Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Imagination and Empathy - understanding the others


                    A real Pigeon and not the usual symbol of peace taken

                    from Picasso's drawing of a white pigeon in Wroclaw 1948

                    at Kids' Guernica Exhibition in Chios 2007

                                                      Photo: Maya Fischer


It is a major thesis of Kids’ Guernica that children are more able to link up with others since they are still free in their imagination and therefore can open up spaces for collaboration and working together while others in their adult life would not know how to make space, mentally speaking.

Takuya Kaneda would expound upon the thesis by adding this is why the murals painted by children have the possibility of freeing the adults in their imagination. Indeed, the children can through these paintings make adults become like them, i.e. free in their imagination. Only then adults can develop empathy for others i.e. understand their needs but also fears.

If this is so, then it has far reaching implications for intercultural dialogues. What is needed to be discussed how to go further with this thesis both within Kids' Guernica but also within schools but also cultural agencies. Altogether the emphasis upon 'creativity' overshadows the need to work with the imagination.

More concretely, empathy is realized when communication with the other(s) become(s) a true dialogue of the imagination with the other. This includes the terms of reality the other has to live in and has to be extended to include changes as they can alter these terms in both content and form.

For instance, two persons may assume they understand each other with regards to the meaning of love but then one of them falls not only in love but shortly thereafter the relationship stumbles and they break up. That other person has now personal pain to add to the dimension of love. There is no telling if the two can still communicate well if these nuances are not taken into consideration.

The example provokes still a further question, namely that of language. It has been said that only once the nuances are understood, then communication with the other can be a happy one. Very often mixed marriages e.g. she being Greek or Danish, he German or Bosnian, may end up speaking English instead of using either the one or other original language. In this in between space between three different languages a lot of content and subtle differences in how to understand things can be lost.

To this thesis about language much more can be said. Given the theories by Piaget, Chomsky, there prevails the notion of an universal structure behind every language spoken. But how to tap into that universal structure if language is not used well? Is there also a problem in how terms and structures are shaped so that the range of the language remains short of bringing the full imagination into reflection? Very few philosophers have concerned themselves with the imagination, Jean Paul Sartre perhaps a rare exception.

Definitely, when moving into the political sphere, use of symbols to communicate something does entail another way of communication and understanding. For the peace movement the pigeon painted by Picasso during an International Congress for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland in 1948 has become a powerful symbol of peace. However, after 1989, the war in former Yugoslavia, 911 or 11th of September 2001 in New York, the start of the new war in Afghanistan in 2001 followed by the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 with many more conflicts erupting in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinian territories but also in Lebanon 2006, people started to doubt the effectiveness of this peace symbol. The huge mass peace demonstration in London prior to the invasion into Iraq went silent once the facts were created on the ground. Even politicians of the Green party started to wonder if the old symbols would still hold.

Symbols are used to unify as if they are powerful positions to indicate that they stand for something e.g. the smiling sun of the Greens as a declaration against nuclear energy and in favor of alternative energy. It was Ernst Cassirer who emphasized that symbols can easily lead to misunderstanding. As this entails dipping into Psychoanalysis with the dispute between Freud and Jung being exactly about this difference between analytical interpretations and symbolic associative thinking, here needs only to be mentioned that communication is also about expressing needs. A child may only use symbols and as such declare that it needs water but would never think about the conditions under which the parents can provide the child with water. On the other hand, if adulthood would mean the capacity to reflect upon the conditions under which specific needs can be satisfied, then this translation from symbolic to rational language would imply what in terms of children being endowed with the imagination while adults lacking something would nevertheless have another open ending understanding of how needs can be fulfilled in the real world?

but also philosophers like Al Gahiz who maintained in every language there exists the word 'love', but which cannot be translated exactly into any other language,

Painting as common language

That is why Kids' Guernica elevates itself above language and takes fore mostly recourse to the simple fact that painting itself can become a common language. This was the case when children and youth from both Greece and Turkey came together in Izmir to paint together one mural. With either group not speaking the language of the other, they felt immediately at ease when they started to paint together.

