Between the two world wars the poet T.S. Eliot was the editor of the literary magazine The Criterion. The magazine's aim was to bring together 'the best in new thinking and new writing in its time, from all the countries of Europe that had anything to contribute to the common good'. At its root lay 'a common concern for the highest standards both of thought and expression, coupled with a common curiosity and openness of mind to new ideas. The ideas with which you did not agree, the opinions which you could not accept, were as important to you as those which you found immediately acceptable'.
The magazine initially flourished, but as the Second World War drew near it began to disintegrate. According to Eliot this was the result of 'the gradual closing of the mental frontiers of Europe. A kind of cultural autarky, followed inevitably upon political and economic autarky. This did not merely interrupt communications: [...] it had a numbing effect on creative activity within every country'.1
Eliot's concern about the lack of diversity, of creativity, and the fear of a uniform culture, was not a new phenomenon. 'It is the habit of our time [...] to be without any marked character, to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady's foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently [...] Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things', wrote John Stuart Mill in 1859.2 Plato voiced a similar complaint more than twenty-three centuries earlier: 'Where money and pleasure have become the sole aim in life, the result is a complete levelling out [...] Writers, just like politicians, look to the taste of the screaming masses who rule the roost'.3
The diversity which preoccupied Eliot and which forms the main theme of the report of the World Commission on Culture and Development has been a subject of discussion since time immemorial. Nevertheless it remains topical because the circumstances which give rise to these related issues are continually changing. Eliot was talking about a specific area of the world, Europe, where dictatorships were closing frontiers, right, left and centre. Now sixty years on this is a worldwide matter, and the frontiers are not so much closed as porous.
With regard to the disappearance of cultural boundaries, the media and mass communication play a crucial role. A role which varies according to the medium and one that is not unequivocal. The Internet, the mouthpiece of the individual, makes it possible - beyond government control - to establish contact with whoever one wants and to collect information on any subject. But against the unprecedented freedom that this brings to all those who are on the Internet and who know their way around it, there are 600,000 hamlets spread across the world where there is no electricity and where the electronic superhighway is, therefore, of no consequence whatsoever. The focus on modern methods of communication sometimes threatens to draw attention away from other methods of breaking through cultural isolation, such as providing access to books - for many an indispensable step towards literacy. And although the Internet offers many positive encounters, there is also the risk of unwittingly being confronted with pornographic or politically extremist messages.
Like the Internet, the mass media, and television in particular, can be both an asset and an affliction. It not only provides relaxation, but the fact that the same programmes can be seen the world over fosters common bonds. Universal access to world news can lead to worldwide concern for those who are exposed to violence. A downside of this development is that the supply has a largely Western bias. Western programmes not only provide a limited selection, but they also present an entirely different life style, with its attendant expectations, which local governments, or the population itself, cannot or will not fulfil.
Western programmes, however, are not preferred per se. Research has shown that where there is a choice local programmes attract a larger audience than imported ones, in non-Western countries as well.4 However, the poorer the country the more difficult it is to develop local programmes.
The decline of state influence on the media in Western countries has meant that the private sector is now largely responsible for determining developments in this field. Economic considerations have brought about mergers in the mass media, giving birth to media giants whose programme strategy is governed by viewing figures and profit margins. This only serves to create the levelling-out described and decried by Plato.
The fact that a section of the media has become privatized also has political consequences. Where the media are driven by commercial interests, the parties with the greatest financial clout will be granted the most viewing time during election campaigns. Diversity of information - one of the essential prerequisites of democracy - is thereby put at risk. And here we see an analogy with countries where the government dictates the media supply.
Thus one can say that the media both stimulate and threaten diversity. Which is the reason why in this sector it is essential for the state to retain a certain measure of regulatory control, on a national and international level, to prevent the formation of cartels and create possibilities for an alternative voice. This is important if for no other reason than that it would provide an outlet for individuals or groups of a different persuasion - maybe members of a cultural minority - who for financial or political reasons have little opportunity to be heard.
The choc des opinions keeps a society alive. And this touches on an essential aspect of human existence: the freedom of individuals to develop according to their own perceptions and to give public expression to their thoughts. The same holds true for the collective freedom of a group belonging to a specific culture.
