Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

Belligerence and Tolerance

Before September 11, 2001, conversation and negotiation were privileged frames of reference across a range of international issues. These frames of reference reflected growing understanding among nations and regions in the world-system. They reflected the values of shared, commensurate information in international negotiations. And these frames of reference reflected agreements on the possibilities of moving through conversations (as in the work of international conferences in a range of fields) and negotiation to arrive at goals shared, or evinced, among multiple international partners. International scholarship, training, and practice based in the American research university found affinity with these frames of reference ... frames of reference that attended to tolerance, appreciation for diversity and universal standards that were being ever more strongly constituted in the open flow of information, knowledge, and ideas. Even the apparent retreat of the White House from such conversation and negotiation in several arenas across the first eight months of 2001—for example in relation to the Durban Conference on Racism, the Vieques negotiations, the Kyoto talks—did not suggest the collapse of these frames of reference; rather, the importance of such flows and sharing of knowledge was marked and reinforced.

After September 11, 2001, the paradigm of aggressiveness, of power made more raw and visible, almost instantly displaced the frame of reference based in conversation, negotiation, and open sharing of information [16] and knowledge across the globe.29 Within three days following the attack on the World Trade Center, Mayor Giuliani offered a remarkably explicit assault on relativism (produced in a more studied address at the UN two weeks later—and quoted here above), one that under the circumstances was and to some extentPage  35 is still difficult to answer. The language of aggressiveness and belligerence was newly privileged in America and in many other settings around the world. Familiar and obvious ways of working in our scholarly fields, in our training, and in our practice became dangerous exercises for us; [17] they became still more dangerous for our partners in scholarship and practice around the world, as well as for our students coming from other countries.29/30

The disposition that privileged the tolerance and recognition of difference finds a new and peculiar space when violence is centered in the American global imaginary. First, some kinds of knowledge and expertise about the world become newly valorized or revalorized. The American government has stepped into the academic debate about area studies and established anew its mark of relevance and importance with significant increases in funding research and teaching about parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Global security, and not global business, becomes the dominant theme of international discussions. Religious studies, and Islam in particular, become newly significant as well to American universities, but in a new and awkward fashion, now to be reckoned as a challenge to national security rather than as an opening to the world's knowledge.31

American multiculturalism and commitments to diversity rested upon a kind of secular assumption; they rested, moreover, on the belief that a free flow of ideas was not only the future, but also a force that would ultimately reshape the contours of the world.32 Now, this recognition of difference and this search for knowledge about unfamiliar others are tinged with an anxiety marked by uncertainty about global futures. Or perhaps thought of differently, it is marked by the certainty of violence.33 Tolerance becomes an even more important value to celebrate and to find in sensibilities and practices elsewhere precisely because America is no longer so confident that its own sensibilities of its multicultural self will be extended elsewhere. But tolerance is not something only to celebrate. It is not a uniform that some wear and some do not. It is, as can be seen so clearly since 9/11, a field of hard and never-ending work and struggle.34

But in these "war-time" circumstances, where tolerance becomes less a search for mutual understanding and more one side in a war against intolerance, the marks of an American nation simultaneously parochial and universal becomePage  36 apparent. American power and interests produce presumptions about the world (and about America) more consequential than those produced by other nations. At the same time, America's limitations also become more visible on the world stage; these limitations make the nation's action, or inaction, readily accessible. Whether in the unacknowledged conditions of its action or in its unintended consequences, the effects of America's presumptions and interventions into the world are inevitably being read from a variety of standpoints. Is recognition of such various standpoints heresy or a means to competency or is it simply a matter of responsibility?35

The appreciation of different interpretations of the world during a war against terrorism is one kind of recognition. It is also important to mark differences that go unnoticed as a new master narrative around the fight against terrorism succeeds and in part displaces the debate about globalization's promise and problems. While economic crises in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s animated debates about globalization, the economic crisis in Argentina over the last year is rendered, at least within the vision of America, as nothing more than a distraction from the new problem of global terrorism, if that. Poverty abides, and perhaps acquires a new significance as the seedbed for terrorism, but when that poverty is linked to devastating health conditions whether around AIDS or less recognized plagues, its importance is less clear for the battle against terrorism.

The American university is deeply caught up in the political economy of its global engagements. Whether as a source of funding or a search for relevance, the sacred space of open discourse is itself shaped by the power of those narratives seeking to influence it. In some ways, the tolerance for difference finds a new and difficult space when readings of American power prove inconsistent with the search for dialogue. Perhaps certain heresies that sustain value in our work—the attention to pain, sorrow, want on their own terms—are at risk as they are reconstituted as critical issues within national security and foreign policy discourses.

We might also recognize that this attention to tolerance is situational and short-term. Tolerance has another life, in the cautious, continuing, and courageous support of acceptance of others in everyday life. Tolerance may not be advanced by national or trans-national dictates but rather through the almost invisible little acts of accepting and allowing difference at a work-Page  37site, in a market-place, at a border, in a government office, in a school, in a neighborhood, within families, among friends, in policing, in the handling of news, in rituals and ceremonies, and in activities of leisure and pleasure. What are the fates of such critical civilities under the weight of languages and acts of belligerence spanning the globe and engrossing global media?

Perhaps this is the heretical knowledge we seek, these critical civilities that go unmarked by those new efforts to redefine the world in the light of unique tragedy threatening an even more barbaric future. Or perhaps the tolerance we need to define is one that stands in the glare of belligerence itself. That, however, suggests the need to mark forms of identification and layers of difference that organize visions of dialogue and violence.