Nonviolence and Dialogue of Cultures

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That human life is violent is part of the dramatic truth of the human condition. But the fact that humans are also capable of going beyond violence and distinguish between good and evil and choose the good is what makes humanity confident of its future. It is true that we know nothing about our future, except that some day each of us will die. Nevertheless, humans can live ethically, and by doing so, future appears to them as a task, a goal and a choice. The ethical choice of ourselves as men and women involved in distinguishing the good from the evil preserves a grain of nonviolent heritage. One could not easily tell the thin line that separates the moral imperative “be ethically yourself” from the maxim of egotism “be only for yourself”. For a person who chooses oneself as an ethical person needs to think of himself /herself as a member of a human community. It is the idea of “we” which leads to a sense of community. But a community is not just a group of individuals put together and moving toward a common goal. Although community may include this, it also includes an empathetic turning toward each other, a breaking through of encapsulated individualities and an experiencing of each other´s worlds. The essence of community is, therefore, dialogical. This can only be accomplished via face-to-face interactions and cross-human conversations. This assumes that a dialogical self is capable of intertwining selfhood and otherhood, by responding to the other and transforming oneself anew. This conception is in line with the assumption that both interpersonal and intrapersonal relations are important for dialogicality.  The idea of dialogicality takes as its starting point in the recognition of differences and the acceptance of the multiplicity of the world in which we live. These differences of outlooks, opinions, and values exist not only within each community or nation but also between cultures. A dialogical viewpoint seeks to approach these multiple cultures and traditions with a desire to understand and learn from them. An effective dialogue of cultures is, therefore, an enriching and fruitful exploration of worldviews which define societies and individuals. As Isaiah Berlin points out clearly, “Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.” In other words, life is plural by definition, and in a world of interdependent nations and cultures, the ability to engage in a tolerant and nonviolent dialogue is a vital element for communities and individuals.

What could be learned from this cross-cultural dialogue is that one has to be profoundly responsive to the sense of belonging that human beings experience in different cultures. But who says “response” says also “responsibility”.  That is to say, responsibility is not the attribution of guilt to an agent for his/her acts or failure to act. Responsibility moves the individual to respond to the call of the world and to create a future which would otherwise not happen.  We can join here the thoughts of two French philosophers, Levinas and Ricoeur, With the Jewish background in his philosophical thinking, Levinas could not accept the primacy of the ontological subject over the other. For him, ontology is the philosophy of injustice because it is an understanding of Being over an understanding of the relationship among persons. Levinas points to the distinctly ethical character of dialogue against the existential metaphor of the monadic subject. Indeed a dialogic understanding of subjectivity would seem to offer us a way to rethink the problem of responsibility as a response that the subject owes to the other in an ethical life. Levinas’s ethics takes the other as a vital element in the dialogical formation of the self. The subject’s irreducible engagement with otherness must be understood as an experience of humanness that takes place in the face-to-face encounter. As Levinas writes, “ with the appearance of the human- and this is my entire philosophy- there is something more important than my life, and that is the life of the other.” For Levinas to live as a human is always already to respond to concrete others. The response that one offers to the other in dialogue is an act of openness and solidarity that condemns all forms of violence.

For Paul Ricoeur, the ethical response to the other is also a reaction against violence in society. According to him, responsiveness means not only to be aware of the otherness of the other, but learning to see oneself as another. Seeing ourselves as existing in interdependence with the others imposes the responsibility of acting in accord with that understanding to be empathetic toward all those others on whom we depend. Confirming our mutual interdependence reminds us that it is dangerous to carve up life between national or confessional selves and others. There can be no “them” and “us” in this understanding. As such, it is violence that gives nonviolence its power. If violence is the mainstream of history, therefore as Ricoeur says, nonviolence is a “history which remains to be made.” For Ricoeur, politics becomes a source of violence because it is an arena where man desires power. This is not to say that politics is violent per se. Violence is possible in any political order, but it is not necessary to the existence of politics. Rather it represents a degeneration of politics. Therefore, the problem of politics is to diminish the possibilities of violence by ensuring a social order in which power is not centered in the hands of a political authority. Considered as an instrument of violence, political authority degrades politics into lust for power. In this perverted and degenerated form of politics, common practice of social life through dialogue and debate transforms into a violent confrontation between members of the society. The self is , therefore, no more affirmed as the other and no more esteemed in the social dimension, because it finds itself in a mutually exclusive relation of power. In other words, the individual becomes fully human only within a public sphere where the humanity of the other is recognized. The idea of humanity, thus, is not merely a “formal” objectivity since it is completed in a concrete culture of responsibility. The leap from responsibility to communality reveals the necessary condition of the human situation.

