Increased contact with other countries has led many to believe that the western model should be applied everywhere

I have just read Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It is a classic. Published in 1947, it analyses the nature of Japanese culture. Almost 60 years and many books later, it remains a seminal work. Like all great works of scholarship, the book manages to transcend the time and era in which it was written, ageing in certain obvious respects, but retaining much of its insight and relevance. If you want to make sense of Japan, Benedict’s book is as good a place to start as any. Here, though, I am interested in the origins and purpose of the book.

In June 1944, as the American offensive against Japan began to bear fruit, Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, was assigned by the US office of war administration to work on a project to try and understand Japan as the US began to contemplate the challenge that would be posed by its defeat, occupation and subsequent administration. Her book is written with a complete absence of judgmental attitude or sense of superiority, which one might expect; she treats Japan’s culture as of equal merit, virtue and logic to that of the US. In other words, its tone and approach could not be more different from the present US attitude towards Iraq or that country’s arrogant and condescending manner towards the rest of the world.

This prompts a deeper question: has the world, since then, gone backwards? Has the effect of globalisation been to promote a less respectful and more intolerant attitude in the west, and certainly on the part of the US, towards other cultures, religions and societies? This contradicts the widely held view that globalisation has made the world smaller and everyone more knowing. The answer, at least in some respects, is in the affirmative – with untold consequences lying in wait for us. But more of that later; first, why and how has globalisation had this effect?

Of course, it can rightly be argued that European colonialism embodied a fundamental intolerance, a belief that the role of European nations was to bring “civilised values” to the natives, wherever they might be. It made no pretence, however, at seeking to make their countries like ours: their enlightenment, as the colonial attitude would have it, depended on our physical presence. In no instance, for example, were they regarded as suitable for democracy, except where there was racial affinity, with white settler majorities, as in Australia and Canada. In contrast, the underlying assumption with globalisation is that the whole world is moving in the same direction, towards the same destination: it is becoming, and should become, more and more like the west. Where once democracy was not suitable for anyone else, now everyone is required to adopt it, with all its western-style accoutrements.

In short, globalisation has brought with it a new kind of western hubris – present in Europe in a relatively benign form, manifest in the US in the belligerent manner befitting a superpower: that western values and arrangements should be those of the world; that they are of universal application and merit. At the heart of globalisation is a new kind of intolerance in the west towards other cultures, traditions and values, less brutal than in the era of colonialism, but more comprehensive and totalitarian.

The idea that each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics, its own novelty and uniqueness, born of its own individual struggle over thousands of years to cope with nature and circumstance, has been drowned out by the hue and cry that the world is now one, that the western model – neoliberal markets, democracy and the rest – is the template for all.

The new attitude is driven by many factors. The emergence of an increasingly globalised market has engendered a belief that we are all consumers now, all of a basically similar identity, with our Big Macs, mobile phones and jeans. In this kind of reductionist thinking, the distance between buying habits and cultural/political mores is close to zero: the latter simply follows from the former. Nor is this kind of thinking confined to the business world, even if it remains the heartland. This is also now an integral part of popular common sense, and more resonant and potent as an international language because consumption has become the mass ideology of western societies. The fact that television and tourism have made the whole world accessible has created the illusion that we enjoy intimate knowledge of other places, when we barely scratch their surface. For the vast majority, the knowledge of Thailand or Sri Lanka acquired through tourism consists of little more than the whereabouts of the beach.

Then there is the phenomenon of Davos Man, the creation of an overwhelmingly western-weighted global elite, which thinks it knows all about these things because it describes itself as global and rubs shoulders on such occasions with a small number of hand-picked outsiders. Nor should we neglect its media concomitant, the commentariat – columnists who wax lyrical on these things even if their knowledge of the world is firmly bounded by the borders of the west. A couple of days at a conference in Egypt, India or Malaysia makes instant experts of them. So is much of modern western opinion made.

The net effect of all this is a lack of knowledge of and respect for difference. Globalisation has obliterated distance, not just physically but also, most dangerously, mentally. It creates the illusion of intimacy when, in fact, the mental distances have changed little. It has concertinaed the world without engendering the necessary respect, recognition and tolerance that must accompany it. Globalisation is itself an exemplar of the problem. Goods and capital may move far more freely than ever before, but the movement of labour has barely changed. Jeans may be inanimate, but migrants are the personification of difference. Everywhere, migration is a charged political issue. In the modern era of globalisation, everything is allowed to move except people.

After three decades of headlong globalisation, the world finds itself in dangerous and uncharted waters. Globalisation has fostered the illusion of intimacy while intolerance remains as powerful and unyielding as ever – or rather, has intensified, because the western expectation is now that everyone should be like us. And when they palpably are not, as in the case of the Islamic world, then a militant intolerance rapidly rises to the surface. The wave of Islamophobia in the west – among the people and the intelligentsia alike – is a classic example of this new intolerance. When I wrote a recent article for these pages on the Danish cartoons, arguing that Europe had to learn a new way of relating to the world, I got nearly 400 emails in response. Over half of these were negative and many were frightening in their intolerance, especially those from the US, which were often reminiscent in their tone to the worst days of the 1930s.

We live in a world that we are much more intimate with and yet, at the same time, also much more intolerant of – unless, that is, it conforms to our way of thinking. It is the western condition of globalisation, and its paradox of intimacy and intolerance suggests that the western reaction to the remorseless rise of the non-west will be far from benign.