Something that is of concern to me is ‘sameness’. We have become more monolithic and this is a problem. The things that cause stress, the things that we never pay attention to, the things that are part of our subconscious, the things that are moving our lives, the things that dominant our lives – all of these things have been remade in the image of a single civilisation. The power of the West has not been power in terms of economic might, in terms of military might, in terms of technology, in terms of science. The power of the West – and the only power that really matters these days – is the power to define. It is the West that has defined what it is to be a human being, what it is to be free, what it is to be civil society, what it is to be a city, what it is to have knowledge and what knowledge is. Given the fact that all the definitions come from a single culture, it is not surprising that the world begins to resemble that single culture. Wherever you go, you find the same culture. Have you noticed how every single airport looks like every other airport? Go to the duty free shops and they are selling the same cigarettes, they are selling the same perfume, same radios, same CDs. Why? Because there’s only one kind of technology that builds airports and that technology builds airports the way they are built. That’s why all airports look exactly the same.

Similarly, cities are beginning to look more and more the same. You can go from one end of the world to another and you will discover that the cities don’t change very much. Suppose you went to the sacred city of Makkah which is sacred to 1.2 billion Muslims. It is the city that the Prophet Muhammad walked on. It is a city with great history, great cultural property. It is a history with incredible geology and landscape. What does an average pilgrim – who has to go to pilgrimage like most Muslims must go on pilgrimage to Makkah at least once in their life – when he or she arrives in Makkah discover? He or she discovers that Makkah looks like Houston. Alternately, he or she can go to Houston and discover that Houston looks like Makkah. Because cities, in terms of the way they are thought and built, the way they are structured, now come from the same perception of what it is to be human.

What is of concern to me is that the West’s conventional power is now being appropriated by the United States of America. Where once the West defined how things should be, it is now only the United States defining how things should be. In this context, it becomes a matter of expediency and commodification. So the definitions change according to the dictates of politics and markets. For example, take Islamic Law: it is supposedly anti-human rights in Sudan because Sudan has a very aggressive, anti-American foreign policy; but the same law in Saudi Arabia, which has a very aggressive pro-American foreign policy, suddenly becomes humane. Almost everything is defined in purely expedient terms – in terms of what is expedient and useful for America – and almost everything must be commodified in American terms. That is why, wherever we go, we find the same commodities: because whatever cannot be commodified cannot be found in the shopping malls or airports.

We can’t get away from this sameness and we can’t get away from this American sameness. Some years ago I found myself in the city of Kuala Lumpur where most of my Malay friends kept complaining that the city was shrinking. I couldn’t understand why they were saying that. As far as I could see, the city was getting bigger, at least bigger in size. I could see that the city was getting slower because there were more and more cars and no one seemed to be going anywhere. Everybody was driving these very fast cars which were capable of speeds of 120 miles per hour although not in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. If you could drive at 10 miles per hour, that was a major success. It took me some time to discover that what they meant when they said the city was shrinking, was that the cultural space within the city was shrinking. All those things that they identified with as Malay cultures were disappearing and being replaced by ‘identi-kit’ American things. It seemed that someone had bought a job lot of architect plans from an American city and the whole city looked like any American city. Everybody was building those condos in exactly the same design. Then the shopping malls arrived and they started selling the same things you find in any other place. Conventional businesses were destroyed and standard American-style products flooded in. Local programming on television started to disappear. It used to be 70% or 80% and then it comprised only 5% of programming. Almost everything on television including the advertisements is from America.

So I challenged my journalist friends to tell me if there was anywhere in the world where I could get away from this sameness and where there was no influence of it. They suggested the deepest rainforests of Borneo as a place to go to get away from all this. This is what I did, travelling with friends. So after travelling by plane, four wheel drive and boat, we finally arrived at a long house where 42 families lived, perched on a mountain. We were greeted with exceptional warmth and gave them biscuits – typical white men stuff – which were then divided into 42 parts and placed outside the 42 rooms in which the families lived. It was pitch dark and we were walking in the dark. In the morning, they made soap and grew chillis and all sorts of wonderful things. For three days it was heaven. I thought I had discovered utopia in this long house.

