Helena Kennedy: Globalisation cannot suppress our human diversity

From a lecture on cultural diversity, given by the chair of the British Council to the Royal Society of Arts, London
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Our cultures are an essential part of our understanding of who we are or where we come from. Our ideas of identity come from the collective memory – in Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps, in Britain, the death of the Princess of Wales. For both countries, two world wars. Memory is central to a human being's sense of identity and to his or her construction of the self. To construct their memory, individuals must employ imagination.

All of us, reflecting upon our past, seek a story that is of a wider significance than just to ourselves. Alone we are nothing. But within a global culture the stage is so vast that each voice cannot be heard; it is impossible to imagine the scope of that stage. Within the nation the breadth of community is conceivable. It is within the bounds of imagination, and thus it can be understood.

The paradox of globalisation is that, while on the one hand, it threatens our regional, national and minority cultures, at the same time it provides the means for ensuring their longevity. National cultures shape identities and identity is essential in providing a sense of wellbeing, purpose and a moral framework within which people function and collaborate with others. Even in the 21st century, the possibility of a global identity eclipsing local ones is distant: the global does not provide the sense of belonging that human beings need for their sense of self within an imaginable, common culture.

Yet, just as there is a resistance to the idea of homogenisation, there is a fear of diversity, which is another place where people may become lost. In a homogenised world there is no imaginable group to identify with; in a multicultural world, there are too many groups, among which yours might get lost. Ethnic conflicts over the last decade have reflected a desire to withdraw into more particular groups, driving out those who are different. Those who are made anxious by the threat they perceive in some of their neighbours are sometimes slow to recognise the shared roots that cross cultural divides. This need for group identification can lead to insularity and a retreat into bankrupt forms of nationalism. Which is why cultural pluralism within nations and cultural dialogue across nations is more urgent than ever before.

All major geopolitical issues are, in the broader sense, cultural – from processes of regional assertion in the Balkans to the inheritance of culturally unusable democratic systems in Africa, from the ramifications of world Islam to the interface of national self-determination and religious heritage in Northern Ireland, from resistance to American globalisation to the rights of the dispossessed in Australasia, from the growth of federalism in Europe to the counter-impulse of secessionism (including Britain) in the same region. Culture is "about" ballet, novels and soap operas; it is also "about" genocide and ethnic cleansing.

So in answer to the question – are we seeing a homogenisation of culture, I think people in all their glorious diversity assert their own culture, and develop new cultural expression even in the face of attempts to homogenise. I do not believe that a global MacDonald's identity will ever supplant the deep-rooted diversity of cultures that marks out the human endeavour.

Culture is what distinguishes us as nations, one from the other, but it is also through culture that we can understand each other as individuals. It enables us to break down the borders – both real and imagined – that keep us apart. Living in a diversity of cultures, we must understand each other not simply as different but as bearers of a common humanity. We come to recognise not only the ways we are different but also the ways we are the same. We come to realise that what triggers the beating of our hearts sets pulses racing in others too. We come to see that the very things that distinguish us are the things that make us one. This is the power of cultural relations.