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Humanity Beyond Our Differences

Written by David CannadineAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Cannadine


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On Sale: April 09, 2013
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95737-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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From one of our most acclaimed historians, a wise and provocative call to re-examine the way we look at the past: not merely as the story of incessant conflict between groups but also of human solidarity throughout the ages.

Investigating the six most salient categories of human identity, difference, and confrontation—religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization—David Cannadine questions just how determinative each of them has really been. For while each has motivated people dramatically at particular moments, they have rarely been as pervasive, as divisive, or as important as is suggested by such simplified polarities as “us versus them,” “black versus white,” or “the clash of civilizations.” For most of recorded time, these identities have been more fluid and these differences less unbridgeable than political leaders, media commentators—and some historians—would have us believe. Throughout history, in fact, fruitful conversations have continually taken place across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of identity: the world, as Cannadine shows, has never been simply and starkly divided between any two adversarial solidarities but always an interplay of overlapping constituencies.

Yet our public discourse is polarized more than ever around the same simplistic divisions, and Manichean narrative has become the default mode to explain everything that is happening in the world today. With wide-ranging erudition, David Cannadine compellingly argues against the pervasive and pernicious idea that conflict is the inevitable state of human affairs. The Undivided Past is an urgently needed work of history, one that is also about the present—and the future. 