After three days, the head man with whom I had become very friendly asked me how long I planned to stay. So I said I might stay a couple of weeks. He looked exceptionally depressed. I suggested that we could leave tomorrow if there was a problem. So he said that if I allowed them to be themselves to some extent, then I could stay as long as I liked. I asked, ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘this may be the middle of the jungle in Borneo but we actually have electricity’. He explained that they had a generator. So they turned on the generator and the whole house flooded with light. In the light, I saw many things that I hadn’t seen before because it was perpetually dark. All the families came out and sat in the middle of the long house and we talked for 20 minutes or a half hour until someone asked if they could watch television. They rolled the television out and we watched CNN for a while, then MTV and then Channel [V] which came out of India. After about an hour, the head man said, ‘this is not working at all. We want to watch a film.’ Apparently, a man would come up the river in a boat and would rent them videos. I was invited to watch one of several videos with them. So I sat back and we all watched Terminator.

You simply can’t get away from this sameness. It’s not just the outskirts of Borneo. Have you looked how many Americans and American type folks people the universe? Look at space, the final frontier – Star Trek – almost everybody there comes from the American Academy of How to be Wonderfully White. All the villains are almost always from European history. The Klingons are basically Saracens. In Voyager, for example, you have the Borg who assimilate everything and are technological. These are the Japanese. According to these representations of space and the future, the universe is populated by white Americans and villains who are hell bent on destroying Americans, such as in the film, Independence Day. Every single film you watch, you see weird aliens. When these American-type guys go to the outer universe, they never meet a Ghandi or a Mandela. Outer space, like the space of this planet, reflects the
paranoia of American and Western civilisation and is full of sameness. This suggests to me a failure of imagination.

I would like to put to you a proposition: the universe we have created, this universe of sameness, is not worth living in. Surely there must be other lives we can create and surely there are other universes we can imagine.

Let me conclude with a story which is found in the books of school children in Pakistan. In the story a man is walking. He is walking by a wall and the wall collapses on the man and he dies. The town folk are very upset and want to punish someone. They go to their king and explain what has happened to him. The king says ‘find the man who built the wall’. So they find this poor guy who built the wall and the king says, ‘hang him for killing an innocent man’. So the wall builder says ‘It is not my fault that the wall fell down. When I was making the wall, the cement had too much water in it. Because the cement was so thin, I couldn’t make a strong wall. So it’s not my fault at all.’ So the king says to find the cement maker and hang him. So they go and find the cement mixer and before he’s about to be hanged, he says ‘It is not my fault that the cement was thin. While I was mixing the cement, this very fat man was walking around whistling. His whistling distracted me and I accidently put too much water into the cement. It’s the fault of that fat man.’ So the king says to find the fat man and hang him. So they find the fat guy and he happens to be very fat. The gallows have the same crafting as the wall. So when the fat man goes to the gallows, they collapse. So the king asks what kind of weight the gallows can hold. They calculate that what’s left of the gallows will hold a very thin man. The king says to find a very thin man and hang him. They find a poor starving man, catch him and hang him.

This story basically says that you deserve the leaders you get. Why should we blame Bush? Why should we blame Blair? Why should we blame Howard? It is our fault, we put them there. Essentially, the crunch comes back to us and that at the end of the day, the responsibility for change lies with us.

The other proposition I would like to put to you is that everything needs to be changed. If everything is the same, in the image of a single civilisation and increasingly in the image of a single culture, then clearly we need to change everything. And I mean everything: the economic system, the structure of power, how we define knowledge, how disciplines are shaped. These are all fabricated, artificial constructions – all of it has to change.

