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The Humanist Institute

The Clash of Visions:
Toward a Humanist Response to Huntington

David Schafer

Plus c' est la même chose . . .

One hundred years ago the arrival of the 20th century generated a surge of optimism--a hope and belief that the next hundred years would bring, if not Utopia itself, at least a giant stride in that direction. At the time Andrew Carnegie, whom later generations would remember more as a philanthropist than as an industrialist, was moved to prophesy, "Ere the 20th century closes, the earth will be purged of its foulest shame, the killing by men in battle under the name of war." A decade later, British author Norman Angell predicted in The Great Illusion that since in the 20th century war was no longer rational, rational nations would no longer fight each other. "How," he mused, "can modern life . . . keep alive the instincts associated with war as against those developed by peace?" Angell's implied warning went unheeded, to be sure, and shortly afterward the first World War broke out. He issued it again in 1933, after he had spent three years (1928-1931) as editor of Foreign Affairs, in a revised edition of his book. Sir Norman Angell shared the 1933 Nobel Prize for Peace, and then watched helplessly as the whole world plunged straightaway into yet another catastrophe, far greater than the previous one.

Toward the end of that catastrophe I was a student at a Quaker college, surrounded by faculty and student pacifists whose arguments and whose sincerity affect me deeply even now. Though I was not eligible for the draft, I saw quite enough of a different sort of conflict right where I was, as founder and president of the local chapter of the non-violent Congress of Racial Equality. A couple of years after the war ended, I enrolled in a senior class where one of the later assignments, as I vividly recall, was an invitation to summarize what we had learned from our comparative studies of world civilizations. I struggled with all my might with that essay, long ago mercifully lost. Today I remember it as a fervent plea for universal amalgamation of human societies, on the ground that as long as conspicuous differences persisted among groups-differences in race, language, or religion, to mention three of the more pernicious kinds that held my attention-people would continue to use them as excuses to fight each other. As I look back on it, this conclusion--if you' ll be kind enough to accept its logic--strikes me as either pessimistic or unrealistically optimistic, depending on how I read it. I no longer know whether I thought at the time that amalgamation was a real possibility, but it was the only solution I could come up with to a problem that concerned me deeply even then: the clash of cultures and civilizations at home and around the world.

Around five years later, therefore, when as a graduate student I first seriously encountered Humanism in the form of Humanist Manifesto I, it was surely inevitable that one of its several attractions for me was the vision of a world united in peace through the spread and the power of Humanist beliefs and values. Soon afterward, on the strength of such affirmations, I gladly embraced Humanism. Today it is as a Humanist that I view the state of the dysfunctional human family, as it approaches the fin not only de siècle but also de millénaire. It is as a Humanist that I have read and reacted to Samuel P. Huntington's 1993 article "The Clash of Civilizations?" and the book that later grew out of it.

The Humanist Vision

From its formal inception in 1933 the Humanist movement had articulated a glorious Enlightenment vision of a future world, "One World" where "Alle Menschen werden Brüder," a world of peace and justice transcending and even eliminating national boundaries. "The goal of humanism," according to Humanist Manifesto I, "is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world." Forty years later, Manifesto II would spell out this universalism in much greater detail: "We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward the building of a world community in which all sectors of the human family can participate." And so on, to the end of the document, which strongly implied throughout that Humanism would play a leading role in creating and sustaining such a future world.

Sadly, fulfillment of this Humanist dream has been slow in coming. The Cold War burst into being midway between Manifestos I and II and continued almost another twenty years after the latter appeared. Meanwhile the whole world was focused so intently on the terrifying confrontation between two superpowers that all other international issues were subordinated to that confrontation. It was easy for many of us to imagine that if only the Cold War were to end, a path would be opened to universal peace. In the summer of 1989 Francis Fukuyama in a much-discussed article entitled "The End of History" suggested that something like this was actually about to happen. Then, when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed two years later, Fukuyama immediately produced a greatly expanded version of his article in book form, and was widely hailed as a seer and a sage.

All too soon, however, facts on the ground began to cast increasing doubt on Fukuyama's thesis, and the wishful thinking of the rest of us. After the Cold War ended, the powerful constraints that had been holding back the aspirations of nationalistic groups all over the world had suddenly been released, and a flood of lesser conflicts began to emerge. Even those who had all along been predicting the demise of the USSR seemed unprepared for the abruptness of these changes. "Wise Men" in all departments of world affairs scrambled to develop "new paradigms" to explain what had been happening and predict what would come next.

