Culture and Conflict: Introduction

Culture involves multiple identities

It is fluid and dynamic, overlapping and adapting. Culture is indeed everywhere. It forms our belief systems, frames perceptions, formulates understandings, and guides behaviors.

Culture is not just about painting, music, theatre, or dance. Culture is seeped into all the activities and expressions that extend below the surface and unite individuals under a common sense of self. On a continuous basis, culture gives meaning and currency to our lives. It is not merely a tool for development, nor a means to an end, but a virtue that is learned, adopted, and constantly evolving.

Conflict is an inevitable and natural process

Culture and conflict are inextricably linked. However, this does not mean cultural differences inevitably produce conflict. When problems surface, between or within cultures, it is often a response to difficulties in dealing with differences*. Whether this pertains to racial, religious, political, social, or economic matters difference is often a source of fear and misunderstanding.

Conflict is a normal part of human interaction**. It is even necessary to a certain extent. It must not always presume war. It can manifest at multiple levels, including behavioral, emotional, or perceptive dimensions***. Conflict can include segregation, discrimination, and exclusion. Whatever the root of the problem, it is the manner of handling differences that either provoke or diminish a situation. In conflict resolution, tolerance and patience are key factors. Learning about one another requires opening up to the possibility of difference. Only then can we move towards a true understanding and appreciation of how cultures are unique. And only then can we be encouraged towards building respect and tolerance in the face of difference.

The source of conflict often involves sifting through a complex, and often tightly woven web of factors. These factors are embedded in specific historic, political, and social contexts. Understanding the motivations behind any struggle requires expanding and challenging preconceived assumptions. These are not easy tasks, especially when viewed from outside the particular cultural context.

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Art and Culture: steps towards understanding and greater awareness

Artistic and cultural practices can be used in effective, albeit often implicit ways to help bridge the gaps between cultural perspectives by encouraging a degree of “cultural fluency”* Fluency among cultures alludes to a sense of psychological ease and adaptability towards different cultures. Non-standard forms of communication, such as visual art, poetry, music, theatre and dance, can help initiate this type of fluency in cross-cultural or intra-cultural experiences. This can be conducive to a wider dialogue and interaction.

In highly emotional matters, communication is often difficult *** Initiating discussions with art can be a constructive way to interact, because it is often perceived as a non-threatening way to connect. The meanings, symbols, images, and stories produced and shared in an artistic production can transcend the challenges of more direct, and possibly more confrontational types of discussions.

The practical effects of art and culture are difficult to precisely determine or definitively predict. How does one measure the actual benefits of a cartoon image, a billboard print, a gallery exhibition, a musical cd, or a ceramics workshop? In times of conflict and tension art is often cast aside in lieu of more essential basic life necessities- food, shelter, medication, and safety provisions. And yet, both in times of peace and conflict human beings remain creative beings. We inevitably need and want to express ourselves. Art and culture have therefore a unique and irreplaceable value in therapeutic, reconciliatory, and communicative roles. Art and culture can be used to articulate emotions, to learn from others, and to question assumptions.

Art and culture inspire curiosity. This curiosity can encourage gatherings, prompt discussions, and facilitate collaboration. Acknowledging cultural diversity can be empowering. Communicating this diversity trough artistic and cultural means can allow messages to more easily resonate, and for longer periods of time.

Whether examining music and stereotypes among the Roma community, billboards and social inequality in South Africa, cartoons and political upheaval in Lebanon, mixed media and intra-cultural collaboration in Sri Lanka, or ceramics and cultural identity among vulnerable populations in Columbia, people from all over the globe rely on the power of art and culture to preserve, heal, reconcile and peace-build.

* Lebaron, Michelle (2003). Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World. Jossey-Basss, San Francisco.
** Bar-Tal, Daniel (2000). From Intractable Conflict Through Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation: Psychological Analysis. Political Psychology 21 (2).
*** Mayer, Bernard (2000). The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide. Jossey-Bass Inc, San Francisco.

Amanda Fortier

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