In the contemporary postmodern world everything is connected to everything else. So you, as an individual, are not an individual but a node of power in a web of human relationships. If you understood that, then you have the power to change everything you want to change. We are perpetually brought to the edge of chaos. Things are moving so fast, there’s no time to adjust. There are many feedback loops and the thing to know about feedback is that things build up very quickly. If you knew you were a node in a network in which there’s feedback, you can take society to the edge of chaos and maybe transform it. One of the best examples of that is the anti-globalisation demonstration in Seattle and another is the Truckers’ Strike in London which I spent some time analysing. The truckers wanted petrol prices to go down and the government told them that nothing could be done. So the truckers went on strike. They had no leader but they worked as a network with mobile phones and the internet. They started their strike at one refinery and blockaded that. When the country started to use a second refinery, they moved very quickly and blockaded that too. Everybody panicked and started buying more and more petrol, queues were getting longer and the feedback loop continued. There was no leader for the government to demonise and within 10 days they brought the country to a halt. I do believe that if they had not stepped back then, there would have been a major crisis in Britain. So individuals do have power but they have to realise how that power can be used. As long as individuals think they are just an atom, the problem remains. They need to think they are part of a network.

In conversation with Rachel Kohn and others

RK: I would have thought the universality of airport technology has at least done one thing for us. It’s made flight, or at least landing, safer. You’ve got to concede that some uniformity has been pretty good for the world. In fact, it wouldn’t have been taken up quite so quickly had it not been so successful.

ZS: I think you are confusing standards with sameness. Yes, we do need standards. Things have to be done to certain standards and standards are, in some cases, universal and they have to be followed to maintain quality and safety. But standards and sameness are quite different things. You can build airports to the same standards but they dont have to look the same or sell the same consumer products.

The new technologies – information technology, bio-technology – that’s where the major risks lie. Just imagine, for example, the way capital moves now. In a second, you can have billions of dollars going from one bank to another bank. Every time I want to transfer some cash, my bank takes four weeks. Why is it that in an electronic age, the banks always take so long but markets can move capital very fast? Conventionally, of course, in a market situation, decisions were made by real human beings but now computers are programmed to buy and sell and things can go out of sync very quickly. That’s why we’ve had so many near meltdown situations in the last 10 to 15 years.

There are incredible risks in genetic engineering – I don’t have to go into that. These are very complex things. We are redefining what it means to be human. We are redefining what is death. We are redefining the body. We are redefining what is birth, a human baby. Recently, in London, a mother had a baby for her son. That is mind-boggling complexity – the ethical dimensions. The risks of that are quite incredible.

RK: The extreme end of things is always bizarre but let me ask you about the uniformity that you have been positing. I find it fascinating that this uniformity can be found precisely at the time when something like postmodernism is the prevalent philosophy. That is, diversity and the idea that there is no single truth of way of going about anything can be found precisely at the same time as the spread of uniformity. I can’t help seeing tons of diversity in this uniform West.

ZS: If you were to visit a shopping mall – say a shopping mall in Singapore, a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, a shopping mall in Karachi, a shopping mall in San Jose – you will discover they are built in more or less the same way and almost all the shops are the same. They sell more or less the same items. In some cases, you get a little nod to the local culture. Even though there can be nods to localness, the sameness is still there. All modern cities are built on a grid. Islamabad is a wonderful place built across hills. They wanted to build Islamabad as a modern city. They cut down the top of the mountains and put a grid in and a number of big streets. It looks like any other city. That’s exactly what they have done to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina. They removed the geological space and flattened it – this has a great history and sacred nature – and just put straight roads in. It is the same performed sameness that is part of the perception of the way we look: there’s something wrong with the way we are looking. We seem to be looking in the same way, in the same direction. We never look in a different way. We never imagine other ways of building cities, other ways of planning, other ways of doing things.

What is apparent diversity? I had an Indian meal in Melbourne. The food tasted exactly like international Indian food should because that’s how international Indian food tastes wherever you go. It’s almost like McDonalds. It’s made for a particular kind of International palate. This kind of sameness runs very deep in contemporary society. People who are bubbling with diversity and want to see diversity everywhere actually see diversity everywhere because that’s what they want to see. When I was coming back from Kuching – that trip in Borneo – the first shop I saw in Kuching was The Body Shop. So I stopped and went in. In this Body Shop, I bought the very soap that was being made by my hosts in the long house 300 miles down the street. Now it was in a little green bottle with Body Shop written on it. Let me say that this is a traditional recipe handed down generations. Nothing is sacred and everything has been commodified including people’s traditional knowledge. In India, they’ve taken out patents on the Neem Tree, patents on curry, most rices have already been patented. I think Basmati rice is the only rice that is left. There is a megadrive for sameness. If you focus on sameness, you see how pervasive and deep it is.

