Each of Us Has the Power to Change the World

Each of Us Has the Power to Change the World

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Since the beginning of the new millennium, the whole world has been seeking world peace harder than ever before. Ironically though, the world today has also seen tragic wars and conflicts that have the capability to destroy mankind. Possession of nuclear weapons, indiscriminate attacks against innocents, and abuse of human rights are the realities that we should not turn our back on but instead face up to. Strong individual, ethnic, and national identities sometimes lead to conflicts because they are entities which drive humans to become self-seeking, disrespectful, and often exclusionary. However, the process of becoming aware of individual identity also can result in the solution of international conflicts between people of different cultures and ethnicities. This happens because in the process of understanding who you are, you are also able to appreciate other people's identities. Hence, it is important for every single person, whatever culture or philosophy he or she possesses, to believe that an effort made by an individual can directly solve future conflicts between people, no matter what their ethnic differences.

One must understand conflicts to solve them. It is important to consider what they are, why they are, what characteristics they have, and how they can be categorized. Conflicts are natural among humans; people desire to protect their local society or, in the present, the international community. In fact, a conflict that maintains or eventually reunifies national identity is an advantage for human society.1 Imannuel Kant, an Enlightenment philosopher of the eighteenth century who strongly believed in international cooperation and peace, even stated, "All wars are so many attempts to bring about new relations among the states and to form new bodies...there is created a state that civic commonwealth can maintain itself automatically."2 In the same way, confrontation within a society sometimes has positive consequences. During the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, African Americans were determined to draw a line between white people and themselves recognize themselves as an independent and equal entity. They suffered severe conflict to achieve this goal.

Conflict exists today because we have ethnic or cultural borders that are not only geographical (i.e. national borders) but also psychological. These boundaries are often mutable and situational, however. In fact, many anthropologists define ethnic identity and boundaries in different ways. One of the reasons for the different definitions is that people choose which ethnic identity to use based on context.

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3 For instance, descendants of Native Americans in the United States have recently lived together with other Americans, received the same education, and shared the same values, such as respecting individuality and freedom. They may even have the same political ideology. On the other hand, they strongly identify themselves as Native Americans when this traditional culture is advantageous. This indicates that no matter how situational they are, boundaries continue to exist within the minds of people; hence, there is always the potential for conflicts. In other words, since it is human nature to recognize difference, ethnic and national conflicts are real and often less solvable than other issues in society.

Conflicts can be sorted into two categories: individual and group. The first, individual, is caused mainly by issues of individual identity, though a comparison of the traditions of two cultures illustrates different scenarios. Traditional Eastern philosophy (for example, like Chinese and Japanese) emphasizes harmony among people, and sacrificing individual interest for the advantage of a group is regarded as a virtue. This ideal makes the societies less vulnerable to individual conflict from within. In contrast, American culture appreciates the value of individuality; hence, people are encouraged to express their individual values in a community, although this sometimes may lead to an argument within a group. A similar phenomenon is happening in the other parts of the world. High-speed information and transportation technology has caused more frequent interactions between different peoples, so the population in today's world tends to be more aware of distinctions, and humans have the chance to identify themselves within a certain group.4 This transition is not bad news.

Emphasis on the importance of individuality has the potential to make society free from conflicts. There is one country in the globe that has been struggling for this social achievement since its creation: the United States. In other words, this attitude has been essential to uniting many people from various backgrounds in order to make one nation. In this country, it is possible to see an Israeli professor teach foreign policy to Arabic students, a Serb student study history with a Croatian student, a Kurdish family live next to Arabic Iraqi or Turks. To make this multicultural society work, a person must be regarded as an individual rather than an ethnicity.

Individuality may be emphasized here, but people also have overlapping national identities. In my experience in the United States, my individuality met with my Japanese national identity through the subjective definition of ethnicity, which is the process through which individuals identify themselves as different from others.5 While living in Japan, I rarely had the opportunity to become aware of either my own individual identity or my ethnic nationality because Japanese society is almost homogeneous. Yet when it became necessary for me to decide what higher education to receive, I started to identify myself as an individual who is different from others within my closed community. My high school was a public institution that maintained a strict traditional Confucian idea, and most students and graduates received their education fully within the country. My intention of going to the United States to broaden my mind confronted my teacher's expectations. It was the first time I tried to find myself within the homogeneous society. After I moved to the United States, my national identity suddenly became important in my everyday life. Not only did I who encourage myself to be a "good" Japanese and know Japan's traditions, but also the outer world expected me to be a "good" Japanese. In addition, because of my physical appearance as well as my own ethnic characteristics, I had no choice but to accept the reality of being Japanese in American society. Through this process of subjective national identification, I learned to appreciate my national culture, my parents, and the history of my ancestors. The more time I spent in America, the better my understanding of my national culture became. In this way, many people, myself included, start feeling obligated to contribute to their own nation's future.

