To be in dialogue – or not to be at all

​Recently a friend asked me: what good is a dialogue project? He was of the opinion that dialogue projects only are valuable for the people actually involved in them. Being a part of LIU, it made me think about the importance of dialogue and its role in the creation of our personal identity.

I have studied identity formation, and I would like to share some thoughts from modern identity studies.*
We become the people that we are through communication with others. That is common knowledge. To put it simply: When we talk to other people or hear their ideas, we either identify ourselves with them, or we contrast ourselves from them. In this process of identifying or distinguishing oneself from others, we come to be who we are – we obtain an identity. At the same time as we try to form our own identity, people around us take part in our identity formation. It is other people who can confirm or deny that we have a given identity. Therefore we depend on the confirmation from others to know who we are.

Furthermore, identity studies point out that each person has several identities. One and the same person can be a parent, a spouse, a student, a Christian, a socialist and so on. In different situations, we put on different identities. Identities are generally important, because they guide our actions. For instance, in elections we vote for the political party that suits our identity and thereby confirm our world view, whether that party is The Muslim Brotherhood or The Liberal Party or The Socialist Party.
Some of our identities might be more important to us than others. In order to explain this, some identity studies use the expression “identity hierarchy”. It refers to the fact that although we all have several identities, they are not equally important to us.
Often we hold one identity as more important than others and let it define us in different situations. That could for instance be the identity of being a parent. For some, myself included, the religious identity is important and influences actions and opinions in several situations. However, when one identity becomes all dominant one should take a critical look at oneself, something that benefits from dialogue with others of different views.

Using our knowledge
When we have the knowledge of how identities evolve, I suggest we use it: If possible we should avoid the negative categorizations that deepen the differences between people. Instead, we should at least try to identify ourselves with one another and try to find the identities that we have in common. We should be aware of other people’s need for our recognition of their identities, and we should remember that even by avoiding people we take part in their identity formation.
Identity studies show us the importance of dialogue, because they show that it is in dialogue we become who we are. My friend might be right, maybe dialogue projects work slowly, because they have immediate effect only on the participants who meet and talk. But then again, there is no alternative; the only way to make others understand and respect our view is through dialogue.
The lesson from identity studies is that we influence others whether we chose to talk to them or chose to ignore them, so we might as well try to be a positive influence.

* I can recommend for instance: M.R. Leary: Handbook of Self and Identity, 2003, The Guilford Press, and S. Stryker: “From Mead to a Structural Symbolic Interactionism and Beyond” in Annual Review of Sociology 34, 15-31, 2008.

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