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The journal > Year 1 N.2 Settembre 2005 > The human factor

The human factor

Sergio Belardinelli | 01 September 2005

The question of identity, however it is addressed, is always an intricate question. This is the case for philosophers but even more, and especially today, for historians and social scientists. What is the identity of a culture, a people or a nation? Is it meaningful to emphasise the questions and issues connected with identity in a society such as ours which is increasingly differentiated and fragmented or, as the sociologist Zygmunt Baumann (1) would say, increasingly 'liquid'? And how should we deal with the identity of 'others'? What do we precisely mean when we speak about respect for or 'the inclusion of' the other? I will seek to address these questions by dwelling on two points in particular: 1) culture as a value that exalts the person, and 2) bearing witness to one's identity as a strategy for encounter with others.

Culture as 'Open' Totality

In culture, in every culture, there are always two dimensions that are closely connected: a particularistic dimension and a universalistic dimension. Every time that we talk about the culture of a people or a nation we allude to a specificity, to a particularity, which to some extent embraces all its expressions. In this sense every culture really expresses a world, a totality. However, one is never dealing with a 'closed totality', otherwise we would have to understand the plurality of cultures as a plurality of worlds that are incommensurable and as such totally unable to engage in dialogue and mutual comprehension.

I mean that the particularistic feature of every culture is only one side of the analysis. In every culture it is in fact man that expresses himself; thus, beyond cultural differences, there is in each culture also a common feature, a universalistic feature, represented precisely by humanity and thus by the transcendence of man. As John Paul II said in his message at the time of the World Day for Peace of 1 January 2001: 'cultural diversities should be understood from the fundamental perspective of the unity of mankind, a primary historical and ontological fact, in the light of which it is possible to understand the profound meaning of diversities themselves. In truth, only a contextual vision both of the elements of unity and of diversities makes possible an understanding and interpretation of the full truth of every human culture'.

This means, amongst other things, that each man is shaped by the culture into which he is born and in which he lives. But the thoughts and actions of men are never a mere reflex or a simple correlate of the socio-cultural reality into which they are born and in which they live. However much the world into which we are born represents for us a destiny that makes us inevitably socially and culturally conditioned beings, the relationship that we establish with it is nonetheless always creative to varying degrees precisely because as men we constantly transcend ourselves and thus also transcend the socio-cultural conditions of our existence.

No man, although he is a socio-cultural animal, can ever be reduced in toto to the biological and socio-cultural conditions of his existence. In the same way no culture, although it expresses a 'totality' of meaning, can arrogate to itself the right to cover everything as regards what may be said about what is 'human'. Man is therefore the true foundation of the plurality of cultures; the dignity of man is the true yardstick, the real normative criterion of each culture (2). Employing the words of the already quoted message of John Paul II one could also say that 'the authenticity of every culture, the value of the ethos that it bears, namely the solidity of its moral orientation, can in a certain way be measured by whether it is for man and for the promotion of his dignity at every level and in every context'. In this sense one culture is never worth the same as another indifferently; nor can we say that one culture is totally incommensurable with another culture. Some elements of opaqueness that are difficult to understand and thus are also a source of conflict are, in truth, possible when two cultures, especially if they are living cultures, enter into contact with each other. For that matter, this also applies to individuals who belong to the same culture. However, given that a profoundly human dimension is at work one is never dealing with an absolute let us express the idea in such terms incommensurability. The uniqueness and transcendence of every man in relation to the biological and socio-cultural conditions of his existence constitute the true condition of making possible, respectively, the plurality of cultures and the structural 'openness' of each culture, which is an indispensable premise for an authentic encounter between cultures.

Identity and Encounter with the 'Other'

In a rather schematic way we could say that the plurality of cultures has today become an especially burning problem following, first and foremost, two events: on the one hand, globalisation, and on the other, the terrorist attack on the twin towers of New York. Whereas globalisaton has forced (and forces) the cultures of the world to look at each other in the eyes from near at hand in a way that has never happened before, thereby raising again in a dramatic way the question of identity and of conflict between cultures, the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 seems first and foremost to have wanted to distance them, pushing them instead to what Samuel Huntington already perceived before 11 September as an unavoidable 'clash of civilisations'. In both cases we are dealing with an aspect that appears to be rather worrying: the difficulty that the dominant cultures of today's world encounter is that of taking the premise mentioned above seriously. I would like to explain this point.

At a time when the Western world seems to be launched on the path of 'post-modernity' whilst other worlds, for example that of Islam, run the risk of exaggerating their own identities in an increasingly exclusive and aggressive way, we should all feel forcefully how important it is for the appreciation of what is human in all cultures to occupy a significant position in how each culture understands itself. Instead, for a variety of reasons, we seem to want to flee from this reality by entrusting ourselves on the one hand to a pernicious indifference and on the other to an equally pernicious aggression, where the first is the fruit of a widespread and insubstantial cultural relativism and the second embodies the equally insubstantial claim that only one's own culture is valuable. But if it is true that dialogue with and respect for 'the other' have to become pillars on which the interpersonal and intercultural relations of global society should rest, and if it is equally true that global society, with its increasing differentiation, forces not only the various cultures but also individuals themselves who identify with the same culture to be let us express the point thus 'open' to other people's arguments given the plurality of relationships in which by now we construct our own 'selves', then, and I refer primarily to Westerners (as we are), the first obligation that we have towards ourselves and others is precisely that of abandoning the shallows of relativism in which we have run aground and regaining awareness of what we are.