For many people in the United States, a strong national identity emerged after September 11 in the form of national condolences. The attacks encouraged a patriotic environment, symbolized by American flags that were hung up throughout the country. Even a "patriotic diaper" colored blue, red, and white, emerged in the market. Hanging up the American flag was not only a practice of the American community, but also of the international community in America. "We put an American flag up right away to show mourning toward America," said a teacher in an academic service department for international students at Athens High School in a suburb of Detroit, around which lives the biggest Arabic community in the North America.

However, there are people who felt confused by or cautious of this strong national identity that has developed since last September. An exchange student from the Middle East, who moved to the United States after the terrorist attacks, felt uneasy because of the patriotic environment. She was also uncomfortable at the airport when a security officer frisked her carefully and closely checked the contents of her baggage for five minutes, while Americans were allowed to go through quickly. A civil officer who moved from Romania six years ago and recently received American citizenship refused to hang up an American flag on his front door because he was concerned about being too nationalistic-a condition that may lead to further conflict.

As these feelings suggest, the second category of conflict caused by strong national or ethnic identity occurs between groups. This is why one international student from North Europe says, "In the world today, many people think too much about only their national identity and too little about individual identity." She has three cultural backgrounds-Estonian, Finnish, and Belgium-and speaks four languages. "I have hardly thought about what nationality I actually belong to," she explains. Hence, for her, blindly adopting national identity is dangerous and may cause a major conflict between groups. Surely, if people do not think deeply about their own identity, it is easy for them to assimilate into the majority culture. Therefore, group identity without individual identity is dangerous. Extreme religious fundamentalists, for example, focus particularly on their ethnic or religious identity. Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher of the nineteenth century, wrote in his book Human, All too Human, "People to whom their daily life appears too empty and monotonous easily grow religions."6 Religious fundamentalists do not think sufficiently about their own individuality and that of others. Although the rest of the world believes that the recent conflict in Afghanistan is a fight for democracy and against the terrorism, Islamic fundamentalists believe the war occurred because of ethnic differences. They also consider the military action taken by the United States and its allies to be aggression against all Muslims. In other words, they consider the conflict a clash between cultures of the West and the East. Demonstrations against Western (mainly American) influence have increased in major Muslim countries after America and the allies started air strikes over Afghan soil. This supports the idea of Samuel P. Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking World Order, that the exportation of western culture results in counter response from non-Western countries.7

Since conflicts between groups sometimes lead to war, national or ethnic conflict should be considered more seriously than that between individuals. To solve conflict between different groups of people, there are three main steps to take, each of which emphasizes individual identity. The first step is to understand differences on an individual level. Individual characteristics should be accepted, admired, and celebrated. Huntington also believes that an understanding between the West and the rest of the word is crucial for coexistence and peace. According to him, non-Western civilization has been trying to adapt Western culture to gain economic wealth and military power. Responding to this tendency, the West should learn to accommodate Eastern culture. The role of the East is to require the West to profoundly understand Eastern history, religions (such as Islam), and culture, which underlie their way of life. Both the societal whole and the average individual should be responsible for understanding each culture. Ignorance and blindness of other cultures are imprudent in this global society because these attitudes are the main cause of conflicts.8 For example, the United States and its allies started air strikes and sent ground troops into Afghanistan; however, how much do people in the West know about Afghani culture and history? In fact, they tend to judge Afghans only on the basis of information from the American media. While the mission is to destroy a terrorist organization, thousands of deaths of Afghan civilians are estimated.9 It is a tragic situation. Individuals on one side agreed to strike other individuals; though the two sides had never truly tried to understand each other.

Individual educational exchanges between other major Muslim countries and America have been playing a major role in constructing peace between nations. For instance, the Prime Minister of Egypt, Afet Obeid, has a doctorate from the University of Illinois, and a great number of cabinet members in Egypt are American university graduates. These people are essential in maintaining a sustainable relationship with the United States. In addition, many forces that cooperated with U.S. troops during Desert Storm in the Gulf War in 1991 have been trained at American military academies. Prince Saud Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who has a great influence on his country's foreign policies, is an alumnus of Princeton University. Similarly, eighty percent of the cabinet members of Saudi Arabia are graduates of American universities. These facts indicate a relatively good relationship between these two Arabic nations and the United States.10 This cooperative understanding between Arabs and the United States is crucial. Indeed, respecting differences eventually leads to mutual trust, the second step to resolving conflicts.

Trust between individuals often becomes possible when focusing on common factors among different peoples. In this approach, it is important to regard others not merely as an ethnicity, but rather as human. For example, we all have been suffering from the conflict of September 11. Many school children who live in Palestine have to go through intense battlefields every day. For Afghan civilians who live close to U.S. military targets, every day is like September 11; they never know when their lives will be in danger. When the tattered American flag found at the World Trade Center on September 11 appeared in the Winter Olympic opening ceremony this year, people from all over the world paid tribute to the victims of terrorist attacks.11 We all share the sadness of losing a number of precious human lives. Individuals can trust others: friendships are often born among people who share commonality, and a family tie is confirmed by shared kinship. Hence, by recognizing the common humanity individuals possess, trust can be created. Trust leads to mutual dependency among individuals, and among these individuals one can ask for help. In such situations, a conflict rarely occurs.