As such, transforming a culture of irresponsibility into a culture of responsibility will help taking it out of a form of self-isolation or of aggressive self-assertion at the expense of the surrounding world. This means the more demanding task of providing empathy and compassion and accepting the agency of other cultures and traditions of thought. That is to say, only an open-ended, hospitable and empathetic dialogue which takes otherness (Fremdheit) seriously could be a genuine civilizational encounter. By “civilization” I do not understand progress in science, technology and industry, but a moral enterprise which shows to us the path of being human.

Generally speaking, civilization is not merely the freedom to progress and to advance, but also the ability to ensure that what one chooses is the result of an ethical sense of duty and human solidarity. Humanity cannot be an advanced civilization as long as cruelties, vanities, arrogances and hypocrisies are predominant on empathies, compassions and friendships. In other words, civilization in order to be an ongoing moral progress has to combine the dynamic and innovative characteristics of the dialogue. This is what will help resolve the dichotomy between the old and the new, tradition and modernity, continuity and change. Therefore, dialogue as a power of communication entailing both ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ has the capacity of contributing to the survival and growth of civilizations. So, the idea of a “clash of civilizations” is suspicious of man’s capacity to dialogue and a civilization’s possibility to evolve as a living organism. Today in a time when mankind is confronted with a grim scenario involving clashes of national self interest, religious fundamentalisms and ethnic and racial prejudices, dialogue of cultures can be a well trusted means of laying the groundwork of a new intercultural community. I believe sincerely that by promoting a better understanding of the other and by drawing on the best in human cultures, dialogue of cultures could help generate fresh impulses of creativity in human societies. Looking towards to the other is an ongoing process of dialogue and receptive understanding through which we can hope to enunciate a global ethic of behavior for the community of humankind. Thus, the dialogue of cultures must take place in the deconstruction of that which justifies violence. The problem is that the desire of violence exists in all of us and it is necessary to tame it in order to establish a dialogue of cultures. Tolerance is the basic minimal level required to live together followed by a second level, which is respect for the other, and the discovery of shared horizons of moral action. These objectives cannot be attained by violence and counter-violence. Responding to terrorism with violence is the same as falling into the terrorists’ trap. Strengthening the culture of dialogue among cultures proves to be a most important element in combating the calamities of our world in particular terrorism and religious fundamentalism. For, they both seek to make the diversity between nations the source of conflict, while dialogue among cultures can help make that same diversity the foundation for human solidarity.

