Interview with Dani de Torres
Par Bifan Sun
Galvanized by the development of social media, the impact of hate speech has been multiplied due to its simplistic and emotional nature, threatening social harmony in many countries and regions around the world. This is not only a regional problem, but also a global one, its solutions must be found in local practices. One of the most effective ways to develop/increase the resilience of a society against radicalization and polarization is to promote the dissemination of alternative narratives that respect the complex realities in which we live and increasing people’s exposure to social diversity (The Council of Europe 2013). The Council of Europe launched the Intercultural Cities Programme (ICC) in 2008 with the objective of providing local and regional authorities worldwide support in reviewing their policies through an intercultural and intersectional lens, and to help develop comprehensive intercultural strategies for managing diversity in a positive way. The team at 404 Magazine had the chance to discuss with Dani de Torres, an expert on the program and the founder of Anti Rumours Global, an organization developing anti-rumours strategy as a way to foster critical thinking and raise awareness about learning how to live harmoniously in our diverse societies. In this edition of the 404 Magazine, Dani will be addressing questions about the governance of diversity with experience from local practices individuals, communities and governments when it comes to diversity issues.
Exposure to diversity as a source of inspiration
Growing up in Spain, in a sociopolitical environment where people actively spoke up for themselves, Dani de Torres developed a strong interest in issues related to social justice at a very young age. After finishing his degree in 1997, he moved to London for a while and was fascinated by the impressive diversity of the metropole. This experience became a major inspiration for what he would do in the future. He came back to Barcelona in 2000 and started to work in a consultancy that offered support to institutions for improving their integration policies. At that time, Barcelona started to receive more and more immigrants and refugees. The municipalities asked for the support offered by the consultancy group to better respond to the upcoming social challenges. Dani had the chance to talk to decision makers from different European cities and did a lot of comparative studies across various integration models. This work made him realize that he really wanted to focus on diversity issues for the rest of his career. Today, as an expert of the ICC program, the director of the Spanish Network of Intercultural Cities (RECI) and the founder of Anti Rumours Global, Dani has advised several cities and organizations on diversity policies. He has given lectures and workshops on intercultural policies and the anti-rumours approach in more than 25 countries.
Conditions for underrepresented social groups to speak up for themselves
From his experience as both a researcher and a policy adviser, Dani recognized the difficulty of providing a generalized list of conditions that would encourage the participation of underrepresented social groups. He proposed clearing up who we are referring to in the first place when we talk about underrepresented social groups, because they are heterogenous too: “under the same conditions, some manage to make their voice heard, others don’t; a certain strategy works for some, but not for others”. It takes scientific data to identify and analyze the real barriers to their participation, as well as sustained efforts to expect real changes over time. Despite the complexity of the issue, there is one thing that underlies the equal participation of underrepresented social groups, according to Dani: the political will of the decision makers. As he always repeats in his work, qualitative changes take place when there’s an explicitly expressed political will, and that’s not incompatible with our recognition and appreciation of individual and collective capacity to act. If we aim to promote equality of participation, we need to be proactive. We need to conduct more research to understand inequalities in different aspects. Sometimes, we find inequalities at societal and institutional levels and in day-to-day community practices. It could be more subtle forms of inequality, discrimination, and exclusion. For example, unequal access to public debates and unequal treatment of opinions in the process of decision-making are not as easy to identify as the right to vote. Dani pointed out that each social group was much more heterogenous than we usually thought. Therefore, there could be tensions in terms of interests and needs within the group. So, we should pay attention to the intersectionality of identities, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, age, sexual orientation, etc. In the process of decision-making, municipalities should avoid tokenism and try to include a plurality of voices at different levels. “One thing that we worked on a lot with cities who hoped to improve their integration policies was to make sure that the organizations and communities we’ve reached are representative of the complex diversity of the city.” The experienced policy adviser reminded us that aside from financial supports and practical actions, it’s important for the government to recognize the diversity at all levels and the contribution of different social groups, in a symbolic way. That requires massive dissemination of alternative narratives and will probably improve one’s sense of belonging to society and their will to participate. “It’s a very important precondition, it’s not a guarantee, but it’s definitely necessary.”
DID YOU KNOW?
The concept of “intersectionality” was first proposed by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” (1989). She denounced that the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories was at the root of the marginalized status of black women in both feminist and anti-racist movements. On the one hand, discussions tended to focus on the interests and needs of white middle-class women in feminist campaigns. On the other hand, discussions are usually dominated by men in anti-racism campaigns. Therefore, black women could not be fully represented by either group. That’s why African-American feminists have used an intersectional perspective to examine the condition of black women to produce an alternative interpretation of their identities, interests and needs. Years later, the concept of “intersectionality” was absorbed by many other social movements. Combating all kinds of inequalities, aimed at examining the complexity of social identities in an integrated way, taking into consideration various axes of social structure, including class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, disability, etc.
