Longing to Belong: Cultivating Transcultural Humanism as a Source of Identity
by Roger Griffin
Roger Griffin is professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of over 100 publications — and is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Fascism. Read more about him on Wikipedia.Video on "The dangerous dream of reshaping a clean, original civilization"
Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning
Author: Roger Griffin
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Terrorist’s Creed casts a penetrating beam of understanding into the disturbing and murky psychological world of fanatical violence, explaining how the fanaticism it demands stems from the profoundly human need to imbue existence with meaning and transcendence. Drawing on sociology, psychology, novels and films, it shows how the need to defend or create a territorial or purely cultural ‘home’ in an unforgiving universe can precipitate a process of ‘heroic doubling’—which in extreme circumstances legitimates murder and suicide for the sake of a ‘higher’ cause.For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.
The Need to Belong
The basic premises of this essay are perhaps uncontentious to the point of banality, but hopefully the argument that flows from it will put the issue of multi-culturality in a fresh light. Human beings have an innate need to belong, to feel an integral part of something greater than themselves, a cause, project, or living entity that outlives and transcends their own brief life-line. However the need to belong is deeply ambivalent, creating an inclusive sense of community, idealism, and tolerance in some circumstances, while generating exclusion, fanaticism and violence in others.
It is this ambivalence that must be borne in mind whenever discussions arise in civil society concerning the need to ‘respect’ the cultures of others at all costs, assess the value of religion as a source of harmony or destructiveness, or set about the task of explaining why a minority may be tempted to join movements preaching hatred and violence.
The importance of a deep affective sense of belonging to a wider group of human beings, whether as a living social group or an ‘imagined community’, can doubtless be explained in terms of evolutionary ethics as having profound survival value in pragmatic terms of cooperation and collaboration to overcome shared material threats to existence.
However, I am primarily concerned here with what might be termed the ‘existential’ dimension of belonging, the degree to which it fulfils deep psychological needs and drives beyond the material sphere. In the present context the need for identity and belonging (community), and for a coherent picture of the world (nomos) is treated not just as a material necessity on structural-functional grounds, but as a fundamental human predisposition.
It is a predisposition born of our uniquely reflexive human consciousness and its correlative: the drive to make sense of, and find not just a social but a psychological home, in an ‘objectively’ meaningless, inhospitable universe. Both Ernst Becker and Peter Berger have extensively studied the way human societies have always been driven to construct heroic myths as templates of a higher, transcendent plane of existence, and to elaborate ritual-based cosmologies which make up a ‘sacred canopy’ to ward off the devastating psychological pain which would ensue from coming to grips with the ‘objective’ finitude, absurdity, and loneliness of life on earth.
A major articulator of this approach to belonging is Erich Fromm, a prolific analyst of the healthy and unhealthy conditions of shared co-existence since the depths of the Second World War. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness Fromm explores the theory that the existential needs of ‘man’ (his recurrent term for humanity) are structured by two fundamental biological conditions which mark ‘his’ emergence as a unique species, i) the ever decreasing determination of behaviour by instincts and ii) the growth of the brain and particularly of the neo-cortex.
The self-awareness, reason and imagination that resulted have disrupted the unreflecting harmony with biological life which characterizes animal existence, so that although humanity is part of nature, it constantly transcends nature and the natural limits to existence mentally and spiritually. Human beings are existentially homeless, yet still tied to the planetary home they share with all creatures. Homo sapiens is condemned to ‘ex-ist’, live outside unreflective being, while animals and all other organisms ‘are’, untormented by the knowledge of death and personal mortality.
In evolutionary terms ‘man’ is thus for Fromm an unfinished project. The very physiological and psychological developments which underpin ‘his’ humanity has ‘evicted him from paradise’, the paradise of unreflexive being. The biological dichotomy between ‘missing’ instincts and self-awareness produces existential needs common to all human beings rooted in the drive to overcome the horror of separateness, of powerlessness, of lostness. To survive they are forced to find, construct, invent even, albeit unconsciously, new forms of relating themselves to the world to enable them to feel at home in it.
