Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Echoes From The Diversity Chamber

Venez comme vous etes
Originally uploaded by amsterboy
It is obvious to everyone that the face of Europe is changing. We are entering an (in my opinion healthier) era, which builds on difference as an opportunity and as a creative potential for Europe. There are more people and countries who are moving away from the “difference does not matter, let´s just get along” rhetoric and wanting to find practical strategies for negotiating the house rules of our cities, countries and Europe. More and more of us are understanding that we can never agree on values and that it is next to impossible to change one´s values. However, what we can do is agree on the ways we live and work together in a way that builds on aspirations rather than on backgrounds.

It is no wonder that the European Union is busy with the subject. With all its languages and growing migration, Europe is going through a serious shakeup. A continent that built up the nation state is now struggling with it. Therefore the year 2008 has been announced to be the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue and a new slogan has been launched: united in diversity. It is difficult to find a politician who would not mention the magic words in an opening speech: intercultural dialogue. Having spent the last two days in a conference in Paris on the subject, this has also been empirically proven on local, national and EU level.

But there is a great risk in this rising interest. The more the phrase ‘intercultural dialogue’ is used without definitions or concrete proposals, the more it faces the risk of turning into a hollow phrase. When intercultural dialogue becomes the issue rather than a practical tool for mediation, the more it detaches from our daily lives. Intercultural dialogue is not something we experience, we experience interactions with other people and we deal with concrete differences of opinion. The last year has taught me that European politicians need serious training on storytelling and on touching also our emotional side next to the pragmatic one.

I cannot change someone’s values by banging them on the head with mine. If I express no sincere interest towards his or her positions and beliefs and do not recognize the difference, we just end up having a pretentious and shallow conversation. We need to focus less on compromise and more on comprehension. We need to dare to go on the level of goals and aspirations and stop with an obsession for instance on national/shared values. The core issue is what we do when we live together, not what we believe in. By being more explicit and detailed, we can also be tough on the ones that break the rules - regardless whether they are native or immigrant.

(This photo from the streets of Paris works well for this theme. Massive McDonalds rebranding campaign on all billboards in Paris saying: Come as you are.)

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