Technological change is inherent to human progress. Technology, by definition, serves to augment human capacities and in so doing alters the environment in which we act. In a very real way, social reality and technology co-evolve or are co-constructed. It could be said that the industrial and information revolutions have fundamentally transformed the functioning and conception of human society. Further, the relentless pace of technical and industrial advancement over the last century has redefined the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Technology is a dominant fashioner of reality, influencing social arrangements, goals, and assumptions in a way that profoundly affects collective development, individual behavior, and the ecosystems upon which we depend. Its multifarious impacts thus must be carefully scrutinized.
A major idea emanating from current academic discourse is that technology both shapes and is shaped by social, economic, political, and cultural forces. As one writer has put it,
A technology is not merely a system of machines with certain functions; rather it is an expression of a social world.1David Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 47. Automobiles and road networks, power and communications systems, and the Internet are not simply technical systems but also social processes shaped by social context. Technologies can empower us but may also embody or express existing relations of power and characteristics of culture, reinforce social inequities or pathologies, or manifest ideological or strategic goals.2In relation to reinforcing patterns of social inequity, modern technological infrastructures sometimes are designed or distributed in a manner that does not benefit all populations of a society. Examples of strategic deployments of technology at the national level include large investments in space and military programs. Notably, technology, in the words of one thinker, has become
a powerful vector of the acquisitive spirit; it expresses wants or desires—and sometimes feeds them.3Dennis Goulet, Uncertain Promise: Value Conflicts in Technology Transfer (New York: New Horizons Press, 1989), 24. Our technical choices define a social reality
within which the specific alternatives we think of as purposes, goals, uses, emerge.4Andrew Feenberg, From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads, in Technology and the Good Life, eds. E. Higgs, A. Light, D. Strong (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 294–315. Our identity and roles in contemporary society are strongly mediated by technology; it is something we create, but it also recreates or redefines us.
The Critical Issue of Technological Choice
Technical choices shape the contours of everyday life and give real definition to modernity. These choices take place at the level of societies as well as individuals. The variety of technologies we confront—and the uncertainty about how best to use them, if at all—is daunting. Further, when we consider complex technical systems that evolve at the macro level, such as the Internet, our ability to influence the overall development and deployment of these systems seems quite limited. Nevertheless, because complex technical systems and the specific components and innovations underpinning them are socially constructed, human volition and values define their purpose and impact. We find, for example, that the intentions and values of a designer or of a corporation behind a product are embedded in ways that often are not obvious. So a simplistic notion that technology is a neutral means to freely chosen ends is not tenable. Technological advancement increasingly shapes the moral terrain on which we make decisions.5As an example, the widespread use of fetal ultrasound technology has impacted decision making regarding childbirth.
For many decades, the subject of technology has been integral to public discourse concerning processes of social and economic development. Various objectives and descriptors have been used to define the appropriateness of technology in relation to development activity: small scale, labor intensive, advanced, intermediate, indigenous, energy efficient, environmentally sensitive. 6The notion of appropriate technology, as technology of small scale that is ecologically sound and locally autonomous was championed by the economist E.F. Schumacher in his work Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 1973. Ultimately, the appropriateness of technology is determined by the values of those creating, using, or implementing it. The
appropriate technology movement perhaps lost momentum to some degree because the role of values in guiding technological choice was not systematically explored.7Farzam Arbab, Promoting a Discourse on Science, Religion, and Development, in The Lab, The Temple and the Market: Reflections at the Intersection of Science, Religion, and Development, ed. Sharon Harper (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2000), 149–237.
Technological development often proceeds in a manner decoupled from community values and broader questions of individual and collective purpose. In using technology, means and ends can be easily confused, and consequently community goals and requirements can be wrongly defined.8The One Laptop per Child initiative illustrates the failure to harmonize means and ends. While technical innovation allowed laptops to be produced for slightly more than $200 per device, little or no effort was made to develop pedagogical material utilizing the technology. Initial surveys from Peru, where the laptops were widely distributed in schools, indicate no improvement in educational performance by students apart from learning how to use the laptops. Critics contend that the funds used for the laptops would have been better applied to teacher training. See, The Failure of One Laptop per Child, http://hackeducation.com/2012/04/09/the-failure-of-olpc. When the link between material needs and values is ignored, the role of technology as a vehicle for upraising the human condition becomes supplanted by a process that often turns people into passive subjects rather than active users and shapers of technological instruments.
Any tool can be used productively or destructively. But the most serious consequences of technology use are often quite subtle. The rapid adoption of new technology without reflection about possible impacts has sometimes upended longstanding social and cultural patterns, where entire domains of meaning and purpose in traditional cultures are displaced.9See, for example, the case of the Skolt Lapps, Pertti J. Pelto, The Snowmobile Revolution: Technology and Social Change in the Arctic (Prospect Hts, Ill: Waveland Press, 1987). In such circumstances, technology itself becomes a bearer and even disrupter of values; it can cause individuals and communities to adapt to technology rather than use technology to extend human capability in harmony with social goals and mores. This pattern of
reverse adaptation, where technology structures and even defines the ends of human activity, is a widespread phenomenon.10An illustration of reverse adaptation is that the availability of SMS technology has transformed the nature, frequency, style and substance of personal communication. While SMS texting is undoubtedly a useful tool, in some respects it has also displaced other forms of meaningful communication or created a perceived need on the part of many for the constant sharing of trivial information. Outsourcing our personal decision-making to algorithms is another example of how many people have adapted to new technologies. Such outsourcing is, in a way, a moral choice; we may be gaining efficiency but at the cost of opening ourselves up to forces of persuasion that distort our intentions. The concept of reverse adaptation is discussed in Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 227–29. The choices we make about technology, then, particularly when not fully evaluating their implications, may be at variance with our essential purposes, ideals, and norms. For this reason, as individuals, families, communities, and societies, we must reflect about how we design and deploy technological tools.
Technology can embed values in several other ways. It encourages that primacy be placed on efficiency, which can result in a failure to recognize negative externalities;11The classic illustration of negative externalities is the failure to take account of environmental impacts of technical innovation or industrial activity. it emphasizes a reductionist approach to problem solving, which can lead to an atomistic versus a systems approach in addressing complexity;12A reductionist approach can be found in the emphasis on recycling versus the reconsideration of systems of production and consumption. The former is obviously easier to pursue than the latter. In relation to particular social needs, there are usually different levels of technical solutions possible, with each succeeding solution having a higher degree of organizational complexity and a more formidable set of institutional and economic obstacles. An example would be the development of a mass transit system in lieu of a system relying on personal transport via automobiles. The adoption of the most optimal solution in terms of efficiency and aggregate environmental impacts—mass transit—requires active engagement and assent of the citizenry affected as it entails a different distribution of social resources. and it fosters an instrumental rationality rather than a rationality concerned with overall quality of life and meaning.13Goulet, Uncertain Promise, 17–22. What is at issue here is a general attitude fostered by a technological way of life where technology and everything it affects become instrumental—a means to an end—but the ends aren’t defined. Technology can prevent us from appreciating what is of true significance in leading a purposeful life, and thus the meaning invested in relationships and other aspects of life becomes diminished. In the end, such an orientation can result in an exaggerated reliance on technology where it is easier to diffuse technology rather than effect change in human attitudes and behavior.14An example of this technological fix mentality is the idea of geo-engineering, which involves intentional, large-scale technical manipulations of the Earth’s climate system either by reflecting sunlight or removing carbon dioxide from the air. Many scientists are concerned about the unknown risks of such approaches to alter complex natural systems. See: Technological ‘Solutions’ to Climate Change, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/geoengineering-solutions/. A facile optimism that technology alone can ameliorate or resolve pressing social challenges often only serves to exacerbate the real problems at stake in a given context.
The Role of Technology in Advancing Civilization
The concept of human betterment, of an ever-advancing civilization in which both material and spiritual well-being are continually fostered, implies a central role for science and technology and, in particular, an evolving capacity for making appropriate technological choices. Such a capacity represents an expression of human maturation. A key concept articulated in the Bahá’í teachings is that the creation, application, and diffusion of knowledge lies at the heart of social progress and development. In the latter part of the 19th century, Bahá’u’lláh urged:
In this day, all must cling to whatever is the cause of the betterment of the world and the promotion of knowledge amongst its peoples.15Bahá’u’lláh, cited in 26 November 2003 letter of the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of Iran. And in a related passage, He affirmed:
The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquility of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God.16Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978), 129. These and other statements in the Bahá’í writings underscore that the set of human capacities necessary for building up the material and moral fabric of collective life is derived from an expanded notion of rationality that references both mind and spirit.
the power of intellectual investigation and scientific acquisition as a
higher virtue unique to human beings, the Bahá’í writings recognize that scientific methodologies alone cannot tell us which ideas or norms best advance a specific social objective or competence.17‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 49. The knowledge required to advance social well-being must be multidimensional, encompassing not only techniques, methodologies, theories, and models but also values, ideals, qualities, attributes, intuition, and spiritual discernment. Drawing on both science and religion allows us to satisfy these diverse knowledge requirements and to identify new moral standards and avenues of learning in addressing emerging contexts of social dilemma.18The harmony of science and religion is an essential Bahá’í tenet: …faith in God and confidence in social progress are in every sense reconcilable…science and religion are the two inseparable, reciprocal systems of knowledge impelling the advancement of civilization (The Universal House of Justice, 26 November 2003). Religion is regarded as an evolutionary and civilizing phenomenon addressing knowledge at two principal levels: first, providing insight concerning human purpose, provenance, and identity; and second, informing us as social beings about the essential parameters of social interaction and the very nature of the social order, particularly how it should be constructed to reflect principles of fairness, empathy, and cooperation. As an essential expression of reality, religion is not to be dismissed as an atavistic phenomenon irrelevant to the processes of social advancement. Rather, it is a primary force shaping human consciousness, ensuring that humanity’s distinctive potentialities, particularly its rational powers, are constructively channeled. This sheds light on the full range of capabilities that must be employed in understanding, developing, evaluating, and using technology. In essence, technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity, and consequently, it cannot become a substitute for human judgment or action.