These Fromm identifies as: a) a frame of reference and devotion (i.e. a ‘world-view’); b) rootedness (i.e. a sense of being part of something both prior and posterior to one’s life; c) unity (i.e. a sense of oneness with at least part of the world; d) effectiveness (i.e. a sense of having an impact on the world; e) excitation (or a relief from boredom and depression). It is clear that the first four of these ways of relating to the world impinge directly on a sense of belonging.
According to Fromm human beings can fulfil these needs in two diametrically opposed ways. Precluded from returning to the symbiotic Garden of Eden which they experience as part of the mother’s world or before evolving into homo sapiens sapiens (i.e. knowing they know, the hallmark of human awareness), they are capable of progressing through a difficult process of individuation to free themselves from the power of the past and so become independent, creative and capable of compassion and love.
These faculties enable individuals (in the sense of fully individuated beings) to experience solidarity with fellow humans in a way which does not deny their separateness or difference—and thereby achieve fulfilment in a state of productive being in the world, one which involves giving and receiving. However, the craving for symbiosis can also lead to regression into a symbolic world in which the mother is substituted by nebulous entities inviting loss of self, and its dissolution and fusion with abstract entities such as god, ancestral soil, class, the nation, the race, the religious community.
The result is the anaesthetization of individual consciousness in states of ritual, trance, ecstasy, or fanatical obedience. In this limbic, atavistic relationship with the world life-enhancing, genuinely creative faculties give way to life-thwarting, destructive ones based on sado-masochism and narcissism. What tends to bring out the negative potential of the human psyche are periods of disequilibrium which rudely disrupt the relatively stable sense of ‘home’ afforded by a sustainable culture or society in which the psychic dichotomies and tensions at the heart of human existence have lain dormant.
The need to restore a new equilibrium will then tend to be satisfied not by healthy (individuated, creative) frames of reference, rootedness, unity and effectiveness, (benign belonging), but by neurotic (symbiotic, destructive) ones in which the integrity of the ‘home’ can only be maintained through the demonization and even war against the ‘other’, (malignant belonging).
The Ambivalence of Belonging
Fromm’s psycho-anthropological analysis provides a broader context within which to understand less methodologically elaborated articles postulating a basic human ‘need to belong’. It also resonates harmoniously with the analysis of the human condition of another major 20th century commentator on the human condition and the unique biological and cognitive substratum that underpins it, Arthur Koestler. Very much in the tradition of the French philosophes, Koestler devoted the last two decades of his life to establishing a positive vision of human potential compatible with the findings of modern science.
A central concern of The Ghost in the Machine (1970) is the physiological basis of human psychology, his interpretation of which places special emphasis on the poor neurological coordination between the neocortex/mesocortex (in which the higher functions of the brain are located) and the phylogenetically older ‘animal’ brain constituted by the limbic system. It is this ‘archicortex’ which is responsible not only for the body’s basic regulatory mechanisms, but also for our instinctive, visceral (i.e. ‘gut’) emotions. The direct result of imperfect ‘wiring’ between the three brains are the major dysfunctions which can arise in human beings’ relationship with external reality and bring about what he calls ‘the predicament of man’.
To simplify crudely Koestler’s subtly argued and extensively documented hypothesis: human beings are endowed with two basic drives, that of self‑assertiveness and the opposite one of self‑transcendence, which enable them to be both autonomous individuals and members of a social hierarchy such as the family or the tribe.
A healthy relationship with the world in all its aspects, i.e. one based on harmony and creative symbiosis with it rather than possessive or destructive urges towards it, depends on a delicate balance of the two drives which allows people to experience themselves simultaneously as unique, independent personalities and as integral parts of larger social entities, both equally vital for the continued dynamism and cohesion of all human societies.
However, because of the ‘paranoid’, ‘delusional’ streak in the human make‑up, both the self‑assertive and self‑transcendent drives can assume a pathological aspect when they take on an obsessive, nihilistic form inconsistent with the demands of survival and irrespective of the damage they inflict on fellow creatures. Ironically, it is the perversion of self‑transcendent emotions, not self‑assertive ones, which have been largely responsible for the chronicle of atrocities which human beings have inflicted on each other down through the ages.
