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Will the Clash of Identities Consume Us?

Yan Pei-Ming

These comments are adapted from a talk to the World Cultural Forum in Shanghai on June 18, 2014.

SHANGHAI -- Since 2001, we have entered a vicious cycle of a clash of civilizations. We have not seen the bottom of it yet. And 2014 has been a cruel year for worldwide stability. Look at what happened in Ukraine. Look at the situation in the Middle East, and in particular the victories of the jihadist movement of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Look at the tensions in the China seas.

We live in a world of crisis. Mankind is again walking on a dangerous path because there are two cliffs on both of this narrow walkway.

A CLASH OF POWERS

On one side is the risk of a clash of powers. For two decades we have lived in a world with a single superpower, the United States, with the prospect in the minds of some that we are entering a time with no superpower at all.

All older powers had been wiped out by history: the powers of the Eastern world in the 19th century, like India or China after the Opium Wars; the central empires of Europe had been overcome between 1914 and 1945 ; the colonial Empires France and Great Britain split up in the 1960s and, last of all, the USSR disappeared in 1991.

But now we see the sidelined powers rising again. In very recent times, we see Russia seeking to overcome the national humiliation of the breakup of the USSR in 1991. We see China has risen again economically in the last 30 years and wants to play a greater political role now.

History has taught us where rivalries of rising power and diminishing superpower can lead us.

In 2014, we should pay particular attention to the memory of conflicts and wars of the past. One century ago, in 1914, Europe and the world were entering 30 years of wars, hatred and massacres. But, alas, we see that the same mistakes as yesterday are made again and again.

Everywhere we see choices for confrontation being made. We see that the theories of containment are still very much alive, for example, in the American policy toward China in South East Asia and in East Asia, or toward Russia in Eastern Europe.

A CLASH OF IDENTITIES

On the other side of our narrow path to the future, we have a risk that is no less dangerous: the risk of a clash of identities. In a world deeply transformed by globalization of economic production and by the rapid circulation of information, we see that national states are having difficulties meeting the new challenges.

We see failed states in many of the poor regions of the world. We see failing states in the Middle East because of the civil dissent in each country. We see overwhelmed states even in Europe and America, where decision-making seems more and more difficult and inadequate in times of crisis and uncertainty.

When the nation states fails them, when day to day life becomes too difficult, people find comfort and stability in smaller communities, in cultural or religious identities.

In Iraq today, the national feeling has almost disappeared behind ethnic and religious identities. But such identities exist only as differences from each other. They become hysterical, incompatible and intolerant of all diversity.

The cult of identity is a selfish and brutal vision of the world that can lead to the most terrible crimes.

Let's remember also that 70 years ago, the Allied forces landed in Normandy to free Europe and the world. They built up a diplomatic system of collective security so that the terrible wars among powers and over identities could never happen again. They also opened the trials of Nuremberg to tell the whole world that there were laws above all men.

Yet, look at what is happening in the Middle East today. What we are seeing is exactly a civil war of identities. Look at the problems in Europe today with the rise of anti-immigrant populism -- they are also the result of a doubt about each one's own identity.

We seem to be prisoners of a terrible choice today: either the uncontrollable nationalisms of the humiliated striking back or the violent struggles of communities to assert their identities.

CULTURE AND DIALOGUE IS OUR ONLY TOOL

The only tool we have against the clash of identities is culture and dialogue.

Culture means building bridges. It is about giving a chance to artists to gather new experiences and influences with which they will open new ways and create new affinities. We can think today of many artists that are walking this often difficult path and are making our horizon grow larger.

I will only mention one, because he is from Shanghai, working there and in France. It is Yan Pei-ming who has settled his art in between Chinese and French culture and has become one of the truly global artists.

The kind of bridges such an artist constructs are in fact more like aqueducts. Once you've built them, you have created a whole new circulation of ideas, images, possibilities. You are receiving and giving fresh blood to the organism of mankind. It is their task to teach us how to become universal while remaining true to themselves.

CULTURE MEANS DIVERSITY

Culture means diversity. There is always more than one point of view on a crisis. You have to listen to everybody before making up your mind and you have to act as if there were no definite truth. That's why it is so important to have a lively culture respecting all points of views.

For the 50th anniversary of the establishment of French-Chinese diplomatic ties, there has been a major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art in Paris. In this exhibit, I am very impressed to see the important presence of cultural and ethnic minorities and their inspiration revealed in the works of the exhibit. This is the positive sign of a nation confident of its stability and its future.

NO CENTER TO IDENTITY, ONLY A NETWORK OF POINTS OF VIEW

And, indeed, culture means confidence, the ability to change and to innovate. You never can define an identity reflexively, but only actively. Through reflection, you will exclude, you will separate, you will simplify and in the end, you will discover that there is no center in an identity, but only a network of points of views.

Through action, through creation, you will on the contrary make the common identity grow larger and stronger. Because you will bind together. You will create new links through new ideas.

RETHINKING THE DIALOGUE OF CULTURES

We have to rethink the dialogue of cultures.

We have to center it on the challenges of our common future. What did Marco Polo bring home from his travels to the Chinese empire? Some goods for trade, certainly. But that didn't bring him much fortune, as he ended up jailed by the Genovese.

What he brought back most importantly was a narrative and memories that are still told today. He brought many illusions, some truths, but above all, the curiosity of difference and diversity. He brought back to a capacity to look out for questions that we wouldn't ask ourselves if we stayed in our armchairs.

We have to create the conditions for a worldwide culture that will one day not replace the different cultures, but bind them together.

This is happening today through the possibilities of the Internet. This is happening through the development of tourism for all and everywhere.

In this time of new Silk Roads, we need new Marco Polos. We need new places to discuss, exchange, tell and hear stories. That's why building a consensus about common values is so important.

Creating a worldwide spirit cannot be only the task of those concerned with the economy.

We need to support artists that can be bridges between cultures. We need to support the work of spreading ideas and building a new common history. Only then can we avoid falling into the abyss of a clash of identities or succumb to the passions of nationalism.