Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Sep. 2, 1994
Published on: 21C Magazine
15 min read
A Turkish soldier holds off Kurdish refugees in 1991

From genocide in Rwanda to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, a new cultural tribalism is leading to the decline of the West.

By Wilson da Silva

HUTUS and Tutsis massacred in Rwanda. Turkish hostels aflame in Germany. Fleeing Kurds gunned down by Iraqi tanks. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. American blacks rioting in Los Angeles.

Every day, new images of conflict cascade down the satellite feeds and into the living rooms of the world. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a trend emerges in the mind of the viewer. Could it be that all of these events are linked by some new force? Is the explosion of racial and ethnic violence of the 1990s just the backwash of collapsing nation-states, the decay of the old East-West hegemony and the proliferation of weapons? Or – perhaps more ominously – is this the rise of a new social ill? 

Speak to some researchers in the field, and you get the impression something new is happening in global society at the end of the 20th Century, something not seen before in human affairs. The collapse of nation-states and the economic slowdown of the once mighty West, coupled with the mass availability of large-scale weapons, is being enjoined by a new cultural phenomenon – something that might be termed cultural tribalism. 

Around the world, conflicts are erupting that have little to do with race or religion and precious little to do with ethnicity. The industrialised West, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – all creations of the political Enlightenment of last century – are starting to fragment. It is more dramatic in the old Communist Bloc, but there is also a rising divisiveness in the West: Québec and Canada, the separatist groundswell of Italy’s Northern League and the fraying of the United States into a cacophony of clamouring pressure groups.

Many of the fissures are opening up along on racial or ethnic fault lines. But not all. Some groups are heightening their differences so that they can better claim to be distinct. They are claiming a distinctness that can be defined as culture, and these differences are becoming a basis for conflict. The deaf, gays, lesbians, women, African-Americans – more vocal proponents are claiming intrinsic cultural differences and, more importantly, the right to define what makes up those differences.

“In a way, it’s the sort of the old decline and fall of the Roman Empire,” says Joel Kahn, professor of anthropology at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “The West is now becoming – this is certainly how Asians look at us – a decadent society concerned with our individual identities and sexuality and so forth. We’ve lost that confidence and therefore we start worshiping primitivism, environment and that sort of thing.

“Why are George Bush and Bill Clinton so worried about the collapse of the American dream?” Kahn asks. “It’s the lack of some kind of confidence, not just at the top but from the middle classes, that seems to me to partly explain what is going on there. I suddenly decide as a middle class American that I’ve had it with America and what’s important is my Jewish identity. I can now see through all the garbage of the American dream.”

Canadian soldier and Mohawk warrior face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, 1990

Perhaps this cultural tribalism, if it is indeed a phenomenon, is more visible in the West because of its pluralist philosophy, which might be said to consider ‘live and let live’ its credo and multiculturalism its pinnacle. But what happens when the language of multiculturalism is appropriated by non-ethnic sub-groups? When ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ doesn’t deliver equality of opportunity for homosexuals, they might themselves as victims of an oppressive heterosexual culture. But does this make gays and lesbians a distinct cultural group? If the American black nationalist religious group, the Nation of Islam, speaks of African-American culture, is it also speaking for the black urban ghetto dwellers of U.S. cities? If a group has no shared cultural experience – save discrimination by whites – does that make it a distinct culture? Or, in the case of homosexuals, can no link but one of sexual preference really be the defining characteristic of a separate culture?

“There is this fundamental shift from culture as essence to culture as expression,” says Chris McAuliffe, a lecturer of cultural studies at the University of Melbourne. “You get a Bosnian saying ‘I’ve got a culture that goes back centuries that is the essential core of my being’; but then you’ve got a Bosnian defining his or her own culture, here and now, by shooting someone who isn’t one. The conflict is supposedly generated by the need to preserve [that culture], but preservation is not what is being done. It is the conflict that allows them to define their identity; whereas they will say the conflict is about defending their identity.”

Culture has always been an artificial human construct. But now it is being touted almost as if it were a scientifically measurable difference: “We very often see culture now almost like race, as though it were there and hard-wired into the brain,” Kahn says. “So that someone who is a Serb, is a Serb and there’s almost nothing they can do about it; one identifies one as a Serb or is identified as a Serb, and that what creates Serbianess.”

The language of separateness being used – in which cultures claim a right to be whatever it is they define themselves to be – is a new one, sociologists say. It is, as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out, an appropriation of the liberal language in which individuals are allowed free creative self-expression, suddenly applied to culture. It is now acceptable to say ‘I have the right to my own cultural heritage and it has to be respected’. When deaf parents deny their deaf children cochlear implants, they argue that to give them hearing would freeze their children out of ‘deaf culture’, a culture which they themselves define.

What is striking about this is that this new language of innate human difference for culture is that it resembles the same language once used to construct differences on the basis of race.

“What it suggests to me is that what is going on in the Soviet Union and what is going on in Rwanda might be connected,” Khan says. “Everybody now is talking about the integrity of different cultures, different religions and different identities, not just people in Yugoslavia.

A Bosnian soldier returns fire in downtown Sarajevo as civilians come under fire from Serbian snipers in 1992

“Even the biologists gradually abandoned the notion of race, especially in a world which tremendous rates of migration and intermarriage – it became obvious that race was a construct itself. It drew a line – you’re either on that side or on the other side, a line based on any of the features to define race. But this has to be arbitrary; either someone decides what race you belong to, or you decide yourself. Culture is now the same; it is a kind of self-identification or identification by others which rests on an arbitrary line and says that you can be put into one box or another.”

