open and exploited and not growing like in the fifties. A time in which the potential of realizing technical developments has reached its natural bounderies, too. In space research, for instance, there are many more things possible than effordable. Neither does the control of emotional states need further revolutionary accomplishment, as it also reached (and reaches) natural boundaries, like the legitimate counter-call for the value of naturality, as it was used by Rousseau, and after him by many people.

So progress does not mean that the economic markets are continuously growing, it does not mean to design the ultimate computer, and further progress in the control of emotional states is doubtful, as it harbors the danger of over-civilization, of alienation, and of social coldness.

Let us take a look at the two major groups in the culture struggle, the democratic West and the Arab-Islamic East. The West refers to its civilizatory achievements -  mainly the civil rights. Often we also find the argument that civil public affairs are separated from affairs of belief, differently from the East. This, according to the main scenario in the West, has brought us to prosperity and technological superiority.

The self-understanding of the West bases on the equalistic assumption that other cultures - e.g. the Arab-Islamic - will move into the same, allegedly progressive, direction, if they only took the same civilizatory development. This assumption is false insofar as the unjustifiably so-called “prosperity” of the western countries necessarily caused and still causes the pauperization of other countries.

- The International Discourse -

It is a lie that the mentality of the West is based on the equality of the people in the world and that it is a refuge of freedom and openness, full of human rights and tolerance and prosperity for all. It becomes more and more difficult to hush up this lie, because the cultures have approached each other and stand very close to each other now. Neither do Presidents Sharon and Bush evoke much applause outside their own groups concerning their policy and its relation to the thesis of human equality and the human right in the democratic world. Today, it is the Europeans who can understand the suspicion of the Arabs and Muslims so well in the meantime that a new discourse is possible.

Within their own groups, opinion leaders on all sides of the culture struggle can make discriminating decisions, and it will not lead to disadvantages. Consider the authoritarian behavior of the USA and Israel, which is grounded in fear and other negative things, and which is hailed by the respective in-group people, and supported. Such behavior can only prevail because the discourse is led under a public cheese-cover, protected in argument by the mistakes of the opponent group, moreover for the reference to the national security suffices. As an illustration, here is a quote of the Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon out of the German Tageszeitung from 23. August 2002, as a reaction to the politician Bl?;s criticism of Israel: “Who does not see that this tiny little country Israel, surrounded by 21 hostile countries, is only struggling for its survival, is an anti-Semite.” The USA now uses the same line of argument, and other states will follow, if this does not to stop.

My primary criticism is devoted to the superpowers, this is a matter of respect. It should not, in any way, distract from the fact that the East, as well, is not the sole keeper of Nathan’s ring, see for example Essay 4, “Muslim Superstition”.

The most striking example for the divergence of the in-group discourses is the comparison with Hitler and the Nazis. One who compares Sharon with Hitler will also get into trouble with Israeli peace groups; one who compares Bush with Hitler is not bearable in the parliamentary discourse in Germany, neither is someone who speaks of Nazi methods of the Israelis. Who, on the other hand, compares Saddam with Bin Laden or Herr M?mann with Hitler, will have nothing (no, nothing) to fear. The reason for this is that Hitler, in the western discourse, stands for the absolute evil and, thus, is the mother of all insults, while the East points to the fact that Hitler was a son of Western Europe and that he emerged out of the solid seeming Weimar democracy, in times of an economic crisis. Imperialism and colonialism, too, are assessed in a much more friendly way by the respective donor countries, than by the recipient countries.

These are elements which have to be discussed and brought on a common level, in preparation of an international discourse that fits the era of the internet. Out of this international discourse - which is constituting in these years in a natural way - grows the world culture.

- World History -

When the Abbasid dynasty in the year 750 won over the Umaiyad caliphs and built Baghdad, it re-wrote Arab-Islamic history, bringing in the impression that the Abbasids were the better dynasty for the Muslims. If you had a European American and a Native American write down the history of the genesis of the United States, you would also notice differences in the respective highlighted aspects and in the general evaluation. These differences help to find and to measure the incompatible spots in the discourses, especially in the national discourses, and to find the reasons for these incompatibilities.

When, for example, a news agency talks about the “Palestinian Holocaust”, then it is clear already that here an in-group is addressed, for no established German or American, and certainly no Israeli, newspaper would write such a thing or even read it. On the Israeli side, there is the security paranoia which - because it is at the expense of the Palestinians and Arabs, and because it is founded on the dogma of the preferred role of the Jews toward God, our creator (“chosen people”) - stifles every kind of readiness to listen to the out-group. The necessary dialogue between the West and the East, between Jews and Arabs, between men and women, and between the generations, can only be successful when the shared history of the adversarial parties are investigated and evaluated with standard criteria. This can only happen in a world culture because the fighting parties continuously meet in the global village and continuously are confronted with the discourse of the other party - because they are forced to.