Today's globalisation, as a phenomenon that is principally Western in character (the West 'becomes the world' to employ the famous phrase of Max Weber), is manifesting a culture, our culture, which, through its relativism, in reality often advances in a vandalistic way towards other cultures without however having (and this appears paradoxical) any aspiration to affirm itself. This is a culture, indeed, that seems to be becoming the world after a progressive emptying of itself, of its specifically 'human' elements, to the exclusive benefit of functional imperatives (those of the market, of science and of technology), which, in their turn, seem to function increasingly as if men did not exist. 'Man is no longer the yardstick of society', Niklas Luhmann expressly proclaims (3). This is a form of violence that from many points of view is new; a violence that generates incalculable damage inside and outside the West; a violence that eludes the questions and issues of identity and of encounter between different cultures by placing everything that is 'other' in front of a net alterative: adapt or disappear, but which also offers in this way a dangerous alibi for the most varied fundamentalist reactions, including terrorism itself.

The strength of a culture, instead, lies in its capacity to relate continually to what is 'other' without losing awareness of its own identity; in its capacity to move as much as possible towards the other without breaking the ties that it has with itself, with its own history and with its own tradition. As I have written elsewhere the notion of 'elastic' is now the ideal metaphor for a complex identity (4). But to give the right flexibility to this elastic we certainly do not need indifference, perhaps disguised by tolerance or exhortations to cultivate 'the virtue of a lack of direction'(5). On the contrary, we need strong beliefs, a clear orientation in the direction of the freedom and dignity of man and above all else a large, creative, imaginative ability to bear witness.

On this point there is a passage in the last book of John Paul II, Memory and Identity (6), that I believe is of fundamental importance: the passage where the Pope seeks to appreciate to the full the fundamental role of culture in the lives of peoples and nations which are not so much called to draw up a 'theory of culture' as to 'to bear witness to culture' (p. 105). This is an example of yet another ray of light thrown by this great Supreme Pontiff on one of the most intricate challenges of our times, namely intercultural dialogue. As has been underlined by the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola, as well, dialogue with 'other cultures' is never merely a question of tolerance, of reciprocity or of integration. It is certainly all of this but it should never be only this, becoming perhaps an alibi for not entering the field to the full, an alibi for hiding oneself. It is our own humanity, the humanity that we share with all the men of the world, that requires that in dialogue with others who come from cultures that are different from ours each one of us should first of all be ourselves, creative witnesses to our own identity.

For that matter, on close analysis, the encounter with another person or with 'another' culture is always primarily an adventure with ourselves, with the culture that is ours. This is somewhat like translating text. 'To understand is to translate', wrote George Steiner (1995), and it is in this work of translation that we really mobilise all the resources that are available to us in our mother tongue. It is in the encounter with the other that we can discover not only our own limits but also the treasures that are hidden in our own culture and which we have ceased to think about or which we have never thought about before. And it is for this reason, in the final reckoning, that we should even thank the other for having helped us to discover such treasures; it is for this reason that the other person even becomes a resource, an opportunity, an impulse to go to the depths of ourselves and thus to enrich ourselves.

Christianity, with all its inadequacies, which in the past even flowed over into blood, has for over two thousand years been one of the most successful examples of this ability to learn from the other without forgoing oneself. The idea of transcendence, the specific eschatology of Christianity, the Church herself, when they enter the history of a people or of a nation establish a sort of constant tension in the whole of its reality. Faced with the God of Abraham and of Jesus Christ no order in the world, if one can express the point in these terms, is the same as before; no man and no culture are 'totally others' anymore. And despite the misunderstandings that there may have been in this area down the centuries, today it appears very clear that we are dealing with an order that is always concerned about distinctions (the things of Caesar and those of God); is always 'capable of being perfected'; is always called to a 'novelty' that in itself does not allow forms of stiffening at the level of individual life or the level of social life.

From this point of view, the translation of 'the other' referred to above should really become a form of witness, a witness that through Jesus Christ is rendered to the dignity of every man, without seeking to know beforehand 'what' has to be successively translated or 'how' to do this or if it will be possible, because, as has already been pointed out, varyingly sized areas of the untranslatable and thus of possible conflicts should always be taken into account in the relationship between cultures. But this does not remove the fact that translation is possible and that all languages can be enriched thanks to the new and unexpected that always springs from a concrete encounter with the other. A world that is mixing individuals and peoples of all cultures needs this sense of being translators-witnesses who know their own language well and who have sufficient creative imagination to translate the language of others and then to translate their own language into the language of other people. It is in this way that I understand the 'hydridity of civilisations' to which Cardinal Angelo Scola refers: a world where men will manage to live together in peace the more they are aware of the 'humanity' that is expressed in their own cultures and are able to bear witness to it amongst 'others', together with 'others', with due respect, necessary openness, and even with love. No cultural relativism here! And it is in relation to this capacity in the final analysis to bear witness to the dignity of man that today real identity, real openness, real universality, and in the end the real superiority of any culture, will be measured.



(1) Z. Baumann, Modernità liquida, Laterza, Bari 2002.

(2) S. Belardinelli, Sociologia della cultura, in Enciclopedia del Novecento, Supplemento III, Roma, Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana 2004, 313-318.

(3) N. Luhmann, Sistemi sociali, Il Mulino, Bologna 1990, 354.

(4) S. Belardinelli, L'elastico come metafora della identità in una società complessa, in Id. (a cura di), L'Italia elastica. Religione e vita civile in Emila Romagna, Marche e Umbria, Roma, Ideazione Editrice 2004, 7-23 .

(5) U. Beck, Che cos'è la globalizzazione?, Carocci, Firenze 1999, 176.

(6) Giovanni Paolo II, Memoria e Identità, Rizzoli, Milano 2005, 105.

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