Mike Hardy: Less Talk, More Dialogue

Mike Hardy is Professor of Intercultural Relations and Executive Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University

At its best dialogue is the essential toolkit, helping people to cope with unprecedented challenges and conflicts and the pace of change in our modern world. It can sustain peaceful relations. But too often it distracts and pretends, making us feel better without being better.

Effective dialogue between people of difference and with different needs and agendas is vital for real and sustained peace – the kind that lets us sleep easy. And we appear to engage with it a lot. On the global stage, world forums are convened to bring together heads of governments, ministers, heads of various international organizations, senior policy makers, cultural professionals, goodwill ambassadors, experts, journalists, practitioners, prominent intellectuals and activists.

These platforms enable us to take concrete actions to support diversity, strengthen mutual understanding among and between nations and communities, and raise awareness of the importance of dialogue.

But many miss the mark. Their focus is on talk and not dialogue. More often than not they eschew difficult conversations, and their talk is at or for rather than with people. I worry that we have a history and are developing a legacy of what I call ‘unrealised dialogue’. This is dialogue that fails to happen (in the real sense) and fails to deliver.

One challenge is that high-level forums don’t reflect our changed times. The context is very different these days. Families and communities recognise that concerns about safety and wellbeing must centre on individual and people-to-people relationships. Actions designed to improve the security of everyday people need to protect and empower them to lead fulfilled and happy lives. It is not enough to focus on securing borders and nation states; we need ‘human security’.

Let’s be clear: secure states do not necessarily ensure secure communities within.

Effective dialogue, dynamic and engaging, has to focus on open and respectful exchange of views, experiences, hopes and fears and provide the basis for better understanding and a stronger prospect of living peacefully in diverse communities. In the commitment to shared security, all must work to encourage and enable dialogue, sometimes in contexts where the various players seem to be at odds with one another. In our connected global village, it is cooperation and collaborations that will matter and make the difference – and both need real dialogue.

Dialogue in the new global village

In our new ‘global village’, differences between people, previously driven by minority-majority relationships within a nation-state, now contend with diasporas, social media and international travel. There is a plethora of new potential conflicts and tensions within and between minorities. New international agencies have cropped up responding to issues like international finance, crime, environmental concerns and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The European project is struggling to cope with the growth of global business, which together with international migration on a new and unprecedented scale, has added to a sense of powerlessness and alienation. There is no telling how profound the impact of these changes has been for the way people see themselves and what all this might mean for the notion of nation-state and national identity. The claim of nationalistic identities has inevitably been weakened, both by the growth of regional and separatist appeals and by the wider appeal of international interdependence.

Our interactions are increasingly likely to be based on multi-faceted relationships, in which individuals draw more heavily on their education and experience, shared spaces and opportunities for connection. It follows that we should focus on the community learning opportunities that can combat insular communities, radicalisation and extremist views.

Dialogue for peaceful relations

For the past ten years or so we have applied international dialogue to the challenges of global poverty. 2015 is the year when the global community must account for its performance against the Millennium Development Goals; so how have we done? The remarkable success has been with rallying the world in the fight against poverty. But we have failed, as a global community, to account for peace and security, including freedom from fear of violence, oppression, and injustice. And given that poverty and peace are so importantly and inextricably linked, this is disappointing.

At a global level, dialogue about peace and security has mostly remained focused on wars and civil conflicts. This eclipses the value and power of the dialogue around personal security, and distracts us from the negative impact on people and their communities. The record shows that in the five years to 2015 more that half a million people died violently each year. Sadly, 70,000 of these died in war zones[i]. But I am always affected by the fact that around 408,00 people die violently each year in so-called peaceful, sometimes affluent places. The impact of this violence is far-reaching. Above all else, violence challenges social and human capital by sowing fear. In hours, it can destroy development investments that took years and decades to build. And its presence indicates a simple truth: dialogue is letting us down. It’s failing to realise its potential.

Dialogue and young people

Looking generally, our record with dialogue isn’t encouraging. We haven’t embraced the changed nature of relationships, and we’ve been restrictive in our application of dialogue to human security (often because our attention to peace is applied singularly to the contexts of war). Little suggests that we can turn this around, apart from the changed scenarios that young people will bring. Two things will make a difference in the next period: young people, their way of thinking and their innate capacities, and the digital world, the new ways by which we will connect and interact.

The increasingly important role of younger people will combine with growing interaction among people around the world more generally. Both realities reflect that we are connecting with each other more, and becoming interdependent more quickly than ever before. And we are doing so against a backcloth of unprecedented faster, deeper and broader economic growth. But it is younger people are playing this out most emphatically, and on a daily basis.

It is the young who have a heightened awareness of our differences, and who probably develop most quickly the defensive strategies that protect identities and a sense of belonging. It is the young who embrace the potentials of new technologies most quickly and whose aspirations are most readily dampened by an economic growth that widens disparities, stunts social mobility and promises much but delivers little.

As positive contributors to peace and dialogue processes and as agents of change themselves, it is the young who better accommodate to and adapt to a world in flux. And it is they who will be more successful with real dialogue. They will lead us, especially through the new social media and digital platforms.

Providing a strong platform for young people to be seen as positive and progressive contributors to intercultural dialogue will be an important and continuing imperative as we look forwards.

Intercultural dialogue in the post-2015 era will be in a particularly sensitive area of cultural relationships, inherently contentious and open to different, contradictory interpretations. Mutual respect – not the same as mutual approval – will be crucial. Reasoned disagreement builds stronger, more authentic and lasting relationships. Avoiding difficult questions (such as political conflict or differences in values) will be counterproductive, whereas addressing them directly and with respect will build trust.

In the post-2015 era, human security will focus the needs of vulnerable people, on inequality and disparity. These are areas fraught with prejudice and stereotypes, which will need to be challenged.

Intercultural dialogue is important because it allows long-term and intensive engagement with people from other cultures. This can help people see their own culture from a different perspective, which leads to re-evaluating their own views and ideas. At the same time dialogue also re-introduces some of the detail – the diversity – into our perception of others.

[i] Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts (was released on 8 May 2015)

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