The fanatical certainty of serving a ‘higher cause’ allows the perpetrators of ‘inhuman’ deeds to act—not on their own behalf—but as subordinate parts of a hierarchy, whether human or metaphysical, which absolves them of personal responsibility and invests their actions with the sense of fulfilling a ‘transcendent’ purpose or mission.
As a symptom of how the capacity for self‑transcendence can be perverted, Koestler cites the wide‑spread use of human sacrifice in traditional cultures, a notorious example being that of the Aztecs, who annually sacrificed between twenty and fifty thousand young men, virgins and children so that the sun would not die. The basic mechanism at work in such a culture is that individual self‑transcendent emotions are no longer sublimated through ritual and tradition into mature, humane integration with the external world.
Instead they express themselves via a culturally reinforced collective regression to an infantile type of projection which abolishes the all‑important affective distinction between part and whole—to produce a potentially destructive identification with the supra‑personal entity (the elaborate narrative myths of Aztec culture became lived realities for Aztecs and their victims).
In such circumstances, the human urge to belong and the thirst for meaning is channeled into a sense of unquestioning oneness with a depersonalized social myth which deprives individuals of a creative, ‘human’ and humane relationship with the world. This turns them into tools of ritual violence in the name of an abstract cause or delusory collective purpose, a lived myth.
The Physiology of Belonging
It is this line of argument which leads Koestler to consider two phenomena which are crucial to an inquiry into the psychology of (modern) communities of belief: the emergence of political ideologies, and of crowd psychology. Because the structural defects in the neurology of the brain and its affective apparatus have not repaired themselves through evolution, the decay of religions and the rise of science have not resulted in a general trend towards human beings enjoying a more rational, integrated relationship with society. If anything their predicament has deepened:
Religious wars were superseded by patriotic, then by ideological, wars, fought with the same self‑immolating loyalty and fervor. The opium of revealed religions was replaced by the heroin of secular religions, which commanded the same bemused surrender of the individuality to their doctrines, and the same worshipful love offered by their prophets. The devils and succubi were replaced by a new demonology: sub‑human Jews plotting world dominions; bourgeois capitalists promoting starvation.
The secularization and fragmentation of modern society has generated periodic waves of collective commitment to ideologies in which some individuals become caught up in the type of group mentality which often goes by the name ‘crowd psychology’. The uncanny strength of the human mythopoeic faculty allows the monk alone in his cell to still feel embraced by the love of God. Someone does not need to commingle physically with a crowd to be part of a mass movement (writing before the age of the World Wide Web and social media, Koestler could never have imagined how far virtual communities would prevail over ‘real’ ones to provide a sense of belonging).
By the twentieth century, conditions in some parts of Europe were right for the enlistment of millions of ordinary citizens in the battle for ‘the Classless Society,’ or the ‘Millennial Reich’. They were lured not by their egotism, but by their unselfishness, their idealism, their urge to place their lives in the service of a higher cause and so solve their personal existential crisis generated by the objective breakdown of their society, their ‘world’.
Their secular creeds could allow them to feel they belonged to a ‘national community’ or ‘socialist community’ as intensely as any religions in the past were able to convince believers they were part of a community of the saved.
Both the Fascist and the Soviet myths were not syncretic constructions, but revivals of archetypes, both capable of absorbing not only the cerebral component but the total man; both provided emotional saturation.
Applied to both traditional and modern belief systems/ideologies in general, Koestler’s theory implies that genuine affective commitment to any of them is an act of self-transcendence. What distinguishes the content and consequences of that commitment is first, whether the ideology encourages integration (the retention of individuality, critical distance, humanity, the embrace of the ‘other’) or identification (blind obedience, fanaticism, suppression of individual conscience, the rejection of the ‘other’); and second, what the precise mythic object of integration/identification is.
The major Western and Eastern religions/metaphysical systems, no less than secular liberal humanism, when not contaminated by toxic spiritual forces (e.g. by worldly corruption and ambition, patriarchy, fanaticism, misogyny, chauvinism or capitalism) are integrative ideologies. So is communism in principle, though since Lenin all communist regimes have tended to operate as identificatory ‘state religions’ in practice, despite the theoretical stress on a universal classless and stateless society as the ultimate goal of humanity.
