Reflections on Dialogue (II)

Globalisation means many things, but it certainly means one thing above all: that people are pushed together closer and closer around the globe. The great distances that separated people and cultures in the past are vanishing. We live on one ship, often called “spaceship earth” and we have to communicate with each other in that vessel. This is a very concrete political, social, cultural realisation that we are no longer alien to each other, that we are no longer separate peoples or communities which can cultivate just their own culture, their own language. We have to intercommunicate and this leads to an emphasis on cross-cultural learning, cross-cultural communication which in turn requires the capacity for translation, interpretation and dialogue. Today we communicate through the internet, through the media and we do it on a global level. There seems to be the promise of universalism, of a universal communication where we ultimately come to understand or to know everything.

At the same time, however, we have the objection that actually we communicate and understand less and less, because the languages are ultimately not translatable. This is what has been called the incommensurable status of languages. It is between these positions of absolute universalism and absolute difference that dialogue charts a moderate middle path. Dialogue does not claim that everything can be translated, but it maintains that some things can be translated. It does not say that we are all the same, that all human beings are the same; it says that in certain respects we are the same, or we are comparable. We have similar needs and aspirations, but the way we pursue these needs and articulate these aspirations may be extremely different. So dialogue pursues the path between these extremes.

To illustrate this point, let me give the example of poetry. Everybody realizes that poetry is almost untranslatable. Good poetry speaks in one language and the sound, the idiom is in that language. If you put it in a different language, you have lost some of the essence of the poetry. But at the same time you can translate some of it. One cannot translate everything, but can translate something and this is how it is with human beings. We can understand each other up to a certain point, but we should not delude ourselves that we understand each other completely. In many ways we remain a mystery to ourselves, we cannot even translate ourselves totally. We just have to go on dialoguing even with ourselves and others and try to learn more about each other and ourselves. So dialogue is a middle path, a prudent, not too optimistic, but not too pessimistic middle path that humankind can travel, a certain middle way where we understand each other without being uniform, without having uniformity, but also without having total isolation.

For some people dialogue is just a means to an end, a means to something else. You dialogue in order to gain something else. For instance, business partners dialogue with each other in order to have better business relations, to make more money, in order to promote profit; or politicians may dialogue in order to have greater political or geopolitical advantages. This is dialogue as means to an end. By contrast, I would claim that dialogue has an end in itself, is worthwhile in itself—and not in the sense that we dialogue about dialogue. Some people say that all you do is just talk, you dialogue about dialogue; but that’s mistaken. We dialogue about real things, real concerns, real problems, real issues, sometimes life and death issues. But there is something intrinsic in dialogue, and by this I mean there is something transformative and educational in dialogue. If we seriously dialogue with somebody else, not just chit-chat, not chattering about the weather, something happens to the participants of dialogue. In a certain way we are changed. We are being humanized; we become more human in dialoguing. The intrinsic goal of dialogue has something to do with goodness. Our goodness is increased, we are no longer selfish, enclosed in our selfishness, but we are elevated to a higher level which one might call the level of humaneness.

Aristotle said that we play the flute not to achieve something else; but flute-playing is intrinsically valuable. In the same way, I would say that dialogue has an intrinsic ethical value by transforming us into more educated and humane beings, and to that extent dialogue also has a political value. If we are able to transform political antagonists or contestants into people who are more aware of each other and of each other’s aspirations and limitations, then there is the possibility of promoting through dialogue something like justice and peace.

We live today in a world which is not very hospitable to that kind of dialogue. We live in many ways in a very grim context full of disputes and festering hostilities. If we just think of the present scenario in Syria, the problems of the Middle East, Iran. In all these areas there is a great potential for conflict and ultimately warfare. I am of the generation who still experienced some of the last Great War, World War II. I was a little boy, but I did experience devastated cities, destructions all around me, and of course in every family, losses of parents, brothers, and sisters. So my biggest ambition is to reduce the likelihood of a repetition. The dangers of catastrophes are all around us: environmental catastrophes, but especially nuclear catastrophes. Whatever I can do to combat these dangers I want to do; and dialogue is a good and promising path. Dialogue does not seek to dominate others, does not inflict a certain ideology or worldview on others, but it tries to promote mutual understanding. And through this mutual understanding some way of living together might be possible, some peace with justice.

Prof Fred Dallmayr

Prof Fred Dallmayr

Professor at the University of Notre Dame in the United States

Fred Dallmayr is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame in the United States and also the Co-chair of the World Public Forum 'Dialogue of Civilizations.'

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