Dialogue and Cosmopolis: on the Rapprochement of Cultures

Dialogue and Cosmopolis: on the Rapprochement of Cultures

Lecture presented by Fred Dallmayr, Co-Chair of the World Public Forum, at Carleton College in Minnesota on May 20, 2015

I want to thank Carleton College for the kind invitation.  My special thanks go to Professor Mihaela Czobor-Lupp whose book Imagination in Politics I had read earlier with great delight.  The subtitle of her book is “Freedom or Domination?”  This subtitle is reflected in a way in the title of my talk “Dialogue and Cosmopolis.”  Because there are two different conceptions of globalization and cosmopolitanism today:  one where the world is dominated from the top down through unilateral, imperial hegemony; the other where global cosmopolitanism means and is achieved through the free, lateral interaction between countries and cultures in the world.  So the question is indeed “Freedom or Domination?”

Rapprochement of Cultures

This leads me to the subtitle of my talk:  “On the Rapprochement of Cultures.”  By “rapprochement” I mean precisely the exit of cultures from global unilateral domination and a move toward lateral or dialogical relations.  Why is this topic important today?  Let me give you two major reasons:

First:  The decade 2013-2022 has been designated as “the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures” by a Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly adopted in December 2012.  This Resolution goes back to a decision of the UNESCO General Conference which had designated 2010 as the “International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures.”

In launching the decade, the Director General of UNESCO (Madame Irina Bokova) stated:  “The objective of the decade is to promote mutual understanding and respect of diversity, rights and equal dignity between peoples, through intercultural dialogue and concrete initiatives.  This is essential for all societies today.  Peace is more than the absence of conflict.  It is about solidarity and mutual understanding.  It is about building bridges of respect and dignity.”  She added:  “Never has the promotion of intercultural dialogue been so important for overcoming intolerance and promoting mutual understanding.”

This leads me to reason number two:  The present international situation is marked not by mutual respect and understanding but by steadily proliferating international conflicts, by the renewal of Cold War, and the stark danger of a global nuclear war or a nuclear winter.  It so happens that the opening of the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures coincides with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I in 1914 and the 70th anniversary and commemoration of the end of World War II in 1944-1945.  The latter anniversary has been celebrated in many parts of the world.  Recently, on May 9, it was celebrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other parts of Russia.   Let me remind you:  the Soviet Union had lost 25 million people in World War II.  The celebrations in Russia were completely snubbed in the West—a sign of the renewed Cold War between America and Russia.

Add to this Cold War the brutal and bloody conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and we get the picture of a globe in total disarray.  Everywhere one looks one sees mayhem, destruction, social decay—a deliberate (or negligent) laying to waste of the forces or energies sustaining life on earth.  To be sure, throughout the centuries, destructive forces have always been at work, giving to human history the character of incessant carnage or (in Hegel’s words) a grim “slaughter bench.”  However, in the past, mayhem or destruction tended to be limited to circumscribed groups, states, or nations.  What is radically new in our time—often called the “nuclear age”—is that for the first time life itself is under attack, that life as such on this planet can be annihilated without remainder.  What renders the situation particularly grievous is the fact that destruction is not historically pre-determined, but aided and promoted by powerful agents of “negation” aiming actively at Armageddon or the final apocalypse.

This is probably the most disturbing aspect of our age:  not only the fact of widespread violence, but the presence of geopolitical agendas deliberately pursuing the aim of “nihilation” or destruction of life—no longer on a limited, but a global scale.  In the context of a commemoration of World War I, Pope Francis on September 13, 2014, visited the Memorial and Cemetery in Redipuglia in Italy.  On this occasion, he said:  “I now find myself here, in this place, able to say only one thing:  War is a madness.  Whereas God carries forward the work of creation, and we men and women are called upon to participate in this work, war destroys.  It ruins also the most beautiful work of his hands:  human beings.  War ruins everything.”  Importantly, for Pope Francis, war—especially in modern times—is not just an accident or natural catastrophe.  It is often engineered and promoted by people:  war-mongers seeking to end life.  As he continued:  “Greed, intolerance, the lust for power . . . these motives underlie the decision to go to war, and they are often justified by an ideology; but first there is a distorted passion or impulse.”  And he added:  “Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can already speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction. . . .  In today’s world, behind the scenes, there are interests, geopolitical strategies, lust for money and power, and there is the endless manufacture and sale of arms.”

A grim scenario.  But then Pope Francis urged us to step back from the brink of the abyss and to embrace another way of life—what one may call a “culture of non-violence” or a “culture of peace.”  This turn requires not only a change of mind, but a change of heart.  Pointing to the rows of graves at the Memorial, the pontiff stated:  “Here lie victims from many countries.  Today we remember them.  There are tears, there is sadness, there is pain.  From this place we remember all the victims of war.”  And then his plea to us, his exhortation:  “I ask each of you, indeed all of you, to have a conversion of heart:  to move from ‘What does this matter to me’? to tears—for each one of the fallen of this senseless massacre, for all the victims of mindless war, in every age.”  His closing words:  “Humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.”

The pontiff’s plea for a “conversion of heart” is most needful and appropriate, especially in light of current developments.  I have mentioned the renewal of the Cold War.  This antagonism is aggravated by a host of “proxy wars” around the globe, conflicts where all kinds of chauvinism, terrorism, and “fundamentalism” are mobilized for geopolitical advantage.  No morose pessimism is needed to perceive in these and other conflicts the seedbeds or forebodings of a total global catastrophe.

The turn from mayhem to a culture of peace requires not only technical know-how or the adoption of bureaucratic procedures.  Pope Francis in Redipuglia referred to “distorted passions or impulses” which undergird violence and the decision to go to war, and he urged a radical change or metanoia.  In this respect, his comments concur with the preamble of the Charter establishing UNESCO which says:  “Since wars begin in the minds [and hearts] of men, it is there that the defenses of peace must be constructed and cultivated.”  It is in following this preamble that UNESCO has launched the “International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures.”  Rapprochement means an intercultural engagement, an effort of cross-cultural studies—and this is the topic to which I now turn.

Rapprochement through Cross-Cultural Studies and “Schools of Dialogue”