In the case of fascism, its core myth of the regenerated national community led by a revolutionary elite calls a priori for an act of identification which excludes a vast array of demonized others from humanity, a neurologically based mischannelling of the human drive for self‑transcendence. This engenders a paranoid, dualistic mind‑set conducive to boundless idealism and fanatical devotion towards the embryonic new or reborn nation, coupled with ruthless violence directed at its alleged enemies.
All three Abrahamic religions have repeatedly demonstrated throughout their histories their profound ambivalence, their capacity to be both the source of astounding levels of integrative humanism and of fanatical identification with the ‘sole Truth’—to the point of hatred of ‘infidels’. Meanwhile state socialism, so ‘integrative’ on paper, has proved catastrophically identificatory in many of the totalitarian experiments to impose it as the basis of a new world and new order. Whether interpreted in an identificatory or integrative way the human need for belonging is satisfied, but with radically different consequences.
‘Inhumanity’ and Transcultural Humanism
Taken together, Fromm and Koestler offer a comprehensive explanation for the paradoxical, Janus-headed behavior of human beings throughout their history, both destructive, cruel, barbaric, ‘inhuman’—and almost in the same breath creative, compassionate, sublime and ‘humane’. Though our analysis has been unashamedly secular and scientific, the paradoxical, ambivalent nature of the human need to belong could also be modelled using the metaphysical cosmologies of any religious or metaphysical world view that gives an account of the presence of ‘evil’ in the world as the enemy of ‘good’—whether Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Christianity.
The narratives of destruction and creation, of identificatory and integrative belonging, interweave their way through our species’ time on earth like the double-helix structure of DNA. There is a continuous history of war, colonization, subjugation, enslavement, persecution and genocide which taken on its own would suggest that human beings are intrinsically violent, territorial, xenophobic, and sadistic. The chronicles of the past are thus littered with examples of cultural, ethnic, or religious ‘communities of destiny’ where the corollary of belonging to an ‘in-group’ was the license to commit atrocities on unimaginable scales of cruelty and sadism on ‘out-groups’.
Running alongside and intertwined with this story, however, is the less familiar one of individual human beings, and at times entire communities, repeatedly demonstrating their capacity for rising above their visceral sense of being able to belong only to one exclusive kinship system, group, ethnicity, culture, language, faith, or way of being—so as to engage lovingly and creatively with the humanity of those of other cultures.
Pathological forms of xenophobia and ethnocentrism have thus always coexisted with the potential for xenophilia and what I propose to call ‘transcultural humanism’, whether religious or secular. Just how ancient this capacity is can be glimpsed in the Epicurean Inscription of Diogenes of Oineanda, a forerunner of secular humanism, which dates back to the 2nd century AD, which declares:
We Epicureans bring these truths, not to all men whatsoever, but only to those men who are benevolent and capable of receiving this wisdom. This includes those who are called “foreigners,” though they are not really so, for the compass of the world gives all people a single country and home. But it does not include all people whatsoever, and I am not pressuring any of you to testify thoughtlessly and unreflectively.
Fear of the gods; fear of death; fear of pain; fear of slavery to those desires which are neither natural nor necessary. The day will come when none of these shall interrupt the continuity of our friendships, and of our happiness, in the study of philosophy. In that day, wise men will tend the Earth, in a life close to Nature; our agriculture will provide for our needs, and we, and those who are our friends, will live as gods among men.
Nor is such a benevolent vision of the human capacity for peaceful, productive coexistence across cultures just a bucolic utopia. Erich Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness produces a wealth of anthropological and psychological evidence to demonstrate the presence of such a capacity throughout history, even if its effects constantly risk being overshadowed and obliterated by hatred, strife and destruction.
Perhaps the most powerful testimony to the millennial power of integrative belonging and transcultural humanism is to be found not in the sphere of politics or anthropology, but in the histories of language, pottery, mythology, weaving, cooking, dance, trade, multilingualism, mixed marriages, multicultural and multi-faith societies, heredity, and genetics.
