Colloquy on: “European Culture: Identity and Diversity”
8-9 September 2005
Assistant Prof. University of Cyprus
Thank you for the invitation to be part of this distinguished gathering and it always feels hopeful and empowering to be at the Council of Europe which is dedicated to making our world safer, better, more just and equal for all.
Allow me to make some brief comments on the previous presentations and to pose some questions for all of us to reflect upon.
The issue of identity is indeed a significant topic of discussion not only in the academia and social sciences but also in conflict societies where the issue often constitutes a cause of the conflict. As was mentioned by the previous speakers, identity is a social construct, not a fixed and stable unit, it is fluid and porous and this leads us to understand the multiple identities each one of us acquires in our lifetime. Thus, identity in this sense is always in process. National and ethnic identities refer to some shared cultural and social practices as well as to certain historical memories, issues of collective pride and collective grievances or traumas. In this context we need to address what happens when certain parts of our identities become frozen and rigid in times of social conflict. What are those factors and conditions that threaten our ethnic identity and people are mobilized not only to protect it but also are ready to die for it. Related to this is the dichotomy of “us” and “them” which often leads to “essentializing” the other as well as dehumanizing the other. All these attitudes sustain ethnic negative stereotyping, factors that all lead to deep-rooted and protracted inter-communal conflicts. Thus, I would invite us to reflect on what happens when identities are politicized and are turned into issues of power and control as well as to hegemonic prevalence of one identity or ethnic group over the other or others. In situations like this, issues of diversity and multiculturalism are undermined.
In my field conflict resolution we believe conflict relationships are amenable to change thus with the use of dialogue, problem-solving workshops, negotiation skills and healing processes can overcome many misperceptions, stereotypes, misunderstandings, mutual fears and concerns. Communities then can, through gaining mutual trust, be able to jointly engage in a shared agenda to eliminate the causes of the conflict which often have deep- routed inequalities both economic, political, historical and cultural. In Cyprus, for instance, I have been involved in building bridges of communication and engaging in deep dialogue for the last twenty-five years. Hundreds of bi-communal dialogue and conflict resolution training groups have been working together and a new community of peace builders and change agents has been formed. What I have learned from this experience is that the micro level efforts, i.e citizens’ efforts need to be legitimated and acknowledged as making a contribution to the broader peace building efforts undertaken by the macro level. This linkage will bring the two levels –macro and micro- closer as well as develop a civil society that is active. In this way participatory democracy is strengthened and politics is redefined to mean collective responsibility and public engagement. The partial opening of the Green Line in Cyprus has provided the opportunity for direct face-to-face contacts and visits to and from the north to the south. Thousands of Cypriots from all communities visited their homes and properties after almost thirty years. This meant coming to terms with past memories and a reality check for the future. Often the emotions were very intense but a new understanding emerged about the self and other. The other became a human being with whom relationships and friendships could be established. Unfortunately this dynamic at the people-to-people levels were not transformed into political initiatives and policies at the macro level. This is an example of the lack of linkages and the acknowledgement of the contribution civil society can make.
Another point I wish to raise is with regard to the issue of values and what constitutes a European identity. I believe that the basic values necessary in building a multicultural mentality that would promote diversity are the values of empathy and inclusion. Sensitizing ourselves to the fact that “otherness” is part of us then our mental lens shifts on both the levels of policy-making and the grass-root relationship building. On one level we can work on instilling these values are the formal and informal education and the other is the Mass media and the production of new images, films and the cultural achievements of the other, seeing commonalities and appreciating differences and us. I propose here a dialogue among intellectuals and creative minds from different communities who would undertake the responsibility to transfer to the wider public the Council of Europe’s work and visions, materials and ideas produced in the last fifty or so years. We need to build new knowledges based on the above values which in effect promote new attitudes all leading to a culture of peace.
A final point is to ponder over the question of what constitutes a European identity. Does it refer only on the level of values or also on the levels of policies, practices and commitments as well as monitoring mechanisms of the implementation of these shared values and multiple identities? One value and skill related to this question is the development of critical minds as well as self-reflection and self-criticism. Are there, finally, universal standards of what constitutes a new “imagined European community” and who participates in the creation of these standards? This is where participatory democracy and pluralism are very relevant conditions. Do we want a world in which institutionalized or “customary” divisions of any kind are eliminated because they restrict our potential to grow and develop as human beings and as communities? And what is our role of all of us who have gathered here today?
Dr. Maria Hadjipavlou