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A Tentative Decalogue for the Art of Inter-Ethnic Togetherness

Apr 1, 1994, Arcobaleno. Trento, 1 April 1994

1. A multi-ethnic co-habitation will be the norm rather than the exception; the alternative is between ethnic exclusion and living together

Situations of communities living together with different languages, cultures, religions, and ethnic backgrounds on the same territory will be increasingly frequent, especially in the cities. And this is not news. In the European cities of antiquity and the middle ages as well, there were African, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Polish, German, Spanish and other neighbourhoods.
Multi-ethnic1, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-national living together is therefore, and will be increasingly normal, rather than exceptional. This does not mean that it will be easy or evident, on the contrary. Diversity, the unknown, what is strange complicates life, creates fear, and can become the object of diffidence and hatred, it can spur competition to its extreme realization of “mors tua, vita mea”.
This is demonstrated by the very experience of someone who from one valley comes to the next one to be married, and therefore must adapt and at the same time demands respect and adaptation. The ever growing migrations and the mobility which modern life imposes inevitably trigger a higher level of inter-ethnic and inter-cultural interaction, in all corners of the world. For the first time in history, it is - maybe - possible to choose in full conscience to deal with and resolve in a peaceful manner these numerous movements of people, communities, populations, even if their origin often is to be found in violence (misery, exploitation, environmental destruction, war, persecutions, etc.).
But rethorics and declared good will are not sufficient: if one really wants to foster living together among diverse people on the same territory, one must develop an intricate art of togetherness. Besides, it is increasingly evident that the approaches based on the affirmation of ethnic or similar rights - be they national, confessional, tribal, or “racial” - through objectives like the ethnic state, or ethnic secession, ethnic purification, national homogeneization, etc., lead to conflicts and wars of an unforeseeable scope. The alternative between ethnic exclusivism (however it is motivated, even in self- defence) and multi-ethnic living together is the key question of the ethnic issue today, whether one deals with oppressed or minority ethnic groups, recent or older immigration, religious minorities, ethnic reawakenings, or inter-ethnic, inter-confessional, inter-cultural conflictuality.
Multi-ethnic living together can be perceived and experienced as an enrichment and an opportunity for something more, rather than as a condemnation: we do not need sermons against racism, intolerance and xenophobia, but experiences and positive projects, and a culture of living together.


2
Identity and living together: never the one without the other; neither forced inclusion nor forced exclusion

“The clearer we are separated, the better we will understand eachother”: there is today a strong tendency to deal with the problems of multi-ethnic cohabitation through more precise separations. “Melting pots” do not have a large consensus, even where they were declared as a clear objective (for example, in the USA), and there are countless rebellions against more or less forced assimilation. At the same time, one witnesses the existence of movements for equality, against marginalization and ethnic discrimination, and for equal dignity.
Policies for the forced inclusion (assimilation, prohibition of language or religion, etc.), or forced exclusion (marginalization, “ghetto-ization”, expulsion, eradication, etc.) have given no positive results. One must guarantee a wider number of individual and collective choices, accepting moments of ethnic “intimacy” as an expression of identity which must not necessarily harm inter-ethnic meeting and cooperation. The guarantee that one can maintain one’s identity on the one hand, and an equal opportunity to participate on the other, must feed into eachother in a reciprocal manner. This obviously requires that not only the public regulations and the orders orient their efforts in the direction of a friendly cohabitation among the concerned communities, but above all that the communities themselves wish to do so.


3
To know eachother, talk among eachother, inform one’s self, inter-act: “the more we have to do one with the other, the better we will understand eachother”

Living together offers and demands a lot of possibilities of reciprocal knowledge. In order for it to happen with equal dignity and without marginalization, it is important to develop the maximum level of mutual knowledge possible. “The more we have to do one with the other, the better we will understand eachother”, could be the counter-proposal to the separatist slogan mentioned above. Learn to know the language, the history, the culture, the habits, the prejudices and stereotypes, the fears of the different communities living together is an essential step in an inter-ethnic relation. An important function can be taken on by common information sources (inter-cultural, multi-ethnic newspapers, radio and TV broadcast, and the like), common opportunities of learning and pleasure, getting together occasionally and reciprocally, a chance to share - even if only exceptionally - “internal” events of a community that is different from one’s own (feasts, rites, etc.), even some simple invitations to lunch or dinner. Common story books, common celebrations of public events, even perhaps moments of common prayer and meditation can do a lot to avoid the risk that ethnocentric visions are consolidated to the point that they become obvious and natural.


