And its difficulty has its roots in history.
The Colonial Superiority Complex
Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.
Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?
1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures
2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others
In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.
In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes,
“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.
Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.
While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.
Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.
Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.
However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.
European Colonialism in Africa
A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.
20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.
Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.
The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.
However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).
Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.
The West didn’t allow either.
China in Africa
On the other hand, there’s China.
Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.
During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.
But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.
There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.
African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.
This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.
Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.