The Global Village
The Global Village

Critics of globalization charge that the phenomenon of globalization, especially seen through pop culture, is perpetrating a kind of cultural genocide on the world—that the largest, most dominant cultures are becoming larger and more dominant at the expense of many others. In this view, globalization is in fact another word for Americanization.

However, others argue that globalization offers the potential to enrich the world culturally. To these people, the notion that the opportunities for cultural exchange brought about by globalization can help promote tolerance and diversity is very attractive. Their vision is the multi-cultural “global village,” where ideas and practices can be freely exchanged and appreciated.

The potential enlightenment of the global village can be contrasted with the way people tended to view other nations and cultures ages ago. In the 18th century, Adam Smith, widely recognized as the father of economic theory, noted the detachment of emotion caused by distance:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion [sic] with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity…. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw [the Chinese people killed by an earthquake], he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own (Smith, 1759).

Smith’s point was that no matter how sympathetic this 18th- century European subject might be to the plight of others, a tragic event so far away could not affect a person on an emotional level unless they had a more real connection to the event.

Globalization has changed this dynamic, sometimes in quite powerful ways. In the contemporary world, foreign policy decisions are sometimes driven by television images, which are broadcasted around the world by satellites and display famine or fighting in other nations. In this context, globalization enables a newscaster to humanize an event overseas. As Smith might have observed, seeing images of starving children and other human suffering on television creates a much more powerful emotional reaction in an observer than reading in a newspaper that 100,000 people have died as a result of a natural disaster overseas.

The CNN Effect

This indifference about people in foreign countries noted by Smith can be very different today, due in part to globalization (though this is clearly not always the case). Foreign policy decision-makers have discovered that press coverage on wars, famines, and other events overseas can have powerful impacts on popular opinion at home. Public outrage over atrocities or sympathy at suffering can generate significant public pressure to governments to respond.

In 1984, a British television documentary about the famine in Ethiopia led a group of pop artists in Britain to organize a charity event on behalf of the victims. Led by Bob Geldof, the singers and musicians recorded a song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” and held a concert that raised nearly $15 million for relief efforts.

In 1992, the U.S. government was induced to intervene militarily in Somalia to help avert a famine. Administration officials at the time cited one of the reasons they felt that action necessary was due to immense public pressure that had been generated based on news coverage of the crisis. Similarly, the Clinton Administration, trying to resolve a very complex and bloody conflict in the Balkans, often noted that images on the news of killings there had a significant impact on their decisions.

The war in Darfur, which began in 2003 and has since displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands, has garnered worldwide support through the media (Associated Press, 2010). More recently, the KONY2012 campaign, which was a viral phenomenon spreading information and campaigning for the arrest of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony through on-line videos, social networking and television, received much attention due to the images it presented to the public (Grandoni, 2012).

Globalizing Values

Other observers have suggested that globalization leads to effects beyond simply raising awareness and sympathy for people and events in other nations. There is also a diffusion of values on issues such as human rights, democracy, and even on very specific concerns such as health matters.

Sociology Professor Peter Berger has noted that a global network of foundations, academic networks, non-governmental organizations and some governmental, and multinational agencies (such as the UN system and development agencies), have become transmission agents for what they perceive to be positive cultural values (Berger, 1997).

This group spreads its ideas through mass communication, think tanks, educational systems, development projects, the legal system, and other mechanisms of international organizations.

For example, three non-governmental organizations, Amnesty International, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), and the French organization Medicines Sans Frontiers, all won the Nobel Peace Prize at different times for their efforts to extend values about human well-being onto a global level.

In particular, many policymakers noted that the decision to award the Nobel Prize to the ICBL in 1997 was partly in recognition of what was a new way of organizing politically on a global level. The Executive Director of the ICBL, a young activist named Jody Williams, relied heavily upon the relatively new medium of the Internet to help spread an idea about the benefits of banning landmines around the world.

With a skeletal staff and modest resources but very creative use of technology, Williams managed to build a global network of over 1,100 groups for human rights, de-mining, humanitarian, children’s, veterans’, medical, development, arms control, religious, environmental, and women’s causes in over 60 countries. These organizations work locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally to ban antipersonnel landmines. Her organizing led to the creation of a significant international movement that produced a significant shift in government attitudes towards these very common weapons. The ICBL’s campaign was one of the new products of globalization, which many people and governments are only beginning to fully understand.

Efforts to “globalize” reform efforts are as limitless as the domestic agendas of any individual nation. Peter Berger points out that one of the most successful public health movements in developed nations over the past 20 years has been an effort to discourage smoking. Berger notes that this movement, “clearly a product of Western intellectuals, was disseminated worldwide by an alliance of governmental and non-governmental organizations.” He points out one particularly odd moment in this campaign—a kind of cultural clash of well-intentioned globalization—when a major international conference was sponsored by the Scandinavian countries in Stockholm.

The goal of the conference was to support an international campaign to reduce cigarette smoking. The detrimental health effects of smoking are well-documented, and the numbers of people in developing countries who smoke have been increasing at a rapid rate. Many individual countries have undertaken efforts to educate their citizens about the dangers of smoking, and the conference organizers wanted to take this effort to a global audience.

Having paid the travel expenses of health ministry officials from developing countries around the world, the assembled ministers all made sympathetic remarks about the lofty goals of the campaign. Nonetheless, Berger notes, many of the developing country officials—whose nations are being ravaged by incurable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and very curable or preventable ones such as cholera, tuberculosis, or malaria—have felt that anti-smoking efforts must rank very low on their list of priorities.

Professor Samuel Huntington has similarly criticized Western groups for taking on such initiatives, however well-intentioned they may be. He argues that values are particular to the nations in which they originate, and he denounces the Western belief in the universality of culture as false, immoral, and dangerous. The West, he says, must abandon both these pretensions and all attempts to impose Western values on the rest of the world.


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