Graveyards of distinctiveness: how cities are making us all the same

Passengers on the Seoul metro, wearing a uniform familiar from cities around the world. Image: Getty.

The latest column in the “Critical Cities” series, which questions the rise of colossal and globalising “Urban Industry”.

Globalisation amounts to tsunami after cultural tsunami, flattening out our differences. Aside from the “Middle East”, where men wear the thawb, and across the Indian subcontinent, where women wear sari and salwar kameez, the rest of us, when not at work, wear variations on a uniform of blue jeans, T-shirt and trainers. Trendsetters from Jakarta to Delhi, Cape Town to London to Toronto, are a carbon copy of tech start-ups tattoos, beards, rolled-up trousers, and bicylces.

Portrait photographs taken on Ellis Island, the gateway new immigrants to New York were required to pass through, show that, in the early 20th century, even people from different parts of Europe wore distinct clothing. What would a portrait photographer capture people wearing as they pass through a US port today? Westernisation – or as they say in polite society, “globalisation” – is flattening out our differences and distinctiveness.

Graveyards of distinctiveness

The centralisation of the world’s population into cities, a result of forced and heavily promoted urbanisation, is one of the main reasons for the rapid destruction of many thousands of distinct languages.

As people are uprooted and abstracted from reality, their survival in cities depends on finding and keeping work. Fitting in – minimising chances for discrimination, and maximising opportunities for work – means adopting the everyday practices of the dominant group as quickly as possible.

Self-reliance and independence are not possible in cities. Yet integration and assimilation results in the steady decline of a person’s existing culture, as they amputate their own culture in an attempt to adopt and be seen to adopt the governing group’s practices and values.


The process of levelling out and enervating one’s identity is actively encouraged in schools, local and national events, and heavily championed in academia. Often one is told to minimise, hide or give up one’s culture for entirely contradictory reasons like “tolerance” and “community cohesion”.

The London School of Economics’s Professor Richard Sennett, in his recent input to Deutsche Bank’s Urban Age 10 event, emphatically stated:

“In order to make the city more tolerant we should have a less strong identification with home. We should learn to use the city and live in the city in a more impersonal way. It is why I have argued against the many, many projects that seek to strength community.”

This is a profoundly troubling statement: while it didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter, frustratingly, it was not challenged as it ought to have been in the LSE lecture theatre at the time.

The Urban Industry persistently promotes cities as places of “cosmopolitanism” – often alongside photographs of people in street cafes, crowd shots at public events or families visiting museums. Cities, they say, offer a mouth-watering slice of cosmopolitan culture.

Cosmopolitanism, however, isn’t as so many want to think it is. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that human beings are the same: global citizens, citizens of the world, citizens of one thing – people who share a morality and an outlook and a willingness to dissolve away differences. This almost always results in the enervating of identities, except for consumable and somewhat superficial attributes like food and festivals.

While London, for example, has a high percentage of non-English people, it is White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) norms that dominate the public sphere of schooling, culture, law and politics, as well as penetrate homes, places of worship and study. It is difficult to think of even one structure or institution that is today influenced by Bantu laws or Nyulnylan language, for example.

Like Sennett, Professor Saskia Sassen, at an earlier Deutsche Bank Urban Age 10 event, also extolled the “sausage machine“ processes of cities, saying that they

“… shape an urban subject and urban subjectivity. [The city] can override the religious subject, the ethnic subject, the racialised subject and in certain settings, also the differences of class.”

Cities, despite effervescent statements of “complexity”, “diversity” and “incompleteness” are sites of high-speed cultural homogenisation. Cities are the graveyards of distinctiveness.

Unfortunately, persuasive academics like Sennett and Sassen celebrate and actively encourage this position. The processes of standardisation speed up in cities – perhaps in ways similar to Moore’s Law and computer processing speeds – doubling in ever-shorter periods.

An advertising hoarding for British style housing in Shanghai. Image: Getty.

Lingua franca

The death of distinct languages is particularly informative and illustrative of urban processes. Without use, a language dies. Without language, a culture has a death sentence.

Second-generation urban dwellers, particularly intercontinental migrants, regularly don’t speak the same language as their parents, a condition labelled “First Language Attrition”. Conforming is often a matter of survival for “minorities”, perhaps understandable given the level of prejudice inflicted and prosperity dependent on successfully mastering school exams. Within three generations an individual can be entirely alienated from their relatives’ language and experiences, and also of knowledge of living a pre-urbanised life.

