I’ve recently been wondering about the theory of universal ideas: that throughout history, there have been themes and ideas that strike at the core of the human mind. Are there experiences that all human beings share, regardless of culture?
I used to think so — I thought there were specific commonalities that went beyond the genetic level. That these commonalities were emotional and manifested themselves culturally.
It was around 2003 that I started to think differently. I was taking an ethnomusicology class and the first article we read was about music as a universal language. The article had a profound effect on me. The author’s theory was that music wasn’t a a
universal language, that different people hear genres differently. The idea that we can relate through music is essentially an ethnocentric idea.
I began to wonder about my obsessions with Brazilian, French, and African music. Was it a genuine appreciation and connection to these respective cultures or some strange form of exoticism?
This theory explained why people would poo-poo hip-hop or call free jazz untrained noise (rather than dissonant chaos). If truly there existed ideas and notions common to all human beings then we should all be able to appreciate Madlib and Sun Ra as equally as James Brown, Duran Duran, or Gwen Stefani.
But we don’t. Well OK, I do but I’m the odd man out in more ways than one.
I saw Pan’s Labyrinth the other night with some friends and afterwards our conversation came to universal themes. I may have even brought it up, mentioning Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the theory of monomyth.
When I was around 18 the monomyth explained everything. It helped simplify the world for me — everything could be fit into the monomyth — regardless of ethnicity.
It does the same for progressives as well. Too often we look for the similarities when really we should be looking at the differences. That’s what makes humanity beautiful — that we’re all very, very different.
The way Judeo-Christians see their god and prophets is very obviously different than the way Islam does. In Islam a depiction of Muhammad is blasphemy, whereas depictions of Christ are not.
The idea of commonality is entirely ethnocentric — we base it on our own perceptions and experiences — justifying to ourselves that other
right-minded people must think like we do.
Maybe if we want to understand the world around us it’s time to celebrate our differences. Maybe that’s how we change the world.