By Zilong Wang
As one of the few international students on the ride, “representing” the rest of the world’s six billion people, I feel obliged to provide a non-American view on global civic engagement.
The United States pays a lot of attention to diversity, which is commendable. However, the American definition of “diversity” also reflects the typical “American singularity.” Race, gender, class — these are historically specific categories created in a unique context, and might not apply to the rest of the world. For example, racial discourse in America is largely focused on the discrimination of black Americans by whites, but it will be highly misleading to use this black-and-white lens to interpret Africa’s tribal conflicts, India’s linguistic nationalism, Russia’s regional warfare, or China’s ethnic tension.
Over the past few decades, through America’s global dominance, the American view of social justice and civic engagement is projected to (or even forced upon) many parts of the world. However, each country has its own unique situation when it comes to civil rights, social justice, and civic engagement. In many parts of the world, “civil rights” is not even in people’s vocabulary. We should be very aware that the American style of civil rights are extremely historically specific; it has its root in Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, the Atlantic slave trade, the American Civil War, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, among other contributing factors. When we examine the peculiarity of the American definition of civil rights, we would be confused to reflect upon how American government would want to impose this standard on the rest of the world, even through war and assassination. Isn’t it the greatest violation of human rights to deprive other people of their sovereignty and self-determination? Isn’t it the greatest conceit to assume that all countries should be (and would like to be) just like America? Isn’t it the greatest hypocrisy to say that my expensive wars can bring you peace and freedom? Doesn’t it remind you of “Manifest Destiny” and the “White Man’s Burden”? We know how that turned out.
I am not saying that the rest of the world cannot learn from America’s experience. Quite the contrary, I believe America’s struggles are great lessons for many countries that are about to embark on a similar journey. There is a great deal to be learned from both the success and mistakes of the America Civil Rights Movement. We should study this history carefully, and with great respect. That is why I got on the bus.
Also, we should strive to find common ground among different nations, religions and cultures. We might disagree on what is a good government, but we all believe that corruption is counter-productive. We might disagree on the notion of an “afterlife,” but we all agree that we want to live in peace in this life. We might disagree on what is justice, but we should all be invested in reducing the obvious discrimination. We might have different opinions, but we should all know that we might be wrong. Underneath the differences, we can always find similarities. And these similarities can serve as the beginning of our harmony.
After looking at the past and present, I would like to turn to the future. According the the latest United Nation projection, by the year 2100, there will be 10 billion people on earth, half of which will be living in Asia; a third in Africa. This world population distribution has tremendous relevance to global civil discourse as the world’s attention and power get more equally distributed. The United States population is around 5% of the world, and we could expect that America’s problem will less likely be the world’s most important problem. Instead, the Arab and Muslim populations will increase, and their specific issues will be given more attention by leaders around the world. India’s population is also expanding very rapidly, and Africa will continue to see strong increases as well. The center of gravity for the world media will shift from West to East, and Asia’s and Africa’s social issues will become the most relevant.
These historical shifts are already happening, but most of us are unaware, uninformed (or worse, misinformed), and unprepared. Our decisions and votes will have global repercussions, but we are not educated enough to make informed judgments on events that are happening thousands of miles away, in a foreign language. Most people aren’t even accustomed to using international standards like kilometers and centigrade. If we are going to face the future problems in the world with our old habits and assumptions, we will certainly be frightened by the unfamiliarity. Then we will turn to nationalism, xenophobia and scapegoating for the last bit of self-deception.
So, how should we prepare for the looming shift in our global agenda, not merely in social justice? We can never be fully prepared, but learning a foreign language is not a bad idea. Go study abroad, make friends with people from other countries and of different religions, read international news, and cultivate an open mind and compassionate heart. This might be a good beginning.