Università del Cairo, Egitto
I and Thou - Who is the stranger?
A dear expression from Martin Buber's life in dialogue is "I and Thou". In this context, “who is the stranger?” is an accumulation through time and space of our "I and Thou" relationship, as an eternal dialogue, linking and including the human and the Divine - a dialogue among the human "thous" may be a kind of dialogue between the Divine "Thous". Thus "I" is and becomes the "I" in all time and space, in spite of the human condition, and redeeming the human condition. Isn't this one of the meanings of incarnation as Tolstoy expressed it when he said "the kingdom of God is within you".
Since a dialogue takes place between equals, an imbalance between knowledge and power with its "I/It" relationship becomes transformed into a more balanced situation, permitting the emergence of the "I with Thou". Then all partners become horizontally equal, in contrast to vertical inequality. All members, become equal, de jure and de facto - de jure in their rights and duties with respect to each other, and de facto in carrying the particular legacies of their own histories and cultures. In such a felicitous situation, thinking together becomes like praying together, "fishers of men" together!
However, the centre-periphery dichotomy has not yet disappeared, even among us. The perception of the world's problems differs from the centre to the periphery. The Centre is still rightly perceiving its own problems, in regard to emerging issues such as brain-death, organ transplantation, new technologies of reproduction, the communication/information revolution, greenery and pollution, bio-ethics and genetic engineering, among others. But the Centre then projects its own problems unto the periphery, as an expansion of the self unto the other, and this overshadows the real problems of the periphery. Then the periphery becomes only a mirror reflecting the problems and concerns of the Centre, without space or opportunity to identify and voice its own problems. In fact, these problems and perceptions are related only to one particular society in time and in space - that of a western, liberal, affluent, capitalist society.
Nevertheless, sometimes the Centre perceives the problems of the periphery as real problems expressing its own authentic human condition, such as: human rights, minorities, and gender, although even these are also projections of the centre on the periphery. So these problems are defined by the centre in its own terms, that is, human rights based on an individualistic concept, the majority/minority dichotomy as a merely quantitative concept, gender as if the woman has a different problem from the man.
However, the periphery perceives its own problems as: peoples' rights based on a collective concept, the majority/minority issue as a qualitative expression of a pluralistic society, and gender divisions as a substitution for a citizenship which includes male and female together.
The problem is: who is thinking about whom, and on whose terms? Who is setting the agenda - the self or the other? Is this "double split perception" an open epistemology, or is it covering a hidden non-epistemological agenda of the Centre? Didn't Habermas obscure the relation between knowledge and human interests?
Likewise, the periphery sees the problems of the centre differently as well: Eurocentrism, hegemony, transfer of knowledge, value crisis, dangers of a uni-polar world, the double standard in international law, the epistemological project having priority over the ethical one, the failure of the western ideal, maximizing production to maximize consumption, or vice-versa, as the path to maximum happiness... the end of modern times as foreseen by Nietzsche, Bergson, Spengler, Russell, Toynbee and Husserl; the dualist mentality, fragmenting the whole into its parts, and creating dichotomies such as idealism/realism, classicism/romanticism, rationalism/empiricism, spiritualism/materialism, essentialism/existentialism, individualism/communitarianism, and socialism/capitalism.
In contrast, the periphery sees its own problems as: poverty, maldistribution of wealth, social justice, political, social and cultural/customs oppression, imbalance between rights and duties, the overwhelming presence of tradition in opposition to modernism, theocentrism, authoritarianism, imitation, the collective prevailing over the individual, the absolute swallowing the relative, dogmatism preventing criticism, the past having more value than the future, and the world seen vertically more than horizontally.
Then how are we to arrive at a shared understanding of this "double split perception" of self and other? Are we two or one? How might we become one, with greater unity in our diversity? Can the perception of the other be objective and enlightened, not a simple mirror reflecting the introverted image of the self? Is there already a universal consciousness, a divine one, through whom we can come to perceive the world globally, outside this double mirror reflecting the image of ourselves in the other, and the image of the other as the mirror of the self?
Therefore, the question for our steering committee and others is: the year 2000, located at the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st, whose year is it, and whose century will it be? Cultures live in the same physical time, but they do not live in the same historical period - historical time is not coterminous with space, nor can there be one homogeneous chronology for humanity. Rather, time is lived differently from culture to culture, with many different historical consciousness co-existing with each other. Each culture has its own historical course, and consequently its own historical consciousness. The "universal history" conceived by Herder, Kant, Hegel and the French Encyclopedists is a Eurocentric myth, the product of modern times, reflecting a period when the power-shift favoured Europe.
In a more global history - which only God could see synchronically, each cultural historical time has its own centre - thus, ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, India, Persia, China - namely, Asia came before Europe, and the East came before the West. Some contemporary philosophers of history would predict the decline of the West, like Spengler did in Der Untergang des Abendlandes, others are also seeing the coming renaissance of the East. So to speak, if the "spirit of the world" traveled westward, it may now be continuing on to the East in a great global circle. The downfall of one block may be followed by the downfall of its opposite. Nothing is permanent in history - one period is ending, another is beginning. One culture is in eclipse, another is arising.
These are the major lessons I have drawn from our multi-cultural work in the last five years: minimizing the centre/ periphery dichotomy, curing our souls from the superiority/inferiority complex inherited from the past, liberating our minds from the eternal and unilateral relation between mastership and discipleship, learning again from Christ the lesson of modesty and humility, as when he sat down and washed the feet of his disciples. At the same time, we face the disturbing barrier of arrogant scholarship - expressed in the constant desire to play the role of the objective subject, reifying the other as an object. There is no permanent subject/object relationship. This is only a power struggle, expressing itself partly in epistemological terms. After its power shift, the subject of today may become the object of tomorrow! And the object of yesterday may become the subject of tomorrow!
This is one of the highest moments of our dialogue, interchanging the subject/object relationship with each other in a spirit of mutuality - at one moment the observer becomes the observed, and the observed becomes the observer. We may hope that one day the spirit of our steering committee might become the spirit of all mankind. This may also be the lesson we can draw for the year 2000 - that it might become the year for all peoples and cultures, a big step toward realizing their hopes and transcending their despairs, within a pluralist world, converging toward one common cause and common good! Solvitur in Excelsis!