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Expanding the middle ground

By Anmol Vellani

The fundamentalist strategy is to polarise opinion, so that the middle ground, where dialogue is possible, collapses. Intercultural dialogue cannot change the fundamentalist’s mindset, but it can strengthen the hand or augment the influence of the moderating voices in different societies, to help prevent the middle ground from shrinking further. The best opportunities for dialogue exist between individuals and groups in different societies that have analogous experiences which can be connected and crisscrossed through the arts or in other ways

I will develop my thoughts on intercultural dialogue around a specific image and then a particular fact.       

The image I have in mind is rather pedestrian: Every person is an island. For the angst-ridden from the middle of the last century, this image referred to the profound isolation of every human being, trapped in his or her own private world.  

How can you know how ice cream tastes to me or how the sun feels on my skin? You may be able to appreciate my pain, my anxieties and my fears, but you cannot feel them as I do. These were the kind of questions that tormented some philosophers who were witness to the ravages of the Second World War. 

After such anguish, one might ask, what hope is there for intercultural dialogue and understanding? 

Perhaps only cyborgs, connected to each other’s nervous systems, can overcome this existential anxiety. But two connected nervous systems become one, which destroys rather than bridges difference, removing the very need for dialogue. Even assuming that by connecting nervous systems, we do not obliterate individuality and distinct consciousness, why would two people who can read each other’s thoughts and feel each other’s feeling, want to have a dialogue with each other? 

Difference, surely, provides the reason for dialogue. You can only be interested in dialogue with someone who is different from you. If we entered into dialogue with the aim of getting rid of the need for dialogue, it would suggest that we were attached to a vision of a world of human clones. 

But can differences be so great that dialogue is precluded? How far can islands drift from each other before it is impossible to build a bridge across them? 

I believe, and I ask you to believe, that difference per se, however wide or radical, never excludes the possibility of dialogue. It is only what’s in the mind that can exclude it. It is how you imagine or construct yourself and how you imagine or construct others -- your self-conception and your conception of others -- that can rule out dialogue. You might consider yourself too superior to a particular person to be prepared to have a dialogue with him or her. Nor is it dialogue that you will seek with someone you consider to be a slave or a victim. 

Equally, fundamentalists of all hues define themselves in a way that excludes an interest in dialogue. Those who strive to be thought-controllers, emotion-manipulators, who wish to establish an exclusivist identity, are not ideologically inclined to see any value in dialogue. 

The Orientalist process of ‘othering’ affirms that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. This defining of the other in order to define oneself establishes boundaries that do not intersect, have no meeting points. Here, both the self and the other have been conceived to underscore the impossibility of dialogue between them. 

If I construct a people as alien, it is because I believe, and want others to believe, that they can only be repulsed; they cannot be assimilated, or even be accommodated or negotiated. 

What this means is that fundamentalists cannot be party to an intercultural dialogue because, in their minds, if you are not for them, you are against them. Only those people for whom such polarities do not exist are prepared for dialogue. The fundamentalist strategy is to polarise opinion, so that the middle ground, where dialogue is possible, collapses, or at least is so enfeebled as to cease to matter as a political force. 

If intercultural dialogue cannot change the fundamentalist’s mindset, who is not interested in dialogue, what can it aim to do? It can try to ameliorate the impact of what fundamentalists do. One of its purposes, therefore, must be to strengthen the hand or augment the influence of the moderating voices in different societies, to help prevent the middle ground from shrinking further. The implication for the work of artists and arts groups is plain. It is important that in their work, whether in their own societies or other societies, they seek to give voice not only to the weakest in society, but help to amplify those political voices which, if strengthened, can make a difference in the battle against fundamentalism. 

You may ask: how can artists work in totalitarian, fundamentalist societies, particularly those that have never experienced democracy? Haven’t the ruling intolerants already eliminated the middle ground, assuming that these societies ever had one? 

Let me assure you that the fundamentalist’s project of homogenisation or polarisation can never succeed in today’s world. Totalitarian societies can still suppress dissenting voices, but they cannot eliminate them. Perspectives opposed to their hegemony will survive underground. Think of what came out from under the Taliban’s cover of darkness, once it was lifted (the music, the dancing, the beauty parlours, the video films, the women’s groups). A key reason why they cannot eliminate voices in different registers in their societies is that today there are information highways to other ideas and perspectives. The road to a world other than the one to which they would like to chain their people does not need to be paved in asphalt. 

The fact  

The fact to which I want to draw your attention is simply this: that I sit here before you, speaking. And that I am an Indian, from a distant land. And that the audience I face has its roots in the European continent.  

Clearly I would not have accepted this speaking engagement if I did not believe that I could make myself understood to you. And you would not have invited me here if you did not think likewise.  

But how is it possible that you and I can speak to each other? It is possible, I suggest, because we share a discourse. It is possible because our worlds, yours and mine, while they are not identical, overlap. It is possible because we may be at ease in more than one culture, or possibly because we feel that we belong to none at all. It is possible because, as someone said, “We are privileged to belong to several worlds in a single life”. 

And for these very reasons there is much more that I can talk to you about than I can say to a farmer in India, who will probably have a lot more to say to a farmer in Switzerland. And that is because the two farmers share more of a language and experience with each other than with anyone in this room. 

Dialogue is easier to imagine among people who lead lives like ours. Only a minority of people in any society, however, lead culturally double or deracinated lives. But if you agree that the Indian and the Swiss farmer will get along famously (with some help from translators), it expands the range of dialogues we can imagine between societies. There are individuals and groups in different societies that have analogous experiences, lead similarly bracketed lives, which can be connected and crisscrossed in various ways. It is here that the best opportunities for dialogue exist, whether through the arts or in other ways. 

In other words, dialogue can be fruitfully initiated among groups that closely mirror each other in different societies. Can we think, for example, of projects where artists mediate between the working classes in two societies, or between women who are victims of violence, or between the homeless or the displaced, and especially between people who shun extremism in all its forms, thus expanding each group’s sense of what they share in common?  

What will such dialogues achieve? Firstly, if people recognise having a deep connection with someone from the other side of the mountain, it alters their sense of identity towards greater inclusiveness. Secondly, such dialogues keep the potential for dialogue within any society alive. In doing so, they help to subvert the fundamentalist’s vision of an ideal society -- which is one that does not dialogue with itself, and so cannot dialogue with other societies. 

But, as I implied earlier, dialogue should be possible between people however wide the gulf is between them. What I am saying here is only that we should start with contexts and conditions of life in different societies that have common reference points before moving on to talk about apparently untranslatable areas of experience. Talking about what might be shared eases the way for talking about what is different.  

(From notes for a talk delivered at the General Assembly of the Forum of European Cultural Networks, Odense, Denmark, November 9, 2002) 

(Anmol Vellani is Executive Director, India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2009