On the Concreteness of Cultural Dialogue

Gerald Cipriani

A Paper by Gerald Cipriani (Ireland/UK/France/Japan), Professor, Kyushu University, Japan, delivered at the 10th Rhodes Forum

Happiness is bound to be reciprocal and is seldom found without giving.
Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881), who is well-known for his monumental Journal Intime, saw reciprocity and the act of giving as pre-conditions for happiness. We could go further by saying that human life itself depends on our reciprocal willingness to give; and that the nature of the dialogue is precisely to allow that reciprocal willingness to be available to other people and other worlds.

In other words, the dialogue is the concrete guarantor of human life. Dictators and decision makers who have little regard for other people and ideas should realize that their own time-bound selfhood depends on their willingness to give up part of themselves; the same applies to civilizations understood here as particular ways of life, cultures and societies defined at specific times and places.

There is as a matter of fact no such a thing as an eternal civilization, and those who have tried to impose their values on the rest of the world or other fellow human beings in the name of an eternity in which we must trust, soon realize (or will realize) at their own expense that their own existence owes to the existence of others. This realization may be called concrete self-awakening and is at work in the dialogue.

Far from being morally normative or a politically correct trading of opinion, the dialogue enacts one of the fundamental principles, not only of life, but also of existence as a whole; the fact that every single entity in this world exists through its interactions with other entities to constitute a dynamic whole. The question of course is to find ways of channeling the energies involved so that entities are not destroyed, or coerced, to the benefit of other entities. Again, this is what the dialogue allows.

When Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching “If you want to be given everything, give everything up,” he invoked the nature of things and a way of coping with it; he invoked the inexorability of a world made of complementary differences taking shape in an endless cycle of interactions; he invoked the need to be concretely awakened to this nature of things so that we find the way to let “the ten thousand things” of the world be, including ourselves and otherness.

Civilizations, nations, communities and individuals are only particular instances of these ten thousand things. The sky, the earth, and the environment; objects of all kinds and ideas take shape because of how they relate to each other. Then, every so often, human beings find the need to explain, define, or determine these entities so that they can recognize them easily as part of the ten thousand things that make up our world; or simply to have a better life – for example, we need to understand nature to be able to use it as a reserve for our own consumption; we need to understand the laws of physics to make machines that will enhance productivity, etc.

When the question only concerns human beings, we talk about the identity of a civilization, a nation, a community, or an individual. But just as there is no sky, earth, environment, object, or idea in itself, there is no such a thing as a civilization, a nation, or a community in itself; there are no individuals in themselves, either.

Cultures and persons always shine in some light – the light of otherness. This is where lies the ethical nature of existence and to become aware of how much the selfhood of a civilization or an individual owes to something or someone outside of itself or oneself, is surely a vital way of channeling those energies involved in identity formations without begetting destruction and coercion. This is, once again, what the dialogue can facilitate.

Cultural dialogues therefore have a very concrete dimension indeed; they allow all the parties involved to last by being renewed. In other words, cultural dialogues are the concrete guaranty of existence in its diversity. They guaranty the reciprocity necessary for the multitude of identity formations that make up the world; and they also guaranty that the act of giving up or emptying some of ourselves will not be used for obliteration or overpowering.

There is therefore an indispensable element needed for the dialogue to be possible at all; that element is mutual trust. Another way of putting it would be to say that the dialogical dynamics could only work between human entities, communities, or people who accept the rules of the game. In the political field, this amounts to saying that the principles of democracy only work in a democracy.

What emerges here is one of the most difficult issues to handle when it comes to justifying the dialogue in all circumstances, at all levels, and in all cultural settings. To justify the dialogue by explaining it in theoretical terms when one does not have the responsibility to find solutions in real life situations is an easy task. Theory and rhetoric can always be deployed to sound correct.

But what if a government massacres – or simply sidelines physically or culturally – some of its people in the name of national unity, when it is obvious that the reason is to maintain the power of the self? What if a nation takes control of or threatens neighbouring areas – an attitude that so-called mainland soils very often have with “their” islands – in the name of absolute unifying historical origin, cultural authenticity, or territorial integrity, when the reasons are obviously economic and strategic self-interests, namely the power of the self. And what if an individual is about to be put to death because of religious blasphemy or difference?

