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Dieter Senghaas

How to Reorient the Intercultural Dialogue

German Version


    Speech delivered on occasion of the presentation of the Culture- and Peace Award of the Villa Ichon on 17 November 2006 in the town hall of the Free Hanseatic City Bremen.


To reorient the intercultural dialogue in connection with the following considerations means: first, to reorient this dialogue as regards content, and second, to pursue it on this basis - that is a reorientation in the double sense of the concept. Intercultural dialogues today take place on different levels: quite vividly within the municipal range, also on the national and of course on the global level. The following considerations refer to the latter context, knowing full well that there are close interactions between the levels quoted, already as a result of migration and in future as a consequence of shifting political power constellations on a world level interactions that in all probability will deepen in the foreseeable future and increase in political explosiveness.

In the following considerations I begin with a short observation about the structure of world economy. That may be surprising, but the reason for this is obvious: The present configuration of cultural conflicts on world level is almost analogously structured to the fronts and confrontations on the world-economical and world-social level. Moreover cultural conflicts take place under conditions of radical social change, also of identity crises which are in many respects comparable to the situations of radical change in Europe's modern history. These facts as a rule get hardly any attention in the common intercultural dialogues.

Hence both facts briefly mentioned here are of importance for staging a fruitful intercultural dialogue: the imbedding of the conflict fronts in world-economically defined structures as well as the political discourse over situations of radical social changes over which cultures themselves are manoeuvred into a painful, mostly convulsive process of radical change - and this under the compulsion of the circumstances and consequently mostly against their will.



At the top of the world community we can observe "Entgrenzungsprozesse" (processes of denationalization) between the advanced industrial societies (OECD-world), which in all dimensions (politics, economics, society, culture) let complex interdependences arise. These processes have advanced furthest in the economic sector. Exemplary for this is the pushed forward development of the European domestic market, which today is characterized by a mobility of its crucial economic factors motivated by free trade. The interdependences that meanwhile have been formed here are characterised by symmetry. That means that all economies involved, whether small or large, tend towards producing capital-, knowledge- and technology intensive commodities; they are comparably competitive in all sectors, and they export the same type of goods of high-added value ("Wertschöpfung") across the borders. That leads to a considerable competition and yet at the same time to transnational integrated markets. Since the competition takes place on the same level of competence, the result is what one could call globalization de luxe: the markets symmetrically penetrate each other with comparable and sophisticated goods.

But such a situation can be observed throughout the world, i.e. beyond the EU- or OECD–economies, only in beginnings and punctually. For throughout the world, as already in the past decades, if not even centuries, a substantial difference in productivity and competence between the high-productive and the less productive economies continues to exist. The less productive economies are thereby exposed to a dramatic displacement competition; they are under "Peripherisierungsdruck", i.e. in danger to be pushed to the margin within the world economy.

Of course, the differences in productivity and competence and the asymmetrical displacement competition resulting from it are not everywhere equally marked. And of course, there are different ways how a less productive economy reacts to an outstandingly productive économie dominante: reduction and decay, that means regression is one of the possible reactions, and it is not by any means the rarest (see today Black Africa). Partial sealing off with the simultaneous attempt to survive under conditions chosen by oneself ("import substitution industrialization") is a further conceivable and empirically observable reaction (see until recently Latin America). One could describe the third, rather rare type of reaction as innovative answer to the challenge mentioned: Here all forces are mobilized, in order to withstand the displacement competition and, should the occasion arise, to counter it successfully. Then a displacement competition is staged against the more highly productive economy: One beats the challenger with qualitatively excellent simple and later complex products which are at first produced with low labour costs. This leads to an displacement competition in the reverse direction, that is from the latecomers of development to the old industrialized countries (e.g. from Eastern Asia in the past decades and the displacement competition outgoing from there which in Bremen, by way of illustration, here led to the structural crisis of once splendidly profitable branches of industry).