4
“Ethnic is beautiful”? Why not?, but not at only one dimension: territory, gender, social position, leisure time and many other common denominators may be important as well

At times, for different communities, the ethnic organization of society can have its legitimacy and even its good reasons to exist: however it must be out of a free choice, and not become in turn integralist and totalitarian. This means that we will have to accept ethnic parties, ethnic associations, ethnic clubs, and often also ethnic schools and churches. But it is evident that if one wants to favour living together, rather than ethnic (self-)isolation, one will need to put value in all the other dimensions of private and community life which are not above all ethnic. And first of all, the common territory and its care, as well as professional, social, age-group, and in particular gender-linked objectives and interests; women can better discover and experience common objectives and sensitivities.
One must avoid that people live all their lives and all moments of their daily existence inside ethnic structures and dimensions, and therefore offer them other opportunities which normally are of an inter-ethnic nature. It is essential that people can meet and talk and show their value not through the “diplomatic representation” of their own ethnic group, from block to block, but directly: it is therefore quite relevant that each person may enjoy strong individual human rights, next to the necessary community rights, some of which will also have an ethnic connotation (use of the language, protection of traditions, etc.); not all community rights need be applied and channelled only according to ethnic lines (for ex., social rights - a home, a job, assistance, health - or environmental rights).


5
Define and delineate in the least rigid way possible one’s belonging, do not exclude multiple belongings and interferences

Normally, ethnic belonging does not require a particular definition or delimitation: it is the fruit of history, tradition, education, habits, before it is a question of options, will, and precise choice. The more a definition of belonging and of a delineation against others becomes rigid and artificial, the more there is a danger of an inherent vocation to conflict. The emphasis on discipline or worse the ethnic imposition in the use of the language, religious practices, dressing habits (with the extreme expression of imposed uniforms), in daily attitudes, to the point of a legal definition of belonging (registration, remarks on documents, etc.) carry with them an unhealthy pressure to count eachother, to the test of force, to rope pulling, to the erection of barricades and physical borders, and to the demand for a territory to be exclusively for one’s own group.
On the other hand, to consent and enhance a more flexible and less exclusive practical sense of belonging, and therefore allow for a certain osmosis among different communities and multiple references on the part of “border” subjects, helps to create “grey zones”, with a low ethnic definition and discipline, and therefore enhances free exchange, inter-communication, inter-action.
To avoid all legal forms of “tagging a label” on people from an ethnic (or confessional, etc.) point of view, is part of the measures to prevent conflicts, xenophobia, and racism.
The self-determination of subjects and of communities must not stem from the definition of one’s own borders and of limits to access, but rather it should come from the positive definition of one’s own values and objectives, and it must not reach the point of exclusionism and separateness. One must favour a concept of loyalty open to several communities, and not an exclusive one, a concept in which above all sons of immigrants, children from “mixed families”, people stemming from more pluralistic and cosmopolitan backgrounds can recognize themselves.


6
Recognize and evidence the multi-ethnic dimension: rules, rights, languages, public signs, daily gestures, the right to feel at home

The coexistence of different ethnic groups, languages, cultures, religions and traditions on the same territory, in the same city, must be recognized and made visible. The members of different communities that live together must feel that they are “at home”, that they are citizens, that they are accepted and rooted (or that they can plant roots). Bi-(or multi-)lingualism, the possibility to establish diverse religious, cultural and linguistic institutions, the existence of specific structures and opportunities that put in evidence and give value to each ethnic group present, are important elements for a culture of togetherness.
The more one will organize the coexistence of languages, cultures, religions, characteristic signs, the less one will have to deal with fights about the validity of locations or of territories for that or the other ethnic group: it is necessary to dilute all forms of ethnic exclusivism or integralism in a natural coexistence of multiform signs, sounds, smells and institutions.
Europe has learned the hard way to accept the presence of several confessions that can coexist on the same territory without trying to dominate on all the others or to expel each other in turn: now the same process must take place purposefully in relation to the multi-ethnic reality; coexisting among different ethnic groups on the same space, with appropriate individual and collective rights in order to guarantee equal dignity and freedom for all, must become the rule, not the exception.


