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Senghor Homage

UNESCO - Dialogue among Civilizations

How we see others,
how others see us

Proceedings of the International Symposium
Paris, 13 and 14 December 2001

Opening Addresses

Jean Baubérot
President of the École Pratique des Hautes Études


This international symposium is the fruit of an audacious and stimulating joint project embarked upon by UNESCO and the École Pratique des Hautes Études. The venture takes as its starting point the shared conviction that greater understanding of what is happening in the world we live in – conveniently but inaccurately termed ‘current events’ – can be achieved by taking a step back from those events.

During the friendly and rewarding meetings of our joint preparatory committee held before the summer, we had no way of knowing how important, not to say dramatic, the world events forming the social and political backdrop to today’s symposium were to be. However, although those events drastically raise the stakes of our project and perhaps make it more difficult for some to understand, they do not fundamentally alter the issues involved. From time immemorial, the world has been anything but peaceful, and the designation of 2001 by the United Nations as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations shows that people are keenly aware that such dialogue must be established, or re-established. In the midst of these tensions and this tumult, we must be the ones to construct a dialogue.

There are two approaches to this task, each with its own intellectual legitimacy. The first is a direct approach, consisting of an attempt to study major events as they occur, and the background against which they take place. This is a necessary approach, used daily in various places. However, another approach would seem to be equally crucial: it is based on the knowledge that the best way of getting from A to B is not always a straight line, and that making one or two detours is not a waste of time – quite the opposite. This approach – which we will be following for these two days – opens up our field of vision, and takes us a step back, in the same way that we move away from an object in order to see it better, measure it more accurately and look at it more clearly.

This desire to see better is reflected in the title of our symposium, ‘Civilizations: how we see others, how others see us’. Metaphorically speaking, civilizations look at one another just as people do. They attract attention and reveal themselves to, as well as hide from, the gaze of others – a gaze influenced by words and gestures, feeling and passion. An anxious, hostile gaze leads to the sound and the fury of weapons. A tolerant, trusting gaze brings hope of reconciliation.

People look at one another in many different ways, aware of the differences of the ‘others’ in our title, thus demonstrating that meaning is to be found in a reciprocal relationship, and that ‘otherness’ creates identity.

Moreover, the session on ‘Travels, texts and translations’ will help us to discover how, consciously or otherwise, civilizations by degrees observe one another and seek one another out, both influencing and defining one another. Written texts may remain, but they do not remain in their original context. Over the centuries we have been travelling the world looking for religious or secular texts, and translating them once we are back in our own country. These translations give rise to new traditions and this tectonic web of cultures and civilizations fuels the idea of transference.

However, there can be no influence or exchange without the problem of power and human governance coming to the surface. We shall see that the ‘empire’, as a federative model that protected minorities and promoted the coexistence of diverse cultures and communities, was long considered as a context that held opposing forces in balance. Although tarnished by situations of political domination, colonization and territorial annexation, the image of the empire continues to be idealized in our societies, sometimes taking the form of a rather nostalgic longing for the revival of a spirit of multiculturalist tolerance, but sometimes prompting criticism and inspiring the search for new political models.

We shall explore these new models, which are both political and cultural, when we look at new forms of universalism, where acts of domination and oppression are no longer concealed under the ‘universal’ banner, but where respect for differences is incorporated in the universalist agenda, in the same way that defending reason presupposes the acceptance of the realm of the imagination. The universal can therefore be seen as the domain for pluralist thinking – not about separation but about sharing: giving others the key to the specific universe of one’s culture and receiving the universal dimension of every other culture. The singularity of every being, every language and every civilization can be an asset in the search for common values of universal scope.

We will close our meeting with a general debate on the different ways in which civilizations have seen, or do see, one other. How can conflicting parties be persuaded to appeal to each other instead? How can rivalry turn into conviviality? The tragedies happening in the world today make these words sound rather Utopian. But perhaps it is in precisely such cases where we are distressed by what we see that it is particularly important, even essential, to take a step back, as I said earlier, and combine the most rigorous analysis of the important chapters of human history with aspirations for another kind of future – the creation of a future that categorically refuses to despair of humanity.


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