technology derives from the Greek
techne, which is translated as
art. In this sense, technology is the branch of human inquiry and activity relating to craftsmanship, techniques, and practices; to innovation and provision of objects; and to systems based on such objects. While the term
technology is not explicitly used by Bahá’u’lláh or the Báb, we do find references to the
arts and sciences,
invention. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:
Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent.19Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), 26. The knowledge referred to here in the original Arabic is ‘ilm. Two principal types of knowledge are alluded to by Bahá’u’lláh: ‘ilm, referring to knowledge gained by the use of reason, investigation and sensory perception, and irfán, referring to spiritual insight, awareness and inner knowledge. That irfán and ‘ilm are deeply connected is underscored by Bahá’u’lláh throughout His writings. For example, He states: The source of all learning (‘ulúm, plural of ‘ilm) is the knowledge of God (irfán Allah). Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 159. And in a prayer, the Báb wrote:
I yield praise unto Thee, O Lord our God, for the bounty of having called into being the realm of creation and invention.20The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1976), 195. The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh were the Twin Founders of the Bahá’í Faith. The Báb was both the inaugurator of a separate religious Dispensation and the inspired Precursor of Bahá’u’lláh. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991), 123. The deep connection between the rational and creative dimensions of human endeavor is strongly emphasized by Bahá’u’lláh:
Erelong shall We bring into being … exponents of new and wondrous sciences, of potent and effective crafts, and shall make manifest through them that which the heart of none of Our servants hath yet conceived.21Bahá’u’lláh, Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2002), 1.67. It is fascinating that Bahá’u’lláh indicates that one principal sign of the
coming of age of the human race will be the mastery of a particular scientific and technological art:
the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements.22Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1993), n. 194. Physicists have transmuted bismuth into gold in minute quantities via particle accelerators but at considerable cost. See: Fact or Fiction?: Lead Can Be Turned into Gold, Scientific American (January 2014), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-lead-can-be-turned-into-gold/ . It appears that Bahá’u’lláh is alluding to great advances in the science of transmutation. Natural transmutation of the elements via nuclear fusion reactions in stars is responsible for the creation of the most common elements of the universe including helium, oxygen, carbon and iron. Heavier elements such as lead, gold, and uranium result from higher energy reactions associated with supernovas. The notion that something can be changed into something else reinforces the idea that it is not the material thing that is of value but rather the conceptual insight and knowledge that makes such a transformation possible. This is an affirmation of our primary spiritual identity and agency as manifested by the gifts of creative intellect.23The Bahá’í teachings indicate that we have three aspects of our humanness, so to speak, a body, a mind and an immortal identity—soul or spirit. We believe the mind forms a link between the soul and the body, and the two interact on each other. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 7 June 1946, in Shoghi Effendi, Arohanui: Letters to New Zealand (Suva, Fiji: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 89. The noble and fertile powers of the human spirit can be seen in how the roles of the technologist and artist are in some sense equated and seen as central to the process of social advancement:
The purpose of learning should be the promotion of the welfare of the people, and this can be achieved through crafts. It hath been revealed and is now repeated that the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind.24Bahá’u’lláh, in Compilation on the Arts, in The Compilation of Compilations, Vol. I (Monavale: Bahá’í Publications Australia, 1991), 3.
In attempting to elaborate the essential characteristics of technology, one prominent analyst offers this description:
Technology is a programming of nature. It is a capturing of phenomena and a harnessing of these to human purposes.25W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (New York: Free Press, 2009), 203. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor, observes that
all the present arts and sciences, inventions and discoveries man has brought forth were once mysteries which nature had decreed should remain hidden and latent, but man has taken them out of the plane of the invisible and brought them into the plane of the visible.26‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 359. These words suggest that technology is more than a mere
programming of natureand that it serves as an evident expression of humanity’s innate intellectual and inventive power. But He also warns about how this power can be distorted or misapplied. Speaking of the
malignant fruits of material civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stresses that
human energy must be
wholly devoted to useful inventions and
concentrated on praiseworthy discoveries.27‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Wilmette: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), 303. Moving towards more conscious and purposeful patterns of technological innovation that are in consonance with the values and aspirations of individuals and communities depends on both practical and spiritual awareness. There is no question, though, as to the pivotal function that science and technology play in effecting constructive social change and unleashing human potential. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:
Would the extension of education, the development of useful arts and sciences, the promotion of industry and technology, be harmful things? For such endeavor lifts the individual within the mass and raises him out of the depths of ignorance to the highest reaches of knowledge and human excellence.28‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization (Wilmette: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990), 14.
Mechanisms of Technological Choice
How then can individuals and communities be empowered to make meaningful choices about technology? How do we move from being passive technological users or subjects to active agents in constructively shaping patterns of technological development? Clearly, developing the capacity for technological assessment, innovation, and adaptation is vital to social progress. This requires the creation of grassroots, participatory mechanisms that foster a dynamic process of learning about technology. It entails the creation of consultative social spaces where communities can evaluate technological needs, options, and impacts. Langdon Winner observes that
both evaluations of technology and the cultivation of lasting virtues that concern technological choice must emerge from dialogue within real communities in particular situations.29Langdon Winner, “Reply to Mark Elam.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 19, no. 1 (1994): 107. The main challenge in this regard is
how to expand the social and political spaces where ordinary citizens can play a role in making choices early on about technologies that will affect them.30Ibid. The philosopher Albert Borgmann echoes this point by emphasizing that our use of technology has deep implications for our essential relationships—as family members, parents, citizens, and stewards of nature—and consequently it is necessary for us to reassess notions of the
good life so that
technology can fulfill the promise of a new kind of freedom and richness based on deeper human
engagement.31Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of the Contemporary Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 248. In short, we need to create opportunities for reflection at all levels of society that allow us to consciously build ways of life that integrate technology into a desirable conception of what it is to be human. And such a conception of human purpose cannot be dictated by prevailing materialistic structures and forces. Making proper technological choices is therefore bound up with processes of social, political, and moral development.
Practices of collective reflection and public consultation would appear to provide precisely the creative mechanisms needed to appraise new technologies in relation to overall personal and community goals. Such practices move us away from simply being
against technology and instead represent a way for generating and applying knowledge in harmony with basic community aspirations. True community empowerment and learning, the bases of real sustainability, require local communities to define their own pathways of material development and progress. Such active and genuine participation, where practical knowledge is gained by the people most affected, lies at the heart of the Bahá’í approach to transforming social conditions and behavior. In the Bahá’í view, the primary task of material and social development activity is the raising of capacity among individuals, communities, and institutions across all regions and cultures, with the goal of a creating a civilization in which there exists a
dynamic coherence between the spiritual and practical requirements of life on earth.32The Universal House of Justice, 20 October 1983, in a letter written to the Bahá’ís of the world, online at: http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages. This vision rejects
approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.33Social Action, a paper prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Centre, 26 November 2012.
Changing the locus of power in relation to technological decision making—or what one theorist calls the
democratization of technology that takes fuller account of human agency, needs, and values—has many dimensions.34Andrew Feenberg, Questioning Technology (New York and London: Routledge, 1999). Over the long term, communities need to establish institutional processes for systematizing learning about technology. This includes identifying, understanding, and internalizing relevant community values as they apply to the development and use of technologies. After many years of painful experience, it has become evident that the abrupt transfer of technology from outside a community or culture often doesn’t have the desired effect. Such transfers are plainly not sustainable. The process of harnessing and deploying technical innovation takes time. This is why organizational capacity building at the local level, including collective proficiency in pursuing structured research, training, and deliberation, must be a central component of social development practice.
Stated another way, how does a community learn? Apart from individuals acquiring skills, there has to be a learning process where local groups or local centers of technology are not only absorbing but also generating knowledge. Once a process of this kind begins, everything is possible, including the development of informed technological decision making, constructive patterns of technology usage, and invention appropriate to the needs of communities. As one development practitioner underscores,
Disseminating technology is easy, nurturing human capacity and institutions that put it to good use is the crux.35Kentaro Toyama, Can Technology End Poverty?, Boston Review (November 1, 2010), http://bostonreview.net/forum/can-technology-end-poverty .
Examples of such community capacity building and social capital formation abound.36A growing body of research underscores the central role of social capital in fostering economic development, social cohesion, and patterns of public participation. Social capital is an asset, a functioning propensity for beneficial collective action and is determined by the quality of relationships within a group, community or organization. The formation or enhancement of social capital in a community principally depends on the creation of social spaces and institutions that foster changes in thinking, attitudes and behavior—changes that promote collective exchange, learning and action. Research indicates that social capital builds up as a result of discursive or consultative processes in which stakeholders continually work to elaborate a common understanding of collective objectives. Anirudh Krishna, Active Social Capital (New York, Columbia University Press, 2002). In Kenya, the Kalimani Women’s Group, an initiative influenced by Bahá’í principles, employed consultative methods among community members in developing access to safe drinking water for 6,000 people. Public deliberations focused on underlying health needs, invariably leading to issues of clean water access. Through this public goal-setting process, technological options were considered, including the use of subsurface dams—an innovative, appropriate technology. With assistance from technical non-governmental organizations, community members themselves built and maintained dams, and pumping and storage systems. Processes of evaluation and further project planning all flowed from participatory decision-making mechanisms.37See In Kenya, consultation and partnership are factors for success in development, One Country 11, no. 1 (April–June 1999), http://onecountry.org/story/kenya-consultation-and-partnership-are-factors-success-development. This project, like other effective community-driven development initiatives, has demonstrated that technical learning optimally occurs through substantive and sustained social engagement and consultative interaction among key stakeholders. More broadly, mechanisms of accessible, ongoing community dialog can lead to new social understandings and transform arrangements of power affecting community members.38Transforming arrangements of power is intimately tied to social identity and to the primary values of a community. These factors directly affect, for example, local governance structures, the station and role of women, attitudes toward education, and allocation of community resources. Individual and collective behavior naturally change, and in a beneficial way, when attitudes and values become clear through community consultation. Some of the more dramatic development successes in recent years have involved the reaffirmation or redefinition of basic social norms through community dialog—for example, management of local environmental resources or elimination of practices adversely affecting young women and girls. For an overview of the Bahá’í community’s approach to social and economic development, see For the Betterment of the World, http://dl.bahai.org/bahai.org/osed/betterment-world-standard-quality.pdf.
