Is the world capable of universality? What challenges and roles for communication?

by Dominique Wolton
Research director at CNRS

Is the world capable of universality? What challenges and roles for communication?

The Sociologist, Dominique Wolton, suggests dealing with these questions by querying the existence of values and the ability to transcend the differences and special interests to find the common good of mankind.

The challenge of universality has not changed since the 18th century and is still intact today. A confused, illusory belief was that economic globalisation and the new communication techniques would facilitate universality, but in fact it is difficult more than ever.

New technologies, megacities: the illusion of rapprochement

Ever since they came into being, the new technologies have unceasingly expanded exchanges, with their speed, volume of information and interactivity conveying the promise of better understanding between men. But this ideal message has been proved wrong.

It was perfectly reasonable to believe that increased commu- nication channels, volume of information and interactivity would bring us closer together. But paradoxically — and it is quite frightening —, abolishing distances only reveals better what keeps us apart, increasing the perception of cultural differences, creating co-habitation problems and pushing us towards communitarianism.

Social networks are becoming the preferred means of expression for these closed communities, where people sharing the same ideas can gather, far from a society where different people enjoy a peaceful co-existence. This area of freedom was offered by the towns in the 18th to 20th centuries, in contrast to rural areas which then existed in closed circles. But densification, standardisation and promiscuity within megacities, in addition to the resulting ecological problems, have created fertile ground for the rise in hatred for each other, in defensive and radicalisable communautarianisms. Metropolisation and digitisation, mooted as being sources of rapprochement, are turning out to be sources of isolation or a feeling of isolation.

Similarly, the speed of communication, an outstanding personal tool, has emerged as collective poison by encouraging interaction, leaving no time to get to know each other. In a couple, in a family if we manage to live together, it is also because we spent time together to get to know each other, to understand each other over and above our differences. Time, even “lost”, is the condition for human communication, unlike the speed of technological interactions.


Universality means finding values shared by mankind. Universality cannot exist without otherness and humanism

There is confusion between simple globalisation, economic globalisation and universality, three expressions that are in no way similar or synonymous. “Simple globalisation is the economy, economic globalisation is the economy plus techniques and universality represents values, humanist values,” summarises Dominique Wolton.

Thus, universality has nothing to do with globalisation, a generalisation that ignores or denies differences and removes borders. Universality stands clearly on the side of values and we should not think of globalisation without universality. We could even consider universality as “the unconsciousness of globalisation”, as universality and unconsciousness have in common an untouchable quality and yet are present and can transcend differences. But globalisation tends to overcome universality, reify it, transform it, divert it in favour of standardisation.

The universality crisis seems to be a crisis in recognising cultural diversity, a crisis of standardisation, a crisis of speed and a crisis of confusion of values. We have confused technical advances with progress. It is not because the Other is nowadays more accessible than comprehensible, but precisely the reverse. The more we can see our differences, the more tension they create. All the communication tools in the world do not help us to understand each other better and the hatred and conflicts persist... Nowhere does it say that man is better for spending hours in interactivity. Speed accelerates the contacts, human communication implies time lost in becoming acclimatised. Heads of State increase the number of international meetings in an attempt to “bring each other to heel” .

Admitting "incommunication", otherness, cultural diversity to think universality 

Dominique Wolton introduces “incommunication” as the communicationhorizon: misunderstandings, misconceptions and also disagreements, all constituent components in communication processes. Admittedly, this difficulty in understanding is not solved by increasing channels or their speed. Recognising “incommunication” is recognising otherness: admitting that we different, admitting cultural, religious and political diversity, admitting different identities to open up and not sink into identitiarism.

Working on otherness can raise the question of universality again: how to put humanist values on a new footing with all our differences. In its desire to remove borders and deny identity, globalisation is in fact bringing identity wars back to life. By reviving identity, in recognition that cultural diversity is an overriding fact, we accept the idea of the time we need to understand each other, to understand what separates us to accord full importance to the political ideal of universality. We shall then be able to ask the question of how to put humanist values on a new footing in this world of differences. Promoting identities prevents the return of the identity crisis. The identity crisis is not the horizon of identity, but the reaction to the denial of identities in an open, rudderless world.

Reinvest cultural diversity to find universality: promote languages and institutions that embody this diversity


 As clear components of our diversity, our linguistic roots are bolstered by powerful values. If we wish to save globalisation then we have to save the major languages — the Romance languages, English — and organise Arabic and Chinese. Devising a single global language would be nothing more than suicide. An English base of some three hundred words could be designed for basic discussions, but as soon as the message is important or the thought being expressed requires some finesse, the different languages must be kept. The symbolic creation of language is a pillar of our identity and despite being prone to misunderstanding, it means that we do not kill ourselves as soon as there is friction in interests. Linguistic diversity can be perceived an obstacle to globalisation, but it is what saves it, at a time when products and services are very alike.

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