Culture refers to the traits and knowledge belonging to a specific group of individuals, encompassing language, religion, social traditions, music and arts. The Centre for Advance Research on Language Acquisition of the University of Minnesota defines culture as shared patterns of behaviours and interactions, cognitive constructs and understanding that are learned through socialization. Thus, culture is generally understood as the growth of a group’s identity which is nurtured by social patterns which are unique to that specific group. The diversities of culture that we observe in the world today is the manifestation of the process.
Due to the fact that the society that we live in today are made up of various ethnic groups and religious beliefs, differences are therefore, inevitable. These differences are fertile grounds for tensions and hostilities. If these differences are not managed well and efficiently, they can escalate into conflicts that could destroy the society.
Cultural diversities call for us to learn more about each other and understand the sensitivities that exist within these various social groups. Learning about each other is important because through this, we would be able to develop the sense of positive understanding needed to promote peace and harmony in society. The best mechanism to develop this is through dialogue or specifically, intercultural dialogue. Intercultural dialogue is an avenue to explore the deeply-rooted causes to many crises that is currently faced by mankind. It allows inquiry into, and understanding of, the sorts of processes that divide and inhibit with constructive interaction in society, be it between individuals and nations.
Through dialogue, groups and individuals will be able to explore the collective presumptions, beliefs and emotions that subtly influence interactions. It can help to unravel any forms of inconsistencies that cause the avoidance of issues or to help understand the positions taken over any specific issue. Dialogue is a way of discerning the impact of values and intentions that are unfamiliar to us personally and collectively and have actually influence the way we act or think.
Dialogue should be the first approach when dealing with issues that have a high probability of bringing about dissatisfactions, chaos or conflicts in the society. It must be organized in a manner that those who participate in the dialogue process realised that dialogue is an avenue to understand better the different perspectives on the specific issues. Dialogue does not necessarily end with resolution of issues, but it is a process needed so that the different groups understand the origins of the variance in perspectives. Engaging in a dialogue process indicates the ability of the groups with different or opposing opinions to uphold principles of respect, civility and humanistic values.
For Malaysia, the call for unity and preservation of peaceful co-existence by various leaders in the country when ushering the New Year signals the need for intercultural dialogue to be made a central mechanism of engagement among communities. Due to the dynamic and pluralistic character of the Malaysian society, dialogue will allow communities to positively interact among themselves and develop a better cross cultural understanding. Recent issues that arose in the country due to cultural differences can better be dealt with through the platform of dialogue as it will allow various parties to share their viewpoints and opinions. Dialogue must be made the first approach adopted by organizations and also policy makers when dealing with matters that involves various stakeholders and especially when it is known that different of opinions might worsen social relations among communities.
Dialogue as a form of community engagement and interaction should be introduced since young in order to enculturate dialogue in the society. Apart from incorporating dialogue as a topic in the relevant curriculum in schools and tertiary institutions, actual dialogue must be seen to take place actively among the younger generation. Sometimes, dialogue activities carried out becomes mere academic exercise instead of really impacting the masses. For a dialogue to be effective, the objectives of the dialogue must be clearly understood by all parties involved in the dialogue. The aim of dialogue ultimately is to provide the information on the various perspectives and knowledge on certain issues so that the relevant parties especially those directly affected will be able to make informed decisions or at least understand the basis of the different viewpoints.
As cultural diversity has become a common character of many societies in the world today, efforts are needed to bridge the differences that exist among the communities. Engaging through the platform of dialogue would help to minimize these gaps and differences. Unlike debate which seek to crown a winner, or other forms of discussion which aims to solve a problem, dialogue simply aims to forge mutual understanding based on respect and engaging with the other for the sake of peace and humanity. This is what is needed in the global world today torn apart by irresponsible forces that seek worldly pleasures by dividing humanity and leveraging on chaos and violence that we see unfolding every single day.