But different from this exceptional case globalization in the less productive societies and economies mostly leads to that phenomenon that development researchers for decades have correctly called "structural heterogeneity". By this term a social and economic structure is labelled in which different, hierarchically structured levels of productivity and ways of production interlace with each other - so to speak in the spectrum of the high-productive subsidiaries of multinational companies on the one hand and on the other hand of a meagre self-sufficient economy; between them a local industry and mostly a blown up service or "informal" sector are found. The well-known consequence of this structure, into which a difference of capital- and technology equipment, of capability to organize and of competence as well as of power and income is built in, as a rule consists in an accentuated gap between rich and poor, between being privileged and being pushed to the edge in one and the same society. Economic growth then leads to the fact that the structural heterogeneity mostly does not decrease but increases. Economists speak of "immiserising growth". The well-known social disasters of developing countries, around which since the sixties of last century the discussion about development policy has revolved, are thus accentuated.

Already several decades ago a brilliant Latin American development discussion had diagnosed these facts as "transnational capitalistic integration with simultaneous national disintegration". The problem of globalization ("transnational capitalistic integration"), as it today seizes the largest part of the world, is thus a not unfamiliar phenomenon, and so also its in many places inexorable after-effect: "national disintegration" as consequence of an asymmetrical displacement competition from the centers of the world economy to its peripheries. For the developing societies in the world it existed long before 'globalization' as a term began circulating. In passing be mentioned: There are definitely signs that this procedure: social heteronomy resp. disintegration as consequence of globalization will within the coming one or two decades also seize the old industrialized countries - although not to the same extent.



Now, seen from the economic sector, a remarkable structural analogy appears with regard to the cultural globalization. Here too a graduated picture is required. Borders are lifted, but this again takes quite different shapes whether we move in the area of the OECD-world or in the remaining parts of the world.

Within the OECD-world the increasing cultural exchange is felt to be a qualitative enrichment, no matter whether it has its origin in comparably developed societies or in other parts of the world. For with it the variety of the cultural impulses increases, be it in art, film, music ("Weltmusik") or literature. This variety increases the anyway plentiful cultural offers and so once more accentuates an open-minded post-modern flair of those societies. Style mixtures come into being, be it in the way of hybridizing, of cross-overs or similar mixings. In the wide-spreading popular culture occurences of that kind are interesting, often culturally exciting, but politically to a large extent of no importance. For obviously these various impulses can be absorbed without the societies concerned being threatened with falling prey to identity crises. Above all: such a pluralizing and becoming more colourful cultural scene does not threaten, at least not until today, the core of the political culture, i.e. the acceptance of plurality, which meanwhile has become routine, and the tested ability to cushion it with the help of proven institutionalized precautions and to handle it constructively. Hence - apart from the spatially limitable problem of the integration of migrants - here we have dealings with a kind of cultural globalization de luxe.

Compared with that, the situation in the developing societies of the world as a rule is completely different. There the external cultural influence that comes from the economically, technologically and media-wise superior OECD-world, is mostly understood as a direct attack on one’s own (usually anyway already fragile) identity. The foreign culture that from the outside forces itself upon other cultures is then regarded under the omen of an aggressive, again asymmetrically structured cultural displacement competition. And again there are, as in the economic range, four fundamental ways to react: regression in consequence of being overtaxed; protest and rebelling opposition as expression of resistance; occasionally it comes to a innovative reaction: Then something new results in consequence of a challenge first felt as overwhelming.

But as a rule displacement competition - not otherwise than in economy -, leads to the development of structural heterogeneity now culturally: Then societies in consequence of the cultural globalization split into strata of different mental and cultural orientation: There are the "Westlers" who have no difficulties with western culture (plurality of interests and identities, individualism, equality of the sexes, self-determination and so on). On the contrary they want that their own societies as fast as possible develop a comparable cultural pattern, which is felt to be an expression of civilisatory progress and is to lead out of structural dependence. Exemplarily reduced to a short denominator: "Confucius" here figures as problem, not as solution!