Beyond specific social development initiatives, the global Bahá’í community itself, through its administrative institutions at the local, national, and international levels, has endeavored to utilize emerging technologies in a manner that aligns with goals of collective learning, organic growth, social empowerment and unity. In this respect, individuals and Bahá’í institutions are becoming increasingly aware that the development and use of technological tools must be determined by actual needs, patterns of activity, available resources, and overarching community objectives rather than any potentially novel methods that such tools can offer. A particular concern is that technologically driven approaches, without proper consideration of the reality of the pertinent administrative or community context, can result in solutions that are ineffective or even inconsistent with basic Bahá’í aims and norms. This has been especially true in relation to the introduction and use of information and communication technologies. As the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, has stressed:
The capacity of the institutions and agencies of the Faith to build unity of thought in their communities, to maintain focus among the friends, to channel their energies in service to the Cause, and to promote systematic action depends, to an extent, on the degree to which the systems and instruments they employ are responsive to reality, that is, to the needs and demands of the local communities they serve and the society in which they operate…In this connection, we are instructed to provide a word of warning: The use of technology will, of course, be imperative to the development of effective systems and instruments…yet it cannot be allowed to define needs and dictate action.39From a letter dated 30 March 2011, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly. Accordingly, circumstances in which technological devices and systems might distort individual and collective behavior through unanticipated cultural effects, promote efficiency at the expense of relationship building, lead to social fragmentation and disunity by serving only certain segments of a community, or undermine existing processes of capacity building and community building by diminishing the agency of community actors, would be closely scrutinized by Bahá’ís.40For instance, due to the dominance of technology platforms and tools created in the West, content or applications emanating from that source can have unexpected cultural impacts on communities in other parts of the world. The patterns of communication facilitated by technological tools can also adversely affect the culture of a community. In this respect, Bahá’ís “must aim to raise consciousness without awakening the insistent self, to disseminate insight without cultivating a sense of celebrity, to address issues profoundly but not court controversy, to remain clear in expression but not descend to crassness prevalent in common discourse, and to avoid deliberately or unintentionally setting the agenda for the community or, in seeking the approval of society, recasting the community’s endeavors in terms that can undermine those very endeavors.” From a letter dated 4 April 2018 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly. The development and use of technology, then, is grounded in essential Bahá’í values and the means by which those values are expressed in actual community practice. In this way, those directly affected by technological instruments become active protagonists in determining how such instruments are applied to local circumstances and needs.
Even with robust deliberation and learning mechanisms, it can be difficult for communities to exercise control over technological trends and forces, especially when new techniques, devices, or systems originate externally, or if market mechanisms dictate particular technological pathways. For instance, specific agricultural methods, types of energy sources, or modes of communication technology can quickly become prevalent before social, ecological, ethical, and economic impacts within a particular local context are understood. Evaluating technologies can be extremely difficult, as is resisting particular technological trajectories. In a global economy of production, cycles of technological development are increasingly rapid, making it challenging even for the appropriate questions about our choices to be formulated by relevant social institutions.
A strategy of participation and awareness is the necessary starting point in preventing seemingly irrepressible technological and market forces from overwhelming individuals and communities. Even though complex socio-technical systems (transport, telecommunications, energy) seem to have monolithic or intractable attributes, suggesting that technology penetrates society in an irreversible or deterministic way, new directions are possible if societies assess options and adopt different technology policies.42The emergence of demand-side management in the energy utility sector—emphasizing and rewarding energy conservation instead of building more power plants—is a significant shift from a few decades ago. The related integration of decentralized renewable sources is also contributing to the transformation of energy systems. These changes in the United States and other countries have been facilitated by changes in regulatory law. It should be noted, though, that the technology policies of governments rarely give explicit attention to social and environmental exigencies, while social and environmental policies rarely take account of technological opportunities. There is a need for greater coherence.This, though, requires immense moral and political will.
Agency or autonomy should not be attributed to technology, for it diverts attention from the human judgments and relations responsible for social change. As Leo Marx observes:
As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical and economically viable—resulting in
neglect of moral and political standards in making determinations about social directions.43Leo Marx, Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept, Technology and Culture 51, no. 3 (July 2010): 561–77. Because individuals and societies construct, select and shape technologies, determinism cannot be an accurate description of how technologies are conceived, developed, and adopted. We should not reify technology but grapple with it in light of essential principles such as moderation, justice, social harmony, and cultural integrity.
The issue of technological prognostication, of predicting how technologies emerge and evolve and what their social uses and effects might be, bears directly on the crucial issue of technological choice. It should be conceded that the manner in which technologies evolve and are used is not readily predictable. The history of technology is replete with examples of how particular devices and systems were ultimately used in unanticipated ways. The telephone was initially envisioned as an instrument to facilitate business transactions, but its adaptation by users at home, the so-called sources of
idle chatter, fundamentally transformed the telephone’s role.44This points to the key role of users in determining how technology is deployed and evolves. Both creators and users of technology play a role in how systems and tools are utilized.The Internet of today is something entirely different from what its military and scientific creators envisioned. Yet, specific applications can be analyzed from a functional as well as a values perspective and modified in accordance with our vision of a preferred implementation. The proper expression of technological choice, then, can affect the evolution and social adaptation of devices or technical systems.
Still, even with methodical processes of technological assessment in place, it is unlikely that we can discern the long-term implications of technological decisions made now. We can only do our best, using both reflective inquiry and ethical understanding to continually examine how technologies contribute to personal and collective advancement.
The Case of the Internet
The emergence of the Internet with its increasing penetration into all facets of human activity—social, economic, cultural, educational, political, and personal—offers a compelling illustration of the complex factors that determine whether technical innovation is deployed in a constructive or deleterious way. The Internet is dramatically reshaping patterns of communication and in so doing is effecting profound changes in human relationships encompassing individuals, families, the workplace, public institutions, and international affairs. Clearly, the Internet, as a socio-technical system, represents a far-reaching advance in the ability of the world’s peoples to engage in new forms of interaction and collaboration, simultaneously contracting the planet and deepening bonds of interdependence. It offers tangible evidence that
the human race is now endowed with the means needed to realize the visionary goals summoned up by a steadily maturing consciousness. Viewed more deeply, this empowerment is potentially available to all of the earth’s inhabitants, without regard to race, culture, or nation.45Bahá’í International Community, Who Is Writing the Future? Reflections on the Twentieth Century (February 1999). The Universal House of Justice observes that
the Internet is a manifestation of a development anticipated by the Guardian46Shoghi Effendi was the Guardian and appointed head of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921–1957. when, in describing the characteristics of a unified humanity, he foresaw that a ‘mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity.’ Yet, learning to utilize the Internet in a manner conducive to material and spiritual progress is an immense challenge.47From a letter dated 9 October 2015 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly. The Internet, in essence, mirrors social reality, expressing and amplifying contradictory instances of human achievement and moral breakdown:
It is useful to bear in mind that the Internet is a reflection of the world around us, and we find in its infinitude of pages the same competing forces of integration and disintegration that characterize the tumult in which humanity is caught up.48From a letter dated 9 April 2008 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual. Its striking and disruptive emergence cannot be viewed as being detached from the aims and norms of its users and creators.
An analysis of the impacts of the Internet is obviously beyond the scope of this commentary, but a brief look at the current discourse concerning online social media is instructive. Statistics tell part of the story: as the number of global Internet users approaches four billion people, the vast majority participate on one or more major social media platforms or sites revolving around voluntary social creation and sharing—Facebook, WeChat, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Weibo, Pinterest, Snapchat, Telegram, Reddit, YouTube, etc.49See: http://www.internetlivestats.com/ . At the end of 2017, Facebook alone had 2.2 billion monthly active users and YouTube 1.3 billion such users. But it could be said that the various forms of social media are now at a crossroads. The enormous social, cultural, and political impact of major online social platforms is now being closely scrutinized by governments, public interest groups, academics, and individuals. Issues of privacy and security, abusive behavior, and false or hateful content are some of the prevailing concerns. The role of these tools in affecting youth identity and behavior is another.50How youth navigate the complex nexus between online and physical realities is one major concern. The presentation of the curated self—involving a focus on superficial and fleeting interests—raises many questions. What happens to the internal self when the external world watches and comments on every thought, every interest, every mistake? The phenomenon of addictive behavior, along with the reduced ability to concentrate and socialize with others among children and adolescents is another emerging concern. See, for example, Jean M. Twenge, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? (September 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/. These issues, coupled with the fact that these powerful services can be manipulated and misused by any individual or group in any part of the world, have served as a wakeup call to everyone concerned about the unintended impacts of technology. As Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, remarked in response to the discovery that Facebook had allowed advertisers to target users using the term Jew hater and other offensive phrases, We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us. One technology commentator referred to this as Facebook’s Frankenstein moment.51Kevin Roose, Facebook’s Frankenstein Moment, The New York Times (21 September 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/technology/facebook-frankenstein-sandberg-ads.html.Further disclosures that the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users had been improperly obtained and repurposed by a third party in an effort to politically influence those users has greatly amplified public demands for greater accountability in how such data is collected and safeguarded.52See Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, Facebook Says Cambridge Analytica Harvested Data of Up to 87 Million Users, The New York Times (4 April 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/technology/mark-zuckerberg-testify-congress.html . In addition, Facebook admitted that most users should assume that their personal information had been scraped by third parties who have exploited certain search features. A challenging aspect of this circumstance is that any remedial actions are likely to be in tension with the prevailing online business model of collecting personal data for use in advertising.53Regulatory initiatives are one type of response to the issue of data protection. For instance, in May 2018, the European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, a new data privacy law intended to ensure that Internet users understand what data is being collected about them and consent to that data being shared. It represents a proactive effort to treat data privacy and security as central variables in the design of technological systems. Whether such regulation will be effective in safeguarding data privacy is an open question. Some observers have called for regulatory policies that go beyond EU rules that would allow individuals to review all the data that a company has collected on them, including inferential information generated about individual preferences; limit data collection for specific purposes and limited time periods; monitor the use of aggregate data like health and financial information; and penalize companies for data breaches. See Zeynep Tufekci, We Already Know How to Protect Ourselves From Facebook, The New York Times (9 April 2018). https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/opinion/zuckerberg-testify-congress.html.
The developments of the past few years have resulted in a palpable shift in attitude of major technology companies from one of
we just provide the platforms for free expression and the content is not our concern to one of active engagement to detect and remove offensive, incendiary, or defamatory material. That their own policies on such objectionable content are still frequently violated and not understood by their own staff who make content decisions and that a reliance on technical algorithms to detect problematic accounts or content still requires much refinement reveal the challenges that exist in just this one area concerning corporate responsibility. Particularly deplorable examples include the harassment of individuals, especially women, and the incitement of violence against specific ethnic or religious groups.54See Debbie Chachra, Twitter’s Harassment Problem Is Baked Into Its Design, The Atlantic (16 October 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/twitters-harassment-problem-is-baked-into-its-design/542952/ and Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match, The New York Times (21 April 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/world/asia/facebook-sri-lanka-riots.html . Civil society groups have criticized Facebook for aggressively expanding into developing societies with fragile institutions and histories of social instability, where social media can be readily misused to channel anger and fear into physical violence. As a government spokesperson in Sri Lanka said, There needs to be some kind of engagement with countries like Sri Lanka by big companies who look at us only as markets. We’re a society, we’re not just a market.
