Hijacked Discourses Impede Cultural Plurality in International Affairs
Seán Golden 24 April 2024

Jürgen Habermas’ theory of civic discourse imposes binding rules on debate in order to subsequently bind behavior. Perhaps this could be extended to international affairs. Wang Minmin, Emerita Professor of Communications Studies at Rider University, advocates establishing “a set of negotiable yet binding communicative rules and values, [and] world opinion [that] would both allow civic discourse and act as the binding power of an international norm.” Such an approach would require “that we must first acknowledge the differences in moral orders on both sides, but then also move beyond this to realize the common ground on which both sides stand.”

Shivshankar Menon of India’s Center for Social and Economic Progress has analyzed the dysfunctions caused by contradictory ways of approaching geopolitical problems because of the terms imposed on the debate, citing as an example the difference between India and China confronting the problem of a “border conflict” versus their defense of “national sovereignty” or “territorial integrity.” The former can be negotiated, the latter cannot. He has declared that the “liberal democratic world order” has been neither liberal nor democratic for most of the world, highlighting the fact that most countries in the world do not share the “Western” perception of the geopolitical order because it does not function for them.

Realpolitik power discourses have hijacked the debate on international affairs. An innovative approach to promoting common and consensual paradigms and terminologies would facilitate greater cultural plurality in the dialogue of civilizations.

From Shivshankar Menon’s point of view, the countries of the Global South “have steadily lost faith in the legitimacy and fairness of the international system” because the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the G-20 have failed “to act on issues of development,” and that this failure “is compounded by the record, just in this century, of serial invasions, interventions, attempts at regime change, and covert interference engineered by major powers,” causing “many developing countries to feel even more insecure and to doubt the international order”.

Fiona Hill, fellow at the Robert Bosch Institute and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has noted a “deep-seated international resistance and in some cases open challenges, to continued American leadership of global institutions.” She describes a “mutiny” against what the Global South sees as “the collective West dominating the international discourse and foisting its problems on everyone else, while brushing aside their priorities on climate change compensation, economic development, and debt relief,” calling this “a very clear negative reaction to the American propensity for defining the global order and forcing countries to take sides.” She recognizes that “they are the world, representing 6.5 billion people. Our terminology reeks of colonialism.” As a result, “the United States and Europe will have to engage the rest of the world in an honest conversation…and actively listen to their feedback and concerns on specific issues”.

Alex Lo, commentator for the South China Morning Post, frames this hijacked discourse in terms of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. “Rather than outright coercion or repression – which is usually not the preferred method of first resort in ostensibly democratic countries – you need to establish a kind of cultural hegemony,” and “set the parameters of acceptable public debate.”

Wang Bin, Professor of Literary Theory and Cultural Criticism at Zhongshan University, describes his involvement in a transcultural program called the Keyword Project. “Each word, if presumed to be a key expression across conceptual boundaries between different linguistic-cultural communities, was to be explored separately in six articles by six contributors coming from six areas: China, India, America, France, Africa, and the Arab world,” in the hope of creating “a shared platform where we could see how a more or less identical mental conception works in different linguistic contexts and consequently contributes to structuring or re-structuring their respective lifeworlds (Lebenswelt).” But in the end, all of the texts had to be translated into English, and he was unable to do so “because the rule of the English language has already prescribed the meaning of ‘Chinese’ in advance”. The monopoly of English “shapes Reality into one meaningful world, among many other linguistically-shaped worlds.”

Chad Hansen, Emeritus Professor of Chinese Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, has defined a “translation paradigm” that assumes that “determining the right English translation equivalent is a relatively straightforward, empirical matter that precedes interpretation.” But this paradigm ignores the fact that “many alternative translation equivalents could make sense of each isolated sentence containing the term,” and to decide among these “requires some principle for evaluating the implied theory of what beliefs the writers held. Meaning cannot be determined independently from belief.” A culturally pluralistic approach is needed to respond to the dilemma imposed by hijacked discourses.

Menon’s example of the difference between a “border conflict” and the defense of “national sovereignty” or “territorial integrity” is an example of how a hijacked discourse can impede the resolution of conflicts. Another example of this dilemma is the debate over the “rule of law” in international affairs. The Chinese term is fazhi (法治). The official Chinese translation into English is “rules-based governance.” In the Chinese context, it is a contrast with renzhi (人治), meaning “personal rule” or “one-man rule.” Governance based on rules would be a defense against the capricious rule of a powerful individual. “Rule by law”, which can be modified, is not the same as “rule of law”, which implies that the law is absolute. The terminology of European languages corresponds more to “rules-based governance” – Rechtsstaat, État de Droit, Estado de Derecho, Stato di Diritto – than to “rule of law.” By assigning universality to the connotations of “rule of law” in English, the hijacked discourse fails to find them in the case of China, but also fails to recognize the authentic connotations of fazhi in its Chinese context, let alone the connotations of “rule of law” in the European context, imposing a monopoly of meaning that impedes dialogue based on cultural plurality.

Better awareness of cultural plurality could facilitate a cross-cultural approach to constructing a common and consensual multicultural civic discourse. Were it possible to promote cultural plurality, it might be possible to construct a common ground, with common consensual rules to promote a common and consensual cross-cultural civic discourse that constructs a binding rules-based world order. Workshops or laboratories where experts from different cultures could discuss what they mean by the keywords of the international debate might facilitate such a methodology. This would require more collaborative international and multicultural efforts to promote and build better mutual and common knowledge and understanding, including more cross-cultural collaborative international and multicultural teams to promote and build better mutual and common knowledge and understanding, perhaps along the lines of the Europe-China Cultural Compass or the Dictionary of Untranslatables or the Reset DOC Intercultural Lexicon.



Cover photo: US President Joe Biden (R) and China’s President Xi Jinping (L) meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 14, 2022. (Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP.)

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