All of these point to a constant process of histoires croisés, of transhistorical and transcultural phenomena, of cultural and religious hybridization produced by a profound, innate capacity of human beings to communicate, trade, love, marry, work, learn, and create cooperatively across ethnic and cultural borders and divides. Recently empirical evidence has come to light that Homo Sapiens overlapped with and interbred with Neanderthals before they became extinct, which may have boosted ‘our’ capacity to cope with cold climates. In other words, human beings have a proven capacity for interaction and symbiosis—even with another species.
Modernity and Belonging
It is generally agreed that the rise of a globalizing modernity — that nexus of the rise of science, rationalism, urbanization, literacy, the machine age, mass communications and transport systems, mass social mobility, materialism, and intensified inter-cultural exchange—has had a devastating impact on traditional religious societies and the sense of belonging they afforded.
Max Weber saw rationalization as ‘disenchanting’ society, Emile Durkheim as creating ‘anomie’, Joseph Schumpeter as a process of continual ‘creative destruction’, Peter Berger as eroding the ‘nomos’, the sacred canopy, Anthony Giddens as disembedding humans from time and space, Zygmunt Bauman as creating an age of ambivalence, of the ‘liquefaction’ of time and space, Marshall Berman as creating a ‘vortex’ of shifting, swirling realities, as making ‘all that is solid melt into thin air’, a phrase taken from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
Such a world of flux—of proliferating and conflicting realities—obviously places a permanent stress on, and is a profound threat to, a naïve, unreflecting sense of belonging, generating for those not protected by a solid nomos or overarching sacred canopy the need either to distract themselves constantly from the pain of naked being, or to find a new source of total belonging and culture, of purpose and mission, however temporary.
But whatever ‘hold’ individuals may find on meaning and purpose life, it is constantly being undermined by skepticism, relativism, the liquefaction of reality, thus provoking a deep nomic crisis in the life of individuals with a particular need for coherent meaning and identity in life. If they are brought within a religious or ideological ‘home’, this crisis may drive them into the defensive or aggressive fanaticism necessary to protect a beleaguered set of traditional values and beliefs.
However, those without a faith—who desperately seek a new source of belonging and purpose—will tend either to be prone to bouts of despair and depression, or become engaged in various forms of addictive behavior to numb the pain. The third possibility is that they solve the nomic crisis differently: by seeking out a new life mission, by finding a creative activity driven by their craving for meaning, or by zealously adopting a new belief system which allows them to put back up the fallen sky protecting them from nihilism. This new belief system may be integrative or identificatory.
Abundant evidence for non-identificatory, integrative, transcultural responses to the nomic crisis of modernity is to be found in the realm of the experimental art which poured forth at the turn of the twentieth century and which known under the heading ‘modernism’: artists as different as van Gogh, Satie, Magritte, Kafka and Kandinsky sought to find visual or literary images for the tormented experience of transcendence under modernity or asserted the hidden presence of a spiritual reality invisible to the materialistic mindset.
Movements too, such as Nietzscheanism, theosophy, social reformism, feminism, Freudianism, rationalist architecture, Constructivism, Surrealism, all sought to emancipate subjugate groups within society and usher in a new age, and can also be seen as forms of social or political modernism, rebellions against the growing disenchantment or nihilism of modernity.
Even some forms of integrative modernism already contained the seeds of identificatory politics: Futurism allied itself with Fascism, and Constructivism with Bolshevism even after the murderous impact of Soviet totalitarianism had become evident, while positive eugenics and social hygiene, which sought to liberate humankind from physical degeneracy, and which was supported by socialists and nationalists alike, was already by the 1900s giving rise to dystopian scenarios from a humanistic perspective with suggestions of campaigns of negative eugenics in which the dysgenic would be sterilized.
Meanwhile cultural and biological forms of militant ultranationalism and racism were in the air and would explode into the orgy of slaughter and ‘sacrifice’ on behalf of the organically conceived nation in the First World War— as energies liberated from the decay of theological Christianity and Islam became liberated to be channeled into defending the ‘nation’ or ‘people’, and asserting its rights to exist at the expense of the individual.
The 1930s saw the rise of two ‘modernist’ states that between them would directly or indirectly lead to the deaths of millions of soldiers and even more millions of civilians in the pursuit of their utopias, because these were identificatory utopias, based on fostering collective fanaticism in support for or collective submission to visions of a radical new order, an alternative modernity which would bring about a temporal and anthropological revolution: a new era and a new man.