Questions of authenticity and integrity also abound. An investigative piece exposed how various public figures and organizations systematically buy audiences and followers that are not real.55This with the goal of giving a false sense of an account’s popularity. See Nicholas Confessore et al., The Follower Factory, The New York Times (27 January 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/27/technology/social-media-bots.html. In early 2018, nearly fifty million users on Twitter and sixty million on Facebook were found to be automated accounts designed to simulate real people; in short, we not only have
fake news and fake facts, but fake people followed by fake audiences. This reality has been aptly described by some observers as an emerging battlefield between
falsehood and veracitythat will only deteriorate as new forms of sophisticated but counterfeit audio and video technology are increasingly deployed for purposes of manipulating public opinion. All of this diminishes social trust between individuals and between citizens and their social institutions, amplifying forces of cynicism, division, and disorder. Bahá’u’lláh’s affirmation that
Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquility and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it, as well as His call to the news media to
investigate the truth and
vindicate it, resonate deeply at this moment.56Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 37; and Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet to the Times of London, cited in The Bahá’í World, Vol. XVIII, 977. A related issue is that calls for greater media literacy in society are likely to fail to address problems of propaganda, false news, and hate speech precisely because social and cultural identity are primary determinants of how people interpret reality.57The question of what constitutes truth is increasingly viewed as a question about the validity of the sources and methods used to gain knowledge, which for some is a subjective matter and frequently a question of power. One commentator refers to this circumstance as epistemological warfare, where the propagation of any point of view is understood not only as free speech but also as an uninhibited right to be amplified. See Danah Boyd, You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You? Data and Society: Points, https://points.datasociety.net/you-think-you-want-media-literacy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2 . The associations and values of individuals, sometimes referred to as cultural cognition, frequently predispose people in how they react to information, including scientific information. For example, ideological identity can determine how individuals understand certain facts such as evidence of climate change. See Dan M. Kahan, Fixing the Communications Failure, Nature 463 (2010): 296–97. It is apparent that, as Bahá’u’lláh avers, everything needs to be made
anew: human purpose and identity, values, and all social relationships must be reconceived in light of the essential spiritual nature of human beings and a more expansive conception of solidarity encompassing the boundaries of the planet itself.58For Bahá’ís, facts and values derived from scientific and religious understanding express different facets of a single reality, and thus serve as complementary tools for discovering meaning at the individual and collective level. In the end, knowledge and truth, in whatever form and whatever manner they are determined, must serve a higher aim—the realization of inner human potential, the betterment of the world, and ultimately the attainment of the good-pleasure of God.
The corrosive influences of materialism, moral relativism, incivility, and ingrained prejudice now battering society are not only magnified by online tools, but in some instances are assuming new, baleful forms. Even algorithms and data depicting apparently straightforward social facts are affected by these influences.59As a consequence of intrinsic structural biases with data relating to gender and race, the issue of ethics and artificial intelligence is becoming an important focus of Internet researchers and public activists. See, for example, Navneet Alang, Turns Out Algorithms are Racist, The New Republic (31 August 2017), https://newrepublic.com/article/144644/turns-algorithms-racist, and Will Knight, Forget Killer Robots—Bias Is the Real AI Danger, MIT Technology Review (3 October 2017), https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608986/forget-killer-robotsbias-is-the-real-ai-danger/. Online social networks increasingly express a prevailing ethos of
connected isolation and polarization, where ideological or group identity seemingly filters and categorizes every idea almost immediately. The scaling effect of technology, where large online networks allow content to reach heterogeneous and unknown audiences around the globe, can result in
context collapse where the intent of posters is misinterpreted or misrepresented.60For instance, exchanges online involving hundreds or thousands of participants from different social and cultural backgrounds would never exist in a physical space. More often than not, online spaces of this type have proven to be socially and dialogically unmanageable. See Context Collapse in Social Media, HLWIKI International, http://hlwiki.slais.ubc.ca/index.php/Context_collapse_in_social_media. Further, the subtle and distinctive cultural characteristics of different online spaces can distort interactions among participants and undermine individual and collective goals.61Different online spaces have a cultural logic often dictated by the designers of the spaces. For example, some social media platforms encourage immediacy of response and reaction or privilege dominant voices rather than valuing the quality of exchange or interactio Dedicated, more meaningful networks, focused on shared interests or based on local connections, and less driven by commercial imperatives, might serve as productive alternatives.62Customized social networks such as found on Ning.com or dedicated spaces within larger networks committed to civil and constructive exchange as on medium.com offer examples of what is possible. Networks based on privacy and no advertising, such as Diaspora and Ello, have drawn attention but have struggled to gain a critical mass of users. Greater public awareness and some forms of policy intervention by governments may mitigate the impact of the more egregious misuses of online social networks. Any effective policy intervention must ensure national and local community involvement in determining standards for online platforms. Relying on international human rights norms rather than the arbitrary judgments of the platforms themselves has been advanced as a better basis for the development of such standards.63This includes delineating the rights and responsibilities of users, as well safeguards to ensure that freedom of expression is not unduly curtailed. See, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, How to ‘fix’ social media without censorship, June 20, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kaye-media-commentary/commentary-how-to-fix-social-media-without-censorship-idUSKBN1JF34H. Still, that a few major profit-making platforms have taken hold in virtually every country in the world (Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter), basically serving as information gatekeepers of social reality, reveals technological and economic lock-in effects that are hard to overcome. Approaches to decentralization, such as blockchain applications, some with a communitarian, anti-market flavor, are a response to such
hegemonic online services.64See Steven Johnson, Beyond the Blockchain Bubble, The New York Times (16 January 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/magazine/beyond-the-bitcoin-bubble.html?_r=0 . Blockchains are cryptographically secure blocks of information linked by a network of ledgers that record these blocks in a verifiable and permanent way. Information within the blocks cannot be altered unless all the ledgers involved agree to the change. This is sometimes referred to as decentralized consensus. Blockchains and distributed ledgers underpin cryptocurrencies, but the real potential of these tools is seen by many to lie in the community-governed, decentralized networks with capabilities that will eventually exceed those of the most advanced centralized services. See Chris Dixon, Why Decentralization Matters, Medium (February 2018), https://medium.com/@cdixon/why-decentralization-matters-5e3f79f7638e. That our
attention is captured by these online services and then repackaged and sold is a particularly seductive characteristic of these tools.65Some observers have assailed this practice of major Internet platforms as surveillance capitalism, as most users are unaware that their online activity is being systematically tracked, which, when combined with other personal data gathered by online platforms, allows for highly targeted advertising based on user preferences and behavior. Indeed, the ultimate expression of technological passivity perhaps is the idea that individual users become the
product when they provide personal information in exchange for free use of these commercial platforms.66That autonomous individuals becomes so subsumed by technology that they become extensions of technology and consumer culture is a notion advanced by the theorist Herbert Marcuse. See his 1964 work One Dimensional Man.
Moving to an Internet that is less dominated by Western institutions, worldviews, and forms of expression is also of vital importance. Reconceiving how devices and online services can serve the diverse populations of the planet speaks to the centrality of knowledge generation and application as the principal social process of every community and society. Relevant local values and objectives must guide the design of tools and the types of content generated and shared. For instance, online social spaces might be configured to reinforce processes of trust-building and cooperative action characteristic of many cultures. Such a shift could work to supplant the excessive focus on the self which is fostered by popular social media spaces in the West with the more communal and oral forms of expression found throughout the world.67In this regard, user interfaces might be designed to foster oral communication in the many indigenous languages of the world. See Ramesh Srinivasan, The People’s Internet – Supporting the voice and values of billions of new technology users, https://medium.com/thrive-global/the-peoples-Internet-284ce046fabd. The increased presence of such diverse contributions and perspectives would surely enrich patterns of collective learning and endeavor.
While it is undoubtedly true that new online media have been dominated and co-opted by commercial influences and very much reflect the disintegrative and adversarial modes of society, all is not negative. These same tools and services simultaneously offer countervailing examples of how digital media can inform, uplift, and be a source of social mobilization. First, at the level of technological infrastructure, the various
open source systems, designed and implemented largely through voluntary collaboration of large numbers of people across the globe, have enabled the Internet to emerge as the world’s most accessible form of universal communication and exchange. More important, the platforms of interaction that this infrastructure provides have led to new forms of social outreach, relationship building and sharing, cooperation, and creative expression. Examples such as the instance of thousands of teenage girls in South Korea networking and forcing their national government to change public policy, the remarkable case of Wikipedia as a form of massive voluntary social production, the new tools of online higher education opening the doors of knowledge to students around the world, the different vehicles for marginalized voices to express themselves and find solidarity with others, and the ability for hitherto isolated peoples to interact and learn from each other illustrate how the Internet and its social manifestations are an unparalleled phenomenon and an expression of a global age.
Where will social media be in five years? Ten years? What new forms of social interaction might emerge? However innovative augmented reality, artificial intelligence, advanced security systems, and other technical developments might be in transforming the existing online experience, the human need for meaningful connection, integrity, beauty, dignity, and higher individual and collective purpose certainly will matter more. Here, Bahá’ís will endeavor to discover how elements of this technology can be used in a way that coheres with the goals of personal and social transformation. Essential concepts such as the oneness of the human family and the nobility and equality of all human beings will guide such efforts. Ensuring equity in how technological resources are cultivated, allocated, and utilized by diverse communities will be an important corollary goal. At the level of human interaction, given the prevailing characteristics of the online environment, perseverance and discipline will be required if Bahá’í standards of courtesy, fairness, amity, forbearance, probity, accuracy, empathy, wisdom, and an impartial search for truth are to be upheld and emulated.68In this day man must investigate reality impartially and without prejudice in order to reach the true knowledge and conclusions. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 75.
In the end, despite the motives and values of their creators and the many unforeseen, adverse impacts on individual and collective life, online social tools can be used constructively. It is human beings who determine how technologies are developed and applied. For many, the physical and online worlds are increasingly merging. If utilized in a balanced fashion, in accordance with primary human norms and community objectives, social media and related technologies can serve to broaden vision concerning challenging social and moral questions, shape public discourse in a unifying way, promote mutual understanding and learning, and emphasize the potentialities and promise of the present moment in human affairs.