Despite the hype about London’s “diversity” – a key element of the city’s pretentious claim to be one of just two “global cities” – English is overwhelmingly the dominant language, with 80 per cent of London’s population using English as their main language.

There are just 53 main languages spoken in London according to the 2011 Census. In Papua New Guinea, currently one of the least urbanised places on earth, over 800 distinct languages are spoken today. There are still over 2,000 living languages across the continent of Africa. Cities, contrary to the Urban Industry narrative, have been swiftly undermining a world abundant with distinctiveness and diversity.

Without language, the culture that created it swiftly dies and is either disappeared or appropriated and then repacked for and by the dominating group. It is nearly impossible to resurrect a language and culture once this occurs, though there has been a very small handful of dead or near-extinct languages being re-started (Hebrew is one of them).

For the last century, every 14 days one of the world’s remaining 7,000-plus distinct languages has been killed off and supplanted with English, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. Today, 95 per cent of the world’s population speaks just 6 per cent of the world’s languages. It is estimated that by 2100, though probably earlier, over 50 per cent of existing languages will be have been destroyed, leaving us with just a handful of dominant, though graciously self-confessed “rudimentary” and “bullying” languages.

Citizenship itself is often dependent on the successful passing of spoken and written language tests, and the controlling group of course determines the language chosen for testing. Citizenship is conditional on passing spoken and written English tests for the US, Australia and Canada. (In Australia alone, there were over 600 distinct languages before the British invaded in 1788.) 

English is the official language of 83 nations and regions, few of which are remotely geographically close to England. Only recently, British prime minister David Cameron said that families would have to be broken up and their members deported if one or more didn't speak English.


People in cities dominantly use and have the greatest access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. English dominates the internet, the ultimate homogenisation tool, with 851.6m users (26 per cent of the total). Chinese is next with 704m (21 per cent). There is then a dramatic drop to Spanish with 245m (7.5 per cent) and Arabic with 155m (4.8 per cent).

Perhaps more importantly, currently 54.2 per cent of all web content is English and a tiny 2.1 per cent is in Chinese. Despite there being 497m Hindi speakers, making it the third most-spoken language in the world, just 0.03 per cent of websites are in Hindi.

Perhaps our grandchildren will be left with just the English, Mandarin and Arabic languages. Perhaps English will dominate officialdom to the four corners of the world. Perhaps a Chinese elite will rule the world, but will have to use the English language to do so.

Same clothes, same languages, similar ideas, morals and understandings; the world is getting smaller and many, like Sennett and Sassen, see this as unreservedly a good thing. The decline of distinctiveness and the rise of sameness are regularly legislated for. We see this with language tests for citizenship, compulsory education, proscribed curriculums in schools and a global standarisation for laws and finance.

The argument is that sameness increases the chances for communication, collaboration and tolerance. Advocates regularly suggest alikeness and familiarity with each other results in a reduction of war and other conflicts. Polite society also like to call it “harmonisation”. (Perhaps it is worth noting at this point that the majority of crimes against persons happen in the home, by people known to the victim, very often a family member.)

Communication and collaboration are also argued to be good things in and of themselves. Some even argue sameness is important in the pursuit of creating level playing fields, so that everyone can compete equally. Others argue they find the regularity and repetition of clothing, languages, architecture and ideas comforting, evidence of a global village, a sign of progress.

Yet the result is the same: globalisation is flattening out our differences and enervating our distinctiveness.

If you follow the money it is evident that these processese, almost entirely and without exception, benefit western nations and just a small select elite of other nations. If you follow the politics, having a handful of cities that contain most of the world’s population, where its inhabitants have over generations had their distinct cultures eviscerated from them, you find a people who no longer know who they are, which is a nudge politician’s utopia. Our cultures, our different and differing identities are arguably the most valuable thing we have, not just for ourselves but also for each other. Without culture and identity we are the walking dead. 
 
A good question to ask any organisation or person arguing that you or I should give up our culture or identity to fit in is get them to list what they themselves have given up, and what they are asking their children to remove from their own lives. It will become evident very quickly that their list very short indeed. 

Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield are the founders of This Is Not A Gateway, and the editors of Critical Cities series of books.

This is the fourth column in the Critical Cities series. You can find the first three at the links below:

1) Urbanisation is not natural or inevitable. It’s being inflicted upon us by the forces of capitalism.

2) Everything you thought you knew about cities is wrong.

3) Against the tyranny of progress: How did we come to see urbanisation as part of human evolution?

“Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation, Volume 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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