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Dialogue to Solve Cross Cultural Problems 4 March 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, International Politics, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Social Sciences.
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This issue has come up twice for me over the past couple weeks. First, I was re-reading my doctoral exam on democratic theory in order to prepare for a discussion about social theory with some colleagues, and stumbled upon my critique of Richard Rorty’s idea of the “international bazaar”; and second, I introduced my students yesterday to the pragmatic critique of naive relativism and weak forms of multiculturalism.

Rorty’s proposal was derived from John Dewey’s theory of democratic deliberation and basically proposes a multicultural world of smorgasbord options and possibilities for dialogue. What I find most problematic in Rorty (and full disclosure here, I haven’t read him since graduate school and I only read a handful of articles on this topic) is that he doesn’t acknowledge the dramatic problems that can arise in cross-cultural dialogue. Dewey’s theory assumes that you begin with fundamental, shared values, namely tolerance and the dignity of the Other. In Dewey’s formulation, you cannot enter into a dialogue without that minimum, and rebellion is justified to get that level of recognition. Rorty fails to account for or theorize how to deal with dialogues with groups who don’t see you as fully human, or who don’t recognize your “rights” in any sense.

In my Nature and World Cultures course, we examine environmental problems (e.g., resource depletion, global warming, water polution, desertification, etc.) that arise from cultural misunderstanding of the ecosystem/physical environment, there is a point at which we have to be able to say that a given culture did something wrong in their environment. In weak multiculturalism or naive relativism, because all our values are “socially constructed”, or emerge out of a particular social environment through a transation between organism(s) and their complex environment (i.e., human environments are always both material and social), we draw the problematic conclusion that you can’t “judge” another culture by your own values (which is basic ethnocentrism).

I try to teach this by framing it as two separate but overlapping intellectual problems. On one hand is the social scientific problem (and in some ways, ethical problem in a pluralistic society), which is to understand or explain a cultural milieu or perspective different from your own. This requires a firm systematic relativism, a conscious effort to set aside one’s own values and perceptions in order to evaluate a culture on its own terms, to see it as it sees itself, to truly grasp what and how the culture works. It is in my estimation an impossible project, so it requires the peer-review process (or dialogue with others) to make sure that we aren’t being ethnocentric.

The second intellectual problem, however, is that we live in the real world where people of different cultures act in the world and have consequences in the world that extend beyond their own cultural boundaries. In other words, we have problems that are shared across cultural boundaries; and we have problems in culture A that are caused by actions of culture B. [I actually don’t think cultures exist in such stark, discreet units (problematically, people often experience them as if they do, but that’s another issue altogether); this is only a heuristic.] This discussion by its very nature necessitates the application of values: how do you know something is a problem in the first place if not because it violates your values? And if it violates your values, how do you talk to someone of a different culture about your values in order to solve that problem? This requires an intense and careful interaction that is often bypassed in favor of coercion.

As a side note, here, I find myself constantly wondering to what degree social scientists should be involved in this second intellectual problem. In fact, I find that much sociology is based in unspoken value propositions about equality, for example, already; and let’s be honest, there is often an value-driven litmus test for the worth and quality of research. I think that social scientists as a group should be more clear about these overlapping, but different intellectual projects. Explaining how a group came to be poor is not the same project as arguing for a solution to that poverty (which already assumes a value that says poverty is a problem that needs to be solved); and yet I find that often these two projects are blended together in problematic ways. But I digress…

My students in class are often confused by this discussion because they feel that a) it is bad to judge other cultures; and b) that when they do judge other cultures for practical reasons, they dont’ recognize it as such. Yesterday’s discussion went rather smoothly, compared to how it’s gone in the past; but one of my more engaged students wanted to push the issue of how to actually go about solving problems in the real world. That is really the issue that Rorty was addressing in his theory of the bazaar, and it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I delve into background research in global migration. This student emailed me earlier this morning, saying that he can’t see how to solve cross-culture, international conflict without resorting to coercion and that he can’t think of any examples in history when violent conflict has ultimately been avoided. In his view of history, solving big international problems has always come to blows. I think that his concern is a valid one and goes to the heart of the weakness of Rorty’s position; but it also ignores the multitude of examples of successful dialogue and negotionation and belies the value-propositions inherent in the argument in favor of cross-cultural dialogue rather than cross-cultural violence. Here’s my response to the student’s email query:

I think [the problem] comes from how one looks for evidence of successful dialogue. It is definitely true that dialogue often breaks down into violence, and historically, violence is the mode of choice for resolving conflicts. The whole idea of people who are different should talk to each other about value propositions and solution to each other is only about 300 years old, at most (although clearly, human groups have negotiated with each other for as long as we have recorded history). In order for this to work, all sides involved have to actually believe in having the dialogue. There are clearly many times when one or more parties is so convinced that they are “right” that it leads them to justify violence in their own moral-world (it’s a cliche, but the Nazis are a good example of this).

However, think of it this way: How many times a week are ambassadors working out international agreements without violence? It’s easy to look at just the conflicts that erupted in violence because they are what we study in school. But even just think of something like the Bay of Pigs, where we almost had a nuclear war (!) but the two parties negotiated their way out of it (most likely because no one really wanted a nuclear war). Or think of the negotiation for NAFTA, where international problems were brought to the table and hammered out (although I think their solutions have had horrifying results). Or think now of the ongoing (for over 10 years now) economic talks for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Or think in reverse, where violence has broken out and someone like Koffe Annan goes to Kenya and convinces them to stop killing each other and start talking. Are you following what I’m saying?

The real problem for me is a practical one: in the world as it exists, nations have dramatically unequal relationships. The united states has the biggest guns and largest consumer market; china controls the world economy by virtue of producing most of the cosumable goods; europe is quickly taking control of the financial markets… So that leaves us in a situation of asking really hard questions about whether or not a dialogue about values and solutions to real problems can take place between parties who are vastly unequal.

It further has the problem (this may seem silly, but I think it’s the biggest problem) that people you disagree with get to *talk back!* The nature of dialogue and debate is that people you don’t like, people you find immoral and reprehensible, people who espouse ideas that you find dangerous and offensive GET TO TALK and make arguments for their positions too!

This is at base the social complexity of democracy, right? You have to live with people you don’t like and still grant them rights (i.e., tolerance); and sometimes you lose. One of the problems with terrorist organizations is an odd duality: on one hand, they are angry and fanatically precisely because they haven’t been heard and taken seriously (in many but not all cases); but on the other hand, their fanaticism precludes their sitting down with people they don’t like and actually being willing to *lose* the debate. In other words, if everyone doesn’t already believe in universal dignity and tolerance, you can dialouge all you want, and someone will get violent or at least refuse to engage or use other forms of coercion.

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