The overall vision guiding pathways of technological development and use cannot come from technology itself; it must be informed by essential ideals, spiritual insight, and actual participatory practice that promote the common good. A constructive pattern of technology development, as described here, emerges as a natural outgrowth of community-building processes, where specific technical solutions are conceived through collective identification of needs by affected populations and refined through an iterative process of learning. Rigorous processes of technological assessment at all levels of society provide the only basis for ensuring that technology is used in a manner that advances individual and collective well-being. Raising the capacity of individuals, communities, and institutions to make appropriate technological choices is therefore critical, for such choices are themselves an expression of values—social, cultural, economic, political, ethical, and spiritual. In this regard, Bahá’í-inspired models of consultation and knowledge generation offer precisely the mechanisms required to make suitable and proactive technological decisions in light of fundamental needs and mores. Ultimately, as technological innovation occurs within well-defined social, economic, and political contexts, broader societal transformation must occur so that technological trajectories can become aligned with our aspirations and purpose as noble agents advancing civilization.
At the heart of human experience lies an essential yearning for self-definition and self-understanding. Developing a conception of who we are, for what purpose we exist, and how we should live our lives is a basic impulse of human consciousness. This project—of defining the self and its place in the social order—expresses both a desire for meaning and an aspiration for belonging. It is a quest informed by ever-evolving and interacting narratives of identity.
Today, as the sheer intensity and velocity of change challenges our assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality, a set of vital questions confront us. These include: What is the source of our identity? Where should our attachments and loyalties lie? And if our identity or identities so impel us, how—and with whom—should we come together? And what is the nature of the bonds that bring us together?
The organization and direction of human affairs are inextricably connected to the future evolution of our identity. For it is from our identity that intention, action, and social development flow. Identity determines how we see ourselves and conceive our position in the world, how others see us or classify us, and how we choose to engage with those around us. “Knowing who we are,” the sociologist Philip Selznick observes, “helps us to appreciate the reach as well as the limits of our attachments.”1Philip Selznick, “Civility and Piety as Foundations of Community,” The Journal of Bahá’í Studies, Vol. 14, number ½, March-June 2004. Also see Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 388—9. Such attachments play a vital role in shaping our “authentic selves” and in determining our attitudes toward those within and outside the circle of our social relationships. Acting on the commitments implied by these attachments serves to amplify the powers of individuals in effecting societal well-being and advancement. Notions of personal and collective identity can thus exert considerable influence over the norms and practices of a rapidly integrating global community.
As we have many associational linkages, identity comes in a variety of forms. At times we identify ourselves by our family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, mother tongue, race, gender, class, culture, or profession. At other times our locale, the enterprises and institutions we work for, our loyalty to sports teams, affinity for certain types of music and cuisine, attachment to particular causes, and educational affiliations provide definitional aspects to who we are. The sources of identification which animate and ground human beings are immensely diverse. In short, there are multiple demands of loyalty placed upon us, and consequently, our identities, as Nobel laureate Amaryta Sen has noted, are “inescapably plural.”2Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence—The Illusion of Destiny (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. xiii.
But which identity or identities are most important? Can divergent identities be reconciled? And do these identities enhance or limit our understanding of and engagement with the world? Each of us on a daily basis, both consciously and unconsciously, draws upon, expresses, and mediates between our multiple senses of identity. And as our sphere of social interaction expands, we tend to subsume portions of how we define ourselves and seek to integrate into a wider domain of human experience. This often requires us to scrutinize and even resist particular interpretations of allegiance that may have a claim on us. We therefore tend to prioritize which identities matter most to us. As the theorist Iris Marion Young stresses: “Individuals are agents: we constitute our own identities, and each person’s identity is unique…A person’s identity is not some sum of her gender, racial, class, and national affinities. She is only her identity, which she herself has made by the way that she deals with and acts in relation to others…”3Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 101—2. The matrix of our associations surely influences how we understand and interpret the world, but cannot fully account for how we think, act, or what values we hold. That a particular identity represents a wellspring of meaning to an individual need not diminish the significance of other attachments or eclipse our moral intuition or use of reason. Affirming affinity with a specific group as a component of one’s personal identity should not limit how one views one’s place in society or the possibilities of how one might live.
While it is undoubtedly simplistic to reduce human identity to specific contextual categories such as nationality or culture, such categories do provide a strong narrative contribution to an individual’s sense of being. “Around the world,” the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “it matters to people that they can tell a story of their lives that meshes with larger narratives. This may involve rites of passage into womanhood and manhood; or a sense of national identity that fits into a larger saga. Such collective identification can also confer significance upon very individual achievements.”4Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 68. Social, cultural, and other narratives directly impact who we are. They provide context and structure for our lives, allowing us to link what we wish to become to a wider human inheritance, thereby providing a basis for meaningful collective life. Various narratives of identity serve as vehicles of unity, bringing coherence and direction to the disparate experiences of individuals.
In the wake of extraordinary advances in human knowledge, which have deepened global interchange and contracted the planet, we now find ourselves defined by overlapping identities that encompass a complex array of social forces, relations, and networks. The same person, for instance, can be a Canadian citizen of African origin who descends from two major tribes, fluent in several languages, an engineer, an admirer of Italian opera, an alumnus of a major American university, a race-car enthusiast, a practitioner of yoga, an aficionado of oriental cuisine, a proponent of a conservative political philosophy, and an adherent of agnosticism who nevertheless draws on insights found in the spiritual traditions of his forebears. One can simultaneously be a committed participant in local community affairs such as improving elementary-level education and an ardent supporter of transnational causes like human rights and environmental stewardship. Such juxtapositions of identity illustrate how individuals increasingly belong to multiple “communities of fate” in which long-existing spatial boundaries are being entirely redrawn and reconceptualized.5David Held and Anthony McGrew, Globalization/Anti-Globalization (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2002), p. 91. Modernity has transformed identity in such a way that we must view ourselves as being not only in a condition of dependence or independence but also interdependence.
The recasting of longstanding narratives of identification and affiliation is giving rise to widespread anxiety, grievance, and perplexity. In the eyes of many, the circumstances of daily life lie beyond their control. In particular, “the nation-state…that preeminent validator of social identity—no longer assures well-being,” the anthropologist Charles Carnegie avers.6Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured: Carribbean Borderlands (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), p. 1. Other established sources of social cohesion and expressions of collective intention are similarly diminished in their efficacy to ground the actions of populations around the planet, resulting in a sense of disconnection and alienation. The philosopher Charles Taylor attributes such disruption of customary social patterns to the “massive subjective turn of modern culture,” involving an overly atomistic and instrumental view of individual identity.7Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 26. This exaggerated individualism accompanies the dislocation from historic centers of collectivity that is a repercussion of the centrifugal stresses of globalization. Against this kaleidoscope of change, including the major migrations of peoples, the international nature of economic production, and the formation of communities of participation across territorial borders through the means of modern communications, the concept of citizenship, as membership in a confined geographic polity, is in need of reformulation.
Our connections to others now transcend traditional bounds of culture, nation, and community. The unprecedented nature of these connections is radically reshaping human organization and the scale and impact of human exchange. But globalization has been with us a long time; the movement of peoples, goods, and ideas is an inherent feature of human history and development. Virtually every culture is linked to others by a myriad ties.8For example, many important concepts in modern science and mathematics find their genesis in the work of Chinese and Indian thinkers, some of which were later elaborated and transmitted to the West by Muslim innovators. Asian culture and architecture was greatly influenced by the movements of the Mughals and Mongols. The Bantu migrations spread ironworking and new agricultural methods across Africa. The great distances covered across oceans by the Vikings and the Polynesians; the movements and engineering achievements of indigenous societies in the Americas; the existence of Ming china in Swahili graves; and the spread of the tomato and the chili from the Americas to Europe and Asia illustrate the extent of human migration and interchange throughout the ages.
Culture is neither static nor homogeneous. Anthropological and sociological research reveals that cultures cannot be seen as fixed, indivisible wholes. The various manifestations of “social belonging” exhibit a “constructed and pliable nature.”9 Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 9. Cultural resiliency has much to do with heterogeneity, assimilation of outside ideas, and the capacity to adapt. “We should view human cultures as constant creations, recreations, and negotiations of imaginary boundaries between ‘we’ and the ‘other(s)’,” the political scientist Seyla Benhabib emphasizes.10Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 8. The multifarious processes of integration now at work are serving to accentuate and accelerate such social, economic, and cultural interchange. Under these conditions, Benhabib adds, presumed lines of cultural demarcation are increasingly “fluid, porous and contested.”11Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 184. To perceive cultures, then, as objects of stasis, immune from the complex dialogues and interactions of human existence, is a fundamental epistemological and empirical error. As Appiah maintains: “Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.”12Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1, 2006.
Often, the insistence that the essence of cultural distinctiveness is its putative immutability emerges from a sincere desire to preserve and honor the power of an existing collective narrative. What is at issue here is a legitimate fear that valued identities may be lost or overwhelmed by unfamiliar external forces. Although an advocate of cultural rights designed to prevent such unwanted change, the theorist Will Kymlicka notes that “most indigenous peoples understand that the nature of their cultural identity is dynamic…”13Will Kymlicka, cited in Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 132. From this vantage point, Kymlicka believes that globalization “provides new and valued options by which nations can promote their interests and identities.”14 Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 323. This suggests that a balance must be sought between the requirements of self-determination and the possibility of defining an aspect of self-determination as participation in the construction of a broader collectivity. Participation of this kind by a diverse array of cultures and peoples offers the promise of enriching the entire fabric of civilized life.
Recognition of the reality of globalization, however, does not mean that the current inequities associated with the process—how resources, opportunities, and power are distributed—should go unchallenged. And perhaps more important, the exhausted ideologies and intellectual frameworks that allow such inequities to persist must also be directly confronted.15For a in-depth exploration of this point, see the Bahá’í International Community statements, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995, and “Who is Writing the Future?”, 1999. It is here where the insights provided by diverse human traditions and value systems can engage with the constructive phenomena of contemporary change to open new frontiers of identity—frontiers offering a peaceful and just future.
In 1945, aware of the imminent test of the first atomic weapon, Franklin D. Roosevelt warned: “Today we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.”16These were among the last words penned by Roosevelt which, due to his death, were not delivered. See http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1945/450413b.html Clearly, the perceptions that human beings hold of themselves and each other matter. In a world convulsed by contention and conflict, conceptions of identity that feed the forces of prejudice and mistrust must be closely examined. Assertions that certain populations can be neatly partitioned into oppositional categories of affiliation deserve particular scrutiny. The notion of civilizational identity as the predominant expression of human allegiance is one such problematic example.17Samuel Huntington, in his seminal article “The Clash of Civilizations?”, posits that global stability will be determined by the interactions among what he calls Western, Hindu, Islamic, Sinic, African, Latin American, Buddhist, and Orthodox Christian civilizations. Huntington writes: “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” See Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993. For Amartya Sen, such thinking leads to “conceptual disarray” that can undermine international stability.