Source : Kimberlé Crenshaw. 1989. « Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics ». University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989 (1): 31.
Building resilience through counter narratives and alternative narratives
Generally, the dissemination of counter narratives and alternative narratives can reinforce the resilience of a society confronted with discourses distorting different social realities. There are debates in social movements about which term to use: counter narratives, alternative narratives, productive narratives, critical narratives, etc. For Dani and his team, “it’s been really important to move from ‘counter narratives’ to ‘alternative narratives’. ‘Counter narratives’ is more widely known as a term, but it carries a reactive meaning. We propose something positive rather than negative, proactive rather than reactive”. According to Dani, “counter narratives” start with identifying rumors, stereotypes, conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies. Then, by doing research and collecting data, we try to give rational arguments to counter a certain discourse within the framework that others have set up. “Alternative narratives”, on the other hand, are intended to lead the agenda, in the sense that a certain social group creates its own narratives based on its members’ interests, needs and concerns, that it takes the initiative in communicating its realities in their complexities instead of passively reacting to negative discourses.
« We propose something positive rather than negative, proactive rather than reactive. »
“But I’m not saying that alternative narratives should completely substitute for counter narratives, they have to complement each other because in our daily life, we are often confronted to emotional messages and narratives that simplify and distort realities. We need to know how to counter that specific narrative at that very moment in a more effective way,” Dani explained. Same for local, regional, and national governments and institutions, when it comes to constructing narratives to support relevant policies. Dani told us that in many cases, the municipalities were willing to be more open to diversity and implement more inclusive policies, but were actually hesitant to communicate their will and investment considering that advocating diversity can cause electoral costs. In this case, when toxic narratives emerge, they find themselves in a passive position to react. That’s why Dani would always advise municipalities to invest in policies, as well as narratives to support their policies.
Fundamental roles of physical public spaces for meaningful interactions between different social groups “Public spaces are fundamental for intercultural dialogue”, said Dani, “face-to-face interaction is proved to be much more effective in evoking critical thinking and empathy. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need virtual spaces to counter toxic narratives and create our own narratives.” Interactions in physical public spaces are full of contingency. Our encounter with a more complex reality allows us to temporally get out of our echo chamber. The expert emphasized that public spaces were not built once and for all. Municipalities and communities needed to find ways to invigorate them with facilities and activities that would generate meaningful interactions. To emphasize, he told us an anecdote from his experience of working with people from the Chinese community in his neighborhood: “I was invited to give a workshop at my kids’ school and we were the first local school to participate in the Chinese New Year celebration. But none of the Chinese parents were part of the parents’ association and none of them were going to participate. So, I proposed to ask them why they didn’t come and we found that they work on Saturdays. We then changed the date from Saturday to Sunday and they agreed to come. It turned out to be no big deal, but we just didn’t make more efforts to reach the community. During the Chinese New Year celebration, a Chinese mother shared with other parents the meaning of the year of the dog and traditions in Chinese culture. That was the first time that they had a conversation with each other, even though they have been sharing the same public space for several years. It was thanks to that experience that they learned that one of the Chinese parents was the owner of a convenience store in the neighborhood. And now a Catalan mother would leave her kids at their store for a while when she cannot look after them. There is some social capital now.”
Counter and prevent the global spread of hate speech in a bottom-up way?
Although not very optimistic about the impact that individuals and communities could have without institutional support for systemic changes, Dani indicated that there could be differences between two cities with similar economic, sociohistorical context and demographic structure, exposed to approximately the same narratives. The differences lie in the collaboration between local government and social actors at all levels; from public institutions to grassroot organizations, from public to private sectors. Dani gave us an example: in a Spanish city, all local restaurants agreed to be part of a campaign, using their tablecloth to send messages against prejudices and stereotypes. When people have lunch in whichever one of the restaurants, they see the same messages. “I think that we have to be much more open-minded in terms of building networks of allies to reach different audiences at different moments and in different ways. Even if hate speech and other toxic discourses circulate virally on social media, our daily experience in real life can make a big change.” Another example to illustrate the influence that a local action could have on national policies: “I participated in an innovative project aimed to improve the reception of refugees in Utrecht, a city of the Netherlands. When the government decided to build an emergency shelter center in a complex neighborhood, they got a lot of protests from the residents. Having listened to their concerns, we realized that they were just defending some basic rights. Like the access to education and affordable housing, instead of being necessarily racist or populist. This gave us a lesson which is that what we see may be just the surface of the iceberg. The government then built a youth center to offer low-cost rental housing, language courses and entrepreneurship workshops for both refugees and locals. Gradually, a cultural ecosystem took shape where people from different domains try to bring together refugees and locals with all kinds of activities and a positive narrative of living together, working together, and learning together. In this way, they provided an alternative model to the national reception policy. Then, local politicians proposed similar actions at the National Parliament and the national government, in change, adjusted the national policy according to the model of Utrecht. So, the municipality of Utrecht managed to change the national policy of refugee reception. And the media reported, for the first time, that reality in a positive way.”