When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was “us versus them,” and it was clear who them [sic] was. Today, we’re not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there.
—President George W. Bush, quoted in the New York Times, April 16, 2006
The world is awash in divisions rooted in the human compulsion to believe our differences are more important than our common humanity . . . . [But] our common humanity is more important than our interesting and inevitable differences.
—President Bill Clinton, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World
This book sets out to explore and investigate the most resonant forms of human solidarity as they have been invented and created, established and sustained, questioned and denied, fissured and broken across the centuries and around the world, and as they have defined the lives, engaged the emotions, and influenced the fates of countless millions of individuals. It does so by looking at the six most commonplace and compelling forms of such identities, namely religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. Sometimes regional, sometimes national, and sometimes more global in their compass and in the claims made on their behalf, these groupings have commanded widespread allegiance and commitment, on occasions for good, but often not, since every collective solidarity simultaneously creates an actual or potential antagonist out of the group or groups it excludes. Even if we confine ourselves to the twentieth century, there have been many such confrontations and conflicts variously described as religious wars, or national wars, or class wars, or gender wars, or race wars, or wars for civilization. And whatever the solidarity ties specific to our own time, analogous groupings and analogous conflicts have existed across the millennia and around the world, from Christians versus pagans during the later Roman Empire to the white supremacists versus anti-apartheid campaigners until 1994; and there is no reason to suppose that the twenty-first century will be free of such confrontations. As a consequence, it has come to seem almost axiomatic that the best way to understand past worlds, as well as present circumstances and our future prospects, is in the workings and outcomes of latent or actual conflicts between antagonistic identities, or of how things go in the great game of “us versus them,” exemplified in the words of President George W. Bush quoted above.
What is perhaps most remarkable is how well the appeal of “us versus them” works over a range of categories, aggregations, and identities that are scarcely comparable. For much of recorded history the two most prominent have been (initially) religious affiliation and (subsequently) national allegiance. It is only in relatively recent times that they have been augmented, and in some measure superseded, by the secular, international trinity of class consciousness, gender awareness, and racial solidarity. And since the events of September 11, 2001, the even larger identity and more capacious category of civilization, earlier invoked by historians from Edward Gibbon to Arnold Toynbee, has made a comeback, embodied in the writings of Samuel P. Huntington, which were subsequently invoked by his neoconservative followers in the United States and by his New Labour admirers in the United Kingdom. But the fact remains that each of these solidarities is constituted around a distinctive axis of interest and awareness: religious cohesion is an expression of faith and belief (or, depending on one’s sympathies, of superstition and irrationality), and can be as much concerned with the next world as with this; national identity relies on a shared narrated memory and sense of geographical belonging, reinforced by a common language and culture and state power; class consciousness is seen as the outcome of the different relations of people to the modes of production, leading to the hostile solidarities of workers and employers; gender and race identities are partly the result of biology, but also of the meanings and antagonisms constructed and projected onto anatomical features shared by some human beings but not by others; while civilization is perhaps the most flexible form of human grouping, which can be defined according to any number of criteria. Yet however disparate and incommensurable, these collective identities have all been defined and reinforced through confrontation, struggle, and conflict—against an alternative religion, an enemy nation, a hostile class, the other gender, a different race, or an alien civilization. The result has been the serial reiteration of the Manichean view that the world is divided into conflicting groups, with a monolithic “good” on one side (those with “us”), and a no less monolithic “evil” on the other (those against “us”). This ultimately apocalyptic perspective has resonated on many terrible occasions throughout history, and it was vigorously and unapologetically reiterated by President George W. Bush in his final address from the Oval Office: “I have spoken to you often,” he told his fellow Americans, “about good and evil, and this has made some people uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.” The trouble is, whether good and evil exist as such, the absolutes they imply have been ascribed with various degrees of literalism to every manner of perceived difference. And so a battle of cosmic significance might be claimed between Protestant and Catholic, America and Russia, employee and employer, women and men, black and white, or “the West” and Islam, confrontations in which each side seeks to galvanize its supporters by exaggerating their solidarity and virtue, and by imputing to the other side a no less exaggerated solidarity and wickedness. This impulse thus to sunder all the peoples of the world into belligerent collectivities has existed as long as humanity itself, and in our own day the easy recourse to such polarized thinking by many political leaders and public figures, and by pundits and commentators, is further exaggerated by an increasingly strident media. It has also been underscored by some historians who have been more concerned to legitimate the claims and urge the merits of one collective identity over and against any (or all) others than to take a broader view of the human past.
During the last half century or so, the conventional wisdom that “the history of humanity is based upon the immemorial divisions of its peoples” has been reinforced by a growing academic insistence on the importance of recognizing the “difference” between collective groups. According to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “difference is what makes the world go round, especially the political world”; many of his colleagues as well as literary scholars and cultural critics would agree, and so do those historians who have focused their attention on the creation, perception, working, meaning, and significance of what they varyingly describe as “difference,” or “otherness,” or “alterity,” or “unlikeness,” or “dissimilarity.” Beyond doubt, such historical approaches have yielded significant work of enduring value, illuminating dimensions of human experience once unexamined; but as William H. McNeill, one of the pioneers of global history, has pointed out, the academic preoccupation with the binary simplicities of difference, and with the antagonisms based on them, results in a version of “the past as we want it to be, safely simplified into a contest between good guys and bad guys, ‘us and them,’ ” which disconcertingly resembles the polarized, apocalyptic perspective of President George W. Bush—or, indeed, of the late Osama bin Laden.