We cannot answer these questions without considering the role played by the timescale. In order to avoid those predicaments, dialogical aspirations must be transmitted throughout a very long and careful formation process; very long because it must start from childhood and careful because a grave mistake would be to confuse the concrete awakening of dialogical ethics with the unbearable coercion of normative morality.

But in the mean time, when massacres, murders and threats are inexorably taking place here and now, what is left for dialogue to do? It would be tempting to follow again Lao Tzu who said, “Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.” This is indeed in the spirit of dialogue, but how many predicaments should we allow to happen before evil disappears by itself?

When some people are massacred, coerced, or threatened here and now by their ruling class or estranged communities – and there is no shortage of instances of such totalitarian methods both on the right and left sides of the political spectrum and across some areas of ethnic or religious fundamentalism both historically and at present – shouldn’t the conditions for dialogue be forced upon its enemies, unavoidably in an non-dialogical way? Shouldn’t the ones who are about to be murdered be rescued by force or be given the means of self-defense?

We can ask the question differently: should we passively collaborate with ethnic, ideological and religious cleansing by letting final solutions, gulags, cultural revolutions, or other inquisitorial purges take place in the name of the principles of dialogue?

These are, needless to say, dangerous waters as, to use an expression that French philosopher Albert Camus would have held dear, the end should never justify the means, as further predicaments may arise.

Some regimes that present themselves as truly democratic have, on some occasions, justified the unjustifiable means they used – such as large scale bombing including atomic one – to achieve the end they wanted to achieve, albeit the intention was to create the right conditions for the dialogue in particular sensitive, unsettled, and hostile places.

The spirit of the dialogue cannot work if blindly applied to all circumstances; the dialogue is by nature neither an ideology nor a moral code.

From time to time the dialogue needs to be rescued in non-dialogical manners. At the end of the day, if someone or something imminently threatens my life there is little chance that the dialogue will save me on time. Admittedly, on the scale of civilizations, nations, or communities, the picture becomes immediately far more complex because the factuality of reality must be fully known to make sure that a desperate act of self-defense or intervention to set a dialogical life-saving environment is not an act of aggression, or interference for self-interest.

In a democratic environment, people are supposed to trust their democratically elected government to make the right judgments and decisions. But we know too well that the same governments can misjudge and take the wrong decisions precisely because the spirit of dialogue they want to instill is imposed as an ideology that suits their own interests. There is that risk; nonetheless, what can we suggest at the very moment when life is being destroyed?

The importance of considering the time-scale and circumstances when it comes to instilling the spirit of the dialogue is not to be overlooked. The concreteness of cultural dialogue, that force that allows the different parties involved to exist through mutual consideration and renewal, is not something we can become aware of in the course of a meeting. It takes many years, if not a lifespan, or even several generations, for this realization to become a cultural instinct.

If only those who have little regard for other people and other worlds could realize that cultural dialogue, far from being a threat to their selfhood, is on the contrary the way that selfhood can be renewed and therefore strengthened.

And there is here an interesting analogy to make with the way we have been relating to nature and the environment. It is indeed revealing that we have recently started to acknowledge the need to establish a dialogue with the natural environment as soon as we have realized that our existence was being threatened because of our monological attitude.

In a similar vein and for the same reasons, isn’t it about time that communities and individuals who have totalitarian aspirations come to realize that their selfhood is made of nothing, nothing at all without other worlds, cultures, or religions – that is, without otherness.

A selfhood that does not awaken to this matter of fact will not be able to live with otherness and will spread misery instead of happiness.


On the Concreteness of Cultural Dialogue

Happiness is bound to be reciprocal and is seldom found without giving.
Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Grains de Mil, 1854

If you want to be given everything, give everything up.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 6th c. BCE

Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Does the end justify the means?
Albert Camus, L’Homme révolté, 1951