There is a famous line in the preamble of the Constitution of UNESCO that states that “Wars start in the minds of people and therefore it is there that peace must be constructed”. I believe that the same is true of walls: they too have their origins in the minds of people and hence it is also in minds that such walls need to be torn down. But the mental construction of walls has a lot to do with a basic tendency of human beings: the need to construct an identity. A need that has been to a large extent colonised by the political notions of national and ideological identity. As a result, next to an increasing number of border walls, the world is also confronted with a growing number of ‘identity walls’. These are mental walls between people that prevent dialogue. And it is that lack of dialogue that in turn leads to more physical walls between us.
Border walls are comprised of fences and borders. Walls are either built to keep people inside (the prison model) or to keep people out (the Great Wall model). Throughout history, humanity has always built walls to protect cities or larger territories against outside forces. But we also know that building walls does not work. Not only because invaders can and will find ways to infiltrate them, but also, because building walls has perverse effects. It limits cross border dialogue or even makes it impossible. And so it gives free space to the ones on the other side without the possibility to influence their thinking or acting.
The Berlin Wall was obviously constructed according to the prison model. Originally, it was aimed at preventing the citizens of the DDR to immigrate to the West. But the deeper reason of the Berlin Wall is that it originated with the failure of dialogue between two different worldviews. It became the geographical manifestation of the incompatibility of two ideologies and of the political and economic divides between the Allies. A divide that became known as the Cold War between East and West. It was a divide between two political systems, between two economic systems, and above all between two ways of organising society: “open or closed” as Karl Popper called it. Today, one can only be grateful that the ‘wall of shame’ has been torn down. But has the identity wall also disappeared?
Modern psychological research suggests we have to look at identity as a conceptual tool used in certain discourses to position oneself and to account for a certain situation, including the justification of one’s own behaviour. In this process, an identity always comes from the outside world. Take Brexit for example. A couple of years ago, the word did not even exist, now it is not only a household term, but it has also created two new identity categories for UK citizens: remainers versus brexiteers. Today this divide is ‘available’ for all UK citizens to the extent that it is almost impossible not to choose between one of the two options. And also, there are plenty of occasions to voice one’s take on the divide. Identity can thus be seen as a function of the many divides available in society, as well as upon the availability of occasions for expressing their relevance in accounting for or justifying behaviours or events.
Most people can handle the complex game of appropriating and expressing identity. There only emerges a problem if one source of identity has an overwhelming impact on all the other sources of identity. Believing in one divine truth for instance or believing that being of a certain nationality is more important than anything else. As a result, other identity aspects become overshadowed and that paves the way for radicalisation where others who don’t share that ‘truth’ are perceived negatively.
Needless to say, nationalism in its extreme form can have devastating consequences. But it should not be forgotten that for many people nationalist (or patriotic) feelings are not an extremist phenomenon, but refer to beliefs and assumptions by which it appears ‘natural’ for the world to be divided into separate states.
Originally the Berlin Wall referred to a separation between two different worldviews, but gradually the partitioning of Germany became transformed into a geographical one to which a ‘nationalist’ dimension could be added. As a result, today even without a wall, there is a difference in identity between West and East German citizens. Even though we are speaking of two regions in the same country, they have separate identities.
Walls do not facilitate dialogue. And the fact that the Berlin Wall is not here anymore is thanks to all those who have put windows in the Wall. Windows are the symbols of seeing each other and of the possibility to talk.
The same holds for identity walls. Here too, we need windows: spaces of dialogue between different groups of people. That is not always easy to establish and at this moment I see a strong need for such windows at different levels in Europe:
- Within each of the European states between populists and multiculturalists;
- Within the EU between the old and new Member States;
- Between the EU and its neighbouring countries; and
- Between the EU and the rest of the world.
In sum, the world needs more dialogue. This is not a naïve statement as some might think. After all, the beauty of dialogue is that everyone can start it everywhere. Border Walls will not stop that. But Identity Walls can prevent dialogue. So perhaps the biggest challenge thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall is to look for methods to break down the walls of identity between people.
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