RK: I don’t want to. I’ll get deeply depressed. I was really touched by the scene of the electrified long house in Borneo. It sort of says to me that even deep in the jungle people will realise their dreams. If it is to have the lights on watching Terminator they are going to get it somehow.

ZS: But that is my very point – total failure of imagination. Even in the tribal imagination, we have instilled the desire that the best they can do is to watch the Terminator.

RK: Maybe it’s a lot better than what they were going to do.

ZS: How do you know?

RK: Well that’s the question – ‘how do we know?’ Do we romanticise people in the bush, people in the jungle, people out there who we hope are going to be preserving something sacred for us that we’ve lost. I mean isn’t that an imposition?

ZS: No. It’s a question they must be able to define for themselves. It’s one of the things about space I was talking about. One of the things that is missing, I think, is the cultural space, the space for self-definition. Cultures that are genuinely different from the West – in other words, are not the West – can have a self-definition of their own. Because they cannot do that, we end up with the kind of situation I described. There is no cultural space which belongs to different cultures. Almost all cultural spaces have been occupied. A good example is to compare the Raj with what is happening today. During the Raj, the average Indian would only come in contact with the British if he was involved in some administration. But when he came into his own house, it was his own culture. Nothing inside was remotely related to British ideas, culture, worldview or what have you. Nowadays you can’t do that. American culture is out in the street, American foreign policy may be supporting the dictator that is ruling you and when you go inside your own house American culture is everywhere on television, the programs, in music, the internet and all the technological paraphernalia that is there. There is no place to escape from this culture. We are reduced to zero size of cultural difference and that is very serious.

RK: Now let’s throw it out to the audience. You must have questions.

Q-male1: You were talking about cultural space and how America is perpetuating this sameness all around the world. When America does recede, there’s going to be a huge vacuum of cultural space. Do you see any way of stopping another America emerging in this big vacuum of cultural space open to the rest of the world?

ZS: I don’t think there will be a cultural space. Nature abhors a vacuum. Wherever America retreats, local cultures will take over. Just because I am saying American culture pervades and there’s sameness doesn’t mean that there is no resistance to American culture. The resistance to American culture is also all pervasive. Wherever you go people are trying to resist American culture in their own way. In fact, that is my challenge to folks like you as well – to go out and resist and change everything. Once America retreats, there will be lots of opportunities for local cultures to flower and maybe we will get some local cultures that will become strong enough to have a global impact.

Q-male2: So you don’t think another nation will step into America’s place and it will be the same cycle over again?

ZS: Not really. No. I don’t think there are other powers that are the hyperpower equivalent of America. There’s China, there’s India, but these are not real hyperpowers either in cultural terms or military terms or technological terms. So they do not have the ability to ‘take over’ or replace America in that sense.

Q-male2: How long will it take for the American sameness to recede?

ZS: That depends on what we decide to do. I don’t know. I am not into prediction.

Q-male2: We’re living in a fool’s paradise here.

ZS: Absolutely. If America lasted 200 years, I’d be astonished. I would probably think 20 or 30 years provided we are not complacent. There has to be genuine resistance.

Q-male3: You gave one example of changes we might be able to make and that was in political terms. Are there any other examples you might give us that might be in a different sphere other than a political sphere or do you think that the changes you foresee need to be primarily in the political sphere?

ZS: On the contrary, I see changes throughout all spheres of life. For example, take history. Take, for example, Australian history which is essentially the history of the white man who arrived and basically built a nation. There is another totally different perspective on Australian history, the perspective of the Australian Aborigines. Why don’t we have histories totally written from the perspective of the Australian Aborigines? So many histories need to be written. The whole idea that humanity is essentially the history of western civilisation from Greek downwards – that other civilisations and cultures are regarded as small tributaries that come into this great universal history of Western civilisation – needs to be challenged very seriously. We need to write other histories from other perspectives.

