When international organizations or experts tell us ordinary people how we should organize our lives and live together, I sometimes find it offensive. I know they mean well, but I can’t help but feel there is some hidden arrogance in these messages. And often, I feel that messages about how people should live together better are ideal and idealistic goals, written into declarations and conventions by academicians and ‘desk officers’ who do not know well enough the reality they write about.

No, I am not saying they are wrong. I rather think they are right. But I think they may be overambitious In any case, the detailed roadmap can only be made by the people concerned. It is only they who can remove the barriers. In other words, we will go where no road goes. The road will be made as we walk it.

Yesterday, 21 May, was World Day for Cultural Diversity, which is an important day especially in our time of globalization and migration. Although UNESCO, had already been working on a declaration for diversity for some time, the tragic events in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 made the United Nations move fast and adopt the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development in November that year. The purpose of the annual day on 21 May is to contribute to a greater understanding for the value and importance of cultural diversity, so that we all can learn to live together better.

Essentially and in the end, to be a human being is the same for all of us. Yet the many settlements and societies of human beings differ tremendously from each other. Apart from the more obvious cultural differences that exist, such as language and traditions, there are also significant differences in the ways societies organize themselves, in their concepts about morality, religious beliefs, rules and standards about equality and differences, including gender aspects, how we interact with the environment and use renewable and nonrenewable resources, and so on. A key aspect is also how communities protect or insulate themselves from others, or the opposite- how we interact with the wider world.

Western capitalism is now at its peak, or perhaps beginning to decline in the West but becoming more popular elsewhere in the world, in China, Africa, and the other large continents and many countries that we earlier termed the “Third World.” The capitalist system has, and still is, producing economic growth. And it is also creating development, at least in some areas, though also under-development in other areas. That is the colour of the beast.

Therefore, without major regulations within and between countries and continents, the capitalist system is cruel; one that does not want diversity and sharing of the fruits of the labourers’ sweat and the capital’s profit. The closer to monopoly the true capitalist companies can be, the better it is for the capitalists. We do not have much diversity in thinking about economic models in our time after the fall of the Soviet Union. At the foundation of any society lay economics, the way resources are owned or controlled, the way production is organized, and the way the outcome is shared - or not shared.

The lack of diversity in the world’s economic system does not at all contribute to cultural diversity. True, more people become a little better off materially, such as in China where hundreds of millions have moved out of direct poverty in recent decades. But it has happened at the cost of cultural diversity amongst other things. Without being streamlined and ‘modern’ (usually in a Western way, certainly a capitalist way), a poor farmer, farmhand, housewife, artisan, and so on, cannot join the ‘race for the promised-land.’ And education is an important tool to make all adapt to the new and adopt the required basic skills and world view. We must become one-eyed and supportive of the ‘system’, or at least not work overtly against it. In China and elsewhere, those who do are pulled in, put in prison, or earlier, placed in re-education camps.

Westerners and many others say that is wrong, it is a breach of the International Human Rights Declaration. Up-coming China may agree, at least to some extent and secretly, but it cannot afford much dissent on its way up; it is the price one pays for economic development in a capitalist model.

And the West doesn’t see that the ‘dance around the golden calf’, to use a Biblical concept, is actually as much a Western, as an Eastern way of thinking. In the West too, we must toe the line, and not go too far ‘astray’, or our own way. If the Westerners had been as liberal as they say, the Soviet Union would still have been there, perhaps even flourishing; little Cuba would not have had the US trade embargo; the Iraq or Afghanistan war would not have happened or it would have been very short, and the West would have given real development assistance to the land. Yet, there would probably have been other international power structures in our world, and we don’t know if they would have been better or worse off than the West, with the NATO alliance.

I believe there is more tolerance with regards to social and cultural issues today, but not where basic economic issues and ideas are concerned. Yes, there is more cultural tolerance, more social openness. But I do not think there is more tolerance for real social and cultural diversity; the basic models and the status-quo must not be challenged; only some small, odd, alternative groups are welcome.

We allow some diversity, but the relative ‘alternative thinking’ that existed in my youth is not there today. That is a bit strange, isn’t it? Because we see so many negative effects of the capitalist system and globalization. Many differences are growing; fights that were won must be fought again, such as in the fields of better and more equal pay within countries, and work towards great international equality. Today, our right to participate in decision-making (even in the West), is threatened.

In the West, labour unions and other groups must fight harder for their rights, indeed the religious and ethnic minorities. Unless they, and everyone else, has a clear stake in society, there will be lasting frictions, to say the least, which will affect all negatively.

In our world today, we stand for cultural and other diversity the same way we stand for hard work, (plus a little window for leisure and relaxation). Cultural diversity is something we like to see at the theatre, plays, films, at the museum and when we go on holiday. The rest of the time, we embrace all that is fashionable; globalization and capitalism.

I was glad to take part in the marking of the important World Day for Cultural Diversity yesterday – at Lok Virsa Museum Folk and Traditional Heritage in Islamabad. We need to think about what these days mean and what we should do, before we all walk about in the same blue jeans, eat the same food, use the same mobile phones, watch the same TV, read the same books, speak the same language and maybe even belong to the same religion. Would it be good or bad?

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email:atlehetland@yahoo.com