“And yet, of course, nobody fits. It isn’t just a case of what’s going on in Rwanda, it’s a question of what is going on here or the U.S. or elsewhere. Why is the world wedded these days to a discourse of human difference in discrete groups?” Kahn asks.

Can the killing fields of Bosnia and Rwanda be linked to this emerging phenomenon? Social scientists are unsure. There appear to be many of the factors mentioned at work; the decline of the nation-state, economic decay, the proliferation of weapons, and cultural tribalism may be just one of them. All agree that the authority of the state has to break down before tensions rise to a violent flashpoint, and that this, coupled with economic woes, is sparking conflicts like Rwanda and Somalia. 

“African states have been collapsing for years, and nobody basically noticed it. Somalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda – in all of those cases, there have been large-scale massacres in the past few years,” says Dr James Jupp of Canberra’s Australian National University. “But they haven’t necessarily been ethnic. The state has broken down in a number of African countries due to poverty, illiteracy, incompetence and corruption ... and some are considerably poorer than they were at independence. Also, many of these states are heavily armed; they’re not just using rifles and swords like they might have in the last century, they’re using rockets and God knows what.” 

Collapse of order is triggering waves of violence that quickly turn to genocide. Not just in Africa, but also in Bosnia; it is being enacted against the Kurds in Turkey and northern Iraq; against native Indians in Brazil’s rainforests; against ethnic Vietnamese in northern Cambodia and, in a more subtle form, in East Timor, where an initial invasion by Indonesia in 1975 – which wiped out an estimated one third of the population through war, disease and starvation – has been followed by large-scale transmigration which is slowly diluting the Timorese presence. 

Jupp, director of the university’s Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies, says much of the genocide that plays almost nightly on our television screens has been happening for centuries. “People in Bosnia used to live quite happily side by side, but every so often they did in fact come into open conflict. They massacred thousands and thousands of people in the First World War and hundreds of thousands in the Second World War. And now they’re doing it again.

It’s not a new thing, it’s just that we’ve got television now. A lot more people would know about Bosnia now than would have known about in 1940 or 1920 [the time of the other great massacres] because they read about it in the newspapers and see it every day on television. Take Rwanda: how many people would have heard of it until six months ago? Television now spreads the news much quicker. There are more people in the world, there are more governments in the world and there are more weapons in the world, and the information travels much faster.”

Hutus welcoming a French marines detachment as they drive through a refugee camp outside Butare in 1994

What may be new on this front is the emergence – or perhaps re-emergence from more ancient times – of social genocide. In Brazil, criminal suspects are regularly executed on the streets by vigilante death squads. Street children, slum dwellers, indigenous people and farmworkers involved in land conflicts are also systematically threatened, disappeared or killed.

If culture is now becoming the definer that race used to be, and sub-cultures are claiming the rights of the individual, is there any hope of survival for the pluralist ideals that are the basis of modern Western society?

Historian and art critic Robert Hughes doesn’t have the answers. But he points in his book of essays on the fraying of the United States, Culture of Complaint, that the destruction of pluralist principles and the ensuing fragmentation of American culture is being aided and abetted by the tightening straight-jacket of political correctness.

An Orwellian process of altering the language without actually changing the ills of a discriminatory culture is under way, Hughes points out: “The range of victims available 10 years ago – blacks, Chicanos, Indians, women, homosexuals – has now expanded to include every permutation of the halt, the blind, the lame and the short – or, to put it more correctly, the differently abled, the other-visioned and the vertically challenged. Never before in human history were so many acronyms pursuing identity.”

Some argue that the over-zealous application of political correctness has become an all-encompassing movement that now uses a language similar to those of the racists. It seeks to exclude rather than debate those that do not toe the line: Gentiles who criticise Israel are labelled ‘anti-Semites’ and Jews who do likewise are ‘self-haters’; when an anti-abortionist tries to debate a pro-choice advocate, pro-choice protesters can drown out the anti-abortionist’s views and call it a victory for progressives. In that exclusion, the differences within a society are accentuated, making it more difficult for the consensus of acceptance that is the hallmark of multiculturalism and a pluralist society to survive. 

And yet, while Western-inspired nation-states established during the Enlightenment are going through convulsions, younger states which are experiencing rapid economic growth are actually consolidating their nationhood. Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea are all becoming more cohesive.

“These countries are doing well, and they are more cohesive; they have more of a collective sense at the moment,” says Jupp. “They are expanding so rapidly that everyone is expecting things to get better. They are now richer than the countries of Eastern Europe. They have got much more to offer to their people, so they hang together fairly well.”

The interesting question raised by this is, are we witnessing the fall of pluralism and Western democratic ideals along with the economic disrepair of the West, to be replaced by a new model – perhaps a sort of Stalinist capitalism exemplified by some of the more authoritarian Asian states? While researchers agree the West is in decline, few are predicting its impending collapse.

“The great days of Britain are gone, and the great days of America are probably drawing to a close,” says Jupp. “Economic growth in the West has slowed down in the last 20 years; whereas everybody had expected it to go on expanding, and it isn’t doing so.” 

“The West may be in decline, but they’ve still got a long way to go.”