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21 December, 2015

The Urgency of Intellectual Debate

Few people in France had such a piercing and global view on the 20th century as Claude Lévi-Strauss. His legacy is immeasurable, his ideas monumental. In love with art, particularly painting and music, the anthropologist died in 2009 as the age of 100. Such an ironic twist of fate for a man who liked to say that he does not feel any connection to the century left at the mercy of tourism, universal consumption, developmental acceleration and excess...

French publishing house Flammarion has published a new biography, Lévi-Strauss, authored by historian Emmanuelle Loyer – a wonderful immersion in the life and intellectual prime of the man who wrote Tristes Tropiques and debunked many stereotypes back in the day.

It is this – the ability to subvert traditional, entrenched ideas and meaningless concepts – which allows the ideas of Lévi-Strauss to guide us.

His name is often associated with the concept of multiculturalism in the sense that he tirelessly called for respect of cultures – all cultures. It would be pointless, claimed the ethnologist, to seek to establish a hierarchy of cultures (e.g. the primacy of the West over the rest). Even more provocative was his theory that a meeting of cultures entails the possibility of their erosion or, even worse, collision. He therefore introduced the idea that a distance should be kept between them. In the book Race and History, the scientist wrote: "There is not, and can never be, a world civilisation in the absolute sense in which that term is often used, since civilisation implies, and indeed consists in, the coexistence of cultures exhibiting the maximum possible diversities. A world civilization could, in fact, represent no more than a world-wide coalition of cultures, each of which would preserve its own originality."

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We understand how perplexing such a statement could sound today applied to the numerous problems that the European project is faced with, above all the issue of migrants. Is European civilisation really in danger (because of Islam), as we hear from time to time? Anyone could be tempted to keep a low profile in this situation, but this would mean neglecting the humanistic values ​​that form the basis of the European project, and the fact that borders in the 21st century are virtual and easily overcome. It seems that this avalanche of uncontrolled words is aimed at expressing contrasts rather than joint efforts. In this context, the model of cultural diversity that is still held up (albeit sloppily and insecurely) as the flag of European unity seems ridiculous...

Even the conservative "coalition of cultures" that Lévi-Strauss aspired to, far from the mixed societies, beloved by Léopold Sédar Senghor, in which we live today, is in no way based on rejection of the Other, for it is founded on a mutual understanding of differences. This is hard work that requires renunciation of abrupt generalisations and the need to hastily write something in the media. Ukraine, which has suffered a blow to its very core, has in the past suffered from certain prejudices and generalisations that those who slander it turn to at every opportunity – it must now fight against them. The processes occurring in France and elsewhere in Europe associated with migrants and Muslims are cut from the same cloth – the division of the population into categories and overreaction instead of analysis and reflection tempt lazy people into rejecting the fundamental challenges we face without a second thought. So which position will we choose in several years when the European demographic decline becomes so clear that immigration will seem the obvious solution?

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The "war" that France and other European countries are waging against "Islamic State" threatens to distract us from many issues important to our common future. If it really is war, it is above all a cultural one: a fight against extremism, ignorance and vulnerability. Going on the cultural offensive today would mean (seriously and thoroughly) implementing a project for coexistence that respects the many narratives making up our civilisation. Lévi-Strauss writes about "small memberships" and "small solidarities" as elements of our freedom.

I doubt that the currently prevailing shallowness in the media is capable of leading us to any big answers. So it is at first necessary to fight with this intellectual mediocrity. With its lack of sensible and calm words, as well as the absence of differing views – except about coming elections – and discussions that would give us the opportunity to understand the narrative that we want to realise in the coming decades. This is urgently needed.

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