To view the relationships between different human beings as mere reflections of the relations between civilizations is questionable on both logical and pragmatic grounds. First, civilizations themselves are not monolithic in character; indeed, their vast internal diversity is among their distinguishing features. Second, as we have seen, reducing personhood to a “singular affiliation” denies the essential variety and complexity of human experience.18Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 20. Of most concern, argues Sen, is the danger that assigning “one preeminent categorization” to human beings will exacerbate and harden conceptions of difference between peoples.19Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 16. This presumption of a “unique and choiceless identity,” that people are what they are because they have been born into a certain ethnic, cultural, or religious inheritance, is an “illusion” that underlies many of the “conflicts and barbarities in the world.”20Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. xv. “Reasoned choice,” Sen believes, must be used to examine the intrinsic merit of our antecedent associations as well as the broader social ramifications of identity.21 Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. 8.
“A tenable global ethics,” Kwame Anthony Appiah concurs, “has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices.”22Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Contamination,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1, 2006. For this reason, there exists an intimate relationship between cultural diversity and liberty. A sustainable and authentic expression of collective development must be a freely chosen path pursued by the members composing the group in question; current generations cannot impose their vision of what a desirable form of life is upon future generations. Existing mores, practices, and institutions can inform, validate, and even ennoble the human condition, but cannot or should not foreclose new moral or social directions for individuals and communities. Indeed, collective learning and adjustment are defining characteristics of social evolution. Because our perceptions and experiences change, our understanding of reality necessarily undergoes change. So too, then, do our identities change. “The contours of identity are profoundly real,” Appiah states, “and yet no more imperishable, unchanging, or transcendent than other things that men and women make.”23Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 113. At the same time, “if we create a society that our descendants will want to hold on to, our personal and political values will survive in them.”24wame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 137.
Significant portions of the world’s peoples, we know though, are deprived of the autonomy necessary to develop a plan of life or a corresponding identity that can inspire and assist them to realize life goals. The widespread subordinate social position of women and minorities restricts the latitude of their self-determination; members of these groups are frequently denied, in a systematic way, the chance to fully explore their individual potential and to contribute to the processes of cultural, social, and moral advancement. Constructions of identity can therefore be quite tenuous for marginalized groups or individuals whose personal characteristics fall outside received categories of classification. This can be especially true for persons of mixed ethnic, racial, or religious descent. Concepts of race and nation can serve as powerful instruments and symbols of unity, but can also lead to the isolation, dispossession, and “symbolic dismemberment” of minorities.25Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 17. In this regard, Charles Carnegie’s call for a “new consciousness of belonging” seems vital.26Charles Carnegie, Postnationalism Prefigured, p. 9.
The prevalent stance that identity is about difference is untenable. Perceiving identity through the relativistic lens of separation or cultural preservation ignores compelling evidence of our common humanity and can only aggravate the forces of discord and disagreement now so pervasive in the world. The only alternative to this path of fragmentation and disunity is to nurture affective relationships across lines of ethnicity, creed, territory, and color—relationships that can serve as the warp and woof of a new social framework of universal solidarity and mutual respect. A one-dimensional understanding of human beings must be rejected. As Amartya Sen underscores: “The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division.”27Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, p. xiv. This is an appeal for imagination in creating new ways of being and living; for a new vision of human nature and society—one that recognizes the unmistakable shared destiny of all peoples. The resolution of the problems now engulfing the planet demands a more expansive sense of human identity. As articulated by Bahá’u’lláh more than a century ago: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”28Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/696472436
The crucial need of the present hour is to determine the conceptual and practical steps that will lay the foundations of an equitable and harmonious global order. Effectively addressing the crises now disrupting human affairs will require new models of social transformation that recognize the deep interrelationship between the material, ethical, and transcendent dimensions of life. It is evident that such models can emerge only from a fundamental change in consciousness about who we are, how we regard others who enter our ambit—no matter how near or distant, and how we collectively design the structures and processes of social life, whether local or global.
Such observations lead to yet more questions. In a world of pluralistic identities and rapidly shifting cultural and moral boundaries, is a common understanding of human purpose and action possible? Can a genuine cosmopolitan ethic, one that fully embraces human diversity, emerge from the multiple experiences and perceptions of modernity?
A basis of an affirmative Bahá’í response to these questions can be found in Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortations to the world’s peoples to “set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you,”29Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407719266 and to “let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.”30 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/294539200 For Bahá’ís, though, such a perspective is not simply a matter of belief or hopeful aspiration, but is grounded in experience.
A conviction of the practicality of world unity and peace, coupled with an unwavering dedication to work toward this goal, is perhaps the single most distinguishing characteristic of the Bahá’í community. That this community is now representative of the diversity of the entire human race, encompassing virtually every national, ethnic, and racial group on the planet, is an achievement that cannot be casually dismissed. The worldwide Bahá’í community, as an organic whole, eschews dichotomies prevalent in public discourse today, such as “North” and “South,” and “developed” and “underdeveloped.” Bahá’ís everywhere, irrespective of the degree of material well-being of their nations, are striving to apply the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to the process of building unified patterns of collective life. In this undertaking, every member of the community is a valued participant. In this respect, the roots of Bahá’í motivation and the formation of Bahá’í identity have a long history.
In the early part of the twentieth century, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor—urged the some 160 Bahá’í inhabitants of a small village in a remote part of Iran who were experiencing persecution to “regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.”31Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/031947140. And further, they should “show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.”32Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/690838011 But apart from enjoining upon them an attitude of remarkable forbearance and amity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not address these followers as simple rural people with narrow parochial concerns. Rather, He affirmed their innate dignity by speaking to them as citizens of the world who had the capacity and the power to contribute to the advancement of civilization:
O ye beloved of the Lord! With the utmost joy and gladness, serve ye the human world, and love ye the human race. Turn your eyes away from limitations, and free yourselves from restrictions, for … freedom therefrom brings about divine blessings and bestowals…
Therefore, so long as there be a trace of life in one’s veins, one must strive and labour, and seek to lay a foundation that the passing of centuries and cycles may not undermine, and rear an edifice which the rolling of ages and aeons cannot overthrow—an edifice that shall prove eternal and everlasting, so that the sovereignty of heart and soul may be established and secure in both worlds.33Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/416856683
In short, the perceptions, preferences, and assumptions of the denizens of this small, isolated village were radically transformed. Their identity had been remade. They no longer were concerned just with local matters, and even though they were far removed from the mainstream of intellectual and cultural exchange, they regarded themselves as “servants” of the “entire human race,” and as protagonists in the building of a new way of life. They understood their “ultimate sphere of work as the globe itself.”34Cited in Century of Light, Bahá’í World Centre, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/463388482 That the broader Iranian Bahá’í community achieved, over the course of three generations, levels of educational advancement and prosperity well beyond the general population, even under conditions of severe religious discrimination, underscores the capacities that can be released when the moral and spiritual dimensions of human consciousness are awakened and purposively channeled.35Through adherence to and active implementation of spiritual precepts, the Iranian Bahá’í community effectively eliminated poverty and achieved universal literacy over the span of six to seven decades. Commitment to the principles of human equality and nobility, moral rectitude, collaborative decision-making, education—particularly of girls, of the exalted station of work, cleanliness and good hygiene, and respect for scientific knowledge as applied to agriculture, commerce and other avenues of human endeavor constituted the basis of a spiritually inspired process of social advancement. For additional perspective on the Bahá’í approach to social and economic progress see Bahá’í International Community, “For the Betterment of the World”, 2002; and In Service to the Common Good: The American Bahá’í Community’s Commitment to Social Change, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 2004. For those interested in apprehending the sources and mechanisms of individual and community empowerment, it would be difficult to find a more compelling example of social transformation than the case of the Iranian Bahá’ís.
In response to Bahá’u’lláh’s call for the creation of a universal culture of collaboration and conciliation, Bahá’ís drawn from almost every cultural and religious tradition “have achieved a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives and that, clearly, is not the expression of any intrinsic moral superiority on their own part…”36One Common Faith, Bahá’í World Centre, 2005. Available at www.bahai.org/r/969956715 It is an accomplishment “that can properly be described only as spiritual—capable of eliciting extraordinary feats of sacrifice and understanding from ordinary people of every background.”37One Common Faith, Bahá’í World Centre, 2005. Available at www.bahai.org/r/969956715
So it is clear that from a Bahá’í perspective, a universal identity is a vital precursor to action that is universal in its effects—to the “emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture.”38Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/580032274 In emphasizing our global identity, Bahá’u’lláh presents a conception of life that insists upon a redefinition of all human relationships—between individuals, between human society and the natural world, between the individual and the community, and between individual citizens and their governing institutions.39Bahá’í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind, 1995. Humanity has arrived at the dawn of its maturity, when its “innate excellence”and latent creative capacities can at last find complete expression.40 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/494001842 Accordingly, new social forms and ethical precepts are enunciated in the Bahá’í teachings so that human consciousness can be freed from patterns of response set by tradition, and the foundations of a global society can be erected.
Bahá’u’lláh thus speaks to the reshaping and redirection of social reality. That all individual action and social arrangements must be informed by the principle of the oneness of human relationships, gives rise to a concept of moral and social order that safeguards personal dignity while deepening human solidarity. In recognition of this central insight, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í community, urges all to “embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfillment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history.”41Universal House of Justice, Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002.
From the basic principle of the unity of the world’s peoples are derived virtually all notions concerning human welfare and liberty. If the human race is one, any assertion that a particular racial, ethnic, or national group is in some way superior to the rest of humanity must be dismissed; society must reorganize its life to give practical expression to the principle of equality for all its members regardless of race, creed, or gender;41 each and every person must be enabled to “look into all things with a searching eye” so that truth can be independently ascertained42Bahá’u’lláh emphatically states that “women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.” He insists upon the emancipation of women from long-entrenched patterns of subordination and calls for the full participation of women in the social, economic, and political realms of civilized life. Women: Extracts from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice (Thornhill, Ontario: Bahá’í Canada Publications, 1986), No. 54. Concerning racial equality, Bahá’u’lláh counsels, “Close your eyes to racial differences, and welcome all with the light of oneness.” Cited in Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice. Available at www.bahai.org/r/486554855 ; and all individuals must be given the opportunity to realize their inherent capabilities and thereby foster “the elevation, the advancement, the education, the protection and the regeneration of the peoples of the earth.”43Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Available at www.bahai.org/r/473374410
In the Bahá’í view, social origin, position, or rank are of no account in the sight of God. As Bahá’u’lláh confirms, “man’s glory lieth in his knowledge, his upright conduct, his praiseworthy character, his wisdom, and not in his nationality or rank.”44Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Available at www.bahai.org/r/327958234. It should be noted, however, that the Bahá’í teachings recognize the need for authority and rank for the purpose of ensuring functionality in the pursuit of community goals. In this regard, all decision-making authority in the Bahá’í administrative system rests not with individuals but elected corporate bodies. A distinction is thus made between the moral and spiritual equality of all human beings and the differentiation that may exist in how individuals serve society. This emphatic declaration of the essential moral and spiritual worth of every human being is echoed in an epistle of Bahá’u’lláh’s to a devoted follower: “Verily, before the one true God, they who are the rulers and lords of men and they that are their subjects and vassals are equal and the same. The ranks of all men are dependent on their potential and capacity. Witness unto this truth are the words, ‘In truth, they are most honored before God who are most righteous.’”45 Bahá’u’lláh, provisional translation, courtesy of the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. Hence, embedded in the Bahá’í understanding of human identity is a fundamental expectation of justice and equality of opportunity, as well as an imperative of striving for greater moral awareness and responsibility.