Also, the whole notion of discourse – to a large extent, part of the reason we do things the way we do things is based on how we study nature. The disciplines are structured and emerge in a particular cultural milieu. They reflect the concerns of that culture. For example, anthropology exists essentially to ‘anthropologise’ the other, to control and maintain them. Over the past 20 to 30 years, anthropologists have tried to refine their discipline and change it so that its historic roots are severed. That doesn’t actually undermine the argument I am making which is that certain disciplines have certain functions and they evolve for that function and if we are going to change the world, we will need to evolve different disciplines that are geared towards the sort of change we desire. I am talking about all pervasive change, not just changing politics.

Q-male4: What you are calling American culture, what you are calling Western culture, seems to me to have been the compilation of human culture throughout history. The Arabs contributed the script, the Chinese contributed the gun powder, the Greek and the Romans and the various other cultures contributed along the way. What has been built from that broad base of humanity is now focused in America or on American culture. American itself is probably the principle example of everyone coming together from all over the world, bringing their contributions and we find the result is American culture. I see it as the pinnacle of the world’s cultures being concentrated. What you have been describing in Borneo and elsewhere is the options that people have taken up to follow that culture. We may deplore various aspects of it. At the end of the day, are you, first of all, denying the amalgamation of all the cultures that have ever existed on this planet forming and contributing to this Western culture and are you denying the right of the people all over the world to join into that culture and be part of that culture even if, at this stage, it is more of a following than a contribution?

ZS: Absolutely. I am denying it absolutely and utterly. I am denying it with every element of my human existence. You have just summed up the problem that I am representing. Here you have the white man who comes along and says ‘we are the pinnacle of human history’. Essentially, we, as white people, personify what it is to be human. There is no other truth. Our history is the history, the history of Western civilisation. That is the most obnoxious thing I can think of in terms of thought. This can only come from people who have no understanding of Islamic history, people who have no idea of the greatness of Chinese civilisation, people who have not even bothered to learn about what makes the Aboriginal person tick. It’s that kind of cultural arrogance – it’s not even arrogance, it’s almost a God-like thing – that I think is a problem, that is creating sameness, that is creating the unjust world that we live in. This is the world that causes me distress because of its deep structural injustice. I invite everyone to – I know I asked you to change everything – before you do anything else, to attack this thought.

RK: I find it very hard to think of American or North America as uniform and same. Going through the countries from side to side, one encounters so much difference, so many different points of view and cultures and languages. Indeed when you were talking about the speed of change, I was thinking about London and the East End and California and how California is virtually a Spanish speaking, almost a country of its own. That is, one almost imagines it breaking off from American because of its diversity and having attracted so many people that are not white, English speaking people. I wonder to what extent that magnet which seems to be the West – people are still coming to the West, people are still coming as refugees to the West – whether that does change the West. I think everyone here over 50 would look around and say ‘this isn’t the place I grew up in’ and indeed we seem to be confronting so many waves of change in a single life. That uniformity and sameness that you talk about is hard for me to actually accept because in my own life, I have seen so much change.

ZS: The more things change, the more things stay the same. Power seems to be aggregating in fewer and fewer hands. This was the situation during the colonial period where few empires ruled the vast majority of the world. Now we have those empires shrunken to a single empire, the great empire of the United States. In a sense, nothing has changed from the perspective of the victim. You look at it from the perspective of a nice Canadian woman who drives about in the streets in the United States. I am not saying that the United States is a monolithic entity. That is not my point. The United States is a human society and like all human societies has all shades of opinion and diversity and so forth. At the same time, there is an overarching ideology of sameness that creates the American worldview. We need to not just question that ideology we need to confront that ideology to some extent. To a very large extent, that confrontation is already beginning in America. Many Americans are aware of what is happening in their own societies. The disparity of wealth in the United States is incredible and something like 30% of American population living in the inner city lives on less than US$8 a day You have unjust structures in America itself so even America’s got to question what’s going on. I think Americans are questioning what is going on. The peace movement was just as big in the United States as it was in Europe.

From the Ideas Book, edited by Linda Carroli and introduced by Phillip Adams and Dale Spender, University of Queens Land Press, St Lucia, 2005291-307
Copyright Brisbane City Council