A shortened version of an article originally written for the Intercultural edition of the journal of the IEMed (European Institute of the Mediterranean), Barcelona, published in 2008. It still sums up things I believe about the arts in relation to self knowledge, intercultural dialogue and education.
I would like to introduce this article about intercultural dialogue with a brief glance at the theatre. Dialogue between actors on stage is not only about the text spoken; in rehearsals, a scene really begins to work when the actors start to listen to one another because then the characters listen and they and their inter-action become real.
In fact, only a very small proportion of total communication in any conversation is comprised of the words said, (some studies claim only 7%). Think of the significance of flickering or holding the eyes, facial and hand gestures, posture; shifting, tensing and relaxing the body, breathing, the vocal tone and rhythm. All these aspects communicate information about the person, their feelings and attitude. When considering intercultural dialogue it should not be forgotten that conversation and spoken dialogue always take place between individuals, whether or not they represent designated groups. We all converse both with words and by non-verbal communication. And, as in the theatre, for real dialogue to occur we must also listen.
Cultures embody different codes of conduct. In intercultural interaction mutual knowledge with reference to the other’s codes enhances the likelihood that dialogue will be successful, (in terms of understanding, whether or not there is agreement). So, which personal qualities propitiate the establishment of dialogue and nurture it’s development?
Research by Dutch, German and Australian teams studied what personality traits prove most conducive to good intercultural interaction. Though undertaken in the context of Western subjects working in foreign countries or interacting with immigrant minorities, the researchers claim indications that the study is more widely applicable.
Van der Zee and Van Oudenhoven, 2000, and Van der Zee and Van Oudenhoven, 2001, have summarised the large number of intercultural personality characteristics to five dimensions of
intercultural effectiveness. These include:
What we are talking about here, I propose, are qualities belonging to psychologically integrated, confident and flexible human beings; the qualities are clearly relevant, also, to dialogue between different age-groups, social groups, etc.
As societies become increasingly complex, it is more urgent that their citizens be given the optimum chance to develop as healthy, resourceful persons, who will thus be better able to contribute to social dialogue, creatively responsive to challenges and less likely to indulge in practices born of rancour such as the identification and rejection of scapegoats.
Very briefly, in socio-economic and political terms, this obviously means that, in the first place, governments need to priorities policies that help women and families give infants an emotionally secure start in life, as well as supporting good quality public education that encourages social integration.
From a Western European perspective, modern mass society in many ways militates against psychologically healthy and happy development. As behaviour becomes standardised, cultural content simplified and differences increasingly stratified, possibilities for real interpersonal contact become ever more reduced, or are eliminated.
Various qualities defined by Van der Zee and Van Oudernhoven require the use of the imagination. Yet a danger of excessively screen-dependent societies is the interference caused to the neural development of children’s brains, damaging image-producing - and therefore imaginative – capabilities, (this also affects the capacity for hope, a keystone of emotional resilience).
All of which leads me to argue that arts education is of fundamental importance both for individual and social well-being and for the development of intercultural dialogue.
Without doubt, one of the most effective ways to learn about different cultural codes, to experiment with them, observe one’s reactions to them and share between cultures is by means of the collective play available through different artistic disciplines. Arts and arts education offer [a degree of] knowledge of others, and stimulate reflection and emotional development. The practice of an art requires self-discipline, attention, affords satisfaction as challenges are met and overcome, leads to the combination of emotion with rational thought and behaviour. Sharing training, workshops, festivals, performances, exchange of work and dialogue, can provide enjoyable and purposeful intercultural encounters. [A specific example was discussed in the original, but needs elaboration].
The consideration of dialogue or conflict between cultures calls for reflection on the psychological mechanism that causes rejection or hatred of “the other”. I refer to the projection of rejected aspects of oneself - what C. G. Jung called the Shadow - onto another person.
The “ego” exists as an interface between the individual and the world; it provides the organising and defining idea we have of ourselves. As the child establishes modes of functioning - negotiating a balance between innate characteristics, impulses, and accepted behaviour - the ego takes shape. So too does the unconscious, in part out of aspects of character or emotional responses that are ignored or rejected. The innate cannot be extirpated; instead, repression occurs.
To glimpse, however, that one is plural, contradictory, has conflicting urges and interests, desires and fears can be profoundly disturbing to the ego which defines itself in terms of what it is not. The ego would so like to be perfect! The more ego rigidity there is, the greater the need to exorcise repressed material, so that from time to time a process of “psychic hygiene” is required; an expression of rejection of that which is repressed and despised. When a powerful dislike charged with strong feeling exists it is probable that the quality abhorred in the other mirrors one’s own repressed material. The object of projection may share elements of this material, or other details may provide a “hook” on which to hang the projection.
When a group singles out an individual or a minority group on which to project everyone else’s shadow material, the scapegoat phenomena is underway. The person or group singled out is de-humanised because only negative qualities are attributed to them, and it becomes socially acceptable to mistreat them and socially unacceptable to attempt to argue rationally about the matter. Bullying in families, at school and work, racism, anti-semitism and homophobia stem from the same mechanism.
Upbringing and education can avoid fomenting severe ego rigidity and rejection of the “other” in the first place, while increasing emotional maturity leads to the relativisation of ideals and the acceptance of one’s imperfections, thus lessening the tendency to “project” negative material. Though no panacea for all ills, artistic practices can provide a route to a deeper understanding of self and other.