It must be stressed that the “watchword” of the Bahá’í community is “unity in diversity.”46Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/895919188 Oneness and diversity are complementary and inseparable: “That human consciousness necessarily operates through an infinite diversity of individual minds and motivations detracts in no way from its essential unity. Indeed, it is precisely an inherent diversity that distinguishes unity from homogeneity or uniformity.”47Bahá’í International Community, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/406673721 Just as integration of the differentiated components of the human body makes possible the higher function of human consciousness, so too is global well-being dependent on the willing give and take, and ultimate collaboration, of humanity’s diverse populations.48The sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to such coordinated interaction among society’s diverse elements as “organic solidarity”—a solidarity governed by the “law of cooperation.” See Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth, pp. 142-3. Acceptance of the concept of unity in diversity implies the development of a global consciousness, a sense of global citizenship, and a love for all of humanity. It induces every individual to realize that, “since the body of humankind is one and indivisible,” each member of the human race is “born into the world as a trust of the whole” and has a responsibility to the whole.49Bahá’í International Community, “The Prosperity of Humankind”, 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/616572370 It further suggests that if a peaceful international community is to emerge, then the complex and varied cultural expressions of humanity must be allowed to develop and flourish, as well as to interact with one another in ever-changing forms of civilization. “The diversity in the human family,” the Bahá’í writings emphasize, “should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.”50‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/268841058 More than creating a culture of tolerance, the notion of unity in diversity entails vanquishing corrosive divisions along lines of race, class, gender, nationality, and belief, and erecting a dynamic and cooperative social ethos that reflects the oneness of human nature.
The ideology of difference so ubiquitous in contemporary discourse militates against the possibility of social progress. It provides no basis whereby communities defined by specific backgrounds, customs, or creeds can bridge their divergent perspectives and resolve social tensions. The value of variety and difference cannot be minimized, but neither can the necessity for coexistence, order, and mutual effort. “The supreme need of humanity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá underscores, “is cooperation and reciprocity. The stronger the ties of fellowship and solidarity amongst men, the greater will be the power of constructiveness and accomplishment in all the planes of human activity.”51‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Available at www.bahai.org/r/322101001 Diversity by itself cannot be regarded as an “ultimate good.”52 Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 153.
Unity, in contrast, “is a phenomenon of creative power.”53Cited in Century of Light. Available at www.bahai.org/r/202372160 To foster a global identity, to affirm that we are members of one human family is a deceptively simple but powerful idea. While traditional loyalties and identities must be appreciated and recognized, they are inadequate for addressing the predicament of modernity, and consequently, a higher loyalty, one that speaks to the common destiny of all the earth’s inhabitants, is necessary. And so, in our quest for solutions to the problems that collectively confront us, a first step must involve relinquishing our attachment to lesser loyalties. Yet, while Bahá’u’lláh is saying that at this moment in human social evolution a global identity is vital, an inherent aspect of such a universal identity is recognition of the spiritual reality that animates our inner selves. 54It should be noted that for one who does not arrive at a spiritual understanding of existence, Bahá’u’lláh urges that individual to “at least conduct himself with reason and justice.” Bahá’u’lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2002. Available at www.bahai.org/r/653038584 To be sure, a global identity grounded in awareness of our common humanness marks a great step forward from where humanity has been, but a strictly secular or material formulation of global identity is unlikely to provide a sufficient motivational basis for overcoming historic prejudices and engendering universal moral action. Establishing a global milieu of peace, prosperity, and fairness is ultimately a matter of the heart; it involves a change in basic attitudes and values that can only come from recognizing the normative and spiritual nature of the challenges before us. This is especially so given that the vast majority of the world’s peoples do not view themselves simply as material beings responding to material exigencies and circumstances, but rather as beings endowed with spiritual sensibility and purpose.
In light of ongoing social turmoil and the upheavals of the last century, it is simply no longer possible to maintain the belief that human well-being can arise from a narrow materialistic conception of life. The persistence of widespread human deprivation and despair speaks to the shortcomings of prevailing social theories and policies. Fresh approaches are required. A just social polity, Bahá’ís believe, will emerge only when human relations and social arrangements are infused with spiritual intent, an intent characterized by an all-embracing standard of equity, unconditional love, and an ethos of service to others. Addressing practical challenges through a spiritual lens is no easy task, but it is to this objective that Bahá’ís are firmly committed. Through recognition of the centrality of spiritual values and the deeds they inspire, “Minds, hearts and all human forces are reformed, perfections are quickened, sciences, discoveries and investigations are stimulated afresh, and everything appertaining to the virtues of the human world is revitalized.”55 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/008934837 The power of a spiritually-actuated identity in furthering human betterment cannot be overestimated, for those “whose hearts are warmed by the energizing influence of God’s creative love cherish His creatures for His sake, and recognize in every human face a sign of His reflected glory.”56Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/194578922
It is still regrettable that the identity of certain individuals or groups emerges from a shared experience of oppression—from being the victims of systematic discrimination or injustice. In addressing this dimension of human identity, Bahá’u’lláh speaks forcefully and repeatedly about the rights and dignity of all human beings, and the indispensability of creating mechanisms of social justice, but He also explains that spiritual oppression is the most serious of all: “What ‘oppression’ is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth…should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?”57Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán. Available at www.bahai.org/r/621220243 From this standpoint, it is in the displacement of a transcendent understanding of life by an ascendant materialism that we find the source of the disaffection, anomie, and uncertainty that so pervades modern existence. All forms of oppression ultimately find their genesis in the denial of our essential spiritual identity. As Bahá’u’lláh earnestly counsels us: “Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.”58Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic No. 30. Available at www.bahai.org/r/172419670
These words tell us that we must choose who we wish to be; we must “see” with our “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.”59 Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic No. 2. Available at www.bahai.org/r/099947277 We must create our own sense of self and belonging. To have such power of choice affirms human nobility and is a sign of divine grace. Our different senses of identity consequently become fully realized through the development of our spiritual identity; they each provide a means for achieving our basic existential purpose—the recognition and refinement of the spiritual capacities latent within us. Through the tangible expression of such capacities—compassion, trustworthiness, humility, courage, forbearance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good—we define a path of spiritual growth. In the end, though, whether we have attained our spiritual potential is enshrouded in mystery: “the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.”60‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/199999278
Connected with the idea of spiritual identity, then, is the inalienable sanctity of every human soul; that a unique destiny has been bestowed upon each of us by an all-loving Creator—a destiny which unfolds in accordance with the free exercise of our rational and moral powers. As Bahá’u’lláh indicates, “How lofty is the station which man, if he but choose to fulfill his high destiny, can attain!”61 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/397234171 This promise of new vistas of accomplishment for both the individual and society, is, for Bahá’ís, a source of enduring confidence and optimism. The forces now buffeting and recasting human life, Bahá’u’lláh attests, will serve to release the “potentialities inherent in the station of man,” thereby giving impetus to “an ever-advancing civilization.”62Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/494001842
The Bahá’í belief in the spiritual nature of reality, and its underlying unity, sheds new light on the question of religious identity. In stressing that “the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God,”63Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407719266 Bahá’u’lláh is confirming a basic intuition that the truth underpinning the world’s great religions is in essence one. This explicit rejection of exclusivity and superiority, which have so dominated religious thinking and behavior, and suppressed impulses to reconciliation and unity, clears the ground for a new ethos of mutual understanding. For indeed, to believe that one’s system of belief is somehow superior or unique, has only led humankind to misery, despair, and ruin. In warning His followers never to assume what their own spiritual end might be, Bahá’u’lláh plants the seeds of humility and spiritual maturity so necessary for the creation of a world of tolerance and tranquility. In recognizing the divine origin of the world’s great religions, and that they have each served to unlock a wider range of capacities within human consciousness and society, the Bahá’í Faith does not and cannot make any claim of religious finality, but rather a claim of paramount relevance to humanity’s current spiritual and social plight. Its role as a reconciler and unifier of religions is clearly anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh: “A different Cause…hath appeared in this day and a different discourse is required.”64 Bahá’u’lláh, The Tabernacle of Unity (Bahá’í World Centre, 2006). Available at www.bahai.org/r/855801133
Bahá’u’lláh clarifies that a moral logic pervades the fabric of human life, and that it is through observance of spiritual principles that the individual can realize the divinely intended goal of his or her existence. As beings capable of spiritual and moral development, our autonomy and welfare are not only determined by the laws and constraints of the natural world, but also by an objective spiritual world that is integrally related to it. To follow a moral path is not only to carry out the duties that we have to those around us, but is the only means for realizing true happiness and contentment. Our obligations to God, our inner selves, our family, and the wider community give definition to who we are and what our aims should be. For Bahá’ís, fulfillment of these obligations to the Divine will and to our fellow human beings ensures the emergence of a stable and progressive society. Moreover, by honoring such responsibilities, the nobility and rights of others are protected. In this sense, it is the requirement of individuals’ being able to meet primary spiritual and moral obligations that safeguards human rights.65This is not to suggest that duties prevail over or precede rights, but that the recognition and exercise of such duties provide the very framework for actualizing human rights. There is a complementary relationship between rights and duties. That individuals have specific entitlements or needs, informs us of particular duties that attach to other individuals or the broader society.
The Bahá’í teachings explain that moral insight is both transcendentally and dialogically derived. The values and ideals that bind human beings together, and give tangible direction and meaning to life, find their origins in the guidance provided by the Founders of the world’s great religious systems. At the same time, it is human action in response to such guidance that gives real shape to social reality. Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that all such action must be consultatively-inspired and directed. Given that human life has a “fundamentally dialogical character,” it is through interchange that individuals and the communities they compose are able to give definition to their identities and their long-term goals.66Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 33 Consultation can lead to the creation of new social meanings and social forms that reflect what is reasonable and fair for society to achieve. But any such process of collective deliberation and decision-making, the Bahá’í writings insist, must be devoid of adversarial posturing as well as dispassionate and fully participatory in spirit. It is through discourse which is inclusive and unifying that the religious impulse finds expression in the modern age.
