When protests intensified in Ukraine last month after now-former president Viktor Yanukovych rejected closer ties with the European Union, journalists joked on Twitter just how low the bar would be to get booked on television to talk about the unfolding situation. Scan a Wikipedia page, lack any self-consciousness about your lack of real expertise, and you are good to go. The New York Times made that gag serious with a long piece on the declining number of Russia experts and the extent to which they have been marginalized from policy-making.
“There has been less internal resistance,” Jason Horowitz wrote, “to American presidents seeking to superimpose their notions on a large and complex nation of 140 million people led by a former K.G.B. operative with a zero-sum view of the world.”
I am no Russia pro. But as Russia made its move into Ukraine, I was reading “Words of Radiance,” the latest brick of a book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, an epic fantasy series about a country mired in a protracted war with a species they do not particularly understand. It is true that a story about an order of warriors who can summon fantastic weapons out of the ether and spend their time killing giant crab-like creatures doesn’t exactly present us with a solution for a renewal of a geopolitical confrontation we thought we had left behind. But Sanderson’s series is a reminder of just how many fantasy novels rest on a simple truth that the news cycle seems to discover anew every time a conflict flares up in an area that has been neglected by the American imagination: Cross-cultural expertise is not just useful in a crisis, in part because you never know when you might need it.
The basic setup for Sanderson’s series is as follows. The human leaders of a kingdom called Alethkar have gone to war against a species known as the Parshendi, after the Parshendi leadership signed a treaty with Alethkar’s old king, then promptly broke it and had him assassinated. The late king’s advisers interrogate the Parshendi who ordered the killing but cannot extract any information from them — at least not before they are put to death. Now, years into a war, the only Alethi still trying to understand why the Parshendi took what seems like an inexplicable action to start what they knew would be a costly war are a pair of scholars, the late king’s daughter Jasnah and her ward, Shallan.
That description, in keeping with the tropes of epic fantasy, is a a mouthful of complicated concepts and archaic-sounding names. But the point that comes through by the end of “Words of Radiance” is simple: If you do not know who you are fighting, and why you are in conflict with them, you can put yourself, the people fighting under you and even the society you’re arranging around a conflict in an enormous amount of danger.
A similar emphasis on cultural understanding drives the action of the sci-fi classic “Ender’s Game,” published in 1985 and adapted as a big-budget action movie last year. The catastrophic, ongoing war between humans and an alien race, is rooted in cross-species misreadings. The aliens, an insect-like species that operates as a hive mind, make the first error: they assume that human brains work the same way and that humans place a similarly low value on the lives of individuals. The aliens kick off the war by massacring the entire crew of a ship. Later, when they learn what they have done, they experience profound regret, but they have no way to communicate an apology to the species they so gravely offended. Humans and aliens learn to communicate only after the latter have been almost entirely exterminated. The instrument of the tragedy is military, but its genesis is a profound misunderstanding.
Even J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series makes a hero of Harry’s mentor, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, by repeatedly emphasizing his attention to and interest in other magical creatures and cultures. While the students of Hogwarts are convincing themselves that the merpeople who live in the lake on the school grounds are frightening monsters, Dumbledore is out speaking Mermish to their leader. When Dolores Umbridge, Dumbledore’s temporary and sadistic replacement as head of the school, falls afoul of the centaurs in the Forbidden Forest, it is Dumbledore who has enough credibility with the touchy community to venture in and save her. Dumbledore even understands why Hermione Granger’s well-intentioned efforts to liberate the house-elves who work in many wizarding households are doomed to fail. Hermione does not understand the profound cultural attachment many house-elves have to their role, putting them in a position where they badly want to respect her wishes but feel deep discomfort at the thought of demanding pay and reduced working hours.
The careful attention Dumbledore pays to cultures not his own may seem like diversions from his other duties and interests, among them shaping the values of a new generation of British witches and wizards. But Dumbledore is not simply interested in looking outside himself: he makes a close study of wizarding society, values and prejudices as well. It is a characteristic that makes him an astute political infighter in his conflicts with the Ministry of Magic, and that helps him gain a deep understanding of Voldemort, the wizard who tries to establish a dictatorship based on a doctrine of magical supremacy. Rowling eventually reveals that Dumbledore’s interests in other kinds of people and in other ways of living are a sort of correction for the errors of his youth, when he, too, embraced a vision of tyrannical rule without recognizing the difficulty of establishing it or the cost it might have for others. Caring more about the cultures he dismissed as a young man has made Dumbledore a more effective leader, a more compassionate teacher, and a better man. Cultural competence is a significant part of what makes him a hero.
None of this is to imply that if we all just try a little bit better to understand each other, the world would be a peaceful place. You can study a culture and come away with contempt for it, as Voldemort did with his stint in mainstream wizarding society. You may come to understand another culture more deeply, even as your own norms call for continued acts of vengeance, as they do in “Ender’s Game.” And sometimes, cultures define themselves in opposition to each other, as Vladimir Putin has done with the United States on such policy areas as the treatment of LGBT people and the countries’ relative conceptions of democracy and national identity. But even if cultural knowledge cannot prevent a conflict, it can help guide it. And understanding what you and your country are up against can, at minimum, be a way to better understand yourself.