« I think that we have to be much more open-minded in terms of building networks of allies to reach different audiences at different moments and in different ways. Even if hate speech and other toxic discourses circulate virally on social media, our daily experience in real life can make a big change.»
Dani said that local governments, institutions, and communities didn’t have to expect to have a national or even global influence, but they did have access to the public in a much more direct way and had much more resources than they thought to create a more inclusive society. It’s also important to build networks that encourage the share of expertise and experience, and regional and global cooperation among cities faced with common challenges. At the same time, the fact of being part of an international network incites the governments to make more efforts to get a better outcome.
What to do when experiencing or witnessing discrimination or hatred based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.?
In the past few years, Dani has been advocating for the power of dialogue in dismantling rumors, prejudices, stereotypes as well as generating constructive and productive alternative narratives. But, faced with a discourse carrying an extreme ideology, this approach may not be the most effective, as it requires active listening from both sides. In this case, legal and psychological interventions are needed. He suggested that one of the most important things to do was to avoid taking a position of moral superiority “that triggers the ego defense of any of us, so that no argument could be properly received within this conversation”. It’s important that we stay aware that we all have a biased perspective to the world. The recognition of our partiality impacts the manner we listen and respond to the other person. Dani indicated that, too often, when hearing a comment based on prejudices and stereotypes, we tend to judge that person at once, instead of trying to find out what makes them think that way and how could we evoke reflections and doubts about their perception. “Active listening is a very important tool, because if we listen to the other person and ask questions in a harmless way, if we show interest in what they are talking about and how they feel at that moment, they will be more open to develop their arguments. Dani added: “and then, of course, we need to provide arguments that challenge their opinions. We could share a personal story, when we talk about a real person, people feel much more compelled to generalize, then we could find some common grounds to address the issue in order to avoid putting us in opposing camps, which makes difficult the rest of the discussion. Also, pay attention to our sources of information, different messengers have different influence on different social groups”. Dani then explained that focusing on common grounds didn’t mean that we should ignore differences and inequalities. Rather, common grounds are just a starting point for us to develop empathy and solidarity, thus transcend differences between us. Things we share could be as easy as: the wish for a better life, the fear of losing a job, or just the experience of being discriminated, excluded and misrepresented, etc.
In the end, Dani proposed to our readers to do an exercise that he often uses in his trainings: imagine that you meet a colleague in the elevator who just made a negative comment on the origin of another colleague, how would you react to this within the next one or two minutes? Then, imagine that you are at a family dinner and one of your uncles just made the same comment and you have one hour to discuss with him, what would you say? In both situations, if you just respond with a smile, you’ll be part of the process in which those prejudices and stereotypes find space to grow and spread. Though we couldn’t expect to change people’s perception in a brief discussion, we can always make that person reflect and doubt about his or her opinions. Another indicator of a successful intervention would be that this person is open enough to talk about the same topic the next time you meet. “I realized that people had much more common sense than we thought. When I did this exercise, I never told people which would be the correct answer, I just gave them time to think about it in groups and in the end, all of them came up with good strategies. That means that we need to spend more time to think about it and work on it in our daily life.”
TO GO FURTHER Dani de Torres has been giving workshops in more than 25 countries around the world and has published a number of articles proposing practical strategies for individuals to dismantle rumor, prejudice and stereotype in daily conversations. Find more detailed information in “Claiming the Power of Dialogue” (2021).
« The processes of creating, communicating, and disseminating these narratives require a multidimensional and multilevel approach: they must involve various fields, channels, messengers, and the participation of a large number of actors, both institutional and from civil society as a whole.»(2021)
Dani de Torres. 2021. « Claiming the power of dialogue ». Council of Europe. https://rm.coe.int/policy-brief-toolkit-for-antirumours-dialogue-icc-academy-narratives-d/1680a23540.
Dani de Torres. 2021. « Claiming the power of dialogue ». Council of Europe. https://rm.coe.int/policy-brief-toolkit-for-antirumours-dialogue-icc-academy-narratives-d/1680a23540.
Kimberlé Crenshaw. 1989. « Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics ». University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989 (1): 31. The Council of Europe. 2013. « Guidance for implementation: Building resilience to radicalization leading to violent extremism and terrorism ». Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture. The Council of Europe.