Clearly, there can never be an absolutely objective or static understanding of what constitutes concepts such as social equity, human security, power, “the common good,” democracy, or community. There is an evolutionary aspect to social development—a dynamic process of learning, dialogue, and praxis in which social challenges and solutions are constantly redefined and reassessed. There are always multiple understandings of particular social questions and these diverse perspectives each typically contain some measure of validity. By building a broader framework of analysis that encompasses not only material and technical variables but the normative and spiritual dimensions of various social issues, new insights can emerge that enrich dialogues previously locked into narrow conceptual boundaries. A unifying sense of identity can obviously play an important role in facilitating and sustaining such a consultative path.
In many ways, the struggle to understand our identity is tied up with the question of meaning in modern life. Increasingly, calls are being made for rooting meaning and identity in community, but when the community is religiously, morally, and culturally pluralistic in character it is challenging for diverse voices to find common ground. It is here where the Bahá’í concepts of unity in diversity and non-adversarial dialogue and decision-making can offer a potent alternative vision of social advancement. Engaging in a cooperative search for truth will no doubt lead to the discovery and implementation of shared perspectives and values. Such open moral dialogue within and among variegated communities can lead to a process of action, reflection, and adjustment resulting in genuine social learning and progress.67The evolving international human rights discourse is one significant example of such cross-cultural moral exchange. As Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, “No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”68 Bahá’u’lláh, in Consultation: A Compilation (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 3.
Meaning emerges from an independent search for truth and a chosen freedom grounded in social experience and social participation—a participation that leads to the enlargement of the self. Participation creates new identities and new solidarities. In Bahá’í communities around the globe, patterns of fellowship, knowledge-building, and collaboration among diverse peoples are giving rise to a new human culture. Bahá’ís have found that encouraging new modalities of association and participation is key to promoting meaningful social development and effective local governance that is democratic in spirit and method. Hence, Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that fellowship and sincere association “are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations.”69Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/787830813
Human beings are social beings. The self, therefore, cannot evolve outside of human relationships. Indeed, the self develops principally through endeavors that are participatory in nature. Virtues such as generosity, loyalty, mercy, and self-abnegation cannot be manifested in isolation from others. The Bahá’í teachings affirm that the essential arena of moral choice is the autonomous person. But this autonomy is exercised within a broader social context, as well as an all-encompassing spiritual reality that informs the nature of that social context. The Bahá’í teachings thus offer a social conception of human identity in which the inner aspirations of the self are aligned with the goals of a just and creative global polity. In this way, the Bahá’í community is able to reconcile “the right” with the “good.”70In the vocabulary of moral philosophy, “the good” refers to a vision of happiness, human well-being, or a specific way of life. Thus, many conceptions of “the good” are possible. “The right” refers to types of principled or just action—binding duties, codes and standards that regulate and guide how individuals pursue their particular notions of “the good.” Modern liberal thought, going back to Immanuel Kant, places emphasis on “the right” over “the good.” Communitarians have critiqued this view, arguing that it has led to the exaggerated individualism of Western society.
Individual well-being is intimately tied to the flourishing of the whole. It is a reciprocated benevolence, founded on the ideals of service and selflessness, rather than utilitarian self-interest, that underlies the Bahá’í idea of social life. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, “the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good.”71‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/006593911 While preservation of “personal freedom and initiative” is considered essential, so too must the relational aspect of human existence be recognized. The “maintenance of civilized life,” the Universal House of Justice explains, “calls for the utmost degree of understanding and cooperation between society and the individual; and because of the need to foster a climate in which the untold potentialities of the individual members of society can develop, this relationship must allow ‘free scope’ for ‘individuality to assert itself’ through modes of spontaneity, initiative and diversity that ensure the viability of society.”72 Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/437022378
Given the social matrix of human reality, the quest for true self-determination and true identity involves finding one’s place within a moral order, not outside it. But in the Bahá’í view, such “ordered liberty” concerns the awakening of the soul to the capacities of integrity, kindness, and sincerity that lie within it. And spiritual growth of this kind must be fostered by the community in which the individual is embedded. Any conception of “the good”—an equitable society promoting the development of individual potential—must recognize the necessity of imbuing the concept of duty into society’s members. In this respect, laws and ethical standards are intended not to constrain but to liberate human consciousness so that a moral ethos can come into being. To a great degree, then, the emergence of the citizen devoted to a moral praxis results from the collective voice of the community. Although a path of social virtue and service must be freely chosen, the community must strive to cultivate and empower this voice.73 For more on this point, see Amitai Etzioni, The Monochrome Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 221-45. The ultimate expression of this spiritually motivated moral voice is a culture where action flows not from externally imposed duties and rights but from the spontaneous love that each member of the community has for one another. From our shared recognition that we are all sheltered under the love of the same God comes both humility and the means for true social cohesion.
This spiritually-based conception of social life goes beyond notions of mutual advantage and prudence associated with the idea of the social contract. While the principle of self-interested, rational exchange implied by the social contract indisputably represents an advance over coercion as a basis for social existence, there surely exists a step beyond exchange. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum states, the pursuit of “individual ends” must “include shared ends.”74Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap and Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 9-95. Social cooperation, as manifested through a “global society of peoples,” she argues, cannot be based on seeking mutual advantage, but can only result from recognizing that “a central part of our good is to live in a world that is morally decent, a world in which all human beings have what they need to live a life with dignity.”75Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap and Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 9-95. Yet, Nussbaum’s thoughtful critique of current social forms falls short in outlining a pathway for mediating among divergent identities and value systems so that unity on a global scale becomes a realistic possibility. For without a genuine, transcending love emanating from the heart of human consciousness and motivation, it is unlikely that contending peoples and cultures can come together to form a harmonious and interdependent whole. Under the pluralism of the social contract, however enlightened that pluralism may be, disunity reigns.76To acknowledge the limitations of pluralism, however, is not to deny the centrality of individual and group autonomy, civil rights, and democratic values to human well-being. What is being critiqued here is a pluralism that is unable to foster a definite vision of the common good.
Bahá’u’lláh instead offers a covenant of universal fellowship, a spiritually-empowered ethic of deep and abiding commitment, as the basis for collective life. As a result of this covenant of oneness, in the deprivation and suffering of others we see ourselves. Such a frame of reference opens the door to critical reflection and real social transformation. In the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.”77‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/015747998
The Bahá’í concept of an inhering human diversity leading to higher forms of unity suggests that we can and must move beyond a liberal construction of pluralism that is unable to provide an overarching vision of human development. But rather than engaging in a quixotic quest to overcome the innumerable evils at work in society or right the “countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age,” Bahá’ís are devoting their energy to building the world anew.78Universal House of Justice, May 24, 2001. Available at www.bahai.org/r/413655933 As we have seen, recognizing the essential spiritual character of our identity is a defining feature of this project. Further, at this moment in our collective evolution, the appropriate locus for action is the globe in its entirety, where all members of the human family are joined together in a common enterprise of promoting justice and social integration. Here, it should be noted that the Bahá’í teachings envision social and political development unfolding in two directions: upward beyond the nation-state and downward to the grassroots of society. Both are vital and interlinked. In this regard, the Bahá’í community offers its own unique system of governance as a model for study.79Bahá’ís attach great importance to cooperative decision-making and assign organizational responsibility for community affairs to freely elected governing councils at the local, national, and international levels. Bahá’u’lláh designated these governing councils “Houses of Justice.” This administrative system devolves decision-making to the lowest practicable level—thereby instituting a unique vehicle for grassroots participation in governance—while at the same time providing a level of coordination and authority that makes possible collaboration and unity on a global scale. A unique feature of the Bahá’í electoral process is the maximum freedom of choice given to the electorate through the prohibition of nominations, candidature and solicitation. Election to Bahá’í administrative bodies is based not on personal ambition but rather on recognized ability, mature experience, and a commitment to service. Because the Bahá’í system does not allow the imposition of the arbitrary will or leadership of individuals, it cannot be used as a pathway to power. Decision-making authority rests only with the elected bodies themselves. All members of the Bahá’í community, no matter what position they may temporarily occupy in the administrative structure, are expected to regard themselves as involved in a learning process, as they strive to understand and implement the laws and principles of their Faith. Significantly, in many parts of the world, the first exercises in democratic activity have occurred within the Bahá’í community. Bahá’ís believe that this consultatively-based administrative system offers a useful example of the institutional structures necessary for global community life. For more on the underlying principles of the Bahá’í Administrative Order see Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/922842353.
Bahá’u’lláh provides us with a potent new moral grammar that allows us to appreciate and nurture human diversity while expanding our horizons beyond the parochial to a solidarity encompassing the boundaries of the planet itself. By extending human identity outward to embrace the totality of human experience, Bahá’u’lláh offers a vision of a comprehensive good that recognizes and values the particular while promoting an integrating framework of global learning and cooperation. His summons to unity articulates an entirely new ethics and way of life—one that flows from a spiritual understanding of human history, purpose, and development. He also gives us new tools that allow us to negotiate amongour diverse perceptions and construct unified modes of living without resorting to adversarial means and the culture of protest that heretofore have characterized even the most advanced democratic polities. He exhorts us to “flee” from “dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy…”80 Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Available at www.bahai.org/r/852608044
By redefining human identity, the Bahá’í teachings anticipate the moral reconstruction of all human practices—a process that involves the remaking of individual behavior and the reformulation of institutional structures. It entails the internalization of spiritual concepts so that the theory, assessment, and reformation of social affairs reflect the ideals of altruism, moderation, reciprocity, and justice. When society draws upon the spiritual mainspring of human identity and purpose, truly constructive avenues of social change can be pursued. “Among the results of the manifestation of spiritual forces,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confirms “will be that the human world will adapt itself to a new social form…and human equality will be universally established.”81‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace. Available at www.bahai.org/r/841208804
In our very longing for a world free from violence and injustice, lie the seeds of hope. But such hope can only be sustained by the certitude conferred by faith. As the Universal House of Justice assures us: “The turmoil and crises of our time underlie a momentous transition in human affairs…That our Earth has contracted into a neighbourhood, no one can seriously deny. The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness. There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books.”82Universal House of Justice, On the Occasion of the Official Opening of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb, May 22, 2001. Available at https://news.bahai.org/story/119/