Is Universality a Western Idea?
By Martin LeFevre
Apr 12, 2022, 10:57am

Most people acknowledge that human beings are essentially the same wherever they live on earth. Yet there's also a strong belief that ethnic and cultural differences are primary, and that universality is a Western construct.

It cannot be both - people are either essentially the same, and cultural differences are secondary; or cultural differences are primary, and people are different in dissimilar places.

One of the characteristics of people with a philosophical bent (double entendre intended) is a low threshold for contradiction. So can this contradiction be resolved?

For the United States and its Western allies, universality means "the expansion of a liberal, rules-based international order" made in America after World War II. The hubristic, triumphalist notion that "we won the Cold War" denied for a decade the fact that both the US and the USSR lost the Cold War, just in different ways. The American intelligentsia still hasn't faced it.

Likewise, the issue is not globalization, but the dominance of the kind of globalization that the United States and Western Europe promoted, and that China bought into, for awhile.

Now the forces of divergence are, to put it mildly, ascendant, at home and abroad. Commentators are proclaiming "an end to globalization," and a "clash of civilizations."

However just as serious people didn't subscribe to the idea of "global convergence around a set of universal values" in the 90's, so too serious people don't subscribe to the reaction of "de-globalization" in the 20's.

For one thing, and it is the main thing, man's decimation of the earth is now fully globalized, and cannot be sectioned off into "spheres of influence," as pundits are so compulsively inclined to do politically.

For another, technology cannot be completely controlled within national borders, despite China and Russia's desperate attempts to do so. Information will spill out and spillover, and insights will leak into and leak out of autocratically controlled spaces.

"Mr. Putin has just sent history into reverse." That has become a commonplace with professors and pundits after a few hellish weeks. But is it true, and if not, what is the actual trajectory of human history?

History hasn't been sent into reverse; rather, Western ideas of progress, the triumph of liberalism and globalization have been shattered by Russia's barbaric invasion of Ukraine. Besides, the US media was perfectly willing to all but ignore the slaughter in Syria, not to mention erase its complicity in the invasion of Iraq, which was a huge destabilizing factor in the Middle East and worldwide.

To my mind, human history has been moving in intensifying cycles of crises, punctuated by lost opportunities to fundamentally change course at crossroads. Psychologically, the darkness in human consciousness has been accumulating in inverse proportion to the advancement of science and technology.

But the question remains: Is there such a thing as universality? Yes. It is not only possible, but it has become urgently necessary for a sufficient minority of people to emotionally perceive humankind as a whole. For when there is the intent to have universal perception and insight, one sees that man's fragmentation is increasing outwardly as the endarkenment of human consciousness is increasing inwardly, and one responds accordingly.

The core truth is that it is one fragmented, disordered, violent human society now, and will continue to increasingly be so until the psychological revolution that changes the disastrous course of man ignites. At long last, can that occur now?

The revolution in consciousness that changes the course of man has been millennia in the making, growing more imperative and urgent with each quickening turn of the wheel, each tightening downward spin of the same archetypes and cycles of human history.

So the idea that humans are essentially different in different cultures is patently false. Psychologically and emotionally, we are the same, and differences can either make for diversity, or division and conflict, as they are.

The same superficial thinkers that believed "a global convergence around a set of universal values - freedom, equality, personal dignity, pluralism, human rights" was occurring in the last thirty years, now aver that "these universal values are not universally accepted and seem to be getting less so."

Again, the problem is not universality, but Western ideas about what universality means. Those ideas include personal freedom, pluralism, and democracy as derived from the Enlightenment philosophers and embodied by the founders of the United States and the French Republic.

It's an American conceit that "the rejection of Western liberalism, individualism, pluralism, gender equality and all the rest is not only happening between nations but also within nations," as if those things represent the apex of human development. Nations have become irrelevant except for war, and "Western values" have brought about a pervasive and palpable deadness in America.

The core issue is tribalism, and its modern expression nationalism. Universally defined, tribalism is the atavistic tendency to identify with a particular group and 'homeland,' whether ethnic, religious or national, over the emotional realization of the actuality of human being.

That's the true universality, and we urgently need to start living in light of it.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.

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