To belong affectively to and identify with the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft or the Soviet Union, and later the Maoist Revolution meant colluding with genocides, or actively contributing to them: the extermination of demonized others in their millions who had been stripped of their humanity by an identificatory political religion.
Meanwhile a miniature versions of Nazi and Stalinist terror regimes were created by the Croatian Ustasha, to be followed after the war by several socialist societies which translated the integrative promises of socialism into pretexts to build a terror state, the most obvious contemporary example being North Korea, a strange blend of personality cult and state socialism where the demonized other is, as under Pol Pot, the Korean people itself.
With or without the backing of a spontaneous mass movement of populist support, such regimes originate in the urge to protect ‘the home’, ‘one’s own kind’ from outsiders, the threat of the foreigner—who become dehumanized in the process of institutionalizing and militarizing the defense of the ‘homeland’ or ‘ideal society’.
In their compulsion to defend liberal values, purportedly democratic states can also succumb to the temptation to identificatory sources of belonging—in their appeals to patriotism and readiness to commit war-crimes on behalf of ‘civilization’, as the mass killing of civilians by Britain and the US in both world wars and the Second Gulf War exemplifies, not to mention the horrors inflicted on the Vietnamese in the Vietnam War.
Jihadism is the latest manifestation of identificatory belonging to erupt into modern history, spawning Isis in its defense of the imagined community of a global Caliphate conceived as under attack from the ‘West’ yet destined to triumph over the decadence of the world and save it from moral decadence and apostasy. If our only yardstick for judging the state of ‘belonging’ in the modern world was current affairs a causal observer could be forgiven for thinking that only identificatory forms of it had prevailed.
Transcultural humanism under modernity
Yet look again. The double helix of belonging is still here in a world pullulating with initiatives to reach out across the barriers of race, culture and religion to create a better world, and establish ‘the compass of the world’ as a single country and home’ for all people. The United Nations, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, interfaith and intercultural groups such as the Dialogue Society, the continuous work of liberal newspapers, TV stations, educationalists, and social workers in many democratic societies to oppose racism, social exclusion for many ‘out-groups’—just the more conspicuous expression of the countervailing Velvet Revolution of transcultural humanism.
Mixed marriages are becoming increasingly common throughout the democratic world, moderate forms of Christianity and Islam vastly outweigh exclusive fanatical and fundamentalist forms statistically, no matter how hidden by the headlines, the fusion of cultures through sport, music, cooking and ethnic groups is becoming more powerful throughout the non-totalitarian world, multilinguism is soaring, social contacts between those of different faiths and tolerance that goes with that—continue to form an irresistible force for humanistic change defying all those who try to crush otherness in the name of Tradition or Purity.
When the same news bulletin reports both on the advance of Isis in Syria and on the departure of NHS and British army volunteers from the UK to fight the Ebola epidemic, then we see the double helix of belonging at work. In fact, the modern age has brought more and more scientific refutation of the assumption that human beings are by nature aggressive, violent and territorial.
Modern social scientists such as Robert Lifton in his The Protean Self have refuted naïve premises about the incapacity of human beings to accommodate plural cultural identities and ‘selves’, an ability which lies at the basis of integrative multiculturalism, multi-nationalities, multi-lingualism, and transcultural or transfaith intercultural relations and families. History has unearthed numerous societies which were already melting-pots of different races and cultures, notably Baghdad, Alexandria, and Southern Spain in the Middle Ages.
Modern genetics and DNA research has systematically deconstructed and refuted the notion of biologically separate or pure races and emphasized the extraordinary intermingling of racial groups that has occurred in prehistorical times mixing and merging genetic material, even in countries allegedly of ‘pure’ race such as Japan.
