OPINION: THE CASE OF LEOPOLD II: WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT US?

Aren’t we the anointed leaders? Aren’t we supposed to lead Europe to a better future? Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding the King of the Belgians has revealed our weaknesses.

By: Bartosz Duda

COMMUNICATION ERROR

We failed because we do not know how to communicate. From the very beginning, the Belgian Society failed to give an appropriate explanation in order to avoid controversy. A short note about each king could have prevented it (and it could have also improved the exhibition).

If students felt uncomfortable they could have gone directly to the National Week Committee and asked for clarification. Instead, unilateral action was chosen and it opened Pandora’s box – full of negative and unnecessary emotions. This is a consequence of a worrying trend; people prefer monologues to dialogues. It seems to be the most comfortable form of communication. It is easier to prepare a statement and wait for a reaction.

Leopold II is someone that nobody wants to glorify. His negative impact on human history is widespread and obvious. During the Facebook discussion somebody mentioned Stepan Bandera, with whom the vast majority of people are probably not familiar. This is someone who has become a serious bone of contention between Ukrainians and Poles. For Ukraine, especially western Ukraine, Bandera is a national hero and a leader of the independence movement. For Poland, he is a murderer responsible for a genocide that caused the deaths of more than 50,000 people. How should this be discussed? I am convinced that writing a controversial article about him is not the best idea.

However, the communication problem is much wider. In my opinion, it is a fundamental reason for which the European Union (EU) and the whole Western world is in a multidimensional crisis. Elites and leaders are unable to communicate with society. It seems that the top European leaders want to be like Jean Monnet or Robert Schuman but the world has changed drastically – their tactics are no longer feasible.

They are a bygone generation but Europe has many new, young leaders that will be able to manage it, right? Where do they come from? Well, there is for example a well-known institution called the College of Europe. Its students will definitely know how to tackle this challenge… 

BLA BLA BLA

As one of my favourite Polish rappers rhymed in one of his pieces many years ago: “We do not really talk to each other, all we do is hide our sorrows and if we talk we only say ‘bla bla bla’ just to pass the time”.

Last week, the lack of proper discussion was more than obvious; it was based on monologues and indirect dialogues. The word “indirect” is key here. Too many times instead of “face to face” communication we prefer “Facebook to Facebook” or worse, we avoid interaction.

On the other hand, a unilateral approach is easier but it disregards the emotions of one’s counterpart and prevents direct and spontaneous reactions. Statements are a popular way of indirect communication often leading to divergent conclusions. Therefore, a platform for direct dialogue is indispensable. Unfortunately, in the case of the Leopold discussion, I have seen only statements.

People do not always have to be understood but they at least want to feel that they have been heard. This is exactly what the European mainstream does not understand (think of TTIP). Consequently, the anti-establishment movement has become popular. In the post-truth era, where the possibility of manipulating the masses is easier than ever, the ability to listen to what the others have to say is fundamental.

We do not listen because we are too egocentric. We often believe that what we have to say is much more relevant than what others have to say. We do not listen because we feel that nobody was listening to us and we really want to be heard. We therefore choose monologue.

IT IS ALL ABOUT EMOTIONS

The communicational obstacles are related to our emotions; we do not know how to handle them. Personally, I have always had problems expressing myself, regardless of the language. I am convinced that our thoughts are drastically limited by our words. My dream was always to be able to “think” to somebody instead of talking to somebody.

You may laugh but for me everything that takes place in our heads has its own unique shape, melody, colour, density, smell and taste. And when we want to express ourselves verbally all we have is: our voice and its tone. Fortunately, there are other non-vernal ways: singing, playing music, drawing and doing sports. Nevertheless, it is not always possible to express ourselves in the way we would like to. Often we are entrapped by the fear of the others’ reaction as well as by cultural norms.

Only recently have I begun to allow myself to shed a tear – but only when I am alone. Since I was a teenager, I have only once been upset in front of someone and it was not by choice. I was so disappointed. I felt that it was not how “real men” dealt with their problems. This is just an example of how cultural constraint impacts us.

So many people were touched by the way Barack Obama showed his emotions to his wife, Michelle, during the last days of his presidency. His successor, however, seems to be the opposite. To show openly that you are respectful and kind is still perceived as a weakness instead of a strength. And it is definitely not sexy. “Do not be too kind to people, they will not respect you” – does that sound familiar to some of us?

All these contradictions affect us. We are not sure what we feel and we have problems being honest with ourselves. Therefore, the basic instinct takes the lead with the simplest reaction: “Oh no, I am out of my comfort zone! Red light! Mayday, mayday!” and then we look for the easiest way to feel comfortable again, sometimes without dealing with the challenge at hand.

WISHFUL THINKING FOR THE CONCLUSION

I believe we could have avoided tensions related to Leopold II if people were better communicators. It can be an important lesson for all of us. We should show more empathy, be more understanding, listen more, speak less and prioritise caring for people even over our most precious values.

Let us go back for a moment to international relation theory. Do we remember the basic concepts of constructivism? It emphasises the importance of communication, experience, culture and prejudices in our perception of reality. This kind of analysis is still useful to deconstruct and understand our world today.

Some time ago Rector Monar sent us three hopes from His Excellency Sir Ivan Rogers the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the European Union on his resignation. The third is particularly important: “I hope that you will continue to be interested in the views of others, even where you disagree with them, and in understanding why others act and think in the way that they do”. This is necessary on path to becoming European leaders and to continue to be decent human beings.

La Voix du Collège welcomes you to submit your own opinion piece on this, or other matters relating to life at the College or beyond, for online-publishing throughout the semester. Contact us at editors.lvc@coleurope.eu 

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