Civilization dialogue as a way of life

By Johan Galtung

Civilization: there are six sources of inspiration today, vying for the attention of a humanity looking for goals and means. Two of them are Western secular, liberal and Marxist, defining to a large extent the USA and the former Soviet Union, but not identical with them. Two of them are Oriental amalgams of civilizations, the Japanese Shinto-Confucian-Buddhist civilization, trying to be Western liberal, and the Chinese Daoist-Confucian-Buddhist civilization with strong elements of Western liberal and Western Marxist. And two of them are in-between: the Islamic and the Buddhist civilizations.[i]

Dialogue: it simply has to happen. We cannot continue with the illusion that there is one civilization above all others, the Western-liberal, destined like its predecessor, Christianity, to become the Universal Church in Toynbee’s sense. The Western locomotive pulling a long train of more and less developed civilizations, all on the same track to the end station: one world, one humanity, one civilization.

It is not going to happen. Look at any one of the many charts of world history. They all start at some tiny point in space, expand in time by built-in strength, start contracting, dwindling, and vanish in the sand. None of them is forever; for millennia, not forever. Most probably they harbored that faith as a part of their strength.

As a Way of Life: it has to become as natural as what we have had the last centuries: a more or less voluntary accommodation to the inevitable: the West in general and Anglo-America in particular will take over the world, better prepare. Moreover, give up the idea that one of them will conquer that place as No. 1, replacing the West.

Get used to the idea of a multi-polar world. We have managed that in many places: democracy, after all, is about a multi, not a single party polity. If we abhor that domestically, to abhor it globally will pave the way for dialogue. Like it did for democracy.

We can do better globally than we do with democracy domestically. Rather than one party getting the majority of the votes, enjoying majority rule, we could go for a permanent coalition government ala Suisse. All civilizations have something important to contribute; why leave the command post to one only? Building up discontent, inviting the next in line to dismantle all that the first one did, and so on?

Take the list of six civilizations: that makes for 15 bilateral dialogues. We have actually lived through many of them dialogues.

The best known in the West is intra-West, liberalism vs Marxism; economically as capitalism vs socialism, politically as multi-party vs single-party rule–not a wise position in the name of Marxism.

This was not a good dialogue. One system collapsed, the other declared itself the victor. They both seemed to have forgotten that something more important than the 1989 disintegration of the Soviet Union had happened: a Nordic compromise, or transcendence, between a liberal economy for growth and a Marxist for distribution, driven by entrepreneurs and profit, and by humans for their needs. Democratic, social democracy, social capitalism. And its transcendence into welfare states well beyond either of them.

A true dialogue entails curiosity, respect, mutual learning, and a search for something new. The dialogue between West-secular and Islam –Christianity has almost paled into oblivion relative to the lively dialogues with Islam in the 15th century (Juan de Segovia)–are immature; with no major voices for compromise and transcendence, and yet both emerge where Islam and West are lodged into each other.

But look at the components in the Japanese and Chinese amalgams, three civilizations in each! This has not happened without centuries, millennia of dialogue, with each finding a niche within the others, embracing each other; then adjusting to outer circumstance. China is blessed with Daoism, so open to switching from a focus on one to the other, from Confucianism to Buddhism, from growth to distribution.

Japan and China could easily build a community on the basis of what they have in common, Confucianism-Buddhism-West secular, and this is bound to happen sooner or later.

But why should not the Occident do the same, stepping down from its position of arrogance, in spite of the Untergang des Abendlandes by a pre-scient Oswald Spengler? Taking the idea of dialogue from Judaism –not all these declarations of final truths –compassion from Christianity – with elements of optimism from Orthodoxy, reconciliation from Catholicism, individualism from Protestantism – and then adding to these faiths the best truths the two secularisms can offer?

Instead of the hatred, the violence, the self-righteousness of one Truth only?

And then we need huge world-embracing dialogues between Occident and Orient – when the Occident has gotten its act together. In all of that I sense a modest little voice, the Buddhist voice, 250 million or so, recently with a bad reputation because of Buddhist monks linked to the states of Sri Lanka and Myanmar. But the voice is there: please, not too big, not huge systems of wisdom but respect for the little man and woman and child and elderly in small communities going about their daily duties trying to lift themselves up spiritually.

We now enter a fascinating, multi-polar, period in world history. Six civilizations amount to six development models; scattered on eight poles in an octagonal world: USA and EU, both West-liberal; Russia searching (educated guess: for an improved version of West-Marxist); India, huge, but at a loss with its Hinduism; China as China (with Japan in a painful search for stability between USA and China); the Muslim world, OIC – Organization of Islamic Cooperation – searching for an ummah in the OIC region, with the sunni-shia conflict resolved; Africa searching for an eclecticism based on West-secular, Islam and something of its own; Latin America right now steeped in a creative intra-West dialogue.

Let it be, let it happen. Our future depends on these dialogues.


[i]. The Hindu civilization, huge in numbers, does not count, apparently attractive to nobody, not even to India that at present is in a Western-(neo-)liberal phase.

This article was first published at Transcend Media Service

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