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Seeing Beyond the Expected

June 24, 2016
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Ousmane, a 20-year-old Muslim refugee from the Central African Republic, stands in a field at Mole refugee camp in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 20, 2015, as nations mark World Refugee Day; several thousand refugees fled to this area following brutal interreligious violence in 2013–14 [© Federico Scoppa/AFP]

A key requirement for peace in our diverse and complex world is our ability to embrace different perspectives. Dialogue is what enables us to do this, argues SGI President Daisaku Ikeda in this excerpt from his 2016 peace proposal, “Universal Respect for Human Dignity: The Great Path to Peace.”

 As a result of globalization—one of the defining trends of the 21st century—an unprecedented number of people are living outside their country of origin for short-term work or educational opportunities or have chosen to settle in a new location. Many countries have seen an influx of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, providing new opportunities for interaction and exchange. At the same time, however, there has been an increased incidence of racism and xenophobia.

In the peace proposal I wrote last year, I warned of the dangers of hate speech, noting that, regardless of whom it is directed at, it is a human rights violation that cannot be ignored. It is crucial that this recognition be established throughout international society. In order to construct societies that are resistant to xenophobia and incitement to hatred, people need to be exposed to and reminded of different perspectives. Face-to-face dialogue can play a crucial role in this.

“By engaging in open and frank dialogue, we are able to see things that had been hidden from view, and the world begins to appear in a warmer, more human light.”

The Buddhist teaching of the Four Views of the Sal Grove illustrates the way that differences in people’s mental or spiritual state cause them to see the same thing in completely different ways. For example, the sight of the same river might inspire different people to be moved by the beauty of its pure waters, to wonder what kind of fish might be found there, or to worry about it flooding. What is particularly significant is that these are not simply differences in subjective perception; they can give rise to actions that will actually alter that landscape.

A Fig Tree

An example of this is to be found in the life story of my dear friend, the late Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940–2011).

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A mural of the late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai on a street in San Francisco [Photo by Tofu CC BY-NC-ND]

The people in the Kenyan village where she was born viewed fig trees with reverence, contributing to the protection of the local ecology. Returning to Kenya from the United States where she had completed her studies, a shocking sight awaited her. A fig tree that she had loved since childhood had been felled by the new owner of the land to make space to grow tea. This had not only changed the landscape, but, as the pattern was repeated elsewhere, landslides were becoming more frequent and sources of potable water more scarce.

This is a poignant example of how something that was treasured by one person may appear to another as nothing more than an impediment. The problems arising from such differences in awareness are not limited to relations between individuals but also affect relations among groups of differing cultural or ethnic backgrounds. The things that do not impinge upon our consciousness cease to exist in our version of the world.

“This is a poignant example of how something that was treasured by one person may appear to another as nothing more than an impediment.”

While we as humans may be adept at understanding the feelings of those with whom we have a close relationship, geographical and cultural distances can result in psychological distancing. Accelerating processes of globalization seem to exacerbate this, with modern means of communication at times amplifying the tendency to stereotype and hate. As a result, people end up avoiding interaction with those who are different, including those living in the same community, viewing them through a filter of discriminatory preconception. Society as a whole has seen a lessening of our capacity to appreciate others—as they are and for who they are. I believe that the surest way to change this is by carefully attending to the stories of each other’s lives through one-on-one dialogue.

Seeing Beyond the Stereotype

Last year, for World Refugee Day, UNHCR launched a public education campaign that introduces the life stories of people who have become refugees, urging viewers to share these stories with their friends and acquaintances. They are each introduced by name and through easily recognized attributes that bear no relation to nationality—“Gardener. Mother. Nature lover.” “Student. Brother. Poet.”—and describe their stories and their feelings about their current situation. Encountering the experience and life story of an individual in such real and familiar terms can enable people to see beyond a faceless classification as “refugees.”

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Jelena Grisle and her parents fled Belerus as refugees when she was a child; they were able to settle in Latvia, where she eventually married and obtained citizenship [Photo by ACNUR / L. Charrier CC BY-NC-SA]

When I met with Professor Ved Nanda of the University of Denver in the United States, he recounted to me his experience at age 12 of being forced from his home as a result of the 1947 partition of India and of walking for days with his mother in search of safety. He went on to study international law and became a leading expert on human rights and refugee issues. As he later wrote:

“There is no doubt that my early childhood experiences had a deep, lasting influence on my life. I will remember until the last day of my life the grief I felt at being forced from my homeland.”

As UNHCR’s effort to show the human face of refugees suggests, our awareness of people belonging to different religions or ethnicities can be transformed through direct contact and conversation with even one member of that group. Such an encounter can bring into view an entirely new and different “landscape.” By engaging in open and frank dialogue, we are able to see things that had been hidden from view, and the world begins to appear in a warmer, more human light.

“Society as a whole has seen a lessening of our capacity to appreciate others…the surest way to change this is by carefully attending to the stories of each other’s lives through one-on-one dialogue.”

In September 1974 in the midst of heightened Cold War tensions, I decided to ignore the voices of criticism and opposition in order to visit the Soviet Union for the first time. The belief that motivated me was this: We don’t need to fear the Soviet Union so much as we need to fear our ignorance of the Soviet Union.

Conflict and tension do not in themselves render dialogue impossible; what builds the walls between us is our willingness to remain ignorant of others. This is why it is crucial to be the one to initiate dialogue. Everything starts from there.

 Courtesy of Common Threads