Unintended Consequences

The Los Angeles Times has a interesting article on the differences between the US and France when it comes to multiculturalism. While the US government, at least as it’s written in the Constitution and laws, basically ignores religion, France has attempted to create a unified French people–an imagined community where everyone accepts French secular culture. Assimilation is the ideal.

While American politicians and government officials do invoke Christianity and ask God to “bless the United States of America,” and neo-nationalist politicians talk about banning Muslims from the US, the actual laws ignore religion as much as possible. In systems-theoretical terms, the legal function system ignores (is blind to) religious differences or religions concerns.

Still, many people think that modernization is about erasing differences. For instance, many Americans expect and/or want English to become the global language. As Barbara Wallraff wrote in an Atlantic Monthly article 16 years ago,

over the past year or so I’ve been asking people, at dinner parties and professional gatherings and so on, whether they think that English is well on its way to being the global language. Typically, they look puzzled about why I would even bother to ask such an obvious question. They say firmly, Of course.

Just as many Americans promote “English-only” in the United States, they envision an English-only world, or at least a world where English is “enough.” But as Wallraff shows, global society is multilingual, not monolingual. People all over the world may learn English, or enough to get by in global commerce, but they don’t stop speaking their native languages.

Global society does not mean the erasing of cultural differences, nor does it mean everyone will speak the same language. These kinds of misconceptions arise when one thinks of global society as a one big nation, or one “people” in the early modern sense. The discourse on nationalism comes from the early modern concept of the natio, which was a way of identifying a native-born people of a particular city-state such as Florence or Genoa, but the term nation doesn’t have much meaning in a globalized society.

Rather than erasing cultural differences, a functionally differentiated world society actually brings out cultural differences. It releases cultural difference, so to speak, because a functionally differentiated society ignores differences that don’t matter. It just doesn’t “care” about them. For example, in the US, white business owners learned in the 1950s-60s (through boycotts, sit-ins, and strikes that disrupted commerce) that the economy doesn’t notice skin color and merchants shouldn’t either. (The business owner belongs to the environment of the economy.) If a person has money to spend, their “race” doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t register in the economy. The same applies for gender identity. Theses identities are not information for the economy. The only real information for the economy are prices.

But the problem is that some autopoietic systems, like religion, don’t want to be ignored, especially if this ignoring might lead to disappearance.  Systems “want” to keep reproducing themselves. This relates to religious and cultural fundamentalisms. As Hans-Georg Moeller writes,

The emergence of all kinds of regional separatism and “fundamentalism” can well be explained as an effect of the globalization of functional differentiation. The expansion of political, economic, and other social structures meets with all kinds of regional peculiarities and resistance. Function systems “neglect” regional, religious, or cultural identities. This neglect does not mean that these identities are not tolerated by the global function systems that world society has become. Of course, the global system equally tolerates every region, religion, or race—as long as they do not obstruct functionalism. There is a total indifference towards these older “identities”—that only become “identities” once they are overrun by functional differentiation. (Luhmann Explained)

In other words, some older identities–identities based on race, ethnicity, religion, language, and nation–want to be taken seriously, not ignored. These are semantic holdovers; they are survivals of segmented differentiation (different but equal) and stratified differentiation (different and unequal). Of course segmentation and stratification still exist (are observable), but only within the primary context of functional differentiation. As Moeller goes on to write,

Obviously, there are some regions and religions, for instance, which are not happy with the indifference imposed on them by functional globalization. Some become violent, turn into saboteurs, and desperately try to be taken seriously—not indifferently.  . . .

Globalization and regionalization—for instance, in the radical form of ethnic fundamentalism—are parallel phenomena. . .

Once more—functional globalization allows every Muslim to be a Muslim and every Serb to be a Serb, but only as long as they accept that their religion or ethnicity is ultimately neglected by the function systems.

Trump’s neonationalism, along with parallel neonationalisms in other countries, may be placed within this context. Terrorism is an extreme manifestation of the same movement. The easy thing to do is to blame it all on particular human beings (or call certain social groups irrational) rather than looking at complex systemic issues. Social systems enlist human beings to continue system autopoiesis.


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