Update: Since January 2016, Learning Life, the educational nonprofit I founded, has been developing a Citizen Diplomacy Initiative that follows on the dialogues I organized at Stetson University in 2009 and 2011. The Initiative nurtures peace and family and youth development through live, international, family-to-family dialogue and collaboration. Learn more here.
In 2009 and 2011, as a professor at Stetson University in Florida, I organized unusual live, two-hour, international, video dialogues. The first occurred on November 20, 2009 between Stetson students and students at the University of Paris 8 in France, and discussed the role of government in modern societies. The second occurred on October 18, 2011 between Stetson University students and students at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. This second live video dialogue discussed the role of media in social change in light of the Egyptian revolution that overthrew the long-time President Hosni Mubarak earlier that year. Participants in each dialogue posed questions to each other while I and a fellow faculty member at the partner university abroad moderated, and interpreters on both sides translated as needed.
The following brief promotional clips of each dialogue produced by Stetson University give a sense of the live dialogues. For further explanation of my motivation in organizing these dialogues, see my newspaper column published in Florida’s Deland-Deltona Beacon on December 14, 2009, after the French-American dialogue.
Dialogues for a Better World
© Paul Lachelier 2009. All rights reserved.
On Friday, November 20, 2009 something extraordinary happened at Stetson.
About fifty students, faculty, staff, and observers gathered together in Stetson’s Lynn Business Center to dialogue about the role of government in modern societies. This alone would be unremarkable if it were not for their dialogue partners: about 25 French university students and their faculty leader sitting in a room at the same exact time over four thousand miles away at University 8, in Paris, France.
Throughout human history, political, business and cultural elites have had a virtual monopoly on dialogue with the wider world, and they have frequently used it to advance their interests. Of course, some ordinary people and the poorest have had contact with the foreign, but their contact has too often been impelled by survival or strife. This basic inequality in engagement with the wider world still holds true today, but very recent technological advances raise the possibility of a better world.
Clearly, technology is not the answer to all our problems. Moreover, technologies like nuclear weapons and guided missiles raise the possibility of annihilation rather than progress. Yet camera-equipped cell phones and the internet have empowered even some of the poorest people across the world to connect with family, friends and strangers, document material misery and violent oppression, and improve life on earth.
But there is another, less commonly used new technology the potential of which still lies largely untapped: videoconference. While the rudiments of videoconference technology have been in existence since the 1930s, the technology did not become widely available in the world’s most technologically advanced nations until the 1990s. More and more schools now use videoconferencing to educate their remote students, but videoconferencing’s capacity to connect ordinary people from across the world in live dialogue on issues that matter remains underdeveloped.
In a modern world which too often feels foreign, dangerous and out of the control to ordinary people, live videoconference dialogues can help nurture greater connection, understanding, tolerance, trust, and cooperation. International dialogue is particularly valuable in our post-9/11 world, when terrorism too easily turns strangers into threats and foes. We cannot rely strictly on government leaders or other elites (e.g., Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and other philanthropists) because as many contemporary elites understand, most social problems demand the engagement of ordinary people.
Of course, international videoconference dialogues are not panaceas, and in isolation they may have little lasting impact. But if repeated and supported with other cost-efficient means to strengthen international connections between ordinary people (e.g., email discussion lists, facebook.com and other networking instruments), videoconference dialogues can help address and perhaps even prevent social problems.
I welcome wider community participation in upcoming Stetson dialogues. I believe these live international dialogues can simultaneously nurture Stetson’s local and global connections by assembling interested local community residents, Stetson students, faculty and staff, and our dialogue partners abroad. More widely, universities and colleges across the world – as institutions with communicative capabilities, and a devotion to learning and understanding – can play a key role in addressing international problems and advancing peace if they systematically and ambitiously pursue learning through global dialogue.
The destiny of the world depends on dialogue.