But the fact that humanity is still here, that no one has vanquished “us” or “them” on either side of any of these divides, despite such “ultimate” confrontations and conflicts, suggests that there is a case for taking a broader, more ecumenical, and even more optimistic view of human identities and relations—a view that not only accepts difference and conflict based on clashing sectional identities, but also recognizes affinities and discerns conversations across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of identity, which embody and express a broader sense of humanity that goes beyond our dis-similarities. This alternative perspective is well put by the poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou:
I note the obvious differences
Between each sort and type,
But we are more alike, my friends,
Than we are unalike.
In the same vein, if more prosaically, the historian Timothy Garton Ash has deplored the “Manichean cultural dichotomies” that are peddled by a partisan media, at the expense of the alternative conversation “about what all human beings have in common”; and Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has lamented the “brutally over- simplified notions of identity” that “sustain entrenched conflicts,” when in reality, cultures constantly “overlap, borrow from each other and live together” in “a conversation with the whole of humanity.” Hence the second epigraph to this introduction, in which President Clinton urges us to see humanity in less paranoid and more imaginative ways than the exaggerated polarities embraced by his successor in the White House.
In his recent book, appropriately entitled The Fear of Barbarians, the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov puts this point emphatically: “the facile dichotomies between Light and Darkness, free world and obscurantism, sweet tolerance and blind violence, tell us more about the overweening pride of their authors than the complexity of the contemporary world.” “No merit,” he goes on, in words that might be an explicit riposte to President George W. Bush, “lies in preferring good to evil when we ourselves define the meaning of these two words.” But most of the academic writing that is skeptical of these Manichean ways of seeing the world, and which urges the broader claims of our common humanity, has been produced by scholars whose interests are philosophical rather than historical, and who are concerned with the present and the recent past rather than with more distant epochs. This book, by contrast, seeks to address these issues from a longer-term historical perspective: by examining each of these six collective identities over substantial periods of time; by drawing attention to the excessive and inaccurate claims that have invariably been made for them in terms of their unity, homogeneity, and shared consciousness; and by investigating the conversations and interactions that have gone on across the boundaries of these allegedly impermeable identities, in the sustained and successful pursuit of a more sympathetic vision of a shared humanity. Like Todorov, I argue that the unrelenting insistence on seeing the world in Manichean terms is at best partial and divisive, at worst reductive and misleading: for these very categories of “us” and “them,” whatever their particular articulation, and though proclaimed to be irreducible and absolute, frequently reveal themselves to be unstable and ambiguous; they often prove to be incoherent even in the thick of their confrontations with the implacable foe; and they are held together not so much by shared self-awareness as by the exhortations of leaders, journalists, activists— and by some historians, too.
This book addresses these issues, by investigating each of those six divisive collective identities with which we seem most preoccupied, even while acknowledging and demonstrating that they are in some ways very different sorts of solidarities. For they are sufficiently similar to one another in their polarizing propensities to merit an urgently needed comparative analysis that is evenhandedly skeptical of each and of all their claims to priority and supremacy. Accordingly, the following chapters examine how theologians and priests, politicians and pundits, commentators and historians have each asserted the incomparable importance of one particular form of collective human identity over any other, and how in so doing they have encouraged among those on one side of any divide a sense of the ultimate righteousness of their cause and collectivity. I go on to describe how, on occasion, people have indeed behaved in accordance with these Manichean analyses and prescriptions, in terms of religious fervor, national patriotism, class consciousness, gender awareness, racial solidarity, and civilizational identity. And I note how historians frequently contributed to this identity- obsessed way of seeing the world, most fully in the chapter on class. But I also look at the many conversations that have gone on in denial and defiance of these allegedly impermeable boundaries and antagonistic solidarities, which are too often presented, either mistakenly or mischievously, as if they are the only version of the human condition that has any salience or plausibility. For as individuals, we often recognize the common humanity that we lose sight of when called upon to act in groups.
To tackle such a large, important, and controversial subject over such a long-term and broad range is, nevertheless, to run serious risks. For one thing, the collectivities and confrontations based on religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization stir powerful passions on the part of politicians, pundits, and the public—and also of many engaged academics. They want to believe the world is simple in form and easily understood, readily divided between a virtuous “us” and an evil “them,” and in their determined part in helping construct such adversarial identities, they have provided much of the intellectual underpinning for seeing the world in antagonistic, binary ways. Another difficulty is the scale and scope of this enterprise. Of each of these chapters it is reasonable to say that a lifetime’s reading and research is insufficient to acquire even a halfway competent understanding of the subject matter involved; and the same may be said of many of the subsections, too. To this charge, I can but reply that the attempt to open up the subject, if only to encourage (or provoke) others to do it better, is worth incurring the accusation of overreach. A further objection might be that in this search for common humanity amid the ruins of what has mostly been portrayed as its divided past, more of the examples are taken from European history than from any other part of the world. But there are limits to any author’s knowledge and range, and in any case, many (though not all) of the identities explored here did originate and have been most manifest in Europe, or in the nearby Middle East. It has rightly been observed that one of the prime justifications for studying and writing history is to free ourselves from the tyranny of present-day opinion, and these pages seek to contribute to that liberating endeavor by questioning the conventional wisdom of single-identity politics, the alleged uniformity of antagonistic groups, the widespread liking for polarized modes of thought, and the scholarly preoccupations with difference. Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities rather than for similarities and affinities, but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked. Despite constant urgings to the contrary, humanity has not been, is not now, and should not be best or solely understood in terms of simple, unified homogeneous collectivities locked in perpetual confrontation and conflict across a great chasm of hatred and an unbridgeable gulf of fear. The real world is not binary—except insofar as it is divided into those who insist that it is and those who know that it is not. For it is in the very range, complexity, and diversity of our multifarious and manifold identities, and in the many connections we make through them and across them, and in the varied conversations we sustain as a result of them, that we each affirm and should all celebrate the common humanity which is the most precious thing we share.
David Cannadine|Author Q&A

