Plea for humanity
I have been organising and taking part in cultural youth exchanges for the past 14 years, mostly as a volunteer. I would like to talk about my experiences and the effectiveness of youth exchanges in improving intercultural contact. A youth exchange usually takes 2 or 3 weeks, with 8-25 participants from 4 to 10 countries mostly in Europe but also from countries like Mexico, Japan, Korea, Ghana, India. The youngsters do voluntary work, they go on excursions, and they do intercultural activities like making music together, playing games and having discussions.
In general I think that it works very well to organise youth exchanges, it helps to take away prejudices and usually the youngsters learn a lot about themselves and about others and their cultures. I think direct contact is a very important factor in taking away prejudices and negative emotions / images of certain cultural, ethnic or religious groups. The most important effect is that people meet other people concretely, they meet unique individuals, as opposed to thinking about abstract general categories. Individuals never completely fit into the invented image of the group they belong too, since every individual is different so you would need an infinite number of categories for that, just as many as there are individual persons in the world.
There is a kind of a paradox in this that cultural youth exchanges also lead to the creation of new prejudices and stereotypes. You meet only one or two persons from a certain country and you could start to think that everybody over there will be like that. I heard another volunteer say that because of having participated in many exchanges now, he created more images in his head of “typical Spanish youth” as opposed to the French, Polish, Moroccans, etc., based on his personal experiences with volunteers from the different countries. He wondered if these exchanges had a negative effect then, if it leads to more stereotyped thinking. But I think that the images about other cultures that this volunteer got now, are better than the ones people have before taking part in youth exchanges. The new images are based on face to face contact with concrete people. The images contain factual knowledge about other cultures. And the images will not only be negative, they will be balanced, since the volunteer meets both nice people and people he dislikes from many different countries. If he dislikes people from a certain country more often than he probably just doesn’t like that culture. Of course when you meet some random people from a certain country in a youth exchange, you should not think that everybody from that country is like that.
In my opinion it would be good if the leaders of a youth exchange deliberately focus on intercultural learning and decreasing simplistic stereotyped thinking about other cultures. Images based on abstract ideas have a bigger chance of being biased, simplified and negative than images based on concrete contact. But the last ones are not automatically realistic. It is also possible that the exchange becomes a negative experience in which the frustrations / hatred that somebody felt for another culture only gets deeper. If you want to have fruitful intercultural contact then all participants should have enough intercultural skills to have a constructive cultural exchange.
These are skills / an attitude like:
- Accept that the other is totally different
- Be able to really listen without judging too fast, without an interpretation from your own perspective
- Show empathy and respect for the other
- Try to put yourself in the shoes of the other
- Ask questions if you are not sure if you understood the other correctly
- Be patient
- Be flexible and improvise, try different ways to understand each other better
- Show that you consider the other to be completely equal to you
- Don’t start projecting your own images of the other onto the other
- Don’t reduce an individual to the characteristics of a group
So the idea of a youth exchange is not only that young people from different countries meet each other and that they make new friends and that prejudices and stereotyped thinking decrease in an informal way. The idea is also that the leaders teach the participants intercultural skills and that the youth practice these skills during the exchange. When the intercultural learning is both formally and informally then it will be the most effective.
When we compare youth exchanges to intercultural contact at Orkut, I think that there are two major differences:
- There is no direct contact in the offline physical world at Orkut. The other presents him or herself to me with a picture and a typed description. It is more difficult to always realise that the people who are posting their profiles on Orkut and who are taking part in the discussions, that they are real people, they could be my colleagues at my work, my friends, the owners of the shops where I buy my food, etc. (although they might live at the other side of this world). With the people I meet in my daily life I can see that they are normal people like me, random persons, they can be nice or annoying, but it is clear that they are normal people and that I should treat them with a minimum of respect and politeness that I should show to everyone, no matter where they come from. It can happen more easily that we forget these things in the online world. Then the stereotypes and prejudices can soon move in front. It could be that I have never met a Muslim in my life, or that I have never met an Israeli. I see and hear all kind of messages in the media, I see terrorists committing attacks in name of Islam, I read negative articles of what the Israelian government has done in Lebanon. It could happen then that I start to dislike Muslims or Israeli’s in general. There is a very big chance that if I would meet Muslims or Israeli’s in real life, that there would be many of them that I would like or at least not specifically dislike, I would think that they are normal people like from other countries or other religions. But this experience that these groups are normal people, like from any other group, there is a big chance that I will not have that experience on Orkut. There are many Muslims there who say similar things like Islamic terrorists, or at least it might sound like that in the ears of non-Muslims. If I think negatively about them, then I might say negative things about them and then they will start to shout back. And then I can say: “you see, I told you that Muslims are aggressive barbarians”. This while if a Muslim in the street asks me the way to the railway station, I won’t reply by saying that “the Quran is not from God” or that “Muslims cannot understand what the Pope said”. The participants in a youth exchange usually have a much more positive attitude towards “the other” to start with than many Orkuters have. The participants of an exchange like to get to know other cultures, they want to have fun together and to do useful voluntary work together, no matter where everybody comes from or what their culture or belief is like. They like the diversity, learning different languages, tasting different food. If they would think that “the others” are aggressive barbarians then they would not want to take part in a youth exchange with them.
And this is different in the Orkut world. Some Orkuters have as their mission to fight against Islam/Muslims, or Hindu’s, or Israeli’s/Jews, or Palestinians, or Americans, or whoever. If your mission is to fight such a group, to show that an ideology is wrong or that such a group is dangerous, then you are not going to say: “oh how wonderful to meet so many people of this group here, let’s listen with an open mind to what they say and let’s try to decrease my own prejudices and stereotyped way of thinking with regard to this group…”
- The second difference is – as I said – that an intercultural learning process also needs coaching. And there are no coaches / teachers at Orkut. People don’t know which skills are needed for intercultural contact and nobody teaches them how they can improve these skills. So the chances for a peaceful constructive intercultural dialogue at Orkut, especially in communities with sensitive topics with regard to politics, culture and religion, are not so big I think.
Still I personally find it very very interesting to read these discussions, to see how people treat “the other” with a totally different cultural / religious / geographical background. Looks like “Levinas’ laboratory” :-)
And sometimes it works to promote peace, sometimes they decide to end their conflicts and to respect each other as equal human beings (although the peace usually doesn't last very long). At such moments I am very happy. I am also happy if I succeeded in explaining the problem of the “dehumanisation of the other” as Levinas calls it. That people say: “I understand what you mean and I am sorry for what I said.” That motivates me to go on with my plea for humanity.