Yale University

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Mutual Respect: Interconnected and Pluralistic

Francis Snyder

September 2, 2013

Category: Society > Government and Politics

Will Americans, Europeans, and Chinese ever really understand each other?

Different (though overlapping) histories, civilizations, cultures, values, and social, economic and political systems, not to mention languages, keep people apart. For example, most of Western literature has been translated into Chinese, but only a small portion of Chinese literature is translated into English. This asymmetry results in lack of knowledge, ignorance, and stereotypes. Are there any remedies? I suggest the following measures:

  • Widespread teaching of Chinese language in the USA and Europe, much as Chinese children often begin the study of English at age six in primary school

  • A dramatic increase in translations and online access

  • Much more open travel and visa policies on all sides

  • Adopting a world-wide practice that all university-level students, and if possible even younger students, should spend at least six months in another country.

We must, however, go further. In our increasingly pluralistic world, reading, language-learning, and travel can significantly influence mindsets and help to chip away at stereotypes, bridge gaps, and possibly avoid the worst interpersonal or even diplomatic faux pas.

But this is not enough. Going further means, in my opinion, granting recognition to and respect for the existence, legitimacy, and viability of other cultures and other social, economic, and political systems in the world, even though they differ fundamentally from our own. Why should one part of the world try to impose its values on others?

Today every continent, and doubtless every country, contains many voices. All participate in our globalized world. Multinational companies, trade flows, cultural exchanges, social media, transnational law, and other factors ensure that no country is really isolated from others. But we should resist the call for homogeneity. Today our watchwords should be mutual recognition, respect, understanding, tolerance, and non-interference, with the world "mutual" highlighted in every instance. Respect for differences should be an essential value everywhere. In other words, we may not like what other parts of the world do, but, wherever we stand, we should not dictate our version of the truth to others, nor should they dictate their version to us.

If these remarks are understood superficially, they may sound like a radical version of cultural relativism, or even a denial of the experience of international multilateral institutions. They are neither.  Instead, they mean that if we accept the legitimacy of other cultures (and "culture" is a notoriously slippery term), we are not entitled to impose our understanding of the world on other cultures and societies. We cannot decide for them, and they cannot decide for us. This is true even though today, in a world of deepening transnational relations, "we" and "they" sometimes overlap, even though there are always exceptions. Lawyers often say that "hard cases make bad law" and that "the devil is in the details." All true, but my purpose here is to emphasize that respect and tolerance should be mutual. They work both ways. Our world can be both interconnected and pluralistic.