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Wednesday 13 April 2011

A Pole Reversal?

The earth’s magnetic field is said to be due for reversal sometime soon. This is when the current North Pole would become the South Pole and vice versa. Scientists have detected a gradual but accelerating shift of the North Pole and a decrease in the strength of the earth’s magnetic field over the last several centuries; evidence, they claim, points to an impending reversal of the earth’s magnetic Poles. Though such pole flips thought to have had happened throughout the history of the planet it is not known what causes it or when it would happen again; it could be hundreds of years or millions of years from now. I am not an expert nor do I have much interest in this theory however we may be witnessing a different kind of Pole reversal taking place in an altogether different sphere; this time in the socio-cultural sphere.

There are two extreme cases of socio-cultural organizations in the human society; one promotes collectivity over individuality and the other promotes individuality over collectivity. Western societies under Judeo-Christian culture are pro-individualist and the Arabic societies under Muslim culture are pro-collectivist. These are so called Poles in the sense that there could be a middle wherein collectivity and individuality is balanced. This categorization may be too black and white so to speak but earth’s magnetic field isn’t a perfect dipole either.

With regard to the Pole reversal, I believe that collectivist societies are beginning to become more individualistic while individualistic societies are gradually turning towards collectivism. Even more interestingly, it is their own individuality coupled with the collectivism of the Muslim societies that drives the individualistic Western world towards collectivism and conversely it is their own collectivity coupled with the individualism in Judeo-Christian societies that drives the collectivistic Arab world towards individualism. The current socio-political development in the respective societies points to this phenomenon.

I think that the so called pro-democracy (term given by the western media) agitations in the Arab world are a sign of these societies turning towards individualism. They may be frustrated by their authoritative governments which in turn can be thought of as a form of collectivism but it cannot be ruled out that they are also unsatisfied with their culture that forces them to conform to a certain way of life that restrict individuality. According to Islamic scholars the Quranic view of the world is a collectivist one. It is not a secret that Muslims in general consider the rights of their society to be more important than their own. Therefore the so called revolution that is taken place in the Arab world could be thought of as an indirect revolt against the collectivism in their society. Although it cannot be determined what part the western governments play in this reversal, it is apparent that Muslims who are in the forefront of these agitations are the liberal minded western educated youth. It is also interesting that these youth use internet for communication via what are known as social networking sites. Clearly, these are inventions of the Judeo-Christian culture. In my opinion, unlike live physical interactions in natural environments these types of communications, despite their efficiency help isolate individuals further from the society and promotes individualism.

On the other hand, the threat of terrorism by the so called Muslim fundamentalists is causing the western world to curb the rights of individuals over that of the society. The governments are given right to eavesdrop on conversations and to access private information about individuals in lieu of national security. These types of legislatures would have been deemed as encroachments of individuality decades ago but today these and other stringent security measures at public places (again against individual rights) are a part of daily life in today’s western societies.

To date, people of different cultures living in western countries can enjoy their cultural habits, at least symbolically, because of the respect of individuality granted by the Judeo-Christian culture, however western societies are increasingly unnerved by the growing pockets of sub-cultures, especially among Muslims, in their midst that resist assimilation in to the western culture. It is unlikely that Judeo-Christianity will tolerate the existence of a sub-culture within their society especially if such societies are equipped with economic and political power. As a way of discouraging the formation of non-western sub cultures in their midst, western societies may be driven to be less individualist and more collectivist in the future. The noted growth in minority populations in proportion to the majority in western countries may also hasten these trends.

Additionally, there are inherent forces that drive the western societies into collectivism. Some of these may be attributed to the ill effects of capitalism. It is clear that individual right to accumulate wealth is what sustains capitalism. This is not just an economic right as one would tend to believe but is a cultural trait as well (greed is not discouraged in the western societies). However, too much greed and too much power on the hands of a few drives a capitalist system into saturation as evident by the current economic melt down. The regulatory mechanism put in place to circumvent such melt downs in the future could indirectly affect how individuals are allowed to exercise their rights over that of the larger society. Natural disasters such as hurricane Katarina and the government’s inefficiency in coping with such catastrophes have also highlighted the importance of collectivism in western societies.

Thus it appears that forces both from within and outside of the Arab and the western worlds are driving those societies towards their respective opposite cultural Poles. What is interesting is that each cultural Pole is its own force of change in addition to being a negative force on the opposite Pole. This is not a surprise since both types of socio-cultural organizations have a common feature in spite of their apparent opposing nature. First, both cultures consider humans to have rights over any other living or non living thing in the world which effectively separates human beings from its environment, and then individuals, who have been already separated from their environments, are also separated from the society. The only difference between the two cultural Poles is that one considers individuals to be more important than the collection of individuals and the other considers the collections of individuals is more important than the individuals that comprises it. The Basic commonality of these two Poles entices/forces the people of these cultural Poles to switch to the opposite Pole when at extreme ends in their cultural biases. Unfortunately a balance between individualism and collectivism is not an option; as such these cultures go through a continuous cycle of Pole reversals.

To achieve a balance between these two extremes, a culture should be immune to the forces that drive it to the extremes both from within and outside. In such a socio-cultural system, I would imagine the humans to be inseparable from their environment and individuals to be inseparable from their society. In this context, individualism and collectivism become irrelevant concepts. I believe that such a society could adept to any situation either by individuals being more important than the society or by the society being important than the individual or by both being important or by both being unimportant.

by Janaka Wansapura