IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

On perspectives

As somebody once said “where you stand depends on where you sit”.  I understand this to mean that many conclusions are functions of the first principles or premises used to analyze a situation.   Consider, for instance, the world view underlying the clash of civilizations (from something I wrote a while back):

“Identity conflicts, or what this author and others have called the experience of “us vs. them”, deserve further consideration since they have to be moderated and eventually overcome if “dialogue” is going to prevail over “clash” among civilizations. Historically, identity has often been founded upon a profound belief in a group’s uniqueness and special worth. This phenomenon has been very widespread, as attested to by such diverse examples as the cosmology of the Yoruba people in West Africa, who believe that the first place created in the physical universe was their spiritual capital at Ile-Ife; the traditional Chinese worldview in which their empire was the political center of the world (the “Middle Kingdom”); and the assumed cultural superiority of Europeans during the ages of “discovery” and imperialism.

Given such intense ethnocentrism, when a group (a collective “self”) encounters an “other,” the “other” necessarily represents an unknown, an enigma. Most historical responses to this enigma have not been very positive. One characteristically (but not uniquely) Western way of dealing with this “enigma of external otherness” is to deny it: to “treat it as the innocent, primitive, terrorist, oriental, evil-empire, savage, communist, underdeveloped, or pagan whose intrinsic defects demand that it be conquered or converted” (Connolly, 1989: 326*). Why such a reaction? Perhaps because fully engaging the enigma calls one’s own identity into question through observations and questions such as:

They are not like us.
Are they better?
Why are we as we are?
Why shouldn’t we be like them?

One can, however, avoid the malaise and self-doubt such an analysis may engender by simply concluding: They should be like us. We are better than they are (so it doesn’t really matter who they really are). As Connolly explains further:

If conquest and conversion are the two authorized orientations to otherness, neither engages the enigma of otherness. Both operate as contending and complementary strategies by which a superior people maintains its self-assurance by bringing an inferior people under its domination or tutelage. These two modes function together as premises and signs of superiority; each supports the other in the effort to erase the threat of difference to self-identity. (328).

This is the underlying dynamic of the civilizational conflict which is intensified through the enfolding processes of globalization. In other words, the processes creating world civilization themselves unleash forces which threaten our future…”

A bit later, I co-authored an article where an alternative set of “first premises” was presented:

“Consider these three observations, as an alternative starting point to think about our
collective life.
(1) The planet is small. We inhabit one planet, in one stellar system, in one galaxy
among countless others. So, the planet is small. It is also one interdependent system. No
borders can be seen from space: just the blue and green “marble.” The biosphere, that small
layer of air that enables all that we think of as life to exist, is, in a cosmic perspective, an
incredibly thin, fragile membrane that is found nowhere else in our solar system, as far as
we can tell. Bluntly stated, it is all that stands between extinction and us. Seen from this
perspective, the human condition seems both very special and rather tenuous: we could
cease to be and the universe would certainly endure without us.
(2) There is only “us.” There might well be life elsewhere in the cosmos, but we
haven’t found it yet. So, for now “we” are it, as far as we are concerned. That alone gives us
a lot in common, no matter what we look like; but we have to work harder at keeping this in
mind (there are distractions). Humans have, in fact, evolved—or have been created—as a
single species, formed from the same cosmic dust that makes up the rest of our planet, its
solar system, the galaxy and beyond. Furthermore, genetically speaking we are a single
people. There is no such thing as “race” as that term is commonly used; just biological
diversity. This suggests there is more—literally, infinitely more—which unites us than
divides us. At both a physical and an existential leve l, we are one.
(3) The whole world needs the whole world. If we exist in this world together, then
we should work to make it easier for people to communicate, interact, and share what they
know and who they are; to literally and figuratively open doors to mutual understanding. As
a species we seem to be trying fitfully to emerge from a past of separation into a future of
collective experience; from fragments of a whole into the awareness of the whole. This
process marks the beginning of the first truly global civilization. It is, however, up to us to
determine whether this civilization will be peaceful, united and long term or barbaric and
short lived .
These premises, if taken seriously, provide a lens for viewing the world—from the
local to the global; a lens that highlights other issues and leads to different conclusions and
prescriptions than more nationally or ethnically informed views. Seen from this
perspective, social life is an ongoing drama in which all people are protagonists, shaping
their environment through decisions and actions. Every human being is a subjective
participant in this process. No one is outside it, or has a truly objective viewpoint. Thus,
public affairs are fundamentally about values and the effort people make to realize their
values.”  (you can find the whole article here ).

I don’t think I need to point out which world view is more likely to foster positive peace (hint:  it’s not the first one 🙂 )

*Connolly, William E. 1989. “Identity and Difference in Global Politics” In Der Derian, James and Shapiro, M.J. eds., “International/Intertextual Relations. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.


January 2, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] Earlier this month I mentioned dialogue in a post.  I think that dialogue is really the only way to get beyond many of the problems and issues that […]

    Pingback by On dialogue « IG’s Peace Blog | January 30, 2009 | Reply

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