About David Cannadine

David Cannadine - The Undivided Past

Photo © Tom Miller

David Cannadine was born in Birmingham in 1950 and educated at the Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton. He is the editor and author of many acclaimed books, including The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, which won the Lionel Trilling Prize and the Governors' Award; Aspects of Aristocracy; G. M. Trevelyan; The Pleasures of the Past; History in Our Time; and Class in Britain. He has taught at Cambridge and Columbia and is now the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

Author Q&A

Q: You write that historians have done much to contribute to the divisive way that we view humanity’s past. Do you believe that changing the way we present history can in turn change human behavior?
A: Historians write about human behavior in the past: and how they write about that, and the aspects of it which they chose to write about, can certainly influence our behavior and our perceptions in the present. Some historians have certainly seen their task as being to contribute to the creation of collective identities, be they based on religion, nation, class, gender, race or civilization; and the work of many historians has been cited by those who are concerned to build up and promote such adversarial identities.  But many other historians, with whom I am much more in sympathy, have been concerned to undermine the claims made as to the superiority, unity, coherence, and homogeneity of such identities.  As Ernst Renan observed, “being a nation means getting your history wrong”, and that is probably true in the case of all six of the collective identities I have examined.  The job of the historian, as I see it, is to try to get the history right, which invariably means taking a less credulous view of the claims made on behalf of collective identities.
Q: The Undivided Past focuses on six categories of identity that have been used to define—and divide—humanity: religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. Did you find one to be most significant, historically? Or one that historians and politicians have claimed is most significant?
A: Nowadays, most politicians, most of the time, would probably claim the nation to be most significant.  But not everyone would agree with that, and this would certainly not have been the view throughout most of human history.  One of the main points of the book was to investigate these six identities, as it were, side by side, which I don't think anyone had ever done before.  And one of the most interesting conclusions that emerged from that exercise was that at different times, proponents of all six of these identities have claimed that theirs was the most important.  They can't all be right, and I'm not sure for the most part that any of them are right.  Most of us, in reality, live with multiple identities all the time, and great harm is often done by insisting on the primacy of one identity at the price of disregarding all others.
Q: In which category do you feel that humanity has made the largest strides in terms of bridging the divide? 
A: There have been fewer wars between nations and empires since 1945, and we must hope this trend continues.  That certainly seems to be the current pattern, and Europe has been more peaceful (even allowing for the horrors of the Balkans) in recent decades than during the first half of the twentieth century. For all its earlier divisiveness, the Christian churches have been a major force against racism during the twentieth century, insisting that all human beings are equal in the sight of God. And the work of the human genome project has fundamentally undermined any claims made that races are biologically different and separate and can be ranked from the most superior to the most inferior. There is still much work to do to live out more fully the consequences of that discovery, but at least a start has been made.
Q: Do you feel that divisiveness is in fact encouraged in academic discourse? Why would this be the case and what are the consequences for public life? 
A: It is widely believed that controversy and disagreement are part of the life-blood of academia, especially in the humanities, and we can probably all name some famous professorial feuds.  And there are, of course, different ways of approaching the past, and also of explaining aspects of it, about which there is ample scope for debate and disagreement. But often these turn out on closer inspection to be people talking past each other, or just disliking each other personally.  And very few such controversies are resolved by there being an unequivocal winner: more usually, exhaustion sets in, and people move on to different issues.  I'm not sure that such disagreements make much impact on public life more broadly: many people think quarrels between academics are merely demeaning and ridiculous, and few of them spill over into the newspapers or on to television. On the other hand, as public life seems to get more polarized, driven by an ever more strident and partisan media, I think historians have an obligation to reply to those many pundits (and politicians) who insist that the world is very simple that, on the contrary, the world is very complicated, and that we ignore those complexities at our peril.
Q: Looking at the continual and intense conflicts throughout history, don't they tell us much more about the greater reality of the past? Aren't the episodes of harmony that you find just outliers, exceptions that prove the rule?
A: No one can deny, and I certainly don't in my book, that conflict and destruction are a major part of history; but since humanity has been around for a very long time, and since it is still very much here, there is clearly another story to tell—or, perhaps more accurately, there are many stories to tell, of the complexity and diversity of humanity, of the inter-connectedness of its manifold identities, and of the many conversations that occur across the boundaries of these allegedly adversarial and impermeable identities.  I think people working in other disciplines, such as philosophy, psychology and sociology are doing important work on studying humanity from this perspective, and one of the points of my book is to urge historians that we need to catch up and engage with what these people are doing and saying.
Q: Why do you believe that humanity has been so drawn to the binary constructs of “us vs. them” or “good vs. evil”?
A: Because politicians and the media very often want to tell us that the world is very simple (e.g. clash of civilizations) whereas in fact the world is very complicated, and we ignore that complexity at our peril (e.g. clash of civilizations).  And while I think we are all too often invited to see the world this way (and this has been equally true in the past), I don't think most of us now, or our predecessors in the past, have actually lived our lives on this basis.
Q: It seems that even groups seeking justice and equality have used “us vs. them” in their fight for change. What are some examples of leaders who have overcome this tendency to focus instead on human solidarity?
A: It's certainly true that some leaders have sought to talk up differences between groups, and to urge conflict and confrontation. But there have been many examples to the contrary.  In the twentieth century, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela were all for the most part concerned with humanity as a whole: Gandhi's quarrels with the British were about imperial control, but he always recognized a shared sense of humanity; MLK's 'I have a dream' speech urged that blacks and whites should sit down together and make their lives together; and Mandela wanted South Africa to be a nation of which all humanity might be proud, and where all peoples might live together.
Q: You write, “Despite constant urgings to the contrary, the world has not been, is not now, and should not be best or solely understood in terms of simple, unified homogeneous collectivities locked in perpetual confrontation and conflict across a great chasm of hatred and an unbridgeable divide of fear.” It’s easy to feel from watching the news that conflict, hatred, and fear are the norm, whether it’s conflict in the Middle East or in our own Congress. Is the media as much to blame as historians for perpetuating this narrative?
A: Yes!  Indeed, more so!  The media constantly invites us to believe that the world is very simply constructed, on the basis of 'us vs. them', or 'the good guys vs. the bad guys', but in practice it is very rarely that simple, and it is the task of historians to insist that the world is more complex.
Q: Yet, throughout the book you remain hopeful. What stood out to you as some of the most poignant evidence against this negative world view, and for one of shared humanity?
A: The multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith communities that for so long flourished around the Mediterranean: Constantinople, Alexandria, Jaffa, Beruit, and so on.  All sadly now gone.  But I live in hope that we may get beyond the excesses of ethno-linguistic nationalism and ethnic cleansing, which have done such harm.  History may be about the crimes and follies of mankind, as Gibbon said, but it is also about peace and achievement and the triumph of the human spirit.  That certainly gives me hope, and I would like to think that this book may give others hope, too.



