ArtilesWhat is TranscommunalityLetters to the Editor

Contrary to much media imagery, it is not diversity, such as the term “ethnic conflict” implies, that in some absolute sense is the cause of problems in the world. Certainly there are those whose cold-hearted and malicious use of group identities has acerbated terrible conflicts. But as I point out in my book about “transcommunal” cooperation: The strong desire for rooted affiliations is not the source of the problem….The real dilemma we face is the lack of constructive and mutually respectful interaction among those diverse settings, rather than the diversity itself. (Childs, 2003, p. 7) Certainly, we must recognize that the impetus for group affiliations whatever their outcome, is a deep aspect of humanness. As Simone Weil, writing in the nightmarish days of exile from Nazi domination observed, in her book The Need for Roots, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul” (1952, p. 41). Sometimes it is homogenizing efforts of powerful elites to dominate others through obliteration of their cultural/historical distinctiveness that stands in the way of a cooperation which respects difference while valuing communication and interaction. Other times it is a lack of mutual respect and understanding that blocks diverse communities from building on there own distinctive histories and cultures and so reaching out to others in positive ways.

The Native Americans who called themselves the Haudenosaunee understood the importance of diversity as a basis for cooperation when they created their renown “Iroquois Confederacy” or “Great League of Peace” composed of five autonomous “hearths” or nations. According to their own history they were originally (sometime well before the European arrivals) five warring nations; these being from west to the east the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Ononondaga, the Oneida, and the Mohawks.* Through the efforts of a man known as the Peacemaker and his associates, “the Mother of the Nations” and Hiawatha (or Hayonhawatha), the wars were stopped and a constructive flexible federation of peaceful cooperation was created. This “Great League of Peace” was modeled on the multi-family longhouses of the Haudenosaunee. Each nation was in this view, like an autonomous family with its own space that concomitantly cooperated with the other nations in the federated longhouse organization that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Hudson River of New York State and southern Canada. Coordinated autonomy without top down hierarchical centralized control was fundamental to the classic organization of the Haudenosaunee. The Great League of Peace is emblematic of how diversity can be the basis for cooperation, rather than a barrier to it (of course we must be alert to the limitations of using other moments, other settings as impossible complete “models” for any our actions as Brewer and Teeney point out in their article on the peace process in Northern Ireland in this issue of TCN).

Given the importance of distinctive social affiliations for so many people around the world, we must be very careful about overtly egalitarian claims of being “color blind” or of “not caring what culture someone comes from, since we are all part of the human family.” Of course the “human family” intention of such depictions is positive. But, to reach people in different communities with respect, requires recognition of that which is important to them rather than totally ignoring such significance. For many peoples around the world their ethnic roots, their distinctive histories, and their unique cultural moorings are vital and lived in a daily way. To ignore these distinctive locations or what I elsewhere call “emplacements of affiliation” that are so important to many is to disrespect them. Such disrespect undermines the very goal of human cooperation. The outcome of such disrespect is a breakdown in communication, feelings of being dishonored, and resultant increases in misunderstandings, anger, and eventual withdrawal from any meaningful interactions. Furthermore to not recognize the significance of distinctive rooted affiliations is to loose sight of and touch with peoples whose communal foundations offer places of resistance to rapacious systems of economic greed now sweeping the world. One has only to look a various forms of Indigenous activism in the Americas from the Andes to the Amazon to the Arctic to see examples of such constructive place-based sense of belonging.

By contrast, the recognition of distinctive cultural/historical and other senses of place which are also “places that make sense” to diverse communities is a fundamental first step toward real communication, mutual understanding, and respect that is necessary for the human family to be more than an abstraction.

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