Communication Currents

Walls, Fences, and Communication

August 1, 2008
Intercultural Communication

Most persons view communication as an evolutionary tool that facilitates coordination and organization. As a result, communication is viewed in terms of skill and technique, and we seek to acquire the skills and techniques that would allow us to convey our thoughts and emotions with precision and control. But in many ways, this popular view of communication downplays the vital role that communication plays in creating our social worlds. For without communication, misperception happens. Without communication, aggression happens. In short, without communication, no opportunity exists for peoples to demystify and understand each other. We are devoid of any means to become less afraid of each other and lessen the threat of our differences. In other words, without communication, all that remains is our misperception and distortion of each other.

Thus the lack of communication ferments suspicion, distrust, and, ultimately, hostility. Its absence puts us at each other's throats and thereby of social worlds that are more prone to violent conflict and strife. As such, what is the value of devices, practices, and arrangements that limit and even end communication between different peoples--especially in our global and multicultural world where our distances and spaces are collapsing and pushing us to reckon with all manner of diversity? For instance, what is ultimately the usefulness of walls and fences in an increasingly plural, global, and multicultural world? That is, what is the value of the walls that the US is constructing in Iraq to separate Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods? What is the value of the wall that the US is building on the border with Mexico? Or the wall the Israelis are constructing between Israel and Palestine? Or the wall Thailand is proposing to build on its border with Malaysia? Or the wall The United Arab Emirates is building on its border with Oman? Or the wall Saudi Arabia is building on its border with Yemen? Or the wall Botswana is building on its border with Zimbabwe? Or the wall Brunei is building on its border with Limbang? Or the wall Iran is building on its border with Pakistan? Or the wall Russia is proposing to build on its border with Chechnya?

Indeed, over twenty countries are currently either constructing or proposing to construct new border walls and fences. But with this construction, how will the peoples on different sides of these walls and fences demystify each other, understand each other, and, ultimately, become less afraid of one another? How could cooperation be possible when communication is impossible? Our future no doubt depends, as Jonathan Sacks reminds us in the Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, on “our ability to understand and be understood by people whose cultures, creeds, and values and interests conflict with ours and to whom . . . we must speak and listen.” This involves being “ready to hear of their pain, humiliation and resentment and discover that their image of us is anything but our image of ourselves.” It also involves “letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act, and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own.”

There is a physical dimension to communication—human beings have to be physically (or virtually) available to each other for communication to occur. Walls and fences deny this availability. Yet when communication is undercut, there is simply no way for us to change our various perceptions and misperceptions of each other. The result is most often distortion and tension, which in many cases only makes for the justification for the erection of new walls and fences. So yes, walls and fences can and do immediately lessen the quantity and intensity of conflict between different peoples. But, ultimately, walls and fences heighten the conflict by hardening the distortions and misperceptions that both sides harbor. This reality is seen well in Northern Ireland.

Although Roman Catholics and Protestants signed a peace treaty over a decade ago, the walls—which are officially referred to as Peace Lines—separating the different factions show no signs of ever coming down. In fact, the walls are growing in number and size and Northern Ireland remains no less segregated and the various groups remain no less suspicious and distrustful of each other. Interestingly, the primary purpose of the Peace Lines was to minimize the violence between Protestants and Catholics that erupted in the early 1970s. The government promised that the Peace Lines would be temporary and would be removed after the violence subsided. The senior British army commander, Lt. Gen. Ian Freeland, predicted that "The peace line will be a very, very temporary affair. We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city." However, over the decades the Peace Line” only grew exponentially.

History shows rather plainly that human beings have always been in the business of erecting walls for purposes of safety and security. There is, of course, the great walls of Jericho and the Berlin wall. These walls “are proof of the enduring appeal of the notion that physical separation delivers safety.” But as Bernd Debusmann, a journalist with Reuters, observes

“If history is a guide, no border fortification can seal off a country entirely. Even the mother of all walls, the Great Wall of China, at around 4,000 miles the longest border wall ever built, failed to keep out the northern barbarians against whom it was meant to protect.”

Indeed, just as much as walls keep peoples out, walls also keep peoples in. In this way, just as much walls distort the view of those on the outside, walls distort the view of those on the inside. In other words, in distorting our view of each other, walls ultimately distort our view of ourselves. Walls do this by creating the impression and even the illusion that the humanity of those on the outside is separate from the humanity of those on the inside. In reality, no such separation exists. What happens on either side of the wall ultimately affects the other side, which also means that the conditions on either of the wall affect the other side. This is plainly seen in the case of epidemics and pandemics. It is also seen in the case of pollution and the depletion of natural resources.

On the other hand, as Amy Chua points out, history shows that cultures, peoples, and regions that have the most open borders, liberal laws of residency and citizenship, and also do the most trading, bartering, and cooperating with other cultures, peoples, and regions are consistently the most prosperous. Evidently, as regards to cultivating social worlds that ideologically, culturally, and politically favor diversity, peace, and prosperity, communication matters.