Painting as universal language: children and youth from Chios, Greece and Izmir, Turkey painting together a Kids' Guernica mural in Izmir, September 2007

The importance of colours has been underlined in many Kids' Guernica action. Of interest is that Boris Tissot wished to dispute this by undertaking quite another action in Picasso's Atelier, namely to make the children adopt the black & white colours adults use when talking about war. The only exception in that mural was made by having a rainbow being included as a kind of concession to the wish of the children to paint the mural in color. Little was it understood by adults that the rainbow means something else to children who take natural phenomenon not literal but as an extension of their wish to bridge something which was divided till then.

Jad Salman mixing the colours with the children about to paint the rainbow on the mural prepared in Picasso's atelier, Oct./Nov. 2009.

This difference of opinion between what the adults wanted the children to understand and what the children themselves made into a gift for Jad Salman, the painter who understood their wish, is quite remarkable.

Mural 1: children painting under the tutelage of the adults

Mural 2: Mural painted by the children alone

The urge of the adults that children adopt a black and white, indeed stark language to depict a world marked only by war may be out of a wish for clarity they may lack themselves. They may have made in due course of their own real life so many compromises. Therefore, they shall miss the point children like to make when reaching out with their imagination and use colour to depict things. Children wish to make clear their position as being in favor of life and not war. The latter means to them not only violence and destruction, but also everything ranging from abuse to death.

Knowing the reality of others

The real basis of friendship is to know the reality of the others. This has to include getting to know how the others relate on their own terms to reality. By adopting murals from Afghanistan, Nepal, Japan, South Korea, USA, France etc. schools can promote intercultural learning. The various documentatory materials which accompany each mural (videos, photos, texts of the children) can be an entry point in following children in Kabul to school and to begin to understand under which conditions they have to learn, indeed grow up in.

Since reality of the others has to be faced as much individually as collectively, with many in-betweens in terms of social realities being constantly reshaped by love and friendship, marriage and family, business relations and countless break-ups, it becomes crucial to identify what can terminate the openness in approaches to the others? As openness is linked to an ongoing learning process, demotivation in learning has to be linked as to what happens to the willingness or not to give empathy to the others. Without such an empathy, dialogue would be inconceivable. This thesis has been made explicit already by Frederique Chabaud when she outlined some of the reasons why intercultural dialogue can fail, at least when conditions prevail in the Middle East that erect more walls than allowing people to meet and to share freely their stories.

and allows the drawing of lines between us and ‘them’. This begins already when one class is split into two groups to play a game against each other. Everyone, including those who remain on the sidelines, end up taking sides as if only then the game can get into full swing and the energy flowing between fellow team mates all what matters in order to defeat the other. This was well shown in the film “War of buttons” (Krieg der Knoepfe”). There were two groups in one class, each coming from a different village. They ended up fighting each other as if at war.

Collaborative learning - learning to understand the other (Karen Hustel)

To examine further the concept 'collaborative learning', something entailed when children and youth paint together a peace mural, Karen Hustel in Ohio devised a special research project. She brought students together with children from a deprived urban area. They formed a group in order that they could take photos and then use photoshop on the computers of the university where the most modern facilities were available to edit and to produce a common album. The children had never before entered a university campus and most of the students had never realized under what different conditions these children live. Interestingly enough is as both developed empathy for each other, that the students realized they were learning perhaps much more from the children than vice versa. A basic difference was the children had no fear to make mistakes. This suggests that formal education intensifies the pressure to be successful so much, that it can and does instil so much fear to make mistakes that students grow silent and no longer learn in an open process with others.

The fear to make mistakes and therefore to remain silent rather than participate in class work intensifies when following re-occurrences happen in class rooms: once a student has experienced how brutal the class can react if you make a mistake e.g. not knowing how to answer adequately the question of the teacher, that student will hesitate to participate actively the next time in class work i.e. when it comes to answer a question or to take the debate about a subject further.

