Attend to the Real Clash of Civilizations 

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”


A large crowd, taken just after a Muse concert in Paris. Photo by James Cridland, Creative Commons

A large crowd, taken just after a Muse concert in Paris. Photo by James Cridland, Creative Commons

April, 2016

Many years ago I read a short essay by a writer whose name I can’t remember now, but the content of the essay has remained with me through the years. The title was, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The author’s contention, one that I agree with, is that how you answer this question tells a great deal about you as a person and about the kind of society in which you would like to live. If you answered yes, I am my brother’s keeper, you believe in a world in which we all share common burdens and common rewards. A world in which we look out for each other. If you answered no, then your goals were much more personal, and you cared little about other people in society. In fact, society wasn’t something you really believed in, other than how it existed to further your own goals.

The Pale Blue Dot: a mote suspended in a sunbeam. Photo: NASA

The Pale Blue Dot: a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Photo: NASA

My own particular view of how to answer this question has always been greatly influenced by the pale blue dot photo. I’ve written about it before*. As the Voyager 1 space probe prepared to leave our solar system in February 1990, the great astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA to have Voyager turn its camera around and take one last photo of the planet Earth from nearly six million kilometers (3.7 million miles) away. The result was the famous pale blue Dot photo. The image Voyager took that day shows Earth as a distant pixel. The rest is black, empty space. And it moved Sagan to write these words:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Think about that for a moment. The next time you look at your front door and you think the world is some gigantic entity that goes on forever, remember it is a very small planet in a very small solar system on the outer edges on one of the arms of a medium-sized galaxy in an immense universe.

There is no other place to which we can escape. As Sagan noted later in his reflection, no one is going to come and save us from ourselves. We are all there is.

And so for me, the great clash of civilizations is not about Christian versus Muslim or Muslim versus Hindu or East versus West or any of the other dichotomies that are thrown at us daily by hyperventilating media, or academics or pundits who are only looking for a topic on which they can write their next book, something they can talk about on cable news endlessly.

No, the great clash of civilization is between tolerance and intolerance. And how we address that truly will determine the fate of the world.

It’s not an easy issue. Tolerance requires a great deal more of us than intolerance.

Being intolerant is easy. Hatred sometimes seems the natural condition of humans. It takes little effort to sit back and condemn others or ignore them or blame them for all of your troubles. It’s especially easy when we have political figures who want to run our countries using others as scapegoats for problems that require much more difficult solutions. Tolerance provides an easy fix, a quick way to make ourselves feel better, superior, not to blame.

Tolerance, on the other hand, demands a great deal of us. Tolerance demands that we put our own needs aside. Tolerance asks us to take a deep breath and think. Tolerance asks us to raise our fists not in a threatening way but to offer a handshake. Tolerance asks us to remember, “That could have been me if I was born in a different place, with a different colored skin, with a different sounding name.” Tolerance asks us to remember that we also have children, and parents. Tolerance asks us to think “What would I do if this happened to me?” Tolerance asks us to, if I can borrow a religious idiom for a moment, treat others as we would have others treat us.

These really are the two great forces that clash in our world. They go beyond definitions of religion, of country, of race, of gender of any factor that you can think of that divides us. The clash of tolerance versus intolerance is almost always at the bottom of all these conflicts.

Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I don’t go around all day singing kumbaya. Or thinking I like to buy the world a Coke. There are days when I feel just as angry and judgmental as anyone. And that is why I have a copy of the pale blue dot photo on the wall in front of me. I like to think of it as the physical manifestation of my conscience. To remind me which side I’m on.

And in my darkest moments, it says to me, “Remember we are one and that there is no one else. And the only one who can save us is ourselves.”

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:

Further information:

We’re all on our own, by Tom Regan, F&O, September, 2015
Pale blue dot, Wikipedia:

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

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