As a student in International Relations, it is hard not to have read Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” at least once, or at least know the gist of Huntington’s argument in this highly acclaimed, as well as highly debated piece. Before I go on ranting about how much I hate it and everything that it represents, I do have to acknowledge that maybe it didn’t seem that crazy when it was first written. After all, when we look at many of the conflicts occurring today in the world, Huntington’s argument seems to rather make sense. We see ‘clashes’ between the “West” and the “non-West”, to put it in a very simplified version, in various forms and throughout various places. So yes, the theory of a clash of civilizations seems the easy explanation to go ahead with.
And that is everything that is wrong with this theory. It’s an easy, lazy and irresponsible explanation. “We are different, so we obviously have to fight one another. There’s nothing that can be done. Deal with it.” I don’t deny the existence of different cultures or the variations that geography and tradition can engender. God knows there is not a day that passes by without me thinking “The US and Korea are so different…”. But to say that the differences lie in our respective ‘civilizations’ and to say that it is those dissimilarities that are at the root of the conflicts, to which so many innocent lives fall victim, is to ignore the social, political and economic institutions and complexities at hand that perpetuate the gaps that eventually lead to these conflicts. Words and concepts like “culture”, “civilization” and “race” are shields we can easily brandish at the mention of anything disturbing the image and impression of “peace” and “stability” and then just shrug because nothing can be done. They are none other than coward excuses we give ourselves for not making the effort to try change things that can be changed. They are attractive illusions that hide away the real causes, such as the prejudices perpetuated by social institutions, the inequalities indefinitely passed on through politics, and the discrepancies induced by economics. Worst of all, they are appealing enough for a large number of people to believe in them, thereby allowing the current faulty system to sustain itself.
(On another note, maybe it’s unfair to Mr. Huntington to forever be reminded as the man who wrote about the clash of civilizations and to still be criticized about it, nearly two decades later, by students who haven’t even published an article in a journal, let alone, written a book.)