How much freedom is accorded to the individual to develop the unique, the vibrant and the creative in himself? The answer, the many answers, to this will vary according to whether a particular culture places more value on the importance of society or on that of the individual. In many non-Western countries, individuals see themselves first and foremost as part of a society. Individual freedom is of secondary importance. 'My education, my upbringing was not at all about originality, about individualism. It was about knowledge, about learning, but not from the viewpoint of the I, the Ego [...] I learned that art in the Western world is about individuality, about originality, about the self. Only later I recognized that it is one of the most unreal things to learn. Now it feels like too easy a garment. To learn it is not so difficult. It's much more difficult to undo it.'5
The Westerner is inclined to demand a large measure of freedom for the individual. This ties in with Mill's view 'that man is spontaneous, that he has freedom of choice, that he moulds his own character, that as a result of the interplay of men and nature and with other men something novel continually arises, and that this novelty is precisely what is most characteristic and most human in men.'6 While the individual freedom of the ordinary citizen is considered as inherently good, the freedom of the artist, either intentionally or not, often has a broader function. 'The artist provokes thoughts and feelings, delight and amazement. In criticism art leads the way, is inevitably elitist and sometimes difficult to follow, but for many can later form a springboard for a new experience and meaning'.7
Restricting artistic freedom can have a political dimension. Places where art has been banned can become breeding grounds for violence. 'What concerns me is that man, unable to articulate himself adequately, reverts to action. Since the vocabulary of action is limited, as it were, to his body, he is bound to act violently, extending his vocabulary with a weapon where there should have been an adjective.' In the course of history, how often has resistance to oppression not stemmed from the world of art? 'For a man with taste, particularly literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy. The point is not so much that virtue does not constitute a guarantee for producing a masterpiece as that evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist'. 8
The search for consensus on new national and global regulations, such as for the media and mass communication, for example, concerns not only the freedom of the individual but also the collective freedom of communities, large or small, which embody a specific culture. This also holds true for the relationship within and between states.
The obligation to respect this collective freedom, the acceptance of pluralism, is one of the central points of the report. Not only is pluralism desirable because of the creative force that is born of diversity, but it also makes sense from the point of view of conflict prevention. In many current internal conflicts within states, ethnicity and the emphasis on ethnic differences are mobilized for political ends. Instead of ethnic differences being accepted as the cornerstone of a multicolored, pluralist, but essentially tolerant, society they are conversely often misused to stir up violent conflicts.
Of course it would be pointless and dangerous to aspire to a society or international community devoid of tensions. In fact, a certain degree of friction and conflict fosters creativity and progress. 'As individuals we find that our development depends upon the people whom we meet in the course of our lives [...] The benefit of these meetings is due as much to the differences as to the resemblances; to the conflict, as well as the sympathy, between persons. Fortunate the man, who at the right moment, meets the right friend; fortunate also the man who at the right moment meets the right enemy. I do not approve of the extermination of the enemy: the policy of exterminating or, as is barbarously said, liquidating enemies, is one of the most alarming developments of modern war and peace from the point of view of those who desire the survival of culture [...] However, within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups, seems to me quite necessary for civilization. The universality of irritation is the best assurance of peace'.
There is a danger that careless readers of the report will confuse this implicit plea for pluralism with an advocacy of political autonomy. That would be a pity because in so doing they would be ignoring the essence of the report with all its nuances, thereby giving it an undeserved political charge. 'What oppressed classes or nationalities, as a rule, demand is neither unhampered liberty of action for their members [...] still less assignment of a place in a frictionless, organic state devised by the rational lawgiver. What they want, as often as not, is simply recognition (of their class or nation, or colour or race) as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own'. 10
Common agreement on the freedom of the individual or on the acceptance of a pluralistic society cannot be achieved without a shared ethical foundation. 'Whether the community be large or small, it is not possible to achieve a decent society without a basic consensus with regard to certain values, norms and attitudes'.11 Those words of Hans Küng could be the very basis on which the message of the report is founded: the striving towards the communal as a basis for respecting the differences that exist between us. This conference centred not so much on a national consensus but on worldwide values which could form the underlying principle for global legislation.
