Tuesday, September 23, 2014

UNESCO Could Better Promote Peace by Shifting its Culture Programs

© UNESCO/Michel Ravasdsar

UNESCO was created to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men. It was supposed to deal in culture (as well as education, science and communications) with that objective. I wonder if its programs on the conservation of historical sites and artifacts and its recognition of unique expressions of diverse cultures are the only or even the best way for cultural programs to increase the probability of peace.

UNESCO has focused on "culture" in the narrow sense of the arts and the interests of museums. The broader interpretation of "culture" would include the institutions of a society and the technology that it uses. Perhaps UNESCO would better focus on helping people to understand the heritage from which they currently benefit in everyday life, and the ways in which cultures are converging by adopting parts of the global heritage that solve current problems.

Giza Pyramids from the Air.
UNESCO’s World Heritage program’s recognition of the Giza pyramids in Egypt can be used to exemplify the problem with UNESCO’s current approach, especially since the World Heritage Program is probably UNESCO’s flagship. What would we do today if someone claimed that he was a god in human form and demanded that when he died his mummified body be placed in a huge pyramid so that his spirit could ascend to the heavens to live forever with his fellow gods.  I suspect that such a person would be assessed for mental illness. If, as seems likely, the assessment positive and the condition could not be cured, we have the ability to assure that he would not do harm to himself and others.

Why would we celebrate the fact that the ancient Egyptians accepted a claim of divinity and built the pyramid for a pharaoh -- and then did so again and again? Rather than celebrate the pyramids built to support such delusions millennia ago, might UNESCO not equally well celebrate the fact that our understanding of mental illness has developed greatly and is widely shared among world cultures.
Many societies today share the ability to build such a pyramid, should they so choose, and to build it bigger, better and faster than the ancient Egyptians could have done. (Indeed, many countries could then vaporize the pyramid in a single thermo-nuclear explosion – something a pharaoh might have liked.) The accumulated heritage of know how to do such construction and the fact that that cultural heritage of knowledge is widely shared might also be worthy of UNESCO's celebration, at least since that knowledge is applied towards improving people's lives.

The ancient Egyptians were wrong about what was above us in the heavens. Today we inherit centuries of accumulated astronomical knowledge. We know quite a bit about the solar system, and we have put a man on the moon and vehicles on Mars. If we choose to do so we could very quickly put a man’s ashes into orbit, or his mummy in a casket on the moon. Indeed, if we choose, we could put a colony on Mars in this century. The cultural heritage of centuries of human effort to build that understanding of man’s place in the universe is truly worthy of UNESCO’s celebration. That shared knowledge that we are so insignificant a part of the universe might even be used to encourage mankind toward peace on our fragile planet.


People live longer, healthier lives than ever before in history, and we do so by the billions. This is the result in part of modern medical technology and institutions that have been developed and shared worldwide. So too, our health and longevity are the result of agriculture that benefits from crops and livestock domesticated all over the world and are now shared among cultures; farmers everywhere benefit from technology and institutional forms developed outside their own countries. So too, people live in more hygienic environments enjoying the fruits of engineering and building technology developed in many countries over centuries and now shared globally. Manufacturing provides the inputs needed by medicine, agriculture, and engineering -- again the heritage of an industrial revolution that has lasted centuries and taken place in many countries. UNESCO could celebrate the heritage shared by all nations in these modern sectors.

In its celebrations of cultural heritage, UNESCO has focused on accomplishments of the past – typically very old accomplishments of cultures shared by relatively small populations. (The population of Egypt at the time the pyramids were built was onle a couple of million.)  In its focus on cultural diversity, UNESCO emphasizes aspects of a country’s tastes in food, music or drama from those of other countries. Might UNESCO also focus on cultural heritage that saves lives and helps people live healthier, more comfortable lives? Might UNESCO not also to focus on aspects of modern culture that have benefited from developments in many places at many times, and that are widely shared? Would people be as likely to go to war if they recognized more fully how much they owed to other cultures, and how similar their modern culture really is to other modern cultures?

UNESCO unlikely to promote peace by emphasizing things made in the past in cultural isolation, nor by emphasizing the differences in tastes among current cultures? Rather, UNESCO should emphasize the centuries of effort that constitute the heritage of modern societies and the continuing accumulation of new abilities that will be the heritage of future generations; UNESCO should emphasize that the sharing of useful knowledge and abilities is leading to convergence among cultures. UNESCO can help build the defenses of peace by showing how we are alike and becoming more so as we work together to create better lives for people?


Azad Arach said...

These are wonderful thoughts. For many civilizational cycles, humanity has leapfrogged helping itself to ideas developed by "others", helped itself to the legacy of all humanity.....and the cumulative impact is there for all to see . But this is schizoid behavior, for we have also demonized, killed and destroyed the other. The more we in our blindness brand the "other" as not human, not like us, the more unhappiness humans are likely to wreak on themselves. It was UNESCO's promise to help in the mediation of problems such as these. Unfortunately UNESCO has only until very recently fallen prey to "objectifying" things and processes, which is what creates stereotypes and ignores commonness and reciprocity. One hopes the recent emphasis on the intangible as well as the tangible heritage taken together would steer us in the right directions. But old habits die hard.

John Daly said...

Thank you for the kind words. I think it is time for a discussion on the direction for UNESCO, as you suggest.