I recently heard an American visitor in a public meeting in Moscow state this expression (title quote), which is fairly common amidst some (usually socially “liberal”) circles in the USA. It is worth reflecting that such an idea, expressed by this particular, unremarkable visitor from Arizona, has not yet had a very long life in human history. Before the average person could democratically travel to any country in the world – where can a person, today, with only even a moderate income, and a modest curiosity in other cultures and peoples, not comparatively easily travel to on the globe at the end of the technological 20th century? – it would have occurred to few of them, who generally lived provincial lives, to express such an idea. And while gravity, and say, dollars, may be “basically the same everywhere”, it is not so immediately obvious that this is true of all peoples in the world – and was certainly not true, for example, in the experience of those who took the “grand tour” of Europe in the 19th century, or travel to the (still?) “exotic” East even perhaps only just a couple of decades ago.
The expression is a fairly common (even if historically-recent) generalization, stated as a sort of trans-cultural, historical, “universal”, human “truth”; but the woman who said it did not give the impression of having much experienced, understood, or appreciated greater human variety, deep cultural contrasts, national differences, historical change, or psychological diversity (e.g., “Russian soul” and “American mind”). In other words, she drew her words from a sort of current public stock of social ideas and expressions in the USA – one commonly expressed by some people in certain public situations or discussions today. Colloquially in America one can actually sometimes hear it said that most humans have two eyes and legs, etc.; that all need to eat, drink, . . .communicate, build, love, die, etc., etc., etc.
One would think that this really hardly needs being stated, and was in this case not really what this American woman meant. What she was saying (again, from a common stock of more or less clear and coherent ideas) was an expression, an idea, which rather claims something like that all people in all nations and in all cultures are psychologically, and in their social life and needs, “basically the same (like Americans?) everywhere”.
Probably she also meant – though it is doubtful that she knew the intellectual tradition (e.g., Jean Jacques Rousseau) which supports this view of man, and likely as not she was just voicing her American middle-class experience and its “philosophy” – that people everywhere are “basically good” (though one could as easily also argue the opposite in my opinion), and that it is governments that are often what is “bad” and corrupting. Considering the varieties in the human world: religions (one standard division has some 15 major religions today, with innumerable subdivisions); cultures; languages (with many language families, and hundreds, indeed thousands of dialects in the world); civilizations (Arnold Toynbee argued for the existence of 26 civilizations in human history; Samuel Huntington sees 9 “clashing” today); traditions; races (generally seen to be five main “races”) and (many) sub-races; countries and nations (as of 1995, the UN had 185 members extant); increasing populations; approximately 5,000 years of human history (during which the majority of many separate peoples lived provincial lives completely unknowing, and uninterested, in others); plus all of the nobility and ignobility, good and evil, excellence and crudity, wealth and poverty, intelligence and ignorance of humanity; her stock (probably monolingual) claim is rather bold, historically (moderately) new – and certainly merits further serious reflection before it is accepted as insightful, wonderful and inspiring!
This semi-intellectually-articulated assertion of human similarity is grand and all-encompassing – similar to, if distinct from, the old idea of all peoples on the earth created by the Biblical God, and descended from the “fallen” Adam and Eve; it tries to summarize all of the diversity and variety in the entire human condition in a single, simple, easy expression, which almost anyone can say. But has the person who speaks it tested it? Traveled the world (and traversed history!), and so deeply lived in other cultures, souls and traditions, ... so entered into other religious “belief systems”, etc., as to say “all people are basically the same everywhere” as a conclusion from life and world experience? Hardly! The idea rather has other sources: the rationalism of the “Age of Reason”, combined with the Romantic view of the goodness of human nature; the tendency towards scientific generalization which pervades our time; modern mass political rhetoric and social idealisms; middle-class world tourism (and hotels) in the recent global age; and others. It is also closely related to such rhetorical and secular ideals of man as “democracy”, “equality”, “liberty”, etc., which are a part of the au courant Zeitgeist at this time in history.
In fact the American woman did not need to have a (more, or less, unreflective) political, “idealistic” view of (“naturally good”) humanity; nor a mere (more, or less, unconscious) naiveté and ignorance of its historical and cultural variety; for basically she was just restating a famous portion of her nation’s own creed – the “American Creed”, written in the first portion of the Declaration of Independence:
all men are created equal. (It has become a sort of secular social dictum, and not only in the USA, in our time.)
It seems to me that the people who repeat this dubious expression: “all people are basically the same everywhere”, might rather be asked – if it is as true of psychological and cultural, as of human physical needs and conditions – whether it is not a human tragedy: a cultural, intellectual, and spiritual catastrophe for mankind and human history. McDonald’s, Mickey Mouse, and Michael Jackson, Microsoft, mediocrity and money are the final band of conquerors (and equalizers) of humanity? More powerful than Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Attilla the Hun, Ghenghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin; and Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, ... or communism, socialism, . . . !? And all the diversity, variety and creative contrasts of human beings, cultures, civilizations, traditions, etc., are, and were, merely ephemeral, . . . passing – not really “basic”?! If this is true, perhaps it is an historical “insight” worthy rather of profound lamentation, sorrow and regret, than happy acclamation?
Were the woman who had spoken these words very impressive with her depth of soul, her breadth and intimacy with life and world; did she have some compelling tone to her voice; some special profound intelligence and education in her eyes, words and ideas; it might have seemed something to hear seriously – if sadly. But she was not so; and the expression from her seemed somehow equally unconvincing, and troubling.
If “all people are basically the same everywhere”, then, even for Darwin, the human species is maladapted, even doomed from further evolution – for this requires diversity.
These Americans are often children, really – intellectually, historically (to the extent that they know any serious history at all!), experientially, philosophically, culturally, etc. They often unconsciously assume that everyone in the world (and history) think and live like them, want to, or should! Perhaps we should rather agree that most common people are “basically” the same everywhere? (Like the peoples worldwide who enjoy being in the empty atmosphere of one of the world’s McDonald’s!) Or that the uninteresting, “basic” aspects of life, culture, mentalities, peoples, traditions, nations, civilizations, religions, philosophies, etc., are the same everywhere? Or that all people in the world who live and think like Americans are “basically the same everywhere”?
If everyone everywhere is “basically the same”, then the world, life, cultures, histories, philosophies, religions, sexes, nationalities, races, etc., are basically boring, uninteresting, flat, dead, . . . because the differences are unimportant – not “basic”. And if this is true, what is there really and truly in life or world to provoke the human mind to think further, to seek more deeply to understand and experience life and world, cultures and mankind, etc.?
So let us perhaps hope and pray that all people in the world are not “basically” the same, or if they are, or will – as seems likely with “globalisation” – increasingly become more, so, then let us perhaps hear “all people are basically the same everywhere”, with intellectual regret, pain of soul, and spiritual sorrow, like a refrain in a grand global dirge, or some conclusive epitaph in the history of humanity!
First published in the magazine English, #31, August 1998, p. 1, 14.