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media and a united world

Globalization and Dialogue between Civilizations, 24th - 26th of May, 2007 - Tbilisi (Georgia)

Media and dialogue. Paths of peace or paths to peace?

by Michele Zanzucchi

«We ought to acknowledge the significance for mankind of the simultaneous invention of gunpowder and printer's ink»[1]. Karl Kraus

I'd like to start with this provocative quotation by Kraus in order to say that, within the current globalized context of terrorism, war and fear, the mass media are intimately linked with the promotion or, be it as it may, negation of war, and therefore with the promotion or negation of dialogue.

1. Where intercultural dialogue begins

Some premises. When we talk about media and dialogue, both intercultural and inter-religious, or about dialogue between civilizations, we need to have a sound understanding of the meaning of the words we use. Particularly, we must agree on what we mean by dialogue. Dia-logos, from the Greek, means "speaking across", or words that create contact between people. In order to make dialogue possible, we naturally need someone who talks, but also someone who listens. All too often, however, instances of dialogue are reduced to simple statements or expositions, without the involvement of an active listener. On the other hand, dialogue, which forms a basis of human society, makes a real transfer of logos, of words, possible.

A second problem: while the globalization of communication seems to foster the coming together of individuals and peoples at the "macro" level, at the same time it blocks communication at a "micro" level, and the result is loneliness. Virtual communication is increased and interpersonal communication is decreased[2]. It suffices to think of every person walking along a street with their own iPod, essentially oblivious to what is happening around them. 

Conversely, inter-religious and intercultural dialogues begin first of all at a very personal level, in what communication experts call "interpersonal communication". We all may agree that dialogue between people of different religions and civilisations is strongly related to their reciprocal knowledge and is encouraged by the handshakes they give each other, the cups of tea they have together, trips and meetings like this one, or, simply daily life, travelling together, living in the same neighbourhood and so on. It is a dialogue of life.

2. Media and globalization

Having made these two premises, it seems to me that we could say talking about media today means talking about globalization and  about the possible levelling out of cultures and religious traditions. We watch the same American format and movies, perhaps imagining that we are facing a global culture. But a global culture does not exist and never will. However, there are instruments at global level that seem to be giving rise to a society that is increasingly "liquid", as stated by the sociologist Mr. Bauman[3].

One of the most brilliant mass media experts worldwide, the Frenchman Dominique Wolton, once told me: «We all took, are taking and will continue to take advantage of globalization. However, at the same time, we realize - and we will become more and more aware of this - that many cultural conflicts are triggered by globalization. Take, for example, the conflict between the industrialized West and the Arab-Islamic world: it tells us that the concept of a dominant culture and communication is a Western mechanism. And that is true!».

He also added: «In the end, the aim of globalization is the promotion of cultural cohabitation at global level. Thanks to the efforts undertaken by Unesco, the concept of "cultural diversity" has been asserted and the question of "cultural cohabitation" raised. However, in order to identify cultural diversity and prevent it from becoming a short-sighted defence of community identities, it is necessary - once the concept of diversity has been asserted - to understand how to organize it». 

2. What role is played by the media in intercultural dialogue?

Having said this, and having cleared up the fact that media alone would have no chance of initiating a dialogue without a fabric of human relationships and mutual acceptance, no one can deny that such dialogue has also been richly implemented and fostered by the development of media and by globalization, which, in turn, the media have contributed to stimulate and amplify. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that, at the same time, the conflict between different religions and civilisations has also been stimulated by the development of media.

With this in mind, we must pay attention to the influence media have on our personal and social lives. In other words, how can we use the media without being used by the media? The media today are dogmatically accepted without an attitude of objective criticism; in other cases, they are blamed for the amorality, violence, and superficiality they propose; and in others more they are over-estimated as infallible instruments of power, almost as new idols of a humanity which has lost other certainties.

Secondly they are used to manipulate people's mind, especially in the religious field. They can portray images which become stereotyped, forcing us to look at another community or at members of other faiths in a biased way, serving vested interests in doing so.

Much could be said, for example, about Western media, about the way they use the word "Islam" and its derivatives, about the excessive coverage they give to terrorists and to their deeds, and about the almost total absence within our media of those Muslims who preach peace and are working towards it. We understand the power of media if we consider an episode that could have been forgotten: a short article about a book of Quran thrown into a lavatory in Guantanamo[4]; however, its circulation caused 17 deaths in Pakistan.

Yet, as I have already said, the media also boast evident deterrent qualities enabling them to promote dialogue. After the invasion of the bloody images of the terrorist attacks of Madrid 11/3, the English media agreed on temperance in covering London 7/7. The Syrian deputy, Mr. al-Habash, once told me: «Western media should provide us with more objective news than Islam does, because by showing only bombs and the people killed by terrorists they play into their hands. Without publicity, these traitors of authentic Islam would not exist». The former Indonesian president, Mr. Wahid, is more tolerant: «We Muslims must learn freedom of information from the Western media; we have an urgent need for it in our countries».

In fact in the relationship between religions, media cannot possibly hold a neutral position. The media has enormous potential for creating a positive and constructive atmosphere for dialogue: this potential is still very much hidden and as of yet undisclosed.

3. Is the media person a person of dialogue? 

There are some guiding principles for a different communication process, directed towards real Intercultural dialogue. First of all, universal brotherhood has to be the common goal of society and media. In fact, the ultimate aim of any communication between people has to be the effort of building a world which is more united. Communication is an essential tool towards creating a just and fair society and must help towards the fulfilment of the welfare of society.