It is thus far from utopian wishful-thinking, but rather entirely empirically based if three individuals who suffered persecution by a military regime, communist state, and Jihadist fanaticism respectively have become brilliant advocates for a transcultural humanism. In her speech to Oxford University made during the ceremony which conferred on her an Honorary Degree, Aung San Suu Kyi stressed the humanizing impact of her time there as a student through its revelation of the best of human beings, namely their capacity to transcend culture and gender:
The most important thing for me about Oxford was not what I learnt there in terms of set texts and set books we had to read, but in terms of a respect for the best in human civilisation. And the best in human civilisation comes from all parts of the world. It is not limited to Oxford; it is not limited to Burma; it is not limited to any other country. But the fact that in Oxford I had learned to respect all that is the best in human civilisation helped me to cope with what was not quite the best.
Because what is not yet quite the best may still, one day, become the best; it may be improved. It gave me a confidence in humankind. It gave me a confidence in the innate wisdom of human beings – not given to all of us, but given to enough of us for the rest of the world to share, and to make use of it for others.
Vaclav Havel, once prisoner of the Czechoslovak Soviet Puppet State for his dissident activities as agitator and playwright, and eventually the president of the Czech Republic formed from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, wrote the following about identity for the New York Review of Books:
What a person perceives as his home can be compared to a set of concentric circles, with his ‘I’ at the centre. My home is the room I live in, the room I’ve grown accustomed to, and which, in a manner of speaking, I have covered with my own invisible lining. I recall, for instance, that even my prison cell was, in a sense, my home, and I felt very put out whenever I was suddenly required to move to another… My home is the house I live in, the village or town where I spend most of my time. My home is my family, the world of my friends, the social and intellectual milieu in which I live, my profession, my company, my work place.
My home, obviously, is also the country I live in, the language I speak, and the intellectual and spiritual climate of my country expressed in the language spoken there. The Czech language, the Czech way of perceiving the world, Czech historical experience, the Czech modes of courage and cowardice, Czech humor … all these are inseparable from that circle of my home.
My home is therefore my Czechness, my nationality, and I see no reason at all why I shouldn’t embrace it since it is as an essential part of me as, for instance, my masculinity, another aspect of my home. My home, of course, is not only my Czechness, it is also my Czecholsovakness, which means my citizenship. Ultimately my home is Europe and my Europeanness; finally it is this planet and its present civilization, and, understandably, the whole world.
I certainly do not want, therefore, to suppress the national dimension of a person’s identity, or to deny it, or to refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy and its right to full self-realization. I merely reject the kind of political notions that attempt, in the name of nationality, to suppress other aspects of the human home, other aspects of humanity and human rights.
Finally the comments on those with an identificatory relationship to their Islamic culture and religion, written while still in hiding from those keen to carry out the fatwah on his life. He commented that standing at the centre of the novel Satanic Verses was a group of British Muslims, or ‘not particularly religious persons of Muslim background’, struggling with issues of identity, community and belonging. Rejecting ‘identificatory’ Islamist and Salafist notions of Muslim identity, he affirmed that
The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combination of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that, is how newness enters the world. Throughout human history, the apostles of purity, those who have claimed to possess a total explanation, have wrought, havoc among mere mixed up human beings. Like many millions of people, I am a bastard child of history. Perhaps we all are, black and brown and white, leaking into one another, as a character of mine once set, like flavors when you cook.
Inferences for transcultural dialogue in Britain
The argument developed in this essay has a number of implications for discussions of inter-community dialogue in contemporary Britain. First, to postulate the capacity of human community of different religions and non-religions to coexist and enrich each other’s worlds through their interaction is not wishy-washy idealism, but a historical and genetic fact, so that pseudo-scientific assertions that human beings are naturally aggressive, territorial, exclusive and that cultures cannot mix are empirically wrong.
There is particular irony when such assertions are made by ‘racists’ in Britain, since every aspect of Britishness— he genetic make-up, culture, food, literature, language, and even the weather—is a product of synthesis and mongrelization. Thus there is a human predisposition towards dialogue and cultural transfer.
Second, as long as the uniqueness of a culture is asserted in an integrative spirit as just one of an individual’s sources of belonging and ‘sacred canopy’, and the principle of multiple identities is recognized and promoted throughout society in education, jobs, the media, and institutions, then multi-culturalism can be a source of newness and mutual enrichment, and everyone can celebrate having a ‘hyphenated’ identity with plural belongings and self-descriptions.