While achieving understanding and trust are psychological processes, practicing them is the final step to resolve or avoid conflicts. This last process is the most significant. People tend to believe that this is also the most difficult step because aking action sometimes leads to a certain degree of risk. For instance, although going to a place of conflict to help refugees is a direct way to devote oneself, there is potential danger. Taking action, however, is not always life-threatening. Studying abroad is a crucial actions that provides individuals with opportunities for further development of understanding and trust among groups. They learn from other cultures and introduce their own culture.

The United States is a huge experiment. In this dynamic, multicultural society, people of different ethnicities meet frequently, and these three processes-understanding, trust, and action-are taking place. Nicknames such as melting pot or salad bowl are no longer appropriate to describe American society. Rather, the nation can be symbolized as an orchestra. Every person plays an important role, each different. In other words, to create harmony, each should consider herself as an individual who gives various melodies to the American community. If we lose any of the members we are not able to create beautiful harmony. This interdependency is a crucial characteristic of the society. In addition, a conductor who keeps order in the group is certainly necessary. These societal elements are essential, not for defining the individual's role to make the country work smoothly, but for making sure that each player is interlinked with each other within the community.12 Although achievement is still a challenge, the United States is certainly moving toward an ideal human society, where "[our children] will not be judged by the color of the skin but by content of their character," 13 that is, by their individuality.

In the world, the three steps have been or should be taken, especially by young people who have the great ambition to make society better. One Muslim girl who has lived in a village in Kashmir said in an interview, her eyes shining, "If I can do something for peace in my village, I will sacrifice myself. I am ready to die for people in my village."14 Her village has been in danger because of the continuous exchange of fire between Pakistani and Indian troops. She was only ten years old. Although willingness to sacrifice life may not always be a positive attitude, as long as there are young people who have the strong determination to eliminate conflict, hope will never disappear from the world.

Hence, in all three steps, conflicts cannot be diminished without going through the process of understanding individual identity, developing trust, and having the confidence to practice both. It is more important to have understanding and trust between individuals-you and me-than between groups-us and them. This means that individual efforts can make change. After recognizing the importance of taking these three steps, there is one more quality we need to have: courage, like the girl in Kashmir has, to pursue the three steps and to make change in order to solve conflicts.


1. Jason Cowley. "Forward, to the Union of Humanity." New Statesman, (15 October 2001).

2. Immanuel Kant (1784). Quoted in Cowley, 23.

3. Anya Peterson Royce. Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

4. Samuel P. Huntington. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Essential Reading in World Politics, ed. K. A. Mingst and J. L. Snyder (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993).

5. Wsevolod Isajiw. "Definitions of Ethnicity," Ethnicity 1 (1974): 111-124. Cited in Royce, 21.

6. Friedrich Nietzsche (1879). Quoted in Cowley, 24.

7. Huntington.

8. Bill Ong Hing. To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 178.

9. A. Z. Keer "Fighting Fundamentalism with Education," Washington Post, 10 February 2002, national weekly edition.

10. S. L. Price. "Torn by pre-Games controversy, the 9/11 flag held together last night's ceremony," Sports Illustrated Olympics Daily, CNN and Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/olympics/2002/daily_guide/news/2002/02/09/lastword. (8 February 2002).

11. Hing, 180.

12. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," (1968). In Hing, 178.

13. Global Relief Foundation, Kashmir: Paradise under Siege, 1999, videocassette.


Cowley, Jason. "Forward, to the Union of Humanity." New Statesman, 15 October 2001, 23-25.

Global Relief Foundation. Kashmir: Paradise under Siege. Global Relief Foundation. 1999.

Hing, Bill Ong. To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Huntington, Samuel. P. "The Clash of Civilizations?" in Essential Reading in World Politics, edited by K. A. Mingst and J. L. Snyder. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993

Isajiw, Wsevolod. "Definitions of Ethnicity" Ethnicity 1 (1974): 111-124.

Keer, A. Z. "Fighting Fundamentalism with Education." Washington Post. 10 February 2002, national weekly edition.

National Public Radio "Afghanistan-Civilian Casualties." National Public Radio http://search.npr.org.org/cf/cmn/cmnpd01fm.cfm.

Price, S. L. "Torn by pre-Games controversy, the 9/11 flag held together last night's ceremony." Sports Illustrated Olympic Daily. CNN and Sports Illustrated. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/olympics/2002/daily_guide/news/2002/02/09/lastword.

Royce, Anya Peterson. Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
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