It is well known that those pupils who ask no question, who do not interact with the teacher, they will do generally speaking badly at school. By fearing public exposure, they will suppress themselves. Rather than opening up themselves in order to participate in the learning process, they will remain silent i.e. not make any experience that they are learning something. By staying silent they do not acquire the ability to articulate doubt. They will not articulate, therefore, critical thoughts doubting what is being said in class. By not learning to speak in public, in the open, they will be afraid to show what they have not understand or what is to them a difference between their own understanding of things and what is being supported at that time as the valid knowledge about the subject being discussed.

Being open to doubt, but not to turn this doubt against oneself, is perhaps one of the most crucial lessons to be learned, namely how to put doubt on another level where common knowledge but also other opinions can be expressed, heard, questioned or even rejected. one does not know everything and is not perfect but still able to participate in an open way in learning. This crucial difference between staying quiet and learning to speak in public has many ramifications for socialisation and politicization of the student. And it gives an indication too often the other is treated merely as a source of pain and as a group the ones who will take advantage of ones weaknesses. Even more the students experience in class and at school how difficult it is to shake off a certain image once it has been stuck to one.

As this relates to First World War and then to Second World War, the relationship between France and Germany a most sensitive point, the question about the ‘other’ being friend or enemy can be linked to many moments in history where friendship ended and war separated the former friends. This was shown in the film of ‘Jules and Jim’ and is repeated in the letter Albert Camus wrote to his ‘German friends’ to tell them even though he had delayed as much as he could from going into resistance, now was the time to do so.

Letter to a German friend

You said to me "The greatness of one's country is beyond price. Everything is good that contributes to its greatness, and in a world where everything has lost its meaning, those lucky few, who, like us young Germans, are fortunate enough to find a meaning in the destiny of our country, must sacrifice everything else to it." I loved you then, but at this point we diverged. "No," I told you, "Everything must not be subordinated to a single end. There are means which cannot be excused, and I should like to be able to love my country, and still love justice." You retorted "Well you don't love your country."

That was five years ago. We have been separated since then. And I can tell you that not a single day has passed during those long years without my remembering your remark "You don't love your country." No, I didn't love my country, if pointing out what is unjust about what one loves amounts to not loving. No, I didn't love my country, if insisting that what one loves measure up to the finest image you have of her amounts to not loving, then I do not love my country.

That was five years ago, and many men in France thought as I did. Some of them have already been stood up against the wall facing the twelve little black eyes of German "destiny", and those men, who in your opinion, did not love their country, did more for it than you can ever do, for their heroism was that they had first to conquer themselves. But I am speaking here of two kinds of greatness, and of a contradiction about which I must enlighten you...

-Albert Camus, First Letter to a German Friend



Empathy: Self, Society, Culture
Call for Papers--Empathy: Self, Society, Culture
Indiana University, Bloomington, Nov 11-12, 2011
Keynote speakers:
Carolyn Dean (Brown University)
Nancy Eisenberg (Arizona State University)
Nancy Sherman (Georgetown University)

Growing out of a two-year grant-supported project on "Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Investigations," this symposium aims to explore theories and practices of empathy. For more information about the Virtuous Empathy project, see http://poynter.indiana.edu/empathy.shtml.

We invite papers to explore both virtuous and vicious forms of empathy, and to do so from a variety of perspectives. Proposals for papers are invited in three
broad categories: Empathy and Psychology; Empathy and Ethics; and Empathy in Culture, History, and Society.

Proposals should include a 500 word abstract and paper title, a 100
word description of the author's research interests, and a one page
CV.   Authors should aim to present their papers within 40 minutes to
allow for response and discussion.   All proposals are due by May 9,
2011. Applicants will be notified of acceptance on or around June 8,

Send proposals to: Empathy Symposium, c/o Richard B. Miller, Poynter
Center, 618 E. Third St. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405,

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