Intercultural dialogue

By Marti Webster

U of C Professor of Education Dr. Mathew Zachariah presented an educational, sometimes moving and humorous lecture on guidelines and challenges to intercultural dialogue at Memorial Park Library on Fri., Mar. 14 as part of the Living Research Series presented by the University of Calgary’s Cultural Diversity Institute.

Zachariah suggested our false perceptions about faraway places feed our stereotypes about immigrants in Canada and inhabitants of other parts of the world. He also cautioned against the temptation of fixing another culture’s problems using a narrow definition of “better.”

“We can say women in Iran are oppressed, that’s true,” he said. “There are also women in Canada who are oppressed, but not in the same way. The problems are different. Knowing there are problems in both societies should give us a particular empathy.”

Despite the current world focus on the Middle East, Zachariah directed attention to the larger picture. He explained that our distorted Western perceptions about the Southern Hemisphere has led us to see three-quarters of the world’s population as a “problem.”

Zachariah also doesn’t like using the term “Third World” because it is a pejorative that conjures up certain images.

“You can find these images in Canada,” he said, “You don’t need to go to Africa.”

He also pointed out that despite continued material gains in the West, many studies show no appreciable increase in happiness for Western Culture. On the other hand, if people in poorer societies have just a little bit more, they are happier.

According to Zachariah, being open-minded about the differences between cultures doesn’t necessarily mean remaining uncritical.

“We don’t need to be moral relativists,” said Zachariah. “Every culture has strengths and weaknesses. Explore both.” He said individuals critical of their cultures can affect change, citing the example of a doctor and his wife opposed to genital mutilation. They refuse to perform the operation and try to educate people about the negative aspects of this practice.

“What I have tried to do in my courses is use literature as a way of trying to create empathy in people,” he said.

Unlike statistics about death and starvation, literature personifies problems and makes us care about people on the other side of the world. Zachariah concluded the lecture by reading poetry written by poets of diverse backgrounds, visibly moving many of the audience members.