Philosophy of Internationalism

The annual meeting at the International Center of Worcester, MA, on 17 June 2013  where I was privileged to represent Finland as one of the two invited speakers  gave me a chance to develop some afterthoughts on what internationalism is really about. In the meeting, I discussed “Internationalism: What Works and What Doesn’t” by offering insights and concrete examples originally developed here on my home pages. The friendly hosting of Dr. Royce Anderson and the lively discussion in the Q & A session at the end of the talks now propel me forward to articulating what I venture to call my Philosophy of Internationalism.

I’m not very interested in internationalism that leaves us untouched, unchanged at the core… I’m captivated by international encounters that transform us, offering us a new angle of looking at things, a new aspect of our personality that we had not seen before, a new way of forging connections and finding our ways in the world. When I spent the year 1994-1995 as a Rotary Exchange Student in Albion, Michigan, my gradual acquaintances with local American youth in the little college town were not just something superadded onto my previous friendships back home. Rather, they set me on the path of rethinking the values of my life whenever I spend time abroad, taking stock of the good things already achieved, setting challenges for what is yet to be accomplished.

International friendships strike to the very heart of who we are, and they do this in a different way than domestic friendships. Neither the long distance between friends nor the extended gaps in getting together face-to-face do nothing to dim the light of insights gained whenever we sit down for talks with international friends. I will want to go as far as to suggest, indeed, that it is the very differences between us that make possible an examination of our lives in ways that would be more difficult to come by in our home countries.

There is no idea in so-called internationalism I’d be more averse to than that of cultural supremacy, of fashioning the fantasy that a certain country (or countries) stand(s) superior to others in its/their achievements. This is a vicious circle: if one holds such a view, one has nothing to learn from other cultures… This is to deny the transformative power of internationalism.

If international encounters, on the contrary, can genuinely transform us, then should we not approach all the different cultures with open-ended curiosity? If we have something to learn from all different cultures, then is it not ultimately the case that not only all human beings but all different cultures are equal? Is it not, as a matter of principle, ethnocentric narcissism to think that we have most to learn from the members of our own culture and not so much from those of others?

I hold the opposite view. Since inter-cultural encounters can really have a transformative power, those encounters can be just as effective when two people from cultures relatively remote from one another chance to meet on common ground. I’ve been touched by music from Serbia, flabbergasted by the deliciousness of Afghan food, moved to tears by the sheer beauty of Iranian or Japanese film. And many of us are familiar with stories of people from different cultures meeting without a common language to start with, little by little forging a lasting relationship.

I think of different cultures, in sum, as taking part in a global & multicultural conversation or a series of conversations  aiming at increased understanding of the world. With some imaginative stretching of terms, I want to call this democracy of cultures, and it is of foremost global importance to foster democracy or equity at such an inter-cultural level. Even matters of disagreement – if only we are willing to pierce their surface, precisely by thinking that different cultures can come into a dialogue – can be used as impetus for growth and increased understanding of the surrounding reality.

At the Questions & Answers session following our talks in Worcester some of the most intriguing comments went in the direction of encouraging the idea that folks from different cultures can indeed create unexpected co-operation and vicinity. It goes without saying that there are stories of ethnic groups failing to meet on common ground, where they remain isolated both from one another and from the country they’re inhabiting. But oftentimes this is far less an expression of the incommensurability of different cultures as such than of failed policies of integration or, say, the spreading outbursts of prejudice. Most commonly it is a matter of doing something together that helps us bridge cultural differences.

The first speaker at the event, an Armenian Professor of Medical Education, Gevorg Yaghjyan (who works for the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia) discussed the health care system of his country from an international perspective and the various examples of successful interaction therein. His country is one of far-reaching diaspora: approximately 3 million Armenians live within the borders of their home country, while 7 million Armenians live outside of those borders. If those Armenians living in diaspora can make an important contribution to Armenian culture, then is that not, as I’d like to think, another encouraging sign of how people with difficult fates can carry out important international work?

[Photos by the International Center of Worcester]


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