By Toyin Falola
The world is made up of differences and similarities in culture and convictions. Unfortunately, it seems that the former has been gaining the attention of the global communities because of the different problems that have developed from it. Thousands of cultures have little meeting points with others, and there are different rationales behind the cultural differences. However, the human race is built to interact; therefore, those differences must be succumbed to at some point to allow peaceful coexistence and, in the long run, global peace.
Of course, there cannot be a standardized culture or a process toward the global unification of cultures. The beauty of the human race is buried in its diversity, and such an effort will destroy what has sustained it for millions of years. Considering this and the need to interact, especially across territories and cultures, attempts have been made to construct a bridge for these obvious or subtle differences, particularly to attain mutual goals and understanding. One such attempt is the intercultural dialogue that has gained popularity among those making global and intercultural efforts, as well as individuals and institutions committed to promoting national and international peace.
Intercultural dialogue is an instrumental and systemic link between language, social interaction, and intercultural communication among people. Understanding this can be held with two horns: an interaction between people from diverse cultural backgrounds and an engagement to achieve distinct mutual goals. In this sense, I do not talk about those random engagements between people but those deliberate conversations with the basic aim of creating cultural understanding, assimilation, and tolerance, both in the global space and at the international level. This is the kind of effort material to the promotion of world peace.
To achieve an understanding geared toward global peace, it is pertinent that it is done with tolerating minds saddled with acceptance and readiness to listen and reason. Participants must be ready to bury all elements of bias or the temptation to evaluate value systems from an opinionated vantage point. Also, there is a need to shun all perceptions of an ideal world by those who aim at getting results from it. This is because the view of an ideal world is different in the context of cultures, which has been the mistake of several diplomats, policy analysts, and international assignees. Therefore, the world can only be ready for global peace if individuals are ready to embrace other cultures, prioritize value pluralism, cultural openness, and accord respect to other cultures even if they do not align with their own.
Cultural relativism is the guardian angel of intercultural dialogue. When people are seen in the context of their respective cultures, it fosters good relationship-building and understanding. Participants must consider themselves culturally equal and endeavor to avoid biased cultural impressions. Globalization has been one of the approaches the world has employed to solve several world problems. While I am not surprised at its successes, it will cause more problems than it intends to resolve if there is no regard for people’s culture and the preservation of their values, especially in Africa. It must be done with the conviction of giving preferences to strategic and intercultural communication and understanding where there is considerable acclimation to others’ cultural peculiarities and orientations. One problem that could arise from globalization is the tendency for cultural standardization and unification. The world must learn that there cannot be a standard set of values; rather, it will highlight problems caused by cultural trivialization.
Another way the world has tried to solve its problems of differences is by adopting multiculturalism in societies and organizations to promote peaceful coexistence, even in workplaces. Multiculturalism tends to provide relevance and adopt minorities’ positions and dynamics. In this regard, policies are often developed to allow for wider consideration of cultural factors and incorporation into decision-making processes, as well as to provide autonomy to people of varying cultural affinities. It is one of the ideas behind the recognition of federal characters in the systemic formation of a society like Nigeria.
In Nigeria, with about 250 ethnic groups and over 400 languages, these policies and legislations have certainly been helpful in incorporation to a certain extent. Unfortunately, when issues of common or aggregate interests arise, multiculturalism in its raw applicability becomes a problem. This is because multiculturalism only creates room for other cultures to thrive but does not really advance cultural understanding. In other words, while it lets everyone on board, it does not allow them to understand one another. This is the specific difference that intercultural dialogues tend to provide. Intercultural dialogues provide opportunities for interactions and negotiations to foster mutual respect and understanding. This will not just give a systemic coexistence but also allow interpersonal affinity for coexistence. Hence, it provides a leeway to solve discrimination problems anywhere in the world, which has a significant impact on global peace.
The benefits accruable from intercultural dialogue can only be accessed if there is a multidisciplinary and multisectoral approach to its subjects. It must be viewed through the lenses of business, languages, literature, international relations, cultural studies, sociology, religion, economics, health, communication, and education, among others. This is because achieving global peace is not a one-way traffic; it is a multidimensional and multidisciplinary approach towards a favorable style and condition of living. While these areas are being explored, it is important to have continuous academic endeavors towards intercultural dialogue in order to provide a solidification approach to the understandings and goals derived from it.
The educational approach to intercultural dialogues includes necessary documentation and recommendations that could be studied. This would deepen intercultural appreciation among people and allow for the continuity of shared ideas. Likewise, adopting intercultural exchange programs involving students and teachers will be a bold step toward cultural assimilation. Academic approach and research focus on intercultural dialogue could be channeled through anthropology, sociology, and political science studies. This is because these fields help in the cultural immersion of participants and acknowledge the relevance of cultural engagements for sharing cultural values.
Scholars have outlined two types of limitations that could hinder the effective practice of intercultural dialogue toward achieving global peace. The first is empirical limitation, which includes valuing time, skills, energy, efforts, opportunities, and other factors that could influence our disposition toward others. The second is ontological limitations that touch on the cultural changes that are bound to happen in every culture. These changes are important because an understanding may become obsolete over time. The only way to solve the former is by contextual understanding, and the latter through the perpetual engagement of cultures and dialogues.
Every stakeholder must understand the importance of politics in implementing the dynamics and goals derived from intercultural dialogue in order to achieve global peace and peaceful coexistence. Policy and policy implementation are the only factors driving the instrumentalization of the results of intercultural dialogue. There is a need for political backup through these policies and legislations to achieve subtle and gradual cultural adaptation and tolerance in every society. This is why intercultural dialogues are best participated in by politicians, policymakers and influencers, public policy analysts, alongside researchers. However, efforts must be made to ensure that organizers of such dialogues are umpires and that their dispositions do not influence the dialogue.
Furthermore, the environments of dialogues must be without the influence of any “power,” either economic, social, or political. To put it simply, intercultural dialogue spaces, especially those aimed at global peace and conflict resolutions, should not reflect the overbearing influence of any participant or entity. This is to ensure a raw and uninfluenced generation of ideas. To achieve global peace, the elephant in the room must always be brought to bear; that is, no theme should be excluded from the scope of discussion, and everyone should be allowed to express themselves, no matter how culturally strange it may seem to others. This is how to first figure out covert cultural differences that may not be noticeable through overt actions but are the driving forces behind social behaviors. Issues of subjectivity must be discussed in every possible way, and compromises should be made to create tolerances.
One heavy task that the world has not been able to lay off is the issue of culturally-motivated violent extremism. No matter how dangerous, it is important to open-mindedly approach the philosophies behind this extremism. The world must be ready to engage these philosophies and aim to provide higher arguments that would protect the imposition of those beliefs on others. However, this does not mean that lethal efforts should be totally left out when necessary.
Global peace is a result of cumulative efforts from national and international endeavors; the former becomes the stronghold to build the latter, which means local actions must be taken to channel the possibilities of intercultural dialogues toward maintaining peace in every nation. This is where international efforts take a cue from. While these are happening, we must keep in mind that peace is not just the absence of war; it comes in multiple ways. There is a need to heal every society of extreme poverty, oppression, discrimination and racism. Without these and their adaptation to intercultural dialogue, much cannot be done to advance world peace.
* Excerpts from the Keynote Address, by Prof Falola at the 45th Anniversary of FESTAC ’77, at the Center for Black and African Arts and Civilization, Abuja, on December 7, 2022