Huntington's Vision

One of these (whom Fukuyama had cited) was Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard, distinguished political scientist, authority on foreign policy and national security, and co-founder (1970) and sometime editor of the journal Foreign Policy. In the summer of 1993, Huntington contributed his new paradigm in a lead article in Foreign Affairs (once Sir Norman Angell's journal), entitled "The Clash of Civilizations?" Here he ventured the thesis that in the post-Cold War period all the nations of the world would coalesce into "seven or eight major civilizations," namely, "Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization," and that conflicts of the future would arise between such civilizations. Bernard Lewis, long the doyen among Western scholars of Western/Islamic relations, had accommodatingly supplied Huntington's title: "We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations. . . ."

Why did Huntington place such central emphasis on "civilizations"? "Civilizations," he explained,

are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition, and, most important, religion. The people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear. They are far more fundamental than differences among political ideologies and political regimes.

But even if we grant that civilizations are fundamental in this way, why must they clash? While Huntington made two major concessions, that "differences do not necessarily mean conflict, and conflict does not necessarily mean violence," he noted that in the past [italics mine] "differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts." He went on to list five further reasons to expect inter-civilizational conflict in the future: First, "the world is becoming a smaller place. The interactions between peoples of different civilizations are increasing . . ." Second, ". . . economic modernization and social change . . . [separate] people from longstanding local identities [and] weaken the nation state as a source of identity." Religion, "often in the form of movements that are labeled ' fundamentalist' ," has filled the gap. Third, non-Western nations "increasingly have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways." Fourth, "cultural . . . differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones." And finally, "economic regionalism is increasing . . . [and] . . . will reinforce civilization-consciousness."

Upon these premises, Huntington built an argument mingling self-evident truths and not-so-self-evident conjectures in an effort to demonstrate, in effect, that Nothing Ever Changes. ("These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear.") Moving from the historical fact that "Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures," he managed to reach the conclusion that "the central axis of world politics in the future is likely to be . . . the conflict between ' the West and the Rest' [borrowing a phrase from a 1992 article by Kishore Mahbubani] and the responses of non-Western civilizations to Western power and values." (Notice here especially the open-endedness of his expression "in the future" and the permanence it vaguely implies.) Having gotten our attention, he then tossed in a clincher: the dreaded "Confucian-Islamic Connection." Aside from the obvious contradiction with his primary thesis (why won't Confucian and Islamic civilizations clash with each other?), the imminent prospect of active collusion between two such enormous civilizations against the West seemed calculated to chill the Occidental blood.

In the summer of 1993, when I read this article, and when the long public debate that followed it had not yet begun, the analysis struck me as relentlessly and gratuitously pessimistic--especially from the universalist Humanist perspective I took as my starting point-and quite strongly at variance with my own admittedly lay understanding of its subject. Its emphasis on the assumed ascendancy of traditional religions, on the factors that make for divisiveness among groups to the relative neglect of those that make for cooperation, and on the implied inevitability of more or less violent conflict when civilizations do clash, with "the West" as a likely target, inspired me to ponder these matters from a Humanist viewpoint.

For several years after "The Clash of Civilizations?" appeared, many authors attested to its influence, in articles directly or indirectly supporting or attacking key parts of its argument. The discussion began with five essays in the next issue of Foreign Affairs, and continued in the next with a reply from Huntington. Others then pursued the debate, until in the latter part of 1996 Huntington reenergized the whole controversy by reasserting his positions in far greater detail than before in a 367-page book entitled The Clash of Civilizations [no question mark this time!] and the Remaking of World Order and an excerpt from the book in Foreign Affairs, "The West: Unique, Not Universal," giving rise to a further round of critiques.

The book (and the excerpt) restated most of the main points of the original article, rejecting the "Coca-colonization" argument (international acceptance of the popular culture of the West) with the line "The essence of Western culture is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac" and the "modernization" argument (the culture of modernity "will become the universal culture of the world"). Yet I found it significant that the excerpt prominently featured what I took to be a watered-down statement of Huntington's original thesis: "The image of an emerging universally Western world is misguided, arrogant, false, and dangerous." Summarized in this way, the argument became for me not only weaker and less objectionable, but almost self-evident. (Undeterred, I have stuck to my plan.)

