Think of something you accept as a given: a universal truth, “just the way it is.”
Now ask yourself this: is there any chance that your given is not universal? What would it take to make you see it differently? What might happen if you did?
At the beginning of this month, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd Global Conference on Communication and Conflict, sponsored by Inter-Disciplinary.Net. About 25 scholars came and presented from all over the world. We heard about topics from media in Brazil to terrorism in Indonesia, from active listening techniques to the role of the human heart in communication. It was brilliant, warm, and collegial.
And it challenged some of my universals in ways I never could have anticipated. Consider these tidbits:
- Remember the flap over Somali pirates a few years back? (If you don’t, you soon will, given the upcoming movie.) If ever there were a clear case of good vs. evil, this was it, right? Not so fast: according to Sarah Craze of the University of Melbourne (Australia), the pirates see themselves not as raiding on the high seas, but rather as safeguarding the marine rights and economic security of their clans in a stateless society. Most telling is the Somali word for these “pirates,” which translates to something like “coast guard.”
- For those of us in the U.S., it is easy to hear “Arab tribes” and immediately add the word warring—as if warring is all Arab tribes did. But Ahmed Hassin, who teaches at Deakin University, detailed the essential role of Iraqi tribes in managing conflict and preserving what stability there is in the country after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
- Richard Harris of Japan’s Chukyo University spoke about the spaces—physical, cultural, geographic, etc.—in which communication takes place. In the process, he discussed profound variations among regional understandings of what we might think of as givens. Take, for instance, the concept of home: for billions of people, it’s not a single-nuclear-family dwelling with a dog and a yard.
It is tempting to read these papers and wonder whether the whole notion of universals is obsolete. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. The overwhelming majority of the world, for instance, has come to the point of asserting that murder, human sacrifice, and slavery are wrong. Monastics and mystics across many traditions seem to agree that compassion, self-giving, and a concern with equity lie at the heart of the divine essence. Neither of these examples is ironclad, but they are enough, I think, to render “everything is relative” overly simplistic.
The point here, though, is that there are fewer universals than we think. And few things open our eyes to this more convincingly than dialogue across boundaries of culture, geography, ethnicity, and faith. The encounter with something radically different from our own world, when heard open-heartedly, can dislodge us from our certainties. We realize that “even where I am sure, I could be wrong.”
Once that door to uncertainty cracks open, we can suddenly hear our dialogue partner’s radically different viewpoint clearly. More than that, we want to hear it clearly. We are poised to hear her explanation, what she might have to say, what ramifications may arise, how it might affect or expand our own wisdom. It is an exhilarating moment if we let it be.
It is not easy to react this way. But it is tremendously rewarding. And the connections it creates can lead to mutual understanding, a slightly better understanding of the truth, and one extra brick in the foundation of peacemaking across divides.