Who are We? What is WPF – Dialogue of Civilizations?

Fred Dallmayr, Сo-Chairman, WPF Dialogue of Civilizations

Speech delivered by Professor Fred Dallmayr at the 9th Rhodes Forum Session, October 2011

At this plenary session—and with a view toward our 10th anniversary next year—it seems proper to ask: Who are we? What are we trying to do? What is this World Public Forum? What kind of organization is it? Now, on a purely formal level, this question can easily be answered: it is an NGO (a nongovernmental organization) concerned with or committed to the cultivation of a global public forum in the context of a “dialogue of civilizations.” So far so good. But what kind of commitment is it? What really does the phrase “World Public Forum” mean or entail?

Let me proceed ex contrario, that is, by indicating what the World Public Forum is not. We are not a government or a governmental institution—although we maintain friendly relations with many governments. Nor are we an inter-governmental organization, like UN, UNESCO, or WHO—although we often support the agendas of these organizations. Like all NGO’s, we operate on the level of civil society, actually a global civil society, and our concern is with everything that touches the public life of the world community. This is how we differ in principle from the World Economic Forum and the World Social Forum. The point is that basically all issues can touch public life—including private or family issues, economic issues, cultural and religious issues, educational issues, including the education of the young generation or “youth.” (Here you can see how and why the program of our Rhodes Forum is subdivided into the several panels in which we are asked to participate).

Continuing the topic of what we are not: we are not a political party, either on the left or on the right. We do not run election campaigns and do not sponsor candidates for political office in any country. There are other things we are not. We are not a business or a corporation. We are not assembled for economic gain. If anything, WPF is an “organization not for profit.” This does not mean that we do not have many economists and business leaders participating in WPF—and they are always welcome and appreciated.

We are also not a strictly academic organization. We are not a History Association or a Sociological Association or a British or American Political Science Association. This does not mean that we do not have historians, sociologists, political scientists and other academics in our midst—and we welcome and appreciate their presence. However, our purpose is different. The associations I mentioned exist basically for academic and career objectives: for the promotion of the study of history, sociology, politics and the career advancement of practitioners in these fields. We do not promote careers or serve narrowly professional interests.

Nor are we a church or a religious organization or religious sect—although we have many religious people and also members of the clergy in our midst and we welcome their presence. We do not promote religion or any kind of religious belief, nor do we oppose religion or religious belief. Our concern is rather the question: To which extent do religions or religious beliefs further or obstruct a viable public life in the world? This is a legitimate question in a global public forum.

Finally we are not a social club existing simply for the enjoyment of members—although we, of course, hope that members or participants also enjoy our conferences as well as each other’s company. Thus, we are not a sports club, a bowling club, a bridge club, nor even a purely philanthropic association like the Shriners in America.

So, this leaves then the question: What and who are we, if we are not all these things? Here I have to come back to the commitment I mentioned at the beginning: the commitment to a “world public forum” in the context of “dialogue of civilizations.” Again, I ask: What kind of commitment is this, if it is not a professional or career commitment, not a religious or clerical (church-related) commitment, a commitment “not for profit”? Well, it can only be a moral or ethical commitment: a commitment to a world where public affairs are settled not by brute force, warfare, and military might but by reasoned discourse of participants in a public arena; a commitment to the prospect of a “dialogue among civilizations” in contrast to the “clash of civilizations.” Such an ethical commitment does not come easy. It has to be cultivated and nurtured diligently, from early childhood to adult life, and in all societies and all walks of life. It also requires strength of character and a sense of responsibility. It requires of us to stand up and speak out if brute force and military might take the lead and threaten to undermine social justice and peace.

Thus, our Forum cannot fail to be troubled by political, economic, cultural and religious crises as they flare up around the world. In all these instances, our stand is bound to be to discourage or oppose rash, reckless or violent “solutions” and to encourage calm, peaceful, and “dialogical” efforts to settle existing disputes with a view toward reaching the greatest possible justice for all sides. The standard or goal of dialogue in the World Public Forum is not discussion for the sake of discussion, but the achievement or at least approximation of peace with justice.

To give examples: the Forum is concerned about the present situation in the Middle East which, as we know, can (unless contained) flare up into a monstruous conflagration. We are troubled by the stalled “peace process” in that region, and the lack of serious efforts to resume the process. We are also deeply troubled by designs for military intervention and externally engineered “regime change” in some countries—designs which are in violation of international law and also frequently have the flavor of neo-colonialism and imperialism. In taking this position, we stand in the venerable tradition of the “World Committee against War and Fascism” of the 1930’s (provided we define “fascism” for our purposes as aggressive unilateralism)—a Committee which included such famous intellectuals and writers like Maxim Gorky, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, John Dos Passos, and Romain Rolland.[1]

But, of course, it is not sufficient to view the World Public Forum as merely standing in opposition (“against”). We also stand “for” something. And what we most intently are for is a world community in which societies and civilizations interact in the spirit of mutual respect and dialogical cooperation. Implicit in this positive outlook is a commitment to the self-determination of peoples, to the entitlement of peoples to search for self-rule and self-government in their own ways. Differently put: we support the striving for democracy by democratic (not military or violent) means. Such a striving can only be an ethical striving and the resulting democracy only an ethically nurtured democracy. The character of this goal has been well captured by the philosopher John Dewey who described as one of the crucial qualities of democracy the endeavor to foster “the habit of amicable cooperation” or to cultivate the common good.

What does this habit mean or involve? Again Dewey answers: “To take as far as possible every conflict which arises—and they are bound to arise—out of the atmosphere and medium of force, of violence as a means of settlement into that of discussion and of intelligence means to treat those who disagree—even profoundly—with us as those from whom we may learn, and insofar, as friends.” Dewey adds a passage which could have been written by Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr:

          A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other—a suppression which is none the less one of violence when it takes place by psychological means of ridicule, abuse, and intimidation instead of by overt imprisonment or in concentration camps.[2]

For the past 9 years, many of us in WPF have tried to live up to this ethical code and to foster the “habit of amicable cooperation”—maybe often too timidly, too weakly, two ambiguously. Here is the time to make a resolution for the future: to take to heart more fully the meaning of “WPF-Dialogue of Civilizations” and to commit ourselves more resolutely to its translation into reality. If we do this, I am convinced, the world will be a better place to live in for all of us and for our children and grandchildren.

[1]. As Romain Rolland wrote in 1936: “I am a pacifist, I am also an antifascist . . . Every fascist movement is based on a murderous ideology of racism or dominating imperialism, which leads to wars of conquest and the enslavement of other countries and other peoples.” See Rolland, “Lettre address? par Romain Rolland aux intellectuels et la junesse bulgare” (July 12, 1936), in Archives Romain Rolland (Paris: Biblioth?que Nationale); quoted in: David James Fisher, Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004), p. 195.

[2]. John Dewey, “Creative Democracy – The Task Before Us,” in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, vol. 14, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1988), p. 228. Compare also his comments: “Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental. Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association.” See “The Ethics of Democracy,” in John Dewey: The Early Works, 1802-1898, vol. 1, ed. George E. Axtelle et al. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1969), pp. 239-240.