Since violence and intolerance begin in the minds of human beings, it is in the minds of human beings that the idea of shared values and human solidarity must be constructed. It is not because of our differences that suspicion and mistrust exists between the peoples of the world, but because we are more conscious of our differences, than aware of what makes us part of the human race. This is what happens when difference becomes a license to kill. Cultural differences do exist, they are real, not imagined and they are part of what makes the human race vibrant. During Europe’s Dark Ages, that was how Andalusia flourished, through the interaction of Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. Later, the Ottoman Empire prospered not because of its armies, but because it was an empire of diversity. Today the cultural globalization has brought unprecedented numbers of people of different creeds or cultures to live together.  Yet, our own globalized world is regrettably marked by rising intolerance, extremism and violence. Closer proximity and improved communications have often led not to mutual understanding and friendship but to tension and mutual mistrust. Some have incorrectly declared this most virulent form of mistrust a clash of civilizations. But I think the idea of a common heritage and shared universal values among cultures could not be more timely, for clearly we do not live in different civilizations in the sense that our ancestors did. We live close together, as never before beyond old barriers and faced with new realities. Universality and particularity are not mutually exclusive, but need to be balanced. But the truth is that despite our political and religious differences, we all have a common understanding of what it means to be a human being. In their deepest aspirations all cultures and religions, whatever their differences, point towards the same reality, the reality that according to Gandhi “All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for the misdeeds of all the others.” Today this is the ethical foundation upon which a viable human civilization could be built. Because no one culture is capable of explaining all of reality, since each culture is only a particular interpretation of reality which is conditioned by the social and historical context. But to understand the unity of mankind we require to think the paradigm of interculturality as the conditio sine qua non of the variety and variations of our world. We are faced, therefore, with an absolute need for an intercultural imperative in order to understand the cultural diversity in today’s world. The search is for a plural world not in spite of our differences and divergences, but thanks to our differences and divergences. In this respect, we have to consider that our world exists as a result of border crossing and crossbreeding among cultures. There is no such thing as a single homogeneous culture that function as an isolated horizon. In other words, the future of our global civilization on this fragile and vulnerable globe is dependent on our ability to live together- with our diversities- if not in harmony at least with a capacity of dialogue and mutual understanding. Because globalization is a multifaceted process, the intercultural dialogue has taken a new meaning in the context of current international climate. Thus it is becoming an imperative to think of globalization beyond the free exchange of goods and services and the only movement of people around the world. The reality is that, despite the gap between the winners and the losers in the globalization game which has created a potential for conflict and violence, the intercultural dialogue has become the raison d’etre of human civilization. Taking into consideration all the above, the tension between universal values and particular identities could be solved on the basis of an intercultural dialogue in which no value system unilaterally lays down the rules and the scopes of the dialogue. Humanity is faced today with the dilemma of either sacrificing cultural diversity on the altar of globalization or using intercultural dialogue to augment the contemporary collective self-understanding in a cross-cultural context and to achieve human solidarity. This is a fundamental step towards correcting various forms of asymmetries and injustices that abound around the world and managing a plural world which is visibly out there, beyond the boundaries of race, religion, gender and nationality. The well-known quote by Einstein that “A person starts to live when he can live outside himself” needs to be matched by raising consciousness that the sense of intercultural dialogue too commences there. As a matter of fact, the ways and means that are employed in order to create barriers of suspicion and discord among human beings, are done by creating a strong tension and a great divide between “us” and “them”.  However, let it be noted that intercultural dialogue is not about envisioning an idealized image of the world. It is about the relentless effort to make sense of our plural world by removing the causes and conditions that create and perpetuate the polarities of “us” and “them”. The ground reality is that the intercultural imperative should help us to overcome both the political homogenization that is resulting from the post- Cold War globalization model and cultural and religious fundamentalisms that are presented as alternatives to this practice of homogeneous globalization. There is a real danger that globalization be nothing more than a process of uniformization of human culture as the only solution in guaranteeing a peaceful life for all societies. The impetus behind this new vision of cultural diversity is the idea of democratization of modernity. In fact, the concept of intercultural imperative, like that of ethical imperative, goes further, in that it envisages not only the multiplicity, but also the responsibility of cultures in a dialogical perspective where each culture develops and evolves through contact with other cultures. As a matter of fact, intercultural dialogue is a democratic process which privileges tolerance, solidarity and a mutual sense of understanding. The intercultural dialogue alone will make us aware of the fact that in the long run cultures are not and have never been monolithic, rigid and static structures. No culture without tolerance towards other cultures can develop. Interestingly, it is worth mentioning that whenever the idea and practice of dialogue is taken seriously by a given culture, it brings with it awareness on a shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection and possibility. Nothing is more important in creating an intercultural dialogue than to prepare a culture of dialogue in each and every society. In order to enter into a meaningful dialogue aimed at better mutual understanding, every individual has to be prepared to exercise tolerance towards other ways of thinking, towards people who base their daily lives on values and experiences other than our own. But tolerance alone is not enough: equally important is the notion of “responsibility” – for other cultures as well for one’s own culture. While tolerance means not to interfere with other’s ways of living or thinking, “responsibility” actually suggests responsiveness to the “otherness” of the other. It is care for the world we share with others, which precedes and succeeds our own transient lives. In relation to the economy of rights and duties according to which we are morally accountable, the intercultural responsibility makes a claim on the individual for an on-going responsiveness