Clash of civilizations?

December 9, 2006

Ants are social creatures. Their society is complex and well structured. Each ant is assigned an individual function – a worker, a soldier, a matron – and together they build a commonwealth that is a wonder to behold. They live in huge conical buildings that have compartments for housing, for food storage, for nurseries, that protect them against the elements. The ant society is truly a wonder.

But is it a “civilization?”

The answer from the humans is “no” – we call it a “colony,” reserving the word “civilization” for our own societies.

Is that fair? Aren’t the two societies fundamentally similar – the same coordination of effort, the same division of labor, the same spirit of cooperation that helps preserve the collective, and therefore individual, well-being? Aren’t the societies of ants and of humans the same kind of a society?

It depends. There is no uniform answer because there is no uniformity in human societies. They come in two basic varieties. One is based on some “Truth” – religious, social, racial. Naturally, these give no leeway for thinking, since in them the Truth has already been ascertained. It is known exactly what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false; nothing is left to think about. Such Truth-based societies – Nazi, Communist, Islamic states – do not differ from the ant society at all, because neither has any use for brains. In the ant society thinking is substituted by an instinct, in human societies it is replaced with some Truth. In both cases the behavior is programmed.

But while there are many “colonies of humans” – places like North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran – there are human “civilizations” too. These are based on realization that there is no getting at grand “Truth,” that each of us has his or her own vision of what is true, that these visions have to be balanced through compromise, and those of the majority given a status of official policy. Hence elections at regular intervals, and free speech to get at every side of the issue at hand. In “civilizations” the use of brains is paramount, while in a “colony” it is impossible. That’s the main difference between the two.

And today, as terrorists confront the West, are we in for the “clash of civilizations?” The answer is, again, “it depends.” It is a “clash of civilizations” when people from Western Europe clash in the press with the Americans on how to deal with the looming threat. There can be – and there recently was – a “clash of civilizations” at the UN between France and the US, for example. But there is no clash of civilizations when America engages militarily against the jihadis – because those on the other side are not a “civilization,” but a mere colony of humans blinded by their Truth.

When one of the sides engaged in the clash is not a civilization, can we call the resulting conflict a “clash of civilizations”? The answer is an obvious “No.”

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