Dialogue Theories: Identities, Dialogue, and Difference – Two Perspectives

In his discussion of identity (Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, 1990), Stuart Hall proposes that there are two ways of understanding ethnic and cultural identity. The first sees identity in terms of a ‘shared culture’ characterized by an underlying ‘oneness’ more important and stable than superficial differences between individuals or sub-groups. This conception of ‘oneness’ is based on the premise that,‘[…] our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people’, with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history’ (Hall, 1990, p. 223). This conception of an underlying, unifying collective identity undermines the conception of identities as unstable, as ‘always in process’. Indeed, Hall goes so far as to accord special significance to this experience of ‘oneness’ as ‘the truth’, ‘the essence’.

Hall’s arguments is about disparate communities coming together through a common history and culture and finding or building a shared meaning. A parallel idea can be found in Gülen’s thinking. Gülen proposes ‘shared values’ as a basis for dialogue and unity within a country’s bordersseeing such values as the hallmark of a society ‘with the best standing’ (Criterion or Lights on the Way, 2005, p. 91). Furthermore, he argues that shared cultural values are what constitute the identity of a community: ‘[a] community that has broken with its essential cultural values inevitably loses its identity and collapses as a distinct society’ (ibid., p. 54).

It is true that Gülen is talking explicitly about a common national identity, rather than a cultural or ethnic identity as in Hall’s conception. However, the word used by Gülen himself, which is translated by ‘nation’ is ‘millet’, which historically meant ‘(confessional) community’, or simply ‘a people’ (folk). In this light, Hall’s of identity based on ‘oneness’ and common historical roots is parallel to Gülen’s conception of ‘shared values’ and education as elements that bring people together for the common good and to solve public matters (Criterion or Lights on the Way, 2005, p. 91).

Unlike Hall, Gülen talks also about the readiness for intercultural dialogue as a feature or a result of a well-established cultural identity. According to Gülen, having a distinct cultural identity should not deter a society from ‘intercultural exchanges of ideas’, as long as the positive or negative effects of such exchanges have been duly considered(ibid., p. 54). Finally, Gülen argues further that the cultural values shared by a community or society should be well preserved for future generations. He likens cultural values to ‘blossoms or fruits’ of a tree that represents the society, and advises that a society should be wary of losing or forsaking its ‘distinctive culture’ (ibid., p. 55).

The second way of understanding identity that Hall proposes has many similarities to the first view but is distinguished by its argument for an identity based on ‘difference’: ‘we cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about “one experience, one identity”, without acknowledging its other side, the ruptures and discontinuities […]’ (Hall, 1990, p. 225). ‘Difference’ in this context does not denote otherness in the conventional sense. Rather, in the Derridean sense of différance, it ‘challenges the fixed binaries which stabilize meaning and representation’, and makes us realize that ‘without relations of difference, no representation could occur’ (Hall, 1990, p. 229). With ‘ différance, difference does not connote a binary . 1

Here too we find striking parallels in the thinking of Gulen. He places special emphasis on affirming difference. He sees respect for difference as a prerequisite of effective, useful dialogue – wanting everyone to be similar is futile and impossible, because every individual has a unique identity (Love and Tolerance, 2004, p. 249). In Gülen’s worldview, dialogue as a philosophy and as a practice is based on accepting differences, on fully respecting ‘each other’s identity’ (Celik and Valkenberg, (‘Gülen’s approach to dialogue and peace’, International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, 2007, pp. 29-37). In Gülen’s conception of dialogue, while recognizing and allowing difference is the basic condition of dialogue, fully respecting and indeed appreciating difference, while also acknowledging shared values, are the further stages of dialogue that mature and complete the dialogue (ibid., pp. 29-37). Gülen further argues that peaceful coexistence is only possible by recognizing that our differences are ‘part of our nature’ and should be appreciated and properly acknowledged (2004, p. 249). Gülen calls this ‘accepting everyone in her/his own position’, whether the difference is based on race, culture, tradition or religious belief (2004, pp. 249–50).

In sum, difference is important, according to Hall, because it is what constitutes an identity and defines it in relation to another identity. Difference is also very significant for Gülen’s concept of dialogue, and indeed the necessary condition of it. As a natural result of acknowledging and respecting difference, diversity, whether on ethnic, cultural or religious terms, is acknowledged and respected in Gülen’s worldview, as in Hall’s, and it is an essential and natural element of Gülen’s philosophy of ‘accepting everyone in her/his own position’ (2004, p. 250).

[1] For an account of différance, see Derrida, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 2001).

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Dr Omer Sener

Research Fellow, Dialogue Society London Branch

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