There are many threats to this exchange. Fragmentizing populations - dividing and conquering - is a common tactic for some politicians and religious leaders throughout the world. A key drift that informs this tactic: Power.
I visited Belfast a couple of weeks ago, to speak at the Belfast One City Conference http://www.onecityconference.com. Well-organised, warm and informal, The conference organizers had managed to gather some of the shining business, cultural, political and activist leaders from both sides of an historically troubled city. The clearest sensation: that a thriving city is a cultural city and everyone there knows it.
Power evolves by establishing hierarchies. Populations are effectively manipulated through fear. We define ourselves by excluding the Other. Barriers, real and imagined, are built to prevent healthy exchange. We lock ourselves into definitions of ”us and them”, magnifying differences instead of negotiating them.
I was first introduced to community activities and city center re-invention plans. I was then put in the competent hands of four men, about my age. 2 republicans and 2 loyalists, former combattants. They showed me essential places in their community, where cultural symbols (murals, meeting places) and defense architecture (walls, meshed windows, metal barriars) were intertwined. They worked now with getting the community behind changing the neighborhood story, re-designing public art and public space. A sincere work being done by these men, fine-tuned by years of personal experience with the consequences of cultural conflict.
Power deriving from fear is a manifestation of ethnocentricity and cultural narcissism.
Shared space is essential for dialogue. Our personal histories are different but our playing field is common. There are essential spaces shared throughout the world: the school, the workplace, the sports arena, media networks, the town square and other urban gathering places. Cultural spaces like theatres, concert houses, museums and heritage sites are among the most important.
Belfast is a city making plans to build, re-construct and re-invent their shared space. There are numerous cultural centers struggling for support, a multitude of ideas and inventiveness. This is a healthy sign recognized by the new leadership growing up in Northern Ireland. But who will dare to invest?
Conflict is Culture. Cultural stategies can also heal conflict, not by silencing or sidestepping, rather by confronting and engaging. Give people places to meet and things to do and they will step beyond.