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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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Kosovo—A Failure of Pluralistic Democracy 26 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, International Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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[Both commenters and doing a bit of my own research have corrected some of my misinformation, so be sure to read the updates and comments  before allowing your head to explode.]
[UPDATE/CORRECTION II, below (thanks to anonymous commenter)]
[UPDATE I, below]

I had a student from Serbia in a globalization course a few years ago who added an always interesting perspective on ethnic conflict around the world. During the section on retribalization and ethno-nationalism, his presence in the room always forced the conversation into more nuanced and careful discussions. Although he was deeply critical of Milosovic’s policies against the Albanian-Kosovards, he never let us forget that the Albanians were, for lack of a better word, immigrants and so the dynamics were far more complex than they had been portrayed in the “West”.

Albania over the past few generations has been poor and oppressive, and Yugoslavia had allowed immigrants from Albania into Kosovo. (I do not know this history well, and so this is very surface-level and from the perspective of my student, a Serbian man. If I’m misrepresenting the history here, I’d appreciate factual and interpretive corrections in the comments.)

My student tried to get his classmates to understand that for the Serbians in Kosovo, it was about a complete loss of control, of culture, of governance; he said it would be as if Mexicans in Los Angeles suddenly decided they wanted independence and wanted to wrest control of the society from Americans; then the government of California instituted ethnic cleansing policies against them; then the rest of the United States came in, defeated California, and made Los Angeles county a protectorate and allowed the Mexicans to come back. Three years later, I’m sure he would add, then the Mexicans declared themselves independent and the rest of the United States recognized Los Angeles as an independent nation even though California refused to and claimed that Los Angeles still belonged to California.

The point here is, of course, not to justify the ethnic cleansing policies of the early 90s, but to explain that the ethnic tensions are much more complex than we were led to believe. And my position is to keep pulling my hair out in frustration over the continual reification of ethnic identities, be they Serbian or Albanian or Kosovard.

For me, the ultimate tragedy of Kosovo isn’t that the Serbs lost their majority sometime in the past, nor that Serbia is “losing” the region that was the birthplace of its form of Christianity. Rather, the tragedy is that around the world, various ethnicities believe that they cannot live together and form democracies together; that the only way for a democracy to function is for everyone to have the same ethnicity, or that every ethnicity must have its corresponding nation. [Philosophically, this is why I have a huge problem with the establishment of Israel historically; although now that Israel has existed for going on five generations, that critique is purely theoretical.]

This is founded on a deep misunderstanding of ethnic identities in the first place: That they are permanent and essential, that they transcend other social considerations, that they necessarily exclude interaction and cooperation with other ethnic groups. It reproduces dangerous notions of purity. It precludes cooperation and compromise in favor of complete control.

Ultimately, it forecloses the possibility for real, pluralistic democracy and creates a world of ethno-Nations, reinforcing the power of dominant cultures instead of mitigating them, and permanently ghettoizing ethnic minorities. This is the continued fragmentation of democracies along ethnic lines. And that is a failure of democracy itself, which has been designed for the past 200 years to accommodate differences and protect minorities. Replacing Serbian dominance of Kosovo with Albanian dominance is not a difference in kind, but a difference in flavor.

[Caveat/Question: Are the Serbian-Kosovards in favor of independence also? Is there a move to make Kosovo into something new that is neither Albanian nor Serbian? Or is this an Albanian-Kosovard political action?]

UPDATE: I heard an interview with a professor at San Francisco State this morning on KPFA and he clarified a few things and reinforced my feeling that this was a failure in pluralism and highly problematic for the future of pluralistic democracy.

1) The albanians and serbs have been fighting over Kosovo for a lot longer than I had thought, dating back to several skirmishes with the Ottoman Empire. So my student’s analogy of immigrants to Los Angeles ultimately falls apart, in my opinion. The ethnic conflict is far older and the borders far more fluid than the analogy allows. The Serbs have never been a majority in the region, for example.

2) The Albanian-Kosovards were supported by the Maoists in Albania against Tito. The Albanians were known for their brutality and repression of the Serbian minority.
3) Tito had brokered an odd deal of semi-autonomy for Kosovo, with the Albanian majority in control, but with Serbia still having nominal control of the region.

4) Milosovic was more or less an opportunist who used Kosovo to fuel ethno-nationalism for his own political ends startingn in 1989. His adminsitration sent “settlers” from Serbia into Kosovo to “reclaim” it. The ethnic cleansing began in earnest in the early 1990s, and the northern part of Kosovo, the Albanian majority was forcibly removed (today, that northern section remains Serbian controled and the Albanians never returned).

5) The Albanian-Kosovards think of themselves as Kosovard, and *not* Albanian. They are kind of like Irish, who speak English, but don’t think of themselves or identify as English.

6) When the U.N. brokered the semi-autonomy for Kosovo at the end of the Balkans war, the backroom chatter was that Kosovard independence would be an inevitability, a matter of time.

So I’m left with the same critique: The history of the ethnic relations in Kosovo are as tortured and as convoluted as Israel-Palestine, with both groups having deep historical connections to the land. But both are insisting that they simply cannot live together and that the only possible solution is an ethnically pure state? I’m less concerned about Kosovo breaking off from Serbia now, than I am about the fact on the ground that the establishment of a free and equal Kosovo with minority rights intact and protected seems slim to none. It looks like all that’s going to happen is, at best, a kind of mutual apartheid, with separate government, education, and medical services.

As a side note: More irritating is the commentary from the West which speaks of this in that irritating Huntington mode, as a “conflict of civilizations”. In fact, both the Albanian and the SErbian Kosovards are relatively secular and non-practicing. Religion becomes a disingenuous ethnic identity marker to justify and explain what amounts to a refusal of Tolerance, the fundamental value and practice necessary for a pluralistic democracy.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION II]

Demographic history of Kosovo:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Kosovo

The 1921 Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes population census for the territories comprising modern day Kosovo listed 439,010 inhabitants:
By religion:
Muslims: 329,502 (75%)
Orthodox Serb: 93,203 (21%)