At a supremely intercultural wedding a few years back, one involving two good friends, I regretted not having the courage to make a small speech. One of the things I wanted to mention was the fact that while culture is relative, personality traits tend to be universal. A black Muslim South African and a white Norwegian farmer may be worlds apart in background and belief but can share attributes such as warmth, hospitality, open mindedness, and consideration. All true of those two very special people. Unfortunately this means ‘difficult’ people also come from all corners of the globe.
As an English language teacher it is common for staff to make comments such as, ‘well, you know he‘s a typical German student’, or ‘like many Russian students she…” et cetera. While a disproportionate belief in the high level of their language skills in relation to actual ability may be more common among some groups (Turkish men), or a shy and nervous disposition common among others (Japanese women), in reality all nationalities can surprise you and be delightful or nightmarish depending on the individual and regardless of more general traits. On previous jobs as a community worker working with international exchanges, it was often noted that however lovely a set of people from a single country or a range of countries were, there was usually a ‘one’. That ‘one’ would double the degree to which the whole process felt like hard work. In some cases each country would bring its own ‘one’ – long lost brothers and sisters of unreasonableness born thousands of miles apart.
Dialogue work is often considered challenging due to the tensions implicit in the cultural and religious differences between participants, both intra and inter cultural. Yet events involving the generally charming, warm and open minded, regardless of differences, can be an absolute pleasure to facilitate and observe. However if there are times when the process might be tough and conversations close to arguments and hostility, given the exact same cultural differences and varieties of positions within the space, the breakdown might be much more the result of personalities than positions. For many, argument, unreasonableness and aggravation just come naturally. The non-dialogue centred personality might be as much a challenge as any deep disagreements that arise.
I’ve been thinking of this recently when posing myself the question – “could you engage George Galloway in dialogue?”. Galloway is a master of debate, joyously so at times. He comes prepared to slay opponents with put downs and dismissals up his sleeve at all times. He treats dialogue like a boxer treats a 12 round bout, but rarely needing to go beyond the 3rd round – full of counter punches and knock out blows. Heavyweights like David Aaranovitch (“you used to be a Marxist until you shaved your beard because it was tickling Tony Blair’s arse”) and Christopher Hitchens (“You’re a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjaye’) have both been dealt major upper cuts. But the problem as I see it is Galloway never knows when he’s not in the ring. It’s always a fight, and the outcome a victory or defeat, never compromise or understanding. I can’t imagine he would be able to make head or tail of a dialogue process that didn’t involve the establishment of sides – enemies and allies. It’s unlikely he would last longer than the working agreement.
This has become more and more evident to me since his arrival in Bradford West. While not many but him could have given Labour the kick up the arse they so desperately needed, his personality, rather than his politics, is the last thing Bradford wants. Bradford is stereotyped as segregated and divided between two homogenous camps. The white majority and the Muslim South Asian majority minority. In realty both those broad communities are divided into multiple ways of living, coping, believing, and understanding. What Bradford needs is more time for people to sit down and take that diversity in, not increased positioning and confrontation. Like George Bush did, Galloway works on the basis of two sides – with us or against us – but Bradford has many sides and angles and this complexity has no room to breath within a Galloway tirade.
But a Galloway tirade is often a thing to behold. His defence at the US senate was exhilarating simply for the way he spoke to the highest echelons of power so fearlessly and brilliantly. Such an art could be celebrated if the motivations behind it were such that it was reserved for those occasions only. But as with the excitement of his victory in Bradford West, it soon became apparent that the power dynamic in that senate case did not entirely fuel the forceful nature of his attack.
In the light of the bizarre, worryingly offensive and vicious attacks on his Labour Party opponent in Bradford West, Naz Shah, the nature of his invective seems evidently focussed on the idea of opponent itself than of any consideration of the size, position, or political differences that opponent holds. He doesn’t seem interested in whether he is up against Mike Tyson or a twelve year old amateur – he still comes out throwing the big punches, the low punches, and the attempted knock out blows. Not only this but he enters the ring Naseem Hamed style, announcing his superior status, influence and prestige as a man compared to the lowly meaninglessness of community activists, youth workers and metal health care professionals. When he hits up he looks a hero but when he hits down, particularly the way he has in the last few days, he looks an inconsiderate bully.
But there was something frighteningly psychotic about the way Galloway punched his way through the recent hustings in Bradford. Like there was no off switch in his pursuit of victory at all costs – creating this scene the horrific and unsightly nature of which he was completely oblivious. In essence he just doesn’t seem to see the person beyond the enemy.
Sometimes you have to forget the politics, the culture, the religion and the community, and just acknowledge that you are dealing with people. And universally, people are sometimes just bloody hard work.