Mr. Fetullah Gulen, a well-known spiritual leader from Turkey once told me: «Dialogue attempts between Islam, Christianity and Judaism have started to yield fruit. These religions were not able to convene sincerely in the past, even though they came from the same source and originally share the same basic tenets. I strongly hope that dialogue, with the media's support, will become an inevitable process in our world, which is now like a global village, and that the followers of different religions will certainly find ways to reach an agreement and cooperation tomorrow, if not today»[5].

Another conviction is that communication is, in itself, positive. The media, therefore, are also, in themselves, positive. Of course, if used incorrectly, they may become negative tools. In all forms of communication, but particularly in the world of the media, one should be able to stress and underline what helps mankind move towards its ultimate goal, that is unity, and not what distracts mankind from it.  This is a powerful change of direction. To put into light what is good, is infinitely more constructive than to highlight, as it is done today, what is negative, violent or scandalous. To insist on good things and positive perspectives, which do not stop at the negative aspects, brings about a new mentality: a mentality of good will, of harmony, of brotherhood. In communication, also reporting and revealing evil should be motivated and oriented towards the good of humankind.

Professor Michel Serres has recently written: «We live in a society that turns death into a show. So why do we wish for better news, then? Because good news are left out of our world. Reality is left out of the universe I am describing In order to get back the good news, we simply need to look at reality, look beyond the show!». 

4. The moral duty

This is why communication in the media requires as strong an ethical commitment as the goal it works towards. We must ourselves be able to listen with respect to the others in order to communicate effectively.

I hope you won't mind, if I will now refer to my personal experience. I have recently published some books about the relationship between Islam and the Western world, which is one of the most critical issues our globalized culture is facing.

I have travelled through different areas of the Muslim world with the precise aim of collecting interviews with Muslim religious leaders, opinion makers and scholars who support the development and the nurturing of the values of peace and reconciliation within Islam. One could say that, in general, the more moderate opinions these leaders express, the less space they get in the media: their opinions are normally being drowned by the voice of fundamentalists and people inclined to the promotion of conflict.

During my journey I carried with me a small book written by a real master of journalism, Mr. Ryszard Kapuściński, a Polishman who recently passed away. The book is called Lapidarium. I quote: «Empathy is the indispensable and essential condition for my job. I need to live among people, eat with them, starve with them. I want to become part of the world I am describing, to plunge into it and forget every other reality. I need to think, even if for a moment, that the world I am exploring at present is the only one existing. It happens to me that I dare to go beyond illusion; sometimes I thought the world I was in was the last one for me, and from there I would have gone directly up to heaven»[6]. I fully agree with this passage, since it well expresses the attitude that lead me through my journey, a sort of  "making myself one" - and please forgive me for this neologism borrowed from Miss Chiara Lubich, a great master of life and of communication)[7] - making myself one with people and situations I am writing about.

Acting this way, media operators should be able to arrive to a real reciprocity: a concept which is becoming more and more important, especially for intercultural dialogue. What is important, however, is that we all, people of faith, irrespective to the religion we belong to, mature a common determination to use media for what they must be: as instruments for achieving a more united world.

Then, the vision of a communication that places the person at its centre of interests; that is able to multiply good, not evil; is willing to endorse the logic of respect, even of love of the other; and aims at peace; this vision is not just a dream. This vision is a goal[8]. A goal that can be achieved, if we propose useful tools for education of media, from primary school to university.

I say this advisedly, since I belong to a network of communicators working as communication professionals in different media disciplines. The group was created in 2000 and its name is Netone.

Within NetOne, we have been exploring what the idea of fraternity might have to say to the field.  We realize that the word is limited, not least because of the gender implications, but what we mean by fraternity is the art of considering all those involved in the network of communications - those who work within the media and all who are touched in any way by its influence and power - as our brothers and sisters. 

In the context of NetOne discussions among people with different faith and cultural traditions, we do encounter subjects on which we have different values and convictions. In this way, we have been able to create a communicative space in which we do experience the reality of being one human family, while respecting the differences. 

Thank you for listening.

[1] Karl Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2001.

[2] Wrote Ryszard Kapusninski: "In a few years, the historian, eager to know about a certain event, will have to review millions and millions of meters of film, which is virtually impossible, in this way we will distance ourselves from real history, which will be substituted by virtual reality. Virtual realities what we are being increasingly offered." Ryszard Kapuscinski, Lapidarium, Feltrinelli, Milan 1997, p. 109.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Modus vivendi, Laterza 2007, pp. 3-11

[4] Cf. Michael Ratner e Ellen Ray, Prigionieri di Guantanamo, Nuovi Mondi Media, San Lazzaro di Savena 2005

[5] Interview with Michele Zanzucchi, 2007, July 27th

[6] Ryszard Kapuściński, Lapidarium, Feltrinelli, Milano 1997, p. 29

[7] Chiara Lubich, La dottrina spirituale, Mondadori, Milano 2001, pp. 120-130

[8] Cf. Michele Zanzucchi, Globalizzazione e mondo unito, in Cultura&Libri, settembre 2003, pp. 39-50ss e Lella Siniscalco e Michele Zanzucchi (edd.), Comunicazione e unità, Città Nuova, Roma 2003

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