There is a constant challenge within the multidisciplinary field of music education, conflict transformation, and youth empowerment of determining where and how all three disciplines meet, influence, and interact with each other. This philosophical trifold is not only an important discussion as this multidisciplinary field grows, but it also influences theory and practice in determining what sparks connections that bridge differences and human constructed social norms. What comes first? What comes second to last? Can this phenomena be duplicated and how? Most likely, there is not one answer or one way, though clearly there is reasoning to support why certain educational processes work and others do not. According to education philosopher Maxine Greene, educational philosophy must engage the educator “from his [her] vantage point as actor and from the vantage point of his [her] newest experiences and his [her] most recent fears.” (Greene, 1973, p.7)
Many conflict transformation scholars and educator-researcher-practitioners have pointed out that authentic relationship building across difference is not a linear pathway where after A comes B and then C, but rather a circular deepening, like that of a corkscrew (Lederach, 2012), over sustainable periods of time (Lazarus, 2015). Even without a linear pathway, I believe we can say that there is some type of process or processes. It is this open pathway, undefined and yet built by those who make the road by walking, that we will explore and question here: how and why is vulnerability a center piece in generating and re-generating equal social relationships amongst intergroup youth? How can musical co-creating by Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians be a process of uncovering and revealing marginalized narratives, power dynamics, and the telling and witnessing of racial experiences?
Separation between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs through separate schools, separate neighborhoods, separate buses, travel restrictions, and myriad other physical and psychological barriers are systemic symptoms of the conflict, victim-perpetrator relationship, and oppressor-oppressed distinction (Freire, 2000). If we look at the deeper symptom though, we will see that youth are actually socialized by these to ignore or not see inequality and injustice, to normalize separation in the school and transportation systems, which enables as an end result, the demonization of the other and the continuation of violence and injustice. Socialization is a continuous process-product of learning through experience in all parts of life from the home life, school life, social life, in addition to the influence of media and governments on our lives. In the words of Freire, “Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it – oppressors and oppressed alike.” (Freire, 2000, p.58) This bi-national story, a pillar in the understanding and conceptualization of each ethnicity and how they understand themselves in relation to the Other ethnicity, and at times aggravated further by atrocious current events, is truly a multi-narrative story for self-survival and resistance, even if it means forgoing human rights and justice.
As each decade passes and “causal wars” become more frequent, these constructions of socialization are embedded deeper and deeper into Israeli and Palestinian constructions of self, collective identity, understanding, and belonging. It becomes seemingly impossible for either side to not cancel the other out by mere existence. To confront this, an anti-oppressive framework must be called upon in which Israeli and Palestinian youth can see beyond the dualities of the ways they have been socialized by revealing their existences and racial arrogances through critical pedagogies. This “becoming” of youth can challenge vertical identities leading to new frameworks, patterns, and structures built with an understanding for and about coexistence, coresistance, peacebuilding, equality, justice, and human rights. And yet with such stronger societal forces in motion to not see or hear the Other because of entrenched socialization of separation, segregation, violence, and inequality, how can youth develop the critical consciousness to really see or really hear the Other?
To begin, what triggers us to identify with and feel the emotions of another person? How about in the case of two individuals who experience different frameworks of reality based upon socialization, ethnicity, gender, religion, and privilege? What is it about a meaningful song that seems to hold us in a certain emotional space in time? What is it about co-creating that fosters connection, moving us to our core to see and feel something we might never have seen or felt before?
“Vulnerability isn’t good or bad. It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.” -Brene Brown from “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”
For more on vulnerability, watch Brene Brown’s animated short on empathy.
Overtime I have seen vulnerability play a two-fold role in enabling Israeli and Palestinian youth to build equal social relationships with and through music: entering vulnerability is not only “the birth place of joy, creativity, belonging, of love” (Brown, 2010), but as well a space through which individuals in an intergroup setting can be transformed through the process of uncovering “shame, and fear, and our struggle for worthiness.” (Brown, 2010) Hence, musical spaces enable a process, or processes, in which co-creators and even audience members can question their understanding of their world and empathize with another while struggling with what does not exist in their framework of reality. In other words, music and musical co-creation can trigger vulnerability. How and why is this vulnerability triggered? What does this mean for either ethnicity?