Attempting a Humanist Response

While I was considering what a Humanist response to all this might include, there fell into my hands an elegant and closely related two-page article, in The New Leader of February 24, 1997, by Richard Rorty, a certified member of the Humanist Pantheon. Entitled "Intellectuals and the Millennium," it did not actually mention Huntington by name, but easily might have, on account of its subject matter. Consider this provocative sentence, for example: "We would do well to abandon the notion that there is some final worldview to which the world's civilizations are destined to converge." Or this passage: "With the ongoing globalization of the labor market, nobody knows whether the older industrialized democracies of Europe and North America, or the newly industrialized nations of Asia, will be able to hold on to the standard of living they currently enjoy. If that standard were to decline precipitately, wrenchingly, might not the survival of democratic institutions be imperiled?" After reading Rorty's article several times I concluded that Rorty had indirectly helped me to clarify the issues raised by Huntington.

As I see it, if we juxtapose the two contrasting visions of the human future offered by Huntington and by Humanism, as represented by the two Humanist manifestos (mutatis mutandis--for example, for limits of national sovereignty reading "limits of civilizations"), the central differences between them come down to two: (1) whether, and how far, any culture (and specifically the culture of Humanism) can ever displace the religion-based cultures of world civilizations; and (2) whether Humanism, with its vision of a peaceful world, can ever reduce or eliminate the inevitability of violent conflict between civilizations, by working from within them, from without, or both. A third difference in the two visions is also important to my response. Where Huntington casts his thesis in the form of a dire prediction--albeit a contingent one--of future clashes between civilizations, the Humanist vision as I understand it is in the form of a moral imperative ("we must prevent violent clashes"), coupled with suggestions about how this imperative is to be implemented.

The Clash of Values?

Civilizations, and the cultures they embody, are complex entities, with innumerable components. T. S. Eliot's "The Three Senses of Culture," in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, contains the following illustrative passage:"Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin-table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar." Huntington in turn lists eight characteristics of Western civilization, the combination of which (but no one of which) is unique:the Classical legacy, Western Christianity, European languages, separation of spiritual and temporal authority, rule of law, social pluralism and civil society, representative bodies, individualism.

Here it is helpful to distinguish a culture's beliefs about the world from its values. To the extent that a culture's beliefs about the world are true, they are compatible with true beliefs of other cultures. Such true beliefs about the world could therefore form the basis of a "universal" belief system. The problem of determining what might constitute a "universal" value system is far more difficult (after all, boiled cabbage, whether cut into sections or not, is not universally valued)--but perhaps not impossible. It seems clear, however, that certain kinds of "trivial" values need not be universal for civilizations to coexist-e.g., preferences for foods or styles of clothing and housing, etiquette, music and other art forms, and athletics--while others, like some of the items on Huntington's list of differences between civilizations (for example, relations between individuals, each other, and the group; rights vs. responsibilities; liberty vs. authority; equality vs. hierarchy), might well be widely considered worth fighting and dying and killing for.

Rorty's emphasis is on a particular value, which he calls "emancipation from cruelty," or the development of "a decent society," following the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, who defines it as "one where social institutions do not humiliate." "The big question about the coming century, and about the coming millennium, is . . . whether the gradual diminution of the oppression of the weak by the strong that has marked the 20th century will continue" in spite of such troubling doubts as this: "we still have no idea whether the planet can sustain the 7 billion human beings who will shortly inhabit it." He concludes, "What it will take to get us through the next century, and to make the next millennium one of continued progress toward a decent society, is practical ingenuity. . . . What will help is a breed of leaders with sufficient imagination to propose bold yet concrete solutions-solutions to be debated by the newly literate populations of the world's democracies."

If I understand Rorty here, his emphasis on decency echoes the basic value Humanists place on the "worth and dignity of every human being." His proposal to achieve decency through "debate" and "democracy" also reflects fundamental Humanist values. At the same time, the notion that these values really can work on the world stage implies a degree of universality for them that Rorty seems unwilling to assert for them explicitly. His attempt to set forth a program that "just might succeed" in resolving the conflicts of the next millennium is consistent with the mood of Humanism and contrasts palpably with Huntington's darker vision.

The Clash of Beliefs?

As several of Huntington's critics have pointed out, one of the weaknesses of his argument lies in the profound heterogeneity of some of the "civilizations" he defines. What he calls Confucian (or "Sinic") civilization is supposed to include all of East Asia except Japan; Islam stretches from the Maghrib to Indonesia and includes several major language groups. Looking closely at so-called "Western" civilization, the supposed target of the others, we find one of the most culturally diverse entities of them all, with significant representations from each of the rest.

