8 Dialog of Civilizations

Our world may well feature a clash of civilizations. (Huntington, 1996) That way lies ruin. Though we may, sadly, be doomed to clash, in the meantime while we are still here and relatively intact (writing from within the bosom of US democracy, military prowess and economic plenty), might we at least try a more gentle approach? Dare we say, a more civilized approach? Not much to lose, really, given the not-so-good alternatives. The key is development. That includes economic development, cultural development, and personal development. Potential solutions look more like a tapestry than a train track. The needed lines of development must wrap around each other, intermingle, and cross-connect. A global dialog in a global mesh.

Different civilizations bring different perspectives and different resources to the global discussion. World-systems theory with its core-periphery model provides an overview. Some groups are more central (in Wilkinson’s Central Civilization) than others. Niall Ferguson identified six “killer apps” that allowed the West to dominate the Rest. That may be true on some level, but it is also past-tense. Civilizations like to borrow things that work (and throw back items that conflict with local custom), so the deadliest of Western killer apps, like nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, are finding their way into non-Western hands. Western science and technology are now global science and technology, despite recent rear guard actions by Western powers to build mercantile walls around the export of innovation. A bit late in the game for that. Ferguson’s Rest will surely pick what they will from the West, which is only fair, given the historical freedom with which the West helped itself to the entire world. The interest lies in the elements selected. Development theories of the mid-twentieth century envisioned global development as a monotonic function in which the “underdeveloped” world could only progress by fits and starts along the very same trails the West had previously blazed (the train track model). Current realities suggest a more layered approach. Scientific weaponry in the service of medieval religion? Traditional cultures turning ultra-capitalist (while keeping their traditions)? The reassertion of particularistic identities in the face of ever-more penetrating networks of global trade and communications? It appears that for each current, there is a counter-current. How can we make sense of it?

Recent meta-models (Integral Theory, Spiral Dynamics, Metamodernism) can be read as New-Age-inspired updates to the classic “rise of the West” narrative, given their many charts of stages, levels, and lines of development. That would be a misreading. The “advancement” promised by such models leads, at its most elevated stages, to stages that circle back. The key to “integral” or “meta-modern” or whatever one might call the top rung, is that the most advanced sort of personal development has access to all previous levels of development. The holy scripture of meta-modernity is more like a Rosetta Stone. It’s the code that decodes everything else. So the non-Western world, it turns out, does not require a forklift upgrade. It does not need a green field deployment to retrofit science, technology, industry, medicine, corporate organizational forms, or global transactions into its lesser developed regions. Best of breed, eclectic, cafeteria-style solutions will do nicely, thank you. The premodern cultural areas are more postmodern that they might look at first glance. They all do collage quite nicely. The meta-model we need for civilization is not a forced march though all the details of previous Western experience. (A quick read of history suggests quite a bit of Western experience was a horrifically bloody mess). Nor do we need a postmodern “all voices must be heard” paradigm, because that points only to cacophony, and ultimately to clash. As a modest proposal, might we suggest the world needs orchestration, more than organization? All voices yes, but with some concerted effort toward harmonization.

It is not coincidental that Western meta-model thinking draws much inspiration from Zen, yoga, and indigenous cultures the world over. Ferguson’s “killer apps” also killed off the West’s more contemplative spiritual practices as collateral damage. (Smith, 1989) Holistic integration therefore involves some reaching out and reaching back. The global tapestry of dialogic mesh involves both give and take. Perhaps the key question is, can Freinacht’s “listening society” listen attentively to global cultures who think and act differently than Western moderns or postmoderns? Can we bow respectfully to non-Western traditions without breaking the back our own integrity? In the forge of personal practice, the clash of civilizations lives on experientially in each of us. The dialog of civilizations can thus be seen as a therapeutic of integration. (Kegan, 1983, p 209, suggests as much).


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Civilization and Education Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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