to Dialogue Today
1. Cultures in Dialogue
Today the great centers of wealth and power that derive from the production and control of information--Houston, Silicon
Valley, the Ruhr, Lyon, Milan, Tokyo-Osaka, Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul, Mexico City, São Paulo--drain off the brain power
of the outer zones--the scientists but also writers, architects, artists, and musicians. The planet has
also never before seen such immense migrations of poor peoples--so much of it forced or illegal. These
people may bring only low-tech work skills, but they bring their cultural identity. The great cultural
capitals of proud nation states--Paris, London, New York, Sydney, Bangkok, Singapore--have become multiethnic and multicultural.
But that has always been the case. Mohendo-daro, Memphis and Thebes, Mahabalipuram, Angkor, Djenné
Djeno in the Sahel, Teotihuac·n, Qosqo--all the centers of great cultures had been cosmopolitan cities, with markets
full of foreign merchants but also with whole quarters of settled foreigners. What we have come to know
as distinctive and dominant civilizations--Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Roman, and Mongolian--were the result of drawing toward
themselves resources, artefacts, inventions, and concepts from the most diverse ethnic areas and cultures. Anyone
visiting Angkor Wat is struck to see altars on which Hindu deities dance around altars with seated Buddhas, friezes depicting
everyday life so obviously carved by sculptors who had come from or gone to Borobudur, Chinese guard lions..
"Different cultures within a region appear to be commenting on one another," anthropologist
Shirley Lindenbaum wrote, "chamber music performances, with each group attuned to the sounds of their neighbors."
The understanding one culture has of others is a piecemeal affair; it is the appreciation of the utility or taste or
beauty of things in neighboring or far-off cultures. The appreciation is not necessarily that of the utility
of something in the culture it came from, but the likely different utility it will have in the culture which adopts it.
Thus Brahminic priests and court rituals were imported into the court at Sukhothai and especially Ayutthaya in fifteenth
century Siam without bringing in the caste system to that Buddhist kingdom. Hindu priests and court rituals
were imported into Bali in the fourteenth century, without bringing in reincarnation across species; a Balinese who dies will
be reincarnated only in children of his own family.
A culture is then
an open-ended framework where ever more insights, inventions, and customs can be accommodated, to provide an ever richer environment
for a people inhabiting a particular place. A culture is comprehensive and comprehending--it supplies a
people with a framework that gives meaning to fragments of experience and direction to lives. It is also
comprehensive and comprehending in that, in the measure that it is vibrant and expansive, it assimilates elements from surrounding
cultures. This kind of understanding is partial, fragmentary, and also creative: by assimilating foreign
elements it endows them with new and different significance.
And it is membership in a vibrant and expansive culture that produces in individuals the will to understand other cultures.
How eager to meet and hear travelers, merchants, and religious teachers were Kublai Khan, Jayavarnan VII, Chingiz Khan
and Moctezoma! And today it is the sense of being in a center of a vibrant and expansive culture themselves
that motivates both scholars and ordinary travelers there to understand other cultures.
Yet it is also true that the centers of wealth and power today generate racial and ethnic oppositions.
Often the poorer people in a society, and the poor people who come into a society, are viewed across racial and ethnic
stereotypes. But today dialogue between peoples is especially obstructed by racial and ethnic stereotypes
that are created for political and military purposes, and that can be created overnight. Sociologists have
shown that in the United States before the second World War, Arabs were perceived as being good fighters and exotic desert
lovers with harem girls. Before World War II, there was little American political involvement in the Middle
East. The defense of Israel, and the struggle for control of the oil reserves changed all that.
Now Arabs are depicted as cruel, weak, and decadent. A whole population that had no idea at all
who or where the Hutus or Kosovars or Tamils are a week later have fixed images of them as people with whom dialogue is impossible.
The production of such stereotypes is a much more important part of political and military initiatives than before.
