Revisiting earlier conflict resolution proposals (3) – Rorty’s “Redescription”

My earlier articles of  Reconciliation and Transcendent discourse highlighted a problem inherent in two otherwise extremely valuable proposals for the resolution of conflicts – the difficulty in determining the  “neutral spaces”outside the parties involved suggested by Lederach and Pearce & Littlejohn respectively.

Today I would like to explore the work conducted in this field by American philosopher Richard Rorty. Redescription, Rorty’ s strategy for conflict resolution, was first outlined in his booked Human rights rationality and sentimentality (1993) and can be described as follows:


  1. There is no reality. As such, what humans experience is a mere text that can be translated into a variety of ways. However, the problem with translating texts is that there are no criteria to help us judge between the various interpretations.
  2. Because our universe is relative, one cannot speak of the way things are in themselves. One can only speak of the use(s) humans want to put into things. Therefore, anything can be “redescribed”, given different uses and redefined by means of new vocabularies. This is done in such a way as to create a new way of understanding and doing something. Rorty sketches in his book a number of moving stories that speak of sexual sadism in the Serbian and Muslim conflict and of stories of slavery, of sexual and racial discrimination throughout the world. To some, these stories may reveal harsh brutalities. To others these stories may speak of “just retribution upon the infidels”or “valiant soldering on the part of our men”.
  3. People describe and redescribe themselves  as whatever they want to be, according to what gives meaning to their lives at a certain point in time.
  4. Meaningful life occurs for some people when they tell the story of their contribution to a community; when they are guided by a desire for solidarity; when truth is to them what is good for us to believe (Rorty 1991:22). Truth, then, means the same for everyone, much like other terms such as here, there, good, bad, you. Others prefer to describe themselves as standing in relation to non-human reality, ultimately seeking objectivity.
Personally, the notion that our existence is relative  and everything is therefore capable of endless redescription is extremely appealing to me and will I certainly agree with Rorty on that. But where I start to differ is his insistence that as a result of the relativity of realities,   the vocabularies of  different cultures are often incommensurable, i.e. there are no neutral criteria between them which can lead to dialogue. He did, indeed, propose a number of solutions to the problem of incommensurable vocabularies:

1. Negative dialogue. 

Rorty invites us to convince people that arguments to their contrary are morally irrelevant. This convincing should be done by manipulating their sentiment(s) so that they come to imagine themselves in the place of the ‘other’. In Rorty’s terms the ‘other’ is ‘despised’, ‘oppressed’and one ‘find [s] it hard to be nice to”. These are, Rorty states, no more than ‘deprived’ people and we should see them as such. So, that the nature of the dialogue proposed by Rorty is based on a degradation of the other party which by its very constitution defeats the prospect of dialogue. Hence the label ‘negative dialogue’here given to this characteristic in Rorty’s work.

There is, furthermore, another element in his thought that impedes a meaningful exchange between parties. This is found in statements such as the following:

We cannot leap outside our Western social democratic skins when we encounter other cultures, and we should not try. All we should try to do is to get inside the inhabitants of that culture long enough to get some idea of how we look to them and whether they have any ideas we can use (Rorty 1991:212-213). 

Dialogue here is only to be initiated on the premise that it is carried out according to the terms and conditions imposed by the dominant party.

2. Liberal re-description. 
The term liberal refers here to the characteristic in Rorty’s thought that mirrors obvious influences from the individualistic, rational structures developed in the European Enlightenment. Thus Rorty’s suggestions for re-describing conflicts is to organise the events which crowd upon us with the help of the idea of a universal history of humanity.

Perhaps a more acceptable alternative to the imbalance found in Rorty’s work is to review it under a more pluralistic approach where competing forms of social organisation stand as equals. There will no longer be incommensurable vocabularies but platforms at equal levels. Cultures will be aligned on a continuum that will not only provide much needed impartiality but will also furnish the parties with the chance to learn from one another. This will not be a unidirectional learning process but a process that shares and borrows in various directions.

Perhaps easier said than done, I know.  But any proposal that helps us resolve disputes at all levels is as valid as the next.


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