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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Two Minutes With Gregg Lambert

The founding director of The SU Humanities Center raps about the Dalai Lama and his "recipe" for world peace

Sept. 5, 2012, by Rob Enslin

Gregg Lambert
Gregg Lambert

Gregg Lambert, Dean's Professor of the Humanities and founding director of The Syracuse University Humanities Center, is a busy man. Since the summer, he has been involved with the planning of the Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit to campus. He also oversees Syracuse Symposium, whose theme this fall is "Memory-Media-Archive"; The Central New York Humanities Corridor, a large-scale partnership involving Cornell University and the University of Rochester; and the Perpetual Peace Project, a multi-year, multi-national initiative.

Gregg recently chatted with Kelly Rodoski in SU News Services.

What is your perspective on world peace, and how it can be achieved?

In her filmed segment for the Perpetual Peace Project, the renowned French writer and feminist Helene Cixous spoke of the need for another horizon to explain the idea of peace. The practical objectives of personal security and human rights are certainly important objectives that everyone agrees are preliminary conditions for peace, but they do not define the positive conditions of what it means to live in a peaceful society. The 9/11 attacks brought home for Americans what the rest of the world already knew: there is no safe territory, no security zone. Today, we live in a world without borders--where former barriers against violence and conflict have become more porous. In response, we run the risk of mistaking security for peace.

As German philosopher Immanuel Kant foresaw at the end of the 18th century, we, as a species, are becoming so globally interdependent that even the most remote conflict in some distant corner of the world can, sooner or later, threaten everyone. It is for this reason that the idea of what Kant called “perpetual peace” is becoming less of an abstraction and more of a practical necessity. Historically and politically, this knowledge continues to elude us, even though many will say we are continuing to make progress as a species. But are we? As a philosopher, my goals for this project are very simple: change people’s minds, get them to take the idea seriously, start to imagine what it would be like to live in a peaceful society.

You are one of the founders of the Perpetual Peace Project, an international partnership revisiting the prospects for world peace in the 21st century. What have been some of the outcomes so far?

The project actually began several years ago during a conversation between an academic (myself), a curator, and a diplomat in the United Nations. We soon realized that even while the concept of peace belonged to the history of each of our institutions, it had fallen into disrepute and disfavor as a critical term. In philosophy, as well as in art and culture, the representation of violence has, for some time, become the primary mechanism for raising consciousness about social and political issues. In diplomacy, the term "peace" has become so corrupted by ideology and overt propagandistic abuses that the legal objectives of security, conflict resolution, and transitional justice have been employed in its place.

The three of us wondered what we would be sacrificing, as a humanity, if we completely abandoned any serious consideration of the concept. So we decided to start a “peace movement” and took Kant’s 1795 manifesto "Toward Perpetual Peace" as a conceptual platform for launching different kinds of discussions, dialogues, and exhibits within and among our respective institutions.

For example, we approached an institute in the United Nations about organizing a conversation between philosophers and diplomats around the concept of peace. We even traveled to Geneva in the spring of 2008 to present the project to the International Human Rights Convention. At first, the immediate response was skeptical, even dismissive, but sooner or later, everyone wanted to get involved.  Aaron Levy of the Slought Foundation, one of the other project leaders, organized a conference at the International Peace Institute in New York. Other initiatives have also taken place, including an exhibit at the New Museum and at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Last spring, I traveled to Seoul, Korea, to engage in a public conversation with the leader of the Progressive Party, and traveled to the DMZ to film a new segment for the video installation of the project.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama will visit our campus in October--a collaboration between SU and the One World Commuinty Foundation. What kind of impression do you hope His Holiness will have on our campus and community?

Over the course of the summer, in planning for the visit, one of the phrases that struck me most powerfully was "everyone should be welcome." I understood this to be a statement of policy, but also a principle of hospitality. Everyone should be equally welcome; students, the community, and the greater community at large.

In some ways, I think the scale of the event that will take place testifies to the continued importance and power of massive demonstrations for peace. This is not unrelated to what took place in the streets of Cairo during the Arab Spring.  People can be motivated to come together to express a desire for something that transcends their everyday lives, something that is even supernatural. There is no other way to explain it. Now if the idea of something transcendent to their everyday lives happens to be embodied in the person of His Holiness, it still expresses something intangible and depersonalized that is possible for everyone to share. The idea the drove people out onto the streets of Cairo may have been different, immediately political, and had to do with human rights, but I don't think so in the end. No one really knows what the world will become tomorrow, whether it will be the same as the day before, but the action of coming together is always invested with hope that something will change.

After the [Cairo] demonstrations were over, people, for the most part, went back to their normal routines and interests. But things underwent or are still undergoing a gradual and administered change. Maybe that’s how transformations happen, in fits and starts. But they must begin with a sudden, unexpected, and most often inexplicable shifting of consciousness, which I think happened with Arab Spring. Just remember, before it happened no one thought it would be possible, but after the fact, we are confronted not only with its possibility, but also with a reality, even though we don't have a clear picture of what is happening on the ground today or how things will evolve in the future. Likewise, after the Dalai Lama's visit, people in Syracuse and elsewhere in the region will probably return to their normal lives, but maybe something will change them for them, as well. One can only hope. 

A weeklong series of Eat Together for Peace events—exhibits, performances and meals--will culminate in the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21 on the Shaw Quad. Why are food, arts, and culture good vehicles to promote discussions about peace?

There are many etymological and social origins of the concept of peace. Almost universally, the word of greeting in many languages is an expression of peace. Both the handshake and the embrace are the most archaic expressions of hospitality, and even precede the idea of friendship. The kiss, which has evolved into a modern romantic act, originally signaled a gesture of alliance between a host and a stranger who would be accepted as a guest, rather than an enemy.  The ritual act of eating together, sharing a common meal, or breaking of a fast is a fundamental ritual of almost every human religion (the Eucharist, the Passover meal, Iftar during Ramadan), and defines the character of intimacy that belongs to any human group or family. It is, at its origin, a ritual of hospitality that actually existed before religions.

However, as the idea of peace evolved, it has been transformed and severely qualified. All of these gestures and rituals of peace are shared only with those who already belong to one's own group, religion, identity, family, or intimate sphere. There is no place for the stranger who exists outside the relationships of intimacy and hospitality. Moreover, like "charity," the word "hospitality" has become an act reduced to its most bare and naked sense, deprived of all warmth and love--a crumb of bread given to the refugee or the poor. Stripped of all the ritual trappings, however, the idea of eating together is actually a practice of peace.

In this program, organized by Marnie Blount-Gowan, we have removed food as a necessary ingredient. It is simply the act of people coming together with other people who are different from themselves. It is the most fundamental and basic ingredient for a peaceful society--the first course in the meal of perpetual peace.