For there has been an immense change in warfare in the past century: in the First World War, 90% of the killed and
wounded were soldiers; in the Second World War, but 40%. In the wars of the last decade, 90% of the killed
and wounded are civilians. In today's civil wars and guerrilla wars, the civilian population is in
fact the principal strategic target. But also when a superpower launches military initiatives in which
in principle not one of its own soldiers are to be killed, then the civilian population is likewise the real target.
The smart military technology is not aimed at defeating the enemy troops but instead at destroying the civilian will
to resist. Thus the depicting of the entire civilian population of the target country as fanatics
one could not understand or dialogue with is an essential element of contemporary political and military offensives.
Dialogue with the Past
To go to another land is so often
to go to another time. It is almost impossible to go to Istanbul without encountering, on view of the great
mosques the Ottomans built on the seven hills of Constantine's Nova Roma, the Ottoman Middle Ages. Almost
impossible to go to Peru without encountering the Tuantinsuyo of the Inca. The Spanish mansions of Qosqo
are second-stories built on the great mortarless walls of the Inca city. It would be almost impossible
to leave the urbanized coast to cross the Australian outback without encountering aboriginal Australia.
Last summer, contemplating the skeleton of Lucy in the little anthropological museum of Addis Ababa, how moved I was
to see our remotest ancestoróthat is, a member of the earliest generation of our species. How everything
that we find out about the ancestors of the present Homo sapiens sapiens moves and concerns us!
Whenever we go to encounter a past civilization, we have the sense of encountering our past, our forefathers.
Even when we encounter a culture that did not precede ours, that instead our culture destroyed, and a people from which
we are not descended--for example, when we encounter the Inca world, we feel we are returning to an earlier world from which
our world has come, an earlier world that, however vagrantly, gave birth to our world.
Thirty years ago this return to our common ancestors motivated a good deal of ordinary travel. In
the face of the thermonuclear arms race and policies concocted in think-tanks that turned out to be disastrous, people who
went to Japan, to Bhutan, or to the Amazon were seeking places where layers of older civilizations still persisted, were seeking
the "wisdom of the past." They were seeking the way people lived and lived together.
Today the very nature of the media sweeps away the past. The instantaneous nature of television
reporting holds our eyes gaping upon the immediate future. Newspapers and magazines keep us breathless
in the expectation of new inventions in cancer research, in mineral sciences, in energy production, in genetically altered
food crops. The marketing industry excites us for new comfort and safety in personal transportation, new
facilities in home cooking and entertainment, new pleasures in furnishing and clothing. As a result we
have the sense that what mergers and contracts are being made, what inventions patented in Houston, Silicon Valley, the Ruhr,
Lyon, Milan, Tokyo-Osaka, Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul, Mexico City, and São Paulo are important, will determine our lives.
Societies that are still clinging to the allegedly discredited socialism or welfare state or that are not speeding
up the allegedly needed market reforms are dismissed with impatience.
More than that: new advances in communications, and also genetic engineering and cloning have made us think that human
relations will soon be radically different from all that they have been until now. As a result every society
where layers of past civilization persist seems "backward" and gets discredited.
There is another factor: it is that our immediate past forms a black wall that cuts us off from our forefathers and
our ancestors. The immediate past of rich countries is the two wars in which they embroiled the whole world.
And since then so many lands where layers of older civilizations persisted slaughtered their populations in the same
way. So many millions of people gassed, incinerated, buried in mass graves, disappeared. There
are today so many of us who have no idea where or how our parents were disappeared. And so many of us no
longer communicate with our fathers and forefathers, we no longer hear what they learned.
Assertion of Distinctiveness
A culture, we said, is an open-ended
framework where ever more insights, inventions, and customs can be accommodated, to provide the richest possible environment
for a people inhabiting a particular place. And a culture has a desire to be understood by others.
