Can different peoples ever fully trust and understand one another while maintaining their distinct identities
Can different peoples ever fully trust and understand one another while maintaining their distinct identities?
This is one of the key questions of civilization, and a challenge we continue to struggle with today. It seems that anything other that a nuanced response to this inquiry would yield a flat pronouncement - Yes or No - of which, in either case, history would provide numerous contrary examples, with gradations between the poles.
In attempting to answer the question, the first concept to explore would be the idea of different peoples, of which we might attach distinct identities as their expression and self-recognition. If we were to compare England and France, as geographically close peoples for an example, we could say that they have different customs, distinct languages (although with many shared words), and claim separate lineages. There is a long history of mistrust (Shakespeare’s history plays are great sources for details), war between the two nations, competition for colonization, and stereotypical disdain for the other’s mode of living. These two peoples also allied in two world wars in the last century and in the last 75 years have mostly stood shoulder-to-shoulder against shared enemies, especially against the Soviet Union and later Islamic extremist organizations. Perhaps England and France would not be termed radically distinct, since they have so much shared history, and perhaps that is why they can be allies. It seems they understand and trust each other enough to be partners while still maintaining differences, even if these differences are seen as sometimes slight, and other times less so. What these countries do deeply share is Western Culture, in the fullest sense of the word. Further, France and England are two of the largest contributors to the meaning of that cultural expression. Perhaps the general shared values of the West is enough to overcomes pedestrian cultural differences when the circumstances call for it. Ancient Athens and Sparta might offer an even closer example of adjacent peoples who were allies and also fought, and while sharing language and culture (e.g. worshiping the same gods) they also held important differences.
If we consider other peoples who are more clearly distinct from one another, such as the Americans and Chinese, we see a more difficult relationship. These counties are very different in language and history, in political systems, and in several expressed values, such as how to achieve social order. These two nations do co-exist, though the motivations might be driven by economic benefit and mutually assured destruction in the case of large-scale conflict. Consider these lines from the Annual Threat Assessment Report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, April 9, 2021, “The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system. Chinese leaders probably will, however, seek tactical opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when such opportunities suit their interests. China will maintain its major innovation and industrial policies because Chinese leaders see this strategy as necessary to reduce dependence on foreign technologies, enable military advances, and sustain economic growth and thus ensure the CCP’s survival.” Trust between these two peoples seems to be a faraway dream, and perhaps even understanding, though less of a commitment, is shallow, at least at the governmental levels. At the same time, there is an appreciation of each other’s food, art, skill, and philosophy. Perhaps less so now, there was a huge immigration of Chinese into the United States, with the wealthy Chinese still sending their children to private U.S. elementary and high schools, as well as colleges and universities. Individual meetings between Americans and Chinese, whether in China or America, can be warm and mutually friendly. Perhaps these individual connections can offer a clue to achieving trust while maintaining distinction, which could be applied to groups of peoples around the world.
Finally, we might consider differences and difficulties within one nation. What is at the forefront of so much of our reading for Agora within the past two years has been American history, politics, and literature focusing on the black experience in our country. For the sake of the exploration, we might group citizens of generally European descent (even if just in morphology) with citizens of African descent as two peoples now striving to co-exist with trust and understanding, while maintaining distinct identities. Crucially in this case, the African people were initially brought to the American Colonies against their will and then enslaved and bred to continue enslavement through generations. That legacy of power difference continues to influence relationships today.
The principle of respect can transform the relationship between distinct peoples. American colonists revolted against England, but the relationship warmed pretty quickly. The relationship between black and white Americans is taking longer, for obvious reasons. Developing respect between distinct people will facilitate understanding and, eventually trust, but generous efforts will have to be made.