Then there are those who aspire, as it were, to a mixed program, that is a synthesis of modern trend and traditional patterns of culture. They are those representatives who save their own culture, but nevertheless do not want to miss the blessings of foreign technology. They have been called "modernists cut in half", because they modernize only science and technology, but do not want to see their culture put under pressure to change. There are also traditionalists who in the past often only see what they project into it, and who thereby become representatives of that occurance which is called "invention of tradition". Finally there is the fundamentalist way to react. Locally but also internationally it reacts aggressively in answer to the challenge of western culture ("the devil", "the Satan"), in border line cases even with local or international terrorism. A cultural content of the latter reaction is not recognizable. For violence motivated by terrorism wants to spread terror, and, over that, to mobilize additional sympathies with like-minded people. Above all however terror is seen as means of seizing power. With that culture, especially religion, is mostly opportunistically instrumentalized in quite a superficial way to serve power politics, from which unculture, in border line cases culturally or religiously dressed up macro-criminality arises.

Now the in each case observable mixture of a political-culturally motivated reaction depends to a large extent on the success or failure of socio-economic and political processes of transformation. If these processes of transformation, as for example in Eastern Asia, are relatively successful (seen on a long-term basis)- then an "upgrading" is observed-, the processes of cultural change admittedly are painful then but they are characterized by adaptability and readiness to learn. If in contrast to this societies are in a deep, moreover chronic development crisis, that is a crisis without prospect of its end, then, the cultural heterogeneities are accentuated parallel to the intensified structural heterogeneity in economy and social classes, whereby a fertile soil results for a broad spectrum of usually at the same time observable ways of reacting. Under the omen of a chronic development crisis the local cultural conflict inevitably becomes a continuous, usually militant clash over the orientation of the public order, that is a throughout public and highly political event. It comes to a culture conflict in the serious sense of the term: to an argument over different options in the organization of public affairs. Culture conflicts then resemble power struggles, which for their part are struggles over public order, e.g. over the contents of the constitution, because fundamental questions of the future social order are at stake. So for example, especially in Islamic moulded societies, the question of theocratic or secular orientation resp. of appropriate combinations ("theocracy as republic"), as for some years and at present more intensely it has exemplarily been observable in Iran.

Culture conflicts of this kind reveal vital identity crises in the form of power conflicts. Heterogeneity in matters of culture and mentality are then not only observed on the level of the society as a whole or in different social classes, but, as often revealed in artistic autobiographies, precisely also in individuals themselves. These facts have nothing to do with the subsequent effects of a cultural globalization de luxe, of a cultural scene that is always getting richer and richer; of a playful post-modern "anything goes". For in such extreme cases conflicts of the kind mentioned (Algeria, Iran and others) are often quarrels about life and death.



What consequences result from the preceding observations for the today often as inevitable declared intercultural dialogue?

What is to be observed in the developing societies of today's world under the condition of economic and cultural globalization and in view of a profound social change, evokes - although not in each detail - so nevertheless in the essential features, memories of European experiences that are today to a great extent suppressed in the public awareness. For Europe, i.e. more precisely: North and Western Europe, is that continent that since the early modern times, in particular however since approx. 1750, became for the first time in world history in consequence of social mobilization the birth place of dramatic thrusts of modernization and of corresponding experiences of radical mental changes. Their concomitants were profound order- resp. socio-political conflicts, also culture conflicts of the aforementioned kind, in the respective societies.

Consequently to the observer aware of Europe's history the present political, socio-economic and socio-cultural changes in the developing societies of the world are not unfamiliar: For as once in Europe so one can today observe a world-wide dramatic social mobilization, i.e. an "Entbäuerlichung" (a migration from the countryside to the towns) resp. an urbanization of the societies, a widely effective alphabetization as well as the politicization of traditionally rather apolitical populations that can now be politicized. Over this it comes - secularly regarded - to a pluralization of increasingly politicized class-specific interests and identities. Thus out of traditional societies arise politicizable and actually politicized societies in which "truths" can no longer be defined beyond doubt. For ideas about justice multiply, just as the projects of life. There emerge conflict-laden, should the occasion arise, violent-pregnant ideas. And since plurality is not surmountable, and since the politicization of identities, truths, conceptions of justice and interests is irreversible, also dictatorships and despotisms, which often develop in times of such radical changes, are sooner or later doomed to failure. For under the conditions of the radical social change mentioned above, in the meantime in every corner of the world ultimately unavoidable demands for political participation are to be heard.

