Once upon a time, when people could only go overseas literally over the sea, a dream of social universalism was born (an idea that some principles are valid across the globe). Yes, there were prejudices, and even steam liner scams to get people to leave their homelands, but there was a quotient of intellectual minds who saw in cultural exchange great promise. Thoreau popularized the 四书五经; Tagore brought some of Indian culture to the West; T.E. Lawrence wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom.... It was a time of Romantic Idealism, also a time where there was plenty of hope in culture. It was a time where questions of problematic "freedom" began to emerge.
Today, it seems that people are jaded about freedom - it takes a lot of sympathy and interpretative skills, after all, to respect everyone's version of freedom. "Experience" has taught many that they cannot trust people from certain cultures. But once upon a time, and by the minds that were able, intriguing paradigms emerged about how to attain a universalism where there is the rough edge of difference.
To my mind, to reach the universal among mankind involves dialogues with minds that are able to cope with complexity and who believe in good will. That's a tall order.
I find it difficult myself, living where I do at one of those problematic crossroads. Visitors say they get so sick of the polemic that I know they are exposed to only because they are foreigners, which does not exist so much among us who actually live here. The foreigner is given the polemic - because there is a hope among most people that the visitor will bring the message of the polemic home, and bring back-ups for the cause. It is tragic, and deceptively local when all is said and done. Because the larger issues get hidden behind what looks like a petty domestic dispute. Only the visitor who already knows something about appearance and reality will have the insight to see behind the stage, to that other life, the one lived by the actors in their personal life, true to them.
Identifying the shared aspect of experience is hard today because "the truth" takes a back seat to petty media concerns of appearance. Ours is an age where it is more important to look like the truth than to be true. It is the kind of age I imagine the ancient Chinese scholar would retreat to the hills: consulting has been replaced by cosmetics. And yet. If the ideal of shared experience is to teach anything, it is that there is hope that harmony will eventually win out over cacophony or muted silence. Back in the day, we used to say that music could overcome all odds. The two examples I know that do this involve jazz, which is message enough unto itself: Liu Sola in Blues From the East, and Rabih Abou-Kahlil in Blue Camel. Compassion for humanity requires a lot of knowledge: of oneself, first and foremost, but then a capacity to learn of the other - and engage.
I do not always feel I am up to it, but feel drawn to it, because it is part of my life's legacy, growing up the way I did. And I find it is getting harder, because there seem to be so many "agendas". What's your view - is this an age of the "particular" or the "universal"?