This blog was written by Sharleen Estampador-Hughson, a PhD student; and Peter Matanle, Senior Lecturer and Director of Research and Innovation, both at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield.

Nostalgia as an extension of soft power can be used as a manipulative tool to distort facts, truths and to create doubt via mass media. In recent times, this distortion has been widespread with warnings of ‘fake news’, ‘echo chambers’, and ‘confirmation bias’, even sparking the reemergence of ignorance or agnotology as a timely discourse. Russia’s interference with the American elections has brought up concerns of the U.S’s vulnerability through social media and online hate has pressured MPs to confront Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to take down far right hate material. These post-truth manifestations point towards our human need to feel validated and to belong. But to do that has often required pointing out those who do not ‘belong’ and those who are not worthy of that shared identity (U.S. Army discharging immigrants, UK Windrush scandal, refusal of refugees in the EU).

The media have a habit of bringing distressing and disheartening images and stories of people doing really bad things to each other direct into our homes; Fear sells it’s a fact! Much of these hate related propaganda plays with idealized memories of the nostalgic past such as colonial roots of the former British Empire and Trump’s declaration to ‘Make America great again’, emphasis on ‘again’. There’s a reason why they do this. We want to know about the risks we face. There is, however, a danger lurking. As Bauman warns us, ‘[L]ike liquid cash ready for any kind of investment, the capital of fear can be turned to any kind of profit, commercial or political’. There are even people putting significant resources into exploiting these fears and doubts. Without personal experiences to counter the relentless flow of negative information from afar we may unconsciously begin to think others are bad because of who they are, what they think and believe, or even what they look like. Consequently, many end up avoiding people from far-away failing to discover, the good things that often happen when face-to-face encounters occur, that they too are good.

Just as we unlock the potential for communicating across continents and drawing together our shared humanity, it seems that fear of the other has made us rely on our filter bubbles, venturing beyond our conceptual borders only to hurl metaphorical rocks at those we fear would unsettle these safe spaces. In doing so, are we demonstrating passive intolerance for those around us who are different? Where is this downward spiral of disconnection taking us? Are we retreating from the challenge of overcoming our divisions for fear of exposure to new knowledge and ways of life? All this discord demonstrates the need for genuine, face-to-face human connections where this level of interaction away from social media can develop into positive, long-term impact, reminding us of our humanity instead of dividing us.

Breaking the Spiral of Disconnection and Cultural Exchange

People need time to engage with others and discover that, regardless of where we come from, our basic common, generous, kind, humanity is what connects us all. As Giddens notes, ‘[T]he individual is not a being who at some sudden point encounters others; ‘discover the other’, in an emotional cognitive way, is of key importance in the initial development of self-awareness’. That’s why sustained experience of others’ everyday life patterns and cultures through international exchange programmes can be an extraordinarily powerful tool for turning underlying prejudices around, and contributing to human development.

There are a number of exchange programmes that include the well known EU’s Erasmus Programme, the US Peace Corps, and the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) to name a few. All of these create feelings of nostalgia and yearning for the other, pulling at and drawing us together. One particular programme that has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme or JET for short. Once described as ‘the most successful public diplomacy program ’ this programme was intended as an exercise in Japan’s soft power relations, particularly with the Anglophone world, that began in 1987 with young university graduates from the USA, UK, Australia, and New Zealand being placed in mostly provincial towns and villages in Japan to assist with teaching English. The primary purpose of the programme has always been to foster grass-roots international understanding. The best and strongest foundation for long-term good relations between states is good relations between their constituent peoples.

For JET, in just over thirty years later around 65,000 people from 65 countries have spent up to five years each on the programme, living and working among Japanese in their communities and schools, accumulating together more than 120,000 years of human exchange experience. Keep in mind that many of the participants’ home countries fought against Japan in the Second World War. From that perspective this might seem like a distant memory, but in 1987 when JET started, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s capitulation to the Allies, had taken place just 43 years previously. If we use the JET Programme as a prototype for understanding the benefits of cultural exchange, it has indeed been successful in its promotion of goodwill through nostalgia and soft power.

The Power of Nostalgia

Most people who have spent time abroad discover that their prolonged exposure to a language, culture, and way of life very different from their own has a profound impact on their lives. But it’s not an easy process. It is often the uncomfortable moments that leave a lasting impact, but not in the way one might expect. Prolonged exposure to mental and emotional challenge through having to live differently as others do is stressful, but it is ultimately one of the most enriching experiences one could have.

When people experience the transition into a new community they are usually open to making new friends. This is understandable, as they are eager to find acceptance and avoid loneliness by reaching out. Living and working overseas on an everyday basis for a year or more forces people to engage with their ‘other’; and it compels both the visitor and the host to try to speak each other’s languages, make compromises, and reach accommodations with ways of thinking that may at times appear irrational or nonsensical. It challenges the visitor to rethink ingrained assumptions, beliefs and habits and, in the process, changes them from the inside-out. It forces one to be humble, and accept that the world is not as it first appears.

For JET programme participants, along with the thrill of being in Japan and experiencing something new and fascinating every day, the fulfilment that comes with overcoming challenges and adversities mingles with fond memories of happy times to create a nostalgia within each individual. One former participant explained the impact of his experience:

Imagine everyone in Japan wearing yellow sunglasses [and] everyone in the States wears blue sunglasses. By living here for a while your sunglasses are going to turn green, they’re never going to go full-blown yellow, and you’re never going to be able to go back to blue.

In the process the participants learn that the things that divide us are usually not important enough to get upset about, it’s those small differences that may provide a route into talking to and about each other and drawing us together as we grow to appreciate a different way of life and develop affection for one another.

There’s actually not that much difference between us, the only differences are really cosmetic and small differences, like whether we use metal or wooden implements, whether it’s chopsticks or a knife and fork, whether it’s a big plate, with everything on one plate, or a series of little plates for everyone to share, whether it’s sitting on the floor cross legged, or sitting on a chair, or all of these sorts of things. That’s what culture is, all the stuff that’s in between us, [we’re] different but the same.

Tearing Down the Walls that Divide

As Solnit (2005) articulates, ‘Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?’ Together person-to-person engagements are the very definition of soft power. Living in a strange and distant land gives participants new perspectives and relationships that span continents.

We need to stop retreating behind our televisions and computer screens, letting the media and Internet control our perspectives on other peoples and places. A lot can be learned from engaging on cultural exchange programmes. Connecting with those around us from other places, distant or close to home, can bring respect, appreciation and love for others and, in the process, go on to tear down the walls of fear and hatred that divide us.

1 Comment

Noel Hughson - 15.08.18

Yes…. there is more to bind us than to separate us. Some thought provoking and profound sentiments eloquently expressed in this excellent article. Perhaps if a certain Mr Trump and his supporters (and others of their ilk) were to practice the philosophy expressed here, then maybe our world could be a more stable and less xenophobic environment.

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