Yesterday and today several notable statements were made about worldwide ethics, pluralism and the media, and I would like to mention a few of them. Firstly, the view that interpretation and implementation of global ethical premises must stem from diversity, from a specific social or religious context. Among the speakers, there was a certain optimism about developments in the media. Along with the observation that cultural diversity in production and distribution must be guaranteed, it was established - also from the commercial viewpoint - that it is in the interests of the media giants themselves to introduce differentiation in their supply. And here it should be added that local and regional news, unless it is of international interest, is usually given little attention. The Internet could be instrumental in filling this void. As far as pluralism is concerned, it was noted that culture plays an important role in facilitating the transition from deep-rooted social strife to the negotiation phase. The strength of the arts lies in the fact that - more or less outside any political context - they can foster social cohesion, as was seen in Sarajevo during the recent conflict in former Yugoslavia.
Although the conference was intended as a dialogue, several of the observations mentioned and the report itself can form a basis for policy. The central premise is that a government cannot shape a culture. It is rather the reverse, a government forms part of the national culture. But government policy can curb certain excesses and eradicate prejudices. The World Commission on Culture and Development, the instigators of the report, seeks to reach agreement on what is understood by excesses and prejudices. The basis for this lies in the ethical principles mentioned in the report, and it cannot be sufficiently stressed that this is not a Western diktat:
Worldwide agreement has already been reached on several of these principles, such as international standards for human rights, most recently during the human rights conference held in Vienna. Worldwide principles have also been formulated in other areas as well, including the environment, equal rights for women and social rights. The next step is now one of implementation, and the Dutch government will effect this inter alia through education, legislation and foreign policy. And I would like to emphasize that not only must the foreign policy be implemented, it must also be a reflection of the domestic policy. 'The most durable way to accommodate ethnic diversity is to create a sense of the nation as a civic community rooted in values that can be shared by all the ethnic components of the national community'.13 This also holds true for the Netherlands.
Development aid and assistance to Eastern European countries will enable those countries which lack the necessary means to strengthen the 'civil society'. In practice this is already happening on a large scale by, for example, providing training for journalists and supporting the establishment of non-governmental organizations.
The report rightly stresses the media's educational and cultural role in the development process. Nobody would contest that the media - both public and commercial - carry a responsibility in this area. And it is important that they allow themselves to be guided by the principle of independent news coverage and analysis. The media need to be well equipped for this task, but unfortunately this is not always the case. There are still countries which lack the proper legislative framework which allow the media to fulfil a free and independent role, although the last few years have seen a considerable improvement in this area. Here the international community can provide a stimulus, but the countries themselves will have to take the lead.
The Dutch government is prepared to collaborate in finding ways of effecting this. The government supports the report's proposal to investigate possibilities of reaching an internationally accepted code of behaviour for the media, and to encourage commercial, regional and international satellite, radio and television stations to finance a more pluralist media system. A vital stipulation, however, is that freedom of expression must not be threatened. In this connection the statement made by the federal court in Philadelphia last June is interesting. It says 'that legal measures forbidding the dissemination of "indecent material" via the Internet are in conflict with the American Constitution'. The judges maintained that the Internet should enjoy just as much protection as the printed media. The court stated that: 'The Internet can be seen as an endless worldwide conversation. The government cannot be allowed to implement a law which interrupts this conversation. As the most accessible vehicle for mass expression ever developed, the Internet deserves the greatest possible protection against government interference'.14
In conclusion, in August this year Le Monde ran a discussion on whether 'progress can be considered an outmoded idea' (Le progrès, une idée morte?). Writers, philosophers and politicians all agreed on the analysis of the state of the world. In both left-wing and right-wing circles confidence in the future has given way to scepticism and uncertainty. The simplistic idea that technological and economic progress would form the driving force that would activate social, political and moral progress is a thing of the past. The result of these reflections is not defeatism, but rather a vigorous exhortation to face up to these new challenges and to draw new inspiration from our vanished certainties. 'Ainsi, le mythe du progrès est mort, mais l'idée de progrès se trouve revivifiée quand on y introduit l'incertitude et la complexité; face à l'imprévisible, à l'incertain, les hommes sont ainsi renvoyés à leur liberté et les politiques à leur responsabilité'. 15
Although the subject of this conference - development through diversity - differed from that tackled in Le Monde, the challenge is identical: an attempt to direct seemingly ungovernable processes. The Dutch government's commitment will not stop with the organization of this conference. It warmly welcomes an on-going discussion about the report, both in the Netherlands and abroad. The World Commission has taken a step in the right direction by presenting an analysis and linking it to several action points. Wherever this thread is taken up and used as a springboard for discussion - be it on a national or international level - we may witness progress after all, driven by the power of culture.