In such a situation the modern question of coexistence arises, which becomes the fundamental constitutional question: What obligatory institutional precautions are found in a society getting more and more plural for the peaceful treatment of inevitable, altogether politicized conflicts, and broadly accepted as legitimate? Exactly these problems woried Europe's modern history, and just these problems today mark the political conflicts in wide parts of the non-European world.

Now the politically virulent cultural identity crisis of many present developing societies throughout the world (inclusively the former domain of "Realsozialismus" (countries of the Eastern Bloc)) cannot be mastered by exclusive recourse to one’s own tradition or the pure adoption of foreign offers, although both can occasionally be observed. The way out, not different from that in Europe in those days, can only be the result of compromises resulting from political conflicts. Such compromises conditioned by the balance of power must be wrested from the respective traditional status quo powers, because they are mostly courses set against their will. That was not different in Europe: None of the achievements of civilization which are today in Europe and in the whole western world judged as fundamental for the structure and the building of a modern public order, were basic principles in the pre-modern old European traditional political order: The idea that all human beings were born free and equal in dignity and rights, with the consequence of protection of individual fundamental rights and equality before the law, equality of the sexes, separation of powers, freedom of religion, minority rights - these and other principles which we today consider to be fundamental ones, are, as well as the regulative idea of tolerance, a very late product of a process of civilization in our own western world.

Hence with regard to Europe one should not forget: The civilization of the modern social conflict, as it can be observed in the heartlands of Europe, was never, as it were, stamped into the cultural genes of old Europe. It has been the result of a decade- resp. century-long conflict history: of antifeudal-bourgeois and later of anti-bourgeois proletarian movements, which each time provoked reactionary counter-movements: that is a repelling criticism of individualism, liberalism and secularism, of the decay of good traditional manners, of plurality in general and tolerance towards many and diverse views of values in particular as birth places of loss of social value as well as of moral disorientation and depravity. What this reactionary criticism never wanted to understand or to accept was the fact that the principles of modern rule of law and democracy have as their goal to enable peaceful coexistence in a politicized society that has become irreversibly pluralistic, and to put it on a durable basis with institutional protection against civil war.

Who understands his own European culture, precisely also the meanwhile everywhere highly esteemed political culture aiming at plurality, as historical result of a collective learning process rich in conflicts and often convulsive, will - in view of elsewhere precarious socio-political conflict situations - hardly assume that the homogeneous cultural profiles there are unalterable ("Asian / Islamic values"). On the contrary: For a long time it has been observed how non-European cultures - as reflex of a radical socio-economic change as well as of the political conflicts resulting from it - come into conflict with themselves, i.e. they become socially and therefore also mentally more complex, and consequently self-reflexive about this. Reasonably staged this "clash within civilisations", which is obvious in the developing societies, makes the intercultural dialogue easier, above all if at the same time by the European side Europe's real history of conflict is remembered, and so a realistic self-portrait is taken as starting point.



Let me sum up: Europeans should take part in an intercultural dialogue with the knowledge of their own real early history - the ways, detours and wrong ways (see the history of Germany!). They should first have understood that many politically motivated debates on culture that happen in the wide world, had their comparable forerunners in Europe, and that the today world-wide observable cultural conflicts are not unfamiliar, in so far as one remembers one’s own European history. Such an approach to the dialogue can cause discursive "miracles": By it one avoids the wrong insinuation that what we today esteem in Europe and in the western world had in Europe's history already always been the quintessence of political culture - a completely wrong insinuation! And a historically true 'self-portrait' also imparts the necessary sensitivity for cultural conflicts and convulsions together with the radical political changes in today's non-European world they are based on.