Of the various belief systems in the West, the most important numerically are the Judeo-Christian belief system and "science," the latter being broadly defined to include all "true" beliefs--beliefs about the world that are confirmed by observation. It is wrong to think of "science" as merely a "Western" belief system; its connection with the West is a historical accident, in that the observations of "science" are open to persons in all civilizations, and this fact deservedly gives it great political advantage. As the only belief system already accepted by large numbers of educated elites in all civilizations, "science" will surely become the universal belief system in the very long term. It is important that "science" is the only reliable belief system for understanding, predicting, and controlling events in our world. It is important that "science" works. It is important that "science" is intrinsically democratic and available to all. For our present purpose it is especially important that "science" has always been the belief system of Humanism.

. . . plus ça change

Earlier in this essay I accused Samuel Huntington of holding the pessimistic view that "nothing ever changes." To be sure, by any realistic assessment both China and the Islamic world (for example) have serious issues today with the West, especially the United States. Some of these issues have the constant potential to develop into open confrontations that could further escalate into violent conflicts if badly managed. According to Huntington, such conflicts are all but inevitable between civilizations, because, in effect, "we have always done it that way." Moreover, the prospect that he raises of future alliances between these two potential adversaries against the West is an alarming one, not to be discounted out of hand.

Although Islamic and Confucian civilizations are very different from each other, they share certain features that create the potential for misunderstandings and serious conflict with the West. Both have histories of perceived injustices against them by the West. Both have histories of great cultural achievements in which they take deep pride and which give them a sense of cultural superiority. Both have seen these achievements followed by prolonged periods of decline for which they hold the West at least partly responsible. Both are overpopulated by Western standards. Both are economically underdeveloped, with a high proportion of their populations living in poverty by Western standards. Both have had long cultural traditions of authoritarian government, with limited experience of Western forms of democracy. And so on. The Humanist assignment is to foster harmonious relations with these civilizations while carrying such heavy baggage.

Huntington's pessimism exaggerates these difficulties, by repeatedly emphasizing the intractable inertia of civilizations. In so doing he not only fails to acknowledge the advantage of all those who follow others, but also ignores the profound acceleration of change in recent times, especially that which already accompanies the infant revolution in worldwide communication. Quite early in my adolescence I was enormously empowered by the motto of the math classic Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson: "What one fool can do, another can." For me these inspirational words now help to put the imagined insurmountability of cultural barriers in proper perspective. In the coming millennium those who seek rapid change will have incredible tools at their disposal.

What, then, is my Humanist vision of the relationships that can obtain among the great civilizations in the next millennium? I believe there is much reason to hope that the patterns of "inevitable" conflict among civilizations in previous centuries have been broken. While news accounts are full of the terrorist activities of the millionaire terrorist Osama bin Laden, and the State Department speaks of terrorism as "The War of the Future," it would be terribly wrong to conclude that Osama represents Islam. And if he does not, his position is ultimately precarious. I have commented in a previous article that although Islamic fundamentalism is currently ascendant the long-term outlook for the evolution of more liberal forms of Islam and even an "Islamic Humanism" seems to me to be favorable. If Christianity and Judaism, both inherently conservative, can evolve by gradual stages into Humanism I see no reason why Islam cannot. "What one fool can do, another can."

Chinese civilization, which Huntington has described as "Confucian," has also been called "humanist" (meaning human-centered) and "pragmatic" (meaning goal-centered). During this century China has entertained ideologies ranging from Karl Marx to John Dewey (represented by Hu Shih), from Mao Tse Tung to Thomas Jefferson, all in the name of The People. In 1978 Communist Deng Xiaoping opened up Chinese markets with the new slogan, "Facai zhifu shi guangrong de" ("To Get Rich is Glorious"). Confucius has been in and out and in again. In 1989, the year of the Tien-an-men demonstrations, an important meeting was held in Beijing to commemorate the putative 2,540th birthday of Confucius. Five years later another conference of distinguished scholars examined in detail many different aspects of "Confucianism and Human Rights." From events in just the past few months it is clear that the Chinese leaders are still attempting to find new ways to legitimize their government with the masses while retaining control. As this manuscript is being completed (August 25, 1998), the New York Times reports the discreet publication in China of 30,000 copies of "Political China: Facing the Era of Choosing a New Structure," by "32 scholars, journalists, former Government officials who were dismissed for their democratic sympathies, and even an adviser to President Jiang Zemin."


© 1998 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

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