So, what about the global values of the twenty-first century? What is the call? Actually, we do not talk about anything else than what the UN stands for. The reason for the wallflower existence of the UN is that the equality of people may be written on a paper, but it is undermined in the in-group discourses by their strong association of “people” with “in-group people” and that other people are not considered to be real human beings. There is no other explanation besides racism to explain why the Palestinians only have limited human rights and that they also may not profit from the Geneva Conventions. This is only because of their race. The life of a Kurd, too, is factually less in value than that of a Turk, and the life of a Chechenian is less in value than that of a Russian.

Yet, in the international discourse, the Kurds will speak as Kurds, maybe even in their own language, because the Turks cannot prohibit them from doing so anymore because they cannot censor the internet. Many countries in the East are trying to prevent the power of the internet by attempting of censor it, but it is forseeable that this won’t be possible. It may be technically possible, but the new kind of public cannot be prevented. The epistemological system, in which the public is not only regulated from above, but also from below.

- Critique of Civilization -

Next to the control of emotional states, the sublimation of violence and technological progress, there is another factor that, in the twenty-first century, definitively belongs to the repertoire of civilization, and that is the tolerant behavior toward out-groups. This works only if the humanity of the out-group is acknowledged, i.e. when you can see yourself as a human being even in the out-group. So, the value that can bring the in-group discourses, which often are hermetic, on a common, global level, is the value of humanity in its basic sense: to acknowledge the other as an equal, even if they pray according to a foreign book, because they are human beings with all their needs and passions, with their strenghts and weaknesses, their relations, wishes, and fears. And this is the same for all of us, no matter if we are Peruvians or Swedes, Kenians or Australians.

Human societies develop in similar patterns and civilizatory processes. Almost in every case we find a self-affirmation of the group by demarcation from others: with their manners, the European aristocracy consciously defined itself against the simple people and thought of itself as something better humanwise. Many people, including Romans and Arabs, had kept human slaves, compared to whom they would look good. The white man, too, took away the land of the native peoples on diverse continents, in the awareness that he is a more valuable human being than the culture on the lower civilizatory level. An error, which until today, does not, in its whole scope, belong to the collective knowledge. The Germans then had racism taper off, and their failure is omnipresent. This self-affirmation, through the rejection of another group, is not yet overcome due to the lack of mastering the Nazi period. Today still, the left-wingers, for example, need the right-wingers to find a definition for themselves; the Israelis need the Palestinians as an enemy and the pressure of the world community in order to continue suffering and thus being legitimate Israelis, aiming at security, but not getting it for mysterious reasons. Bush needs Saddam to distract people from thinking about America, and so on.

These factors would appear like pearls on a string as soon as the UN or another global entity would write a world history. And they show us what it is that is not in order in this world. The tolerant world culture of the twenty-first century measures the individual cultures by their inherent standards, for which a knowledge is needed, and it classifies this knowledge in a structure of civilizatory coordinates (, which cannot be elaborated in the essay at hand), valid in the same way for all groups.

- Cooperation for Peace -

The world culture is not a projection, no wishful thinking. It is in the making, and all over the world there are people who see a chance here for developing a superposed public, crossing the barriers between countries and cultures. A public that bursts the in-group discourses and that unmasks the omnipresent in-group arrogances. If there is something that the people need everywhere, then it is peace. And if there is another thing that people need to achieve it, it is cooperation. These are values known to and appreciated by every culture, and in view of the internationality and the recognition of these values a new in-group comes into being here. Attack as a global group is only a fore-runner.

This is progress, I want to claim provocatively. World culture. It started with the TV and with pop music, a widely underestimated integration factor (Elvis, Beatles). This (multi-cultural) world culture does not work against the sovereignty of states, rather it creates something new, something that is not reached with the wish of controlling things, but with the wish of equality in human dignity.

In a bar, one can use more loose talk than in an open medium, where everybody can listen. There can only be racism where the in-group discourses are uptight and hermetic, where no judge, who does not share the enthusiasm for the respective group, can listen. The national discourses, too, will change in this world. In Germany, for example, a use of language has prevailed that is based on arrogance (since Hegel that is) but most of all in the later politological-sociological discourse. It comes along in the shape of unreadable essays and books that are soaking with foreign words and twisted sentences. As a result, German scientists in the humanities participated much less than in previous centuries in the international discourse. So, I have met many people who learned German for Hesse, Wittgenstein, Freud or Nietzsche, but nobody who learned German for Adorno or Habermas. Especially their tendency toward academic suffering has gotten the Germans out of the race to a great extent: who wants to translate a German footnote-sociologist into another language?

Cooperation for peace means the renunciation of camp thinking and it means to turn to the human being who, in every culture and on every civilizatory level, is equal in dignity. The burst of the sitting-behind-the-warm-oven-in-group-discourses will bring some truths to daylight that are uncomfortable. Not only for the West, but for the West in the first place. We will need new rites to finally learn to deal with historical guilt, because this is what we are unable to do, both in the West and in the East.

Originally published on Anis Hamadeh’s excellent site at:  He is based in Germany and articles on the site are in German, Arabic and English