Article by Emilija Gagrčin, member of the EFIL Training and Intercultural Learning Advisory Body
The 2015 NECE Conference took place from 22nd to 24th October in Thessaloniki under the title ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ and I had the chance to represent EFIL in my role as member of the TICLAB. NECE is organized yearly by the German bpb (Feder Agency for Civic Education) and aims at providing a platform for networking citizenship education in Europe.
The overarching question of this year’s conference was how to reimagine and redefine the role of citizenship education in times of potential strengthening of the border between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ due to perceived fundamental religious, ethnic and cultural differences. By gathering a number of both scholars and practitioners in the field of citizenship education the conference approached the initial question in three areas: rising populist movements in EU countries as consequence of Europe’s economic and political division, perceived unbridgeable differences between the ‘West’ and the ‘Islamic World’, and the challenges for civic education in the context of Russian-Ukrainian conflict. (Funny observation: None of the keynote speakers had a Russian, Ukrainian or Muslim background; so much about Othering.)
Keynote speakers addressed a number of interesting issues. Ulrike Guerot, from the European Democracy Lab, explained how economical differences in Europe nowadays come from geographical position of European countries within center and periphery. She also presented a project called “European Republic”, under slogan “Europe: A new version is available”, which aims at uniting Europe in a functional unity again, by having a “single European democratic government with separated powers elected through transnational ballots”You can find more about the project here.
Prof. Christina Koulori, of Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeastern Europe, explained in her keynote speech the Greek discourse on immigration and citizenship from historical perspective, quoting an interesting graffiti from Athens stating: “Our grandparents were refugees, our parents were immigrants and we are racists”, in order to illustrate the polarized political debate and open nationalism in today’s Greece.
Most interesting moment of the conference for me was a session about Othering and identity construction of youth Europeans, led by Alistar Ross, from London Metropolitan University, and Michalis Kakos, from Leeds Beckett University. In the three hour session, lecturers provided us with a theoretical analysis of what we mean when we speak about identities, Kakos stated that “we are what we chase and what we run from”, meaning that we need the Other to define ourselves, both positively and negatively. We analyzed examples of interviews that Prof. Ross conducted with young Europeans in the context of his research with focus on perception of minorities among youth Europeans. What is striking is the way how 10 year-olds are able to stigmatize directly and elaborately, by unquestionably reproducing prejudice induced by their surroundings. This reassured me of the importance of intercultural learning at a much younger age. Lastly, we discussed intergenerational Othering, which is something we rarely touch upon in AFS, but has every right to be included in our ICL discussions.
Lizzie Doron, an Israeli writer, closed the conference by presenting her new novel “Who the fuck is Kafka”, which focuses on processes of othering but also similarities in the state of disconnectedness between her as Israeli woman and her friend as Palestinian man. The novel includes insights about their visits to one another in their homes and reactions of people to their friendship, about ideological misunderstandings and, as she says “unbridgeable differences”. The book is based on personal experiences and even though I enjoyed her anecdotes, I find her reasoning about culture somewhat static and essentialist, and wonder what is her contribution to deconstruction of the Other in the context of NECE conference, if not to tell us that we are still far away from being able to distance ourselves from our cultural identities.
All in all the conference was interesting and I think that EFIL can play a more active role in this conference in future opportunities, for example by presenting its work and perhaps offering workshops.