“Cannadine does not say so, but he may well have written his book in response to Samuel Huntington’s famous argument about the clash of civilizations. I can only hope that The Undivided Past . . . so authoritative in its coverage of history . . . will have all the impact of Huntington’s work, serving as an important reminder that human beings around the world not only have much in common but also have improved the conditions of their lives over time. His optimism is both refreshing and necessary.”
            —Alan Wolfe, The New York Times Book Review

“Elegantly written and stimulating. . . . Cannadine is justified in drawing attention to how dangerously politicized history can become.”
            —David Priestland, The Guardian (UK)

“One of our most provocative and profound historians, Cannadine confronts the brutally populist, crudely polarized Manichean concept of ‘us versus them’ in the writing of history. He affirms, rather, the complexity and diversity of humanity and the connectedness of its manifold identities.”
            —Iain Finlayson, The Times (UK)

“A spirited case for harmony against the myths of identity politics. . . . The Undivided Past succeeds best as a Swiftian treatise on the ignorance of the learned, and the follies of the wise. While the fetishism of a single, adversarial identity still derails the study of history as much as the practice of politics, The Undivided Past should earn applause.”
            —Boyd Tonklin, The Independent (UK)

“Highly intelligent, stimulating, occasionally provocative and enormous fun to read. . . . To write about the past, Cannadine concludes, requires the historian to celebrate the common humanity that has always bound us together, that still binds us together today, and that will continue to bind us together in the future. It is noble message and one that historians would do well to heed.”
            —Philip Ziegler, The Spectator (UK)

“A mediation on the ways in which history has been abused to present the world divided into simple opposing identities of good and evil, ‘them’ and ‘us’ . . . if any current historian might speak truth to power then we should wish it to be David Cannadine.”
            —Dan Jones, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“David Cannadine is a distinguished historian; his new book should make him famous. Now at the summit of his career, he brings a message that only a veteran and learned historian could deliver convincingly.”
            —Hugh Brogan, History Today (UK)

“Persuasive, impassioned. . . . Historian and editor Cannadine constructs a stirring critique of history that questions conventional approaches to narrating the human chronicle. Cannadine, an accomplished writer, details it in fresh and provocative terms…An incisive argument buttressed by millennia of evidence.”
         —Starred review, Kirkus Reviews

 “Cannadine systematically examines the six most pervasive areas of identities across historical periods. . . . Drawing on history, philosophy, economics, sociology, and religion, Cannadine offers a broad and sweeping look at the myriad ways we’ve been at each other’s throats throughout history. Still, he ends with the hopeful prospect that more historians will reexamine the chronicles of group conflicts and offer balanced perspectives.”
         —Starred review, Booklist

The Undivided Past offers us a great historian's skeptical and liberating exploration of the ways in which our various social identities do and do not make us what we are. David Cannadine deploys his penetrating erudition through contentious territory, maintaining always an exemplary elegance and civility.”
         —Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Ethics of Identity and Cosmpolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
 “A complex, thoughtful examination of the fundamental ways in which humanity divides itself.” 
         —Publishers Weekly

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