7
Rights and guarantees are essential, but they are not enough; ethnocentric norms favour ethnocentric behaviour

One must not believe that ethnic identity and inter-ethnic living together can be guaranteed above all by laws, institutions, structures and courts, if they are not deeply rooted among the people, and if they do not have a foundation in a widespread social consensus; but one must not underestimated for that matter the importance of a clear and reassuring normative framework, that guarantees to all the right to one’s own identity (through linguistic, cultural, educational rights, means of information, etc.), to equal dignity (through the guarantee of full participation, against all discriminations), to necessary self-government, without any tendencies to annex in favour of one of the ethnic communities living together.
It is especially important that situations of inter-ethnic coexistence benefit from a status of autonomy that pushes the local community (all of it, without any ethnic discrimination) to take its fate in its own hands, and fosters inter-ethnic cooperation, so as to develop a common territorial (and “Heimat”) conscience: this can help to discourage attempts at resolving tensions and conflicts with far-fetched arguments on the territorial “status” (annexes, change in the borders, etc.).
And one must not forget that laws and structures which are heavily ethnocentric (i.e., that are based on the continuous emphasis on ethnic belonging, on evident ethnic separation, etc.), inevitably lead to an escalation of conflicts and tensions, and to the generation or reinforcement of ethno-centric attitudes, whereas - on the contrary - laws and structures that are supportive of inter-ethnic cooperation, can encourage and strengthen choices of good living together.


8
The importance of mediators, bridge builders, wall vaulters and frontier crossers

In each and every situation of inter-ethnic coexistence, one must deal, in the beginning, with a lack of mutual knowledge, relationships and familiarity. It is therefore very important that there exist people, groups, and institutions that situate themselves consciously at the border between the communities living together and cultivate intensively all manners of knowledge, dialogue and cooperation.
The promotion of common events and moments of meeting and common action, does not appear spontaneously, but requires a stubborn and yet delicate work of awareness-building, mediation and familiarization, which must be developed with care and credibility. Next to the identity and to the more or less clear borders between the different ethnic aggregations, it is fundamental that someone, in such societies, be committed to the exploration and the overcoming of borders: this is an activity which in times of tension and conflict may seem like contraband, but which is decisive to soften rigidity, make borders relative, and favour inter-action.

Explosions of nationalism, chauvinism, racism, religious fanaticism, etc…, are among the most disruptive factors of civil togetherness to be known (worse than social, ecological or economical tensions), and they have an impact on practically all dimensions of collective life: culture, economy, daily life, prejudices, habits, and of course politics and religion. There is thus a need for a strong capacity to face and dissolve ethnic conflicts. This means that in every ethnic community one needs to bring to the fore those people and forces that are capable of self-critique with regards to their own community: real “traitors of ethnic compactness”, who however must never transform themselves in defectors, if they want to keep their roots and remain credible. Precisely in the case of conflicts, it is essential to relativize and diminish the drives that lead the different ethnic communities to seek external support (protective powers, external interventions, etc…) and put in value the elements of common linkages to the territory.


9
We need “betrayors of ethnic compactness”, but not “deserters”. And a vital condition: to ban all forms of violence

In a situation of inter-ethnic coexistence, it is rare that there are no tensions, no competition, no conflicts: unfortunately, conflictuality of ethnic, religious, national, or racial origin has an enormous power of involvement and mobilization and involves so many elements of collective emotionality, that it is difficult to govern and bring back to reasonable solutions if it slips out of control: explosions of nationalism, chauvinism, racism, religious fanaticism, etc., are the most disruptive factors of civil cohabitation known (more than social or economic tensions), and involve practically all dimensions of community life: culture, economy, daily life, prejudices, habits, as well as politics or religion. One therefore needs a high capacity to deal with and dissolve ethnic conflictuality.
This means that every ethnic community will need to give value within its ranks to the people and forces who are capable of exercising self-criticism, and criticism towards one’s own community: real “betrayors of ethnic compactness”, who however must never transform themselves in deserters, if they want to maintain their roots and remain credible. It is precisely in conflict situations that it is important to make relative and diminish the forces that push the different ethnic communities to seek exterior support (protecting powers, external interventions, etc.) and give value to the elements of common linkage to the territory.
One necessity emerges above all: to ban all forms of violence, to react with the maximum decision each time that the germ of ethnic violence appears, which - if it is tolerated - risks to trigger spirals that are really devastating and beyond control. In this case as well, laws and police are not enough, one needs a decisive social and moral repulsion, based on strong roots: a convinced and convincing “no” to violence.


10
The pioneer plants of a culture of togetherness: mixed inter-ethnic groups

Mixed inter-ethnic groups (however small they may be) can have a extraordinary value in situations of tension, conflictuality or even simple coexistence. They can experiment on their own skin, and in what could be called a courageous pioneering laboratory, the problems, difficulties and opportunities of inter-ethnic living together. Inter-ethnic groups can have their own precious value and carry out their activities in the most diverse fields: from religion to politics, from sports to socializing in leisure time, from union work to cultural commitment. In any case, they will represent the most advanced point of experimenting living together, and therefore deserve total support from those who care for the art and culture of togetherness as the only realistic alternative to the reappearance of a generalized ethnocentric barbarianism.

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