Global culture is the next frontier. We are witnessing the beginnings of what will be a lengthy struggle to shape global values. The violent protests and debates over free speech that recently convulsed many countries will turn out to be but one episode. And it will involve not just Muslims and Westerners.
As globalization has knitted the world into a singular space, including media, the Internet and the flow of markets, so we are shifting to a global context in the debate over cultural values. Increasingly, different parties will seek to determine the foundations of global norms.
Here in the United States, we have presumed a national culture, or the common values that provide the foundation for the give-and-take of our civic and political life. Other countries have had their own cultural models. The geographic scale of such cultural points of reference has shifted over history.
The arc of human history shows a continuous ratcheting up in the scale of community. From roughly the 17th century, we saw the emergence of centralized states and cohesive nations.
Yet all these shifts were accompanied by a good degree of violence and struggle. Why? As the scale of human community grew, so different groups struggled to shape the nature of these communities — not only over economic advantage but also culture and values.
Just consider American history. As the United States was increasingly integrated through industrialization, so conflict over slavery grew more acrimonious. Indeed, the nation’s bloodiest war was the Civil War, not one with outsiders. Slavery represented a deep fissure, invoking vastly different images of American political and cultural values.
The violent protests across parts of the Muslim world over insults to the Prophet Mohammed — a repetition of the Danish cartoon crisis — exemplify a new stage in these struggles. That scale is now global.
The fight over speech, from free speech to regulating speech, is emblematic of this conflict. Some claim we should limit free speech if it offends “human dignity.” For example, a satirical portrait of President Jacob Zuma in South Africa generated calls for its banning as it offended the president’s dignity. We heard the same calls regarding the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
For others, the notion of the “abuse of free speech” is a contradiction in terms. Yet today it is impossible to insulate speech across borders. The argument is inevitable. The desire to shape the rules of global discourse will follow. These kinds of fights are likely with us for decades, as global culture gets shaped.
The Chinese, Russians and Africans, not just Muslims and Westerners, will want their voices heard as well in this quarrel.
It is critical to understand this dispute is also internal to Muslim communities.
This is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash for the future of civil society, on a global scale. Protecting freedom of expression will be key.
David Jacobson directs the Citizenship Initiative at the University of South Florida.