Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Constructive Imagining of Peace through Understanding

I had the good fortune to study with Ermanno Bencivenga when we were both at Rice University in the late '70's. His latest collection of essays is Exercises in Constructive Imagination (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001). In various places among these essays, Bencivenga takes up issues relevant to our theme of Peace through Understanding. Here is a sampling:

"If things are seen as I suggest, it is absolutely vain to try to avoid occasions for the establishment of the ingroup/outgroup dynamics. Since the occasions are not the decisive factor, there will always be something that can be used as an occasion. In this Hegelian view, there is no escaping conflict--there is only, at most, postponing it, possibly with even more devastating consequences. The Hegelian solution can only be riding the conflict: acknowledging its necessity and enabling people to realize the appropiate Aufhebung. Whenever a group goes through its inevitable process of self-differentiation, social mechanisms must be in place to urge people to work out the difference, to face it and handle it in a practical, constructive manner. Peace can only be temporary anyway, but it will be less temporary beyond conflict than it can ever be before it." (62)

"...the contemporary extended awareness of different behavioral codes is seen as a means to promote an extended morality. And the easy moral relativism espoused by many is seen as a device for depriving this means of its explosive effectiveness. Whereas morality accepts the challenge of difference by internalizing it and establishing a (painful) dialogue with it, moral relativism (a true negation of morality) tries to make everyone content with what she already has." (107)

"We must get involved, we must be constantly teaching and learning from one another, constantly incorporating one another to add to (the complexity of) our being." (132)

"I am advocating giving up cultural competition in the name of cultural preservation, as a service not only to our personal growth but to maintaining enough of a pool to make general growth possible.... Learning will be the substance of everyone's self realization, and teaching will only be the recurrent, but temporary service paid by each for the good of all. And, to reiterate, there won't be tolerance in this exchange: there will be curiosity instead, and interest, and care. One might even say, there will be love--if that so much abused word could for once be reclaimed from sentimentality and its attending blind savagery." (133)

"And it's trivial to say that we will never make reality look like our dreams, since that's not even the point of dreams: their point is rather to give us direction--to provide us with the notions of beauty, knowledge, and justice that we need to find our bearings within the adventure we are living." (135)

"To gain that diversity which so painfully eludes us, the diversity that is not a single way of living all different things but is rather different forms of living--of toiling and perspiring and rejoicing and crying in the very same world; and because of that, because of how different all such practices are, of being able to make the world itself different--we need to reactivate those delusive visions, which means finding them not delusive at all, rediscovering a belief in them which cannot be (given who we are, and where we are located) an automatic reaction, which must express a commitment, and on the basis of that commitment educating ourselves to oscillate again, to find some new crevices--fissures between what is new and what is old." (146)

The recognition of the need to engage with others, to protect their differences (as long as their injustices are not excused as differences), but to appreciate the diversity in dialectic learning, reminds me of a beautiful ayah (verse, literally sign) of the Qur'an: "O mankind! Verily We created you of a male and female, and We made you nations and tribes to know one another" (49:13); (Cf. 35:27-28).

Colorado August 2005


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