The world of the worm is a very different place to the world of the bird.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, a world in which animals can talk. The bird would describe a world of wide open skies, and of life in a flock. The worm would describe a life spent underground in nutrient rich compost.
Were you to ask both about a bird eating a worm, you would obviously get two very different answers. The bird may recall a tasty, squirmy snack. The worm would probably turn white on you asking the question; after all, you would have asked them about a quick and painful death. Neither perspective would be right, or wrong; just taken from a very different vantage point.
But to get a truly bizarre answer, you would have to ask the bird about life as a worm (or vice-versa). Sure, a wise and well read old owl with an active imagination might give you a fairly reasonable account of a worm’s life. But the mind boggles at what sort of nonsense you’d get from your average pigeon.
That birds and worms see the world may see the world differently is self evident. Yet we forget that something similar can happen when we talk about other societies. And in the wake of the 2008 Olympics – particularly in the cases of Zimbabwe, Georgia, and China – there’s been no shortage of talk.
Of course, as human beings, we have far more in common than birds and worms. It is too often forgotten just how much we all do share in common, particularly at a biological level. But we are far more than our biology.
What defines us as humans are the circumstances we find ourselves in. Since the day we were born, we’ve been the products of our natural and urban environment, our language, our culture, our language, our education, our personal history, and the people around us. We spent our whole lives re-adapting who we were as infants as our circumstances change. We adapt, and re-adapt, and then re-adapt again.
In turn, we are enmeshed in the complex webs of co-operation and conflict that make up our cultures and societies. As with the humans that make them up (and are shaped by them), these webs are constantly adapting to an ever-changing interplay of circumstances. The history of a civilisation is the fascinating tale of how it has adapted to new circumstances (or, sometimes, how it has failed to adapt), and has come to be what it is today. In turn, our culture today is largely a product of how it has adapted throughout its history.
There are large differences between cultures. This is because they are the products of different histories, and different circumstances, having overcome different challenges at different times. And, like birds and worms, people from different cultures also interpret the same events differently. Because of this, the wise old owls of anthropology warn, we need to be careful about assuming our values, culture, and history when we examine other societies. We need to be mindful not to project the lessons learned from the histories of one set of cultures on another set of very different cultures and histories.
Because China never experienced Christendom, or the Dark Ages. Nor did it experience the Enlightenment or Reformation. Where the English Industrial Revolution took place in the 18th and 19th Centuries in a post-Feudal society, China’s equivalent is taking place now, in a post-Maoist state. Similarly, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the Chinese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward all took place in China, and not the West. Projecting the lessons of Western history on China’s many cultures will, ultimately, and in frustration.
The same thing happens when we criticise Robert Mugabe as if he existed in a historical vacuum, and treat him accordingly. Even to the most aware Westerners, cultural imperialism, colonialism, the IMF and the World Bank are (and were) problems ‘somewhere else.’ Well, to Zimbabweans, that ‘somewhere else’ is also known as ‘home.’ It has bred, in Zimbabwe, a politics of national liberation – a ‘defensive nationalism’ – with no equivalent in the West (with a few exceptions, including Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Israel). The idea that a leader, whose power is based on a defensive nationalism, could use Western threats to legitimise his government seems not to have crossed the minds of many in the West.
As for Russia’s recent rise… well, that’s a topic for another day.
The Beijing Olympics have come and gone. In its wake, there was much talk of Russian troops in Georgia, of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and of Chinese human rights. But all I could hear was the sound of a thousand pigeons.