A Healthcare Model for Dialogue of Civilizations

Peimin Ni

A Paper by Peimin Ni, Professor, Grand Valley State University, Former President, Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, delivered at the 10th Rhodes Forum

Those of us who attended the Rhodes Forum last year here should still remember Professor Fred Dallmayr’s speech, in which he articulated what World Public Forum is and what it is not. What I was most impressed was his remark that, “in short, WPF is what its name indicates – it is a World Public Forum that does Dialogue of Civilizations.” The remark is so simple and obvious as if it does not tell us anything new; and yet at the same time, so true and profound. It says a lot!

Here I would like to share with you some of my further reflections about the remark. If we say what one is is defined largely by what one does, then we must ask: what are we doing here at the Forum? Yes, dialogue of civilizations, of course. But dialogue of civilization may be done differently, sometimes wrongly, depending on how you conceive it. Let me first sketch a few models of dialogue of civilizations when the term “dialogue” is conceived broadly, and then in contrast to these models, I will suggest a healthcare model, which I think to be capturing the spirit of what we are doing more accurately.

First is what I would call the “Jungle Model.” Even though Huntington’s curse about the clash of civilization has been repeatedly denounced in this Forum as entirely opposite of what we try to achieve, however, clash of civilizations could happen here as well, not necessarily out there in the form of militant violence! There is a danger of conceiving and practicing dialogue as if it were nothing but winning the argument, aiming at defeating alternative views. This model conceives dialogue as a verbal combat, like animals fighting for dominance in a jungle. Though this sounds absurd as a model of dialogue of civilizations, there is actually a fine line between the jungle model and having healthy disagreements and debates. To be fair, those who have this tendency may even have very good intentions. They may conceive themselves to be doing others a great favor, liberating us from wrong views and wrong values. The difference between a genuine dialogue and a verbal combat is not in whether we shy away from our differences and disagreements, or whether we may have heated debates, but in the way we deal with them and in our final purpose. What we try to do is to increase mutual understanding through civilized rational discussion, rather than finding the winners through silencing and eliminating the losers.

An alternative approach is what I would call a “Zoo Model.” The zoo model promotes peaceful co-existence of multiple civilizations. Like a zoo that takes care of all sorts of animals, this model conceives dialogue of civilizations as appreciation and celebration of pluralism and encourages efforts to protect endangered civilizations from extinction. A good zoo keeper will organize activities to increase public awareness about animals, especially endangered species, such as having a “monkey week,” or “panda month.” Similarly, people who hold this model say that dialogue of civilizations can help increase awareness of our colorful spectrum of world civilizations. So far so good. But the problem of the zoo model is that in a zoo, animals are kept separately in different cages. They do not encounter each other. A dialogue of civilizations using this approach may increase awareness and tolerance of difference, but it does not promote mutual encounters between civilizations. It looks as if it is harmless, but behind it, there is a danger of letting a zoo keeper to make the “animals” mere decorations of plurality to cover up the fact that the society is still dominated by a monolithic culture, like a zoo keeper that manages all the animals. In some nations, we do find that pluralism is promoted but never to the degree of letting non-mainstream cultures to affect its mainstream culture.

Still another alternative is a “Stage Model.” We often say that WPF is a platform on which different civilizations present their own perspectives and values. The stage model is obviously better than both the jungle model and the zoo model in some important ways, as long as we make the stage public, meaning that everyone can have access to participate, like what WPF does. Unlike the jungle model, it celebrates differences, and unlike the zoo model, it not only brings different “actors” and “actresses” to the same place, but also allows them to be on the same stage, in the same “show,” in which real encounters can take place. However, using the stage model to characterize dialogue of civilizations is still inadequate. There is a potential problem to conceive the stage as a field of political competition for the right of language. Even when the stage model is used to promote fair representation of different voices, the right to be on the stage itself does not entail the need to have dialogue between participants.

Obviously these three models all deserve much more careful and detailed analysis. What I said here is merely a rough sketch, from which we can see that these three models all have problems, inadequate to foster true dialogues, and hence fail to capture the real spirit of dialogue of civilizations. Here I want to bring up a fourth model, which I call “Healthcare Model.” This model conceives dialogue of civilizations as a way of caring for the health of the world. Like inviting “doctors” in different specialties over to discuss how to treat a seriously ill patient, our world is so deeply troubled that it needs people from different civilizations to work together to diagnose the problems and come up with proposals for treatment.

This healthcare model has two major merits:

First, it captures the practical orientation of dialogue of civilizations. As Professor Dallmayr said in his speech last year, WPF is not an academic organization. It has a strong practical interest in addressing the problems that all the world’s civilizations are facing. If we reflect on the history of dialogue of civilizations we find that the movement started and developed exactly as a response to the rise of deep global crises. It is not a coincidence that the modern upheave of dialogues of civilizations, including the establishment of WPF, happened at the same time with the tragic events of 911. We are not merely making a show here to display the colorful spectrum of the world’s civilizations. We are here because it is our shared responsibility to protect the only planet we have and to address the urgent crises we all face together.              

When a group of doctors come together to discuss the problems of a patient, it is very important that they understand each other. Similarly, in dialogue of civilizations, we want to increase our mutual understanding, which is the very foundation upon which we can develop mutual trust and collaboration. Only by eliminating ignorance and biases can we reduce the danger of clash of civilizations. But this does not mean that mutual understanding is all that we are aiming at and once we have it, our job is done. Just like the ultimate aim of a meeting of doctors is to cure the patient, we must connect our intellect with the real lives of the people, and thereby bring the effect of dialogue into the thick level of reality.  

Second, the healthcare model would enable us to see that dialogue of civilizations is not merely giving diagnosis of our common problems. It is more importantly a treatment itself! What we are doing here is not merely exchanging ideas about our problems and proposing solutions. We are mobilizing energies and revitalizing the resources from all civilizations. The circulation of these energies and the revitalization of these resources are treatments to the world. This kind of treatment is in direct opposition to the clash of civilizations, which tries to fix one part of the body by hurting the other parts, or suppressing the symptoms instead of curing the illness. By practicing dialogue of civilizations, we are treating the world holistically, as a dynamic and interrelated system, and treating our problems at the more fundamental level, namely the level of our cultures and basic values. Seeing from the healthcare model, we find that the choice of Rhodes Island, the birthplace of Platonic dialogue, is like choosing a key acupuncture point on the body of the globe, from which other acupuncture points in the world can be connected and mutually resonated.

As a treatment to the world’s problems, dialogue of civilization works much more slowly than other methods such as military intervention, economic sanction, and political pressure. However, while these other methods may work fast, the effects are very different. These other methods do not remove the root of the problems; moreover, they are often causes of deeper problems. Dialogue of civilizations is more like traditional Chinese medicine, which works better for treating chronic diseases and in removing the causes of the problems. It works slowly, but it is very much like increasing a patient’s own immune system and restoring the lost balance within the patient’s body and mind. In Chinese we have a saying: “When a disease hits you, it is like an avalanche. When a disease is recovering, it is like removing single threads from a piece of cloth.” It might be hard for us to produce impressive numerical indications of the achievements of the past ten years of the Rhodes Forum. What we can be sure is that we are making the right efforts, and toward the right direction.