But a culture is also the means whereby a people in a particular place asserts their singularity. On
the island called New Guinea, in a population of a million and a half Papuans, some seven hundred languages were elaborated,
and the most diverse practices--in initiation rituals, in spouse exchange among moities, and in ritualized homosexuality.
Among them, all Papuans, all living in very similar ecological situations and using very similar tools, there is the
most astonishing diversity of cultures and languages. Peoples living in close proximity institutionalized
opposing notions of what constitutes legitimate marriage and what constitutes incest--conceptions which today Westerners think
of as defining what is natural and moral and what therefore must be valid universally. Every culture has
to be seen as a formulation of the identity of a people, a statement of their distinctiveness.
Javanese dance, Mongolian throat singing, the griot singing of West Africa, the male initiation rites of the Asmat
in Irian Jaya--these belong only to that people. Japanese often say that the Japanese language communicates
through allusions and silences in ways that no other language does, such that one who does not know the Japanese language
cannot really understand many of the ways Japanese interact and many of the forms of Japanese art. An occasional
foreigner can learn Japanese Sumo wrestling or Spanish flamenco or Sumba island double ikat weaving, but it would take so
long and involve such a total immersion in the training and culture that very few ever will.
We can revel in the spectacle of human diversity, the spectacle of people quite differently placed than ourselves,
encased in different material conditions, driven by different ambitions, possessed of different notions as to what life is
all about. We can be energized and exhilarated by the unending array of human possibilities--even if we
are not tempted to adopt any particular one of them for ourselves. We may well deplore the leveling of
differences in the everyday life of peoples that is being produced by the global marketing of mass produced consumer goods.
But some of these traits a culture produces to marks its singularity and distinctiveness we may well find morally objectionable
or repugnant. A culture may in fact do things in order to be not understood by others and by us.
A society can affirm its distinctiveness against its neighbors. It may banish foreigners and burn
foreign books and artworks. In Sri Lanka Sinhalese security forces burnt the Jaffna public library; Serbian
gunners shelled and destroyed the National Library in Sarajevo. A society can affirm its distinctiveness
against the rest of humanity--indeed, against humanity. A society asserts its distinctiveness in rejecting
the UN charter of human rights, or dialogue with any other society. A society may even assert its opposition
to the whole of the rest of humanity. W
as there not something of that in the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan?
Those fifteen-hundred-year-old works were esteemed by everyone who knew about them to be part of our common world heritage.
To destroy them was something the rest of humanity could not understand, could not accept.
Religion is one of the characteristic ways by which a culture, indeed a civilization, affirms its distinctiveness.
We seem particularly unable to deal with, or even understand the fact that today when conflicts become genocidal, they
so often take the form of religious wars. Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims in the Balkans.
Protestants and Catholics in northern Ireland. Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Muslims
and Jews in Israel and Palestine. Muslims and Christians-animists in the Sudan. Christians
and Muslims in the Celebes. We can see that when a people make their conflict with another people, a conflict
which is perhaps territorial or economic, into a religious cause, they readily find material and military support from co-religionists
in distant lands. But beyond that: could it be that religion is about the only form of thought that can
induce peoples who had perhaps for centuries lived together in cities and towns to now rise up and butcher their neighbors
and set fire to their homes? That religions can absolutize economic and ethnic conflicts and make them
When a people find themselves confronted with a culture which affirms its distinctiveness by setting out to destroy
the fundamental values of their culture, understanding cannot issue in an all-encompassing view in which each culture has
its place and its legitimacy. Then must we say that the only way to recognize the distinctiveness of the
culture that negates us, the only way to respect it, is to wage war on it? Anything less than that is not
to recognize what it is the other culture affirms. Only force recognizes an action set forth in order to
be not understood.
But to wage war effectively it
is necessary to know one's enemy, that is, to understand him. War against a culture that sets itself
outside of, or above, the rest of humanity also requires understanding of that culture, and thus dialogue with it.
Such dialogue always harbors the hope that the other party may begin to understand us.