But this means actively combating identificatory relationships with one’s home culture or one particular identity which lessen the humanity of the other and can encourage prejudice and inhumanity towards children, women, disadvantaged individuals and ‘outsiders’. In other words, liberal tolerance in a democratic society does not mean embracing all cultures unconditionally, but accepting them only on condition that their practices are not illiberal. For faith communities, this means rejecting fundamentalist interpretations of religion leading to hatred and violence, just as it means for a secular white society combating racism towards ‘immigrants’.
Third, the spirit to be aimed for in all attempts at ‘dialogue’ should not be one of mutual caution and fear, like the dialogue between a divorcing couple, but one of curiosity, celebration and openness, like the conversation of two people fascinated with each other. A society fostering multiple identities can be a source not of confusion and insecurity but of a heightened sense of vitality and humanistic love.
It is the way awareness of other cultures and other faiths can deepen the humanistic content both of a religious belief and of atheism that should be the premise of dialogue, not just the need to overcome suspicion and fear. But it is vital that the representatives of all faiths and non-faiths accept the potential for violence, hatred, and war contained within their world view when it is interpreted in an identificatory mind-set.
Gottfried Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise Man, in which three sons are given a ring of gold, only one of which is the ‘true’ ring but none is told which is that ring, was written as a metaphor for the coexistence of the Abrahamic faiths and still could be a seminal text today.
In a modern age posing a permanent threat to identity and belonging, especially to the descendants of immigrant communities, it is vital that the integrative transcultural humanism latent in religious and secular society prevails over fixed, single, identificatory identities. Otherwise, Europe, exposed to mounting demographic and ecological pressures from outside, might well degenerate into a Fortress in its response to the developing world, while hosting degenerating ethnic, sectarian and communal tensions from within the citadel.
For the British context for integrative belonging to remain in the ascendancy means not just fostering more dialogue between communities, but encouraging greater shared knowledge of each other, and deliberately intensifying the resources of pluralistic humanism whether secular or religious, within the various communities—so that it becomes associated with the strong sense of belonging, meaning and identity that so many crave.
Alan Henning was beheaded by an IS executioner in September 2014 by ‘Jihadi John, possibly the ex-rapper Jinn, aka British Muslim, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary. Henning left his secure job as a taxi driver to work for aid convoys in Syria bringing relief to families in extreme distress. He embodies the best of a visceral sense of belonging to be found within transcultural humanism. His assassin incarnates the psychotic nature of extreme identificatory belonging. The future of humanity will be played out through the clash, not of civilizations, but of ways of belonging to this world.
- Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning. An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962).
- Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy. Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Doubleday, 1967).
- Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (First edition 1973. Penguin edition 1977).
- I accept that religious believers cannot accept this secular, Darwinian premise to an analysis of human belonging, but I trust they may still find something illuminating in what follows.
- R. F. Baumeister, & M. R. Leary, ‘The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation’. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3) (1995) pp. 497-529.
- Though not trained as a scientist he developed a deep concern for the implications of the natural sciences for an understanding of human nature, as is shown in his two major explorations of human consciousness and creativity, The Act of Creation (Pan Piper, 1964) and The Ghost in the Machine (Pan Piper, 1970) as well as his contribution to Beyond Reductionism. New Perspectives in the. Life of Sciences (Macmillan, 1969).
- Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine, p. 273.
- Ibid., p.293.
- Fascism is thus not, as Nolte argued in The Three Faces of Fascism (1969), ‘resistance to transcendence’, but the result of succumbing to a perverted and peculiarly modern identificatory form of it.
- Robert Wistrich, Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia. (Taylor & Francis, 1999’).
- http://www.nature.com/news/modern-human-genomes-reveal-our-inner-neanderthal-1.14615: ‘The study of the modern human genomes reveal our inner Neanderthal: Cross-breeding boosted Homo sapiens’ ability to cope with cool climates, but the hybrids may have had trouble breeding.’
- Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism. The Sense of Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave, 2007); Marius Turda, Modernism and Eugenics (Palgrave, 2010).
- Vaclav Havel, ‘On Home’, New York Review of Books, December 5, 1991.
- Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (Penguin, 1992), p. 394.