to our togetherness. Undoubtedly, the main responsibility for the intercultural dialogue rests with an educative strategy that understands cultural differences and is capable of maintaining communication among them. An educational philosophy, which realizes that reality is pluralistic and changes with time, does not assume that there is a world centered on a homogeneous and uniform ideal with a single ontological level only. On the contrary, it regards cultural pluralism as a top priority on the agenda of an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, where encountering cultural difference can scarcely be avoided. This means that life in a multi-ethnic world necessitates a constant disruption of uniformity accompanied with frameworks for intercultural interaction. If intercultural dialogue is properly institutionalized in the avoidance of cruelties and violence which exist within and among cultural communities, then cultural diversity can be valorized as a moral resource that offers each culture the possibility of critically reflecting on its own practices. As such, maintaining cultural diversity is an occasion for each culture to nurture mutual respect and to develop capacities for finding productive rather than destructive solutions to cultural differences. Even though it may involve painstaking effort, a culture of dialogue and respect between communities and civilizations is the only way to lasting peace. Because as Gandhi said, “No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” The survival of each culture is based on shared explorations towards greater understanding of the world. This shared exploration is to develop a common perspective on how to understand global issues and challenges and suggest ways to prevent violence and disorder. It is an attempt to develop a mutual understanding among people with various opinions, different cultural attitudes. Only thus can a culture of non-violence be created. We are constantly reminded that part of us as a tradition of thought is immersed in world culture and that as citizens of one planet we have become responsible for its survival. As such, through a dialogue with other cultures, each culture is now aware that its survival is bound up with the need to defend cultural diversity rather than replace it with the emergence of political movements which identify each nation with a national, racial or religious heritage. Reconciling the cultural heritage of a nation with cultural plurality is no more contradictory than reconciling the unity of a society and a diversity of individualities. This means that we have to replace the old dream of making all individuals obey the same universal principles with the new idea of reconciling our differences with the unity of a life in common. Democracy today cannot do without this conception, because the triumph of extreme differentialism with no aspiration to an ethical universalism inevitably leads to violence and world disorder. Respecting different cultural expressions cannot go without the recognition of an ethical imperative which is accepted by everyone as a universal. That is to say, cultures in today’s world are not separate and self-contained entities, but rather involved in a permanent process of communication and coexistence which ensures their capacity for a discourse on global issues. Nonviolence is a means of managing diversity, in the sense that it is a principle defined by the notion of dialogue beyond particularistic violence of all sorts. Nonviolence is, thus, by definition a multicultural and inter-cultural attitude which integrates all individuals of different traditions and cultures in a public sphere. Nonviolence has proven particularly effective as far as the management of religious diversity is concerned. For Gandhi religion was not an isolated marker of identity. He believed that separate cultural and religious heritages could be shared and all could engage in common tasks. As Gandhi said: “If we are to respect others’ religions as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.” How do we attain an understanding that enters deeply and truly into the true nature of another culture? Our capacity to understand another culture and with the world it represents depends very much on our capacity to look deeply into our own culture and religious tradition and to understand the conflicting elements inside them and their causes. From there, we can then begin to also look deeply into the faiths and cultural perspectives of others. When we have done this we will not be able to despise or hate another’s religious tradition or wish to change the culture of someone else. When this takes place, true intercultural dialogue can exist, a dialogue that is based on mutual respect, equality and a desire to cultivate cultural diversity. In this sense there is an irreducible diversity that goes with the particularity of cultural traditions. At the same time, there is an implicit claim to universality in each of the cultural traditions. Most of the human cultures emphasize common values like justice, peace and compassion, even though diversities emerge when these concepts are interpreted in concrete situations. It is true that these interpretations create barriers to trust-there is no question about that- but given the right pattern of the intercultural dialogue these barriers can be overcome. Today the policy of cultural homogenization implemented during the era of nationalisms is readily outdated and criticized. However, the following question arises: to what extent can societies accept the pattern of dialogue among cultures without seriously challenging their particular public spaces and their particular notion of citizenship? This questioning of a more general nature finds its specific answer in the idea of nonviolence as an organizing element of the human society. For Gandhi, nonviolence was more than just a technique of struggle or a strategy for resisting military aggression. It required building a new society in the shell of the old, which he termed constructive program. To Gandhi, constructive program meant the creation of a new set of political, social, and economic relations based on self-reliance and self-realization of the human community. Gandhi saw personal transformation, political action and constructive program as intertwined, all equally necessary to achieve social change. But Gandhi was aware of two great dangers to nonviolence and peace in human societies: national egotism and religious fanaticism. That is why he announced that intolerance is the worst of violence and he encouraged a dialogue among cultures and religions. He once said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” This is the statement of a person who aspires for openness and integrity in life. This is what the dialogue of cultures is all about.

Dialogue between Cultures is essentially a dialogue between human beings, not between anonymous cultural entities. Present and future generations must, therefore, be given the opportunity to learn about all religions and cultural traditions that have shaped the human history as crossroads of civilizations. The assertion of intercultural dialogue, particularly in our global world, is the only way for us to listen to each other and to avoid cultures clashes and violent confrontations. It is the only way to promote more understanding, more humanity, and by doing so to cope with the major challenges of today and tomorrow: how to transform our violent societies into peaceful, dialogical and fraternal intercultural communities.


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