When I was a kid, my cousin Henry and I played a game called “dig to China.” It wasn’t a complicated game. Basically, you’d say: “let’s dig to China!” and go digging in the backyard.
Looking back, there were several flaws in our plan. First, we didn’t account for the earth’s molten core, which would have melted our little plastic shovels, and us. Second – besides lacking the necessary permits – we wouldn’t have had any place to store all the dirt. Third, the way gravity works, we would have been pulled into the centre of the earth and shot out the other side, stopping just before the exit, only to be sucked back in again to repeat the process eternally. Fourth, digging straight down from Southern Ontario would put us in the middle of the Indian Ocean. And fifth – and most importantly – we had the attention spans of latte-slurping squirrels and got bored after about five minutes.
But the “why” of the game was the important thing, anyway, not the “what.” The idea of digging to China was to escape. To go somewhere exotic and truly different. And the most exotic and different place that occurred to us, as Canadian kids of the early 1970s, was China.
A few years ago, I finally got to go to China on business.
And I remember sitting in a Starbucks and thinking to myself “This could literally be any place on earth right now. There’s nothing special about it.”
What I was feeling is what anthropologists call “cultural homogenization,” or the destruction of local cultures by a large, influential global culture. It’s sometimes also called “westernization” or “Americanization,” but it’s probably a bit more complicated than that because multiple cultures are part of this global culture. For example, Japanese anime and sushi is available in almost every part of the globe now. Ditto Bollywood films and Indian food.
For example, I once had the totally surreal experience of sitting in an Irish pub in China, while people sang karaoke in English. That’s four cultures right there.
Babel in Reverse
Most recently, I felt the forces of cultural homogenization in Amsterdam. My second language is Dutch – and I speak it pretty well – but I didn’t have a chance to use it, because everyone (and I mean everyone) spoke to me in English. Trying to find bitterballen in Central Amsterdam these days is nearly impossible, though I did enjoy a lovely Thai restaurant with my cousins. And then there were the signs – in English and aimed mostly at British tourists – reminding people not to pee on the streets.
It’s a little bit like the Tower of Babel, but in reverse. Instead of languages and cultures becoming confused, they’re coming together. And – if the Biblical example is anything to go by – you might think that this would lead to greater understanding and cooperation among people, but that’s not true.
In our global culture, everyone – from white right-wing extremists in the U.S. Bible Belt to Pacific islanders living in remote parts of the world – feels their culture is under threat. And, in a sense, they’re right. Local languages and local cultures everywhere are getting flattened out and squeezed together like a hamburger patty. UNESCO counts 2,473 languages worldwide as endangered – and more than 200 languages have become extinct around the world over the last three generations.
What’s driving all of this isn’t some nefarious political agenda, but rather the flow of capital. Global brands like Audi, The Gap and Samsung spill across borders, demolish competition and erase differences. You can order a box of KFC just a few hundred metres away from the Forbidden City and a slice of Pizza Hut near the Pyramids. And everywhere, there are tourist shops where you can buy coasters and fridge magnets made in a factory in Shanghai.
All of this fills the world with a sense of same-ness. When travelling from place to place, what you notice aren’t charming differences but overwhelming similarities – and yet we are no closer, no more empathetic and no more understanding because of it. In fact, the more alike we actually become, it seems the more likely we are to trump up reasons to dislike and distrust one another.
So whatever it is that brings people together, or creates societies where people look out for one another, and care for one another, it is not social cohesion – despite what one National Post writer suggested in a recent, inflammatory column. It is not sharing the same languages or experiences – it’s not the outward trappings of sameness that bring us together. If it were, we’d be living in a new Eden, already.
The answer, I think, lies elsewhere – and in my next column.
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