As far as the non-European partners of such a dialogue are concerned it would be important that they, too, do not build themselves up into representatives of allegedly unalterable, consistent and closed in themselves cultures and religions or let themselves be pushed into such a position, because in view of the profound acute culture conflicts within all cultures there are at bottom no such "representative representatives" of the respective culture, or rather are no longer and less and less. What one can observe are representative representatives of the most different trends, which for a long time, although in each case in different quantities present, have been found in all cultures moulded by structural heterogeneity and fight against each other: traditionalists and modernists, theocrats and secularists, value-conservative and post-modernist people, philosophers of Enlightenment and those who oppose them, progressive and reactionary people, people with universal or communitarian pattern of thought, unbelievers and fundamentalists, the status quo-supporters and dissidents. Their differences are often less founded on specific cultural contents thought not exchangeable resp. not negotiatable; these controversial, often antagonistic positions rather mirror across cultures analogous socio-economic and socio-political problems caused by modernization, overlapping individual culture areas, as well as analogous perspectives for handling and overcoming these problems - and this today outside of Europe not otherwise than once in Europe.

That is positions of the kind mentioned are primarily developmentally and contextually moulded and by no means exclusively culture-specifically. Parallell conflict constellations and culture conflict positions existing through the historical stages would otherwise hardly be explainable. Thus for example today in the arguments of the theocratically coined militant Islamism appear - interestingly enough without giving attention to it -exactly the arguments of the theocratic counter-revolution presented after 1789 in reaction to the laicist state of the French type. In the orientation towards the holy scriptures the orthodoxy of any provenance is united throughout the world. And as once in Europe, so also today - under the signs of a politicized culture conflict - particularly in Islamic countries the attempt of a de-construction of "holy texts" leads to the withdrawal of the teaching permission, should the occasion arise to assassination attempts and often enough to the escape into exile as only possibility to save one's life. Arguments against women's right to vote resp. the eligibility of women are today as unimaginatively weird as once.

These and further examples document that history is more often repeated than we are actually aware in this fast-moving "geschichtsvergessenen" (not remembering history) age. By the way: Have we in Germany forgotten what still in the early 20th century - today it strikes as completely anachronistic but in those days representative for the "Zeitgeist" - was formulated about the "contrast of Germany and the west" by outstanding intellectuals, even by a Nobel prize-winner for literature like Thomas Mann (1918), as follows, "I admit I am deeply convinced that the German people will never be able to love political democracy, and that the much-maligned 'authoritarian state' is and remains the appropriate, befitting and at the bottom wanted type of state for the German people." And further: "Whose endeavours aimed at making Germany simply a civil democracy in the Roman-western (e.g. French, DS.) sense and spirit, would want to take from it its best and most difficult, its problematic nature, in which its nationality actually consists; would want to make it boring, clear, stupid and un-German and would so be an anti-nationalist, who would insist on Germany becoming a nation in a foreign sense and spirit ..." If one replaces Germany in this quotation by for example Singapore or other names, then one can find astonishing parallelisms in the statements from then and today!

Whoever today gets ready to stage intercultural dialogues should take as starting point the actually existing worlds of culture and not the fiction of cultures closed in themselves and coherently rounded off. And should aware of history realize the return of similar constellations of conflict and make this matter the topic of the dialogue. This requires first of all the dissolution of brought on by one’s own fault stereotyped blockades in one’s thinking: above all the extension of the intellectual horizon with regard to history and to a comparative analysis orientated world wide. This comparison would not only refer to the western and Islamic culture, but as a matter of course also to all other cultural areas where challenges can be observed comparable to those of the Islamic culture, which however often manifest themselves in other ways. By such extensions of the horizon one would work against a routine becoming counter-productive, against the observable idling of many today common well-meaning intercultural dialogues which are often only abstract "Metadialogue" or diplomatically motivated embrace dialogues. In such a way anew orientated, intercultural dialogues would become important contributions to a gradually developing, cultural globality moulded by various cross and transverse relations, hence besides other things they would become components of a political culture in which - in a world of unavoidable plurality – just that plurality would be considered as an assett. In sciences, arts and in political practice such an effort of coping with plurality productively should be understood as an eminent up-to-date and moreover overdue task in the service of peace.


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