Let’s look at another context with several key similarities to reach some realizations about our own context through the lens of educator and philosopher Robin DiAngelo, who explores the dynamics of White Fragility within black and white relations in U.S. society. Though racial experiences are also affected by economic class, it is clear that systemic injustice based upon race exists in America where white people are typically insulated from race-based stress, and hence have not learned how to experience the trauma associated with race-based stress. White Fragility, defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo, 2011, p.54), enables white people to resist challenges to their “internalized dominance” (DiAngelo, 2011). According to DiAngelo, “These reactions do indeed function as resistance, but it may be useful to also conceptualize them as the result of the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates.” (DiAngelo, 2011, p.56) During critical interactions between whites and blacks in which racial stress is triggered, white people may: emotionally shutdown, resist the conversation by turning away or becoming defensive, erasing the situation completely, feel guilty and not knowing what they can do to change the situation, etc. Anti-racist educators recognize this situation as a coping mechanism by the dominant entity to sustain the framework of their understanding and hence, the status quo of power. From a psychosocial viewpoint, what is really happening here?
In Ann Berlack’s study of black and white race relations in her U.S. based university class, she points to trauma, and the role trauma plays in affecting dominant and marginalized voices. Berlack identifies trauma as both “massive, painful, isolated events outside the normal range of human experience and to daily insidious and persistent events that continue to re-injure the wounded.” (Berlack, 2004, p.134) Both the dominant and the marginalized experience trauma, yet differently based upon their frameworks of socialization, which also means that when confronted with situations that do not fit within either’s framework, each experiences firsthand or secondhand trauma differently.
”Becoming a witness to traumatic events can be doubly painful. First, the shattering of naturalized worldviews is profoundly disorienting and painful in itself. Second, witnessing experiences that had previously been filtered out is painful because what enters consciousness through the transformed frameworks is itself painful and terrifying.” (Berlack, p.135)
Berlack states that through the process of witnessing we become “radically transformed” where a perpetrator or bystander “becomes imaginatively capable of perceiving and feeling the victims’ trauma in his or her own body- gaining ‘the power of sight (or insight) usually afforded only by one’s own immediate physical involvement’ (Felman & Laub, 1992, p. 108).” (Berlack, 2004, p.135-136) In other words, we cannot numb the injustice any longer. Through the process of witnessing, we hear and are heard by the Other, perhaps for the first time, and this is also the touch stone of empathy through vulnerability. Not only that, to circle back to Brown, we cannot “selectively numb.” If we numb vulnerability, we numb everything else. In addition, according to Brown, “shame is the fear of disconnection,” or in other words, fear of disconnection from self and others.
Similar to what Berlack and DiAngelo describe, it is often that Israeli participants will wrestle with their dominance and experience processes of shame, guilt, and erasure, whereas Palestinian participants will often feel the need to constantly return to topics that they feel still needs even more uncovering, more seeing, and more witnessing. Differing from the U.S. context of white dominance, Israeli dominance is also affected by an internal narrative struggle of victimhood verses superiority as Israeli Jews are a majority in proper Israel, but in the rest of the world Jews are by far a minority in their communities. Palestinians are not without their own internal narrative struggles of victimhood as well. Though each ethnicity ultimately requires unique attention based upon their differing needs, for both cases if vulnerability is tapped into, then the flood gates of empathizing and witnessing can become a reality. Music as a dialogical process of co-creation is a process of witnessing which can begin to put cracks in the wall of erasure, shame, fear, and trauma. How does this now apply back to our context of Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians in practice?
Playing music together and co-creating is a dialogical process through which we connect with our fellow musicians by empathizing with the other. One’s freedom within this musical space is tied to the other’s freedom. When making music and co-creating, we are put “on edge” to take risks by sharing our emotions, stories, and ideas. This “in-between” (Greene, 1982) is where real-life relationships between youth members can be tested, requiring risk-taking and creativity of all involved. This can manifest itself in educational practice through multimodal means, including jamming, a songwriting session, exploring harmonies and rhythms, learning about the ways music can advocate for social justice and human rights, developing the deep listening skills to hear and be heard in dialogue and in rehearsal, or simply, to experience transcendence as a form of healing, reflecting, and regenerating conceptions of self and community. It is in this space that Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians uncover and confront their traumas, witness their realities and experiences, mourn over their given socializations, and empathize with the Other to rebuild new constructions of self and community through “becoming.”
And yet from a critical educational lens, this is not enough on its own. The ways in which this can occur authentically depends on the space co-created equally between the youth members involved in co-generating processes of change. This co-generation must constantly be nurtured, and re-nurtured, reflected and re-reflected upon, and emboldened by individual and collective action. In other words, this is where equal social relationships can be built in a safe(r) space through an (e)quality of education that enables the transfer of knowledge, understanding, and skills to less safe spaces in youth musicians’ worlds.
How does a program enable the embracing of vulnerability amidst protracted conflict and systemic injustice? Here are five questions to ask yourself when looking at your program and yourself as an educator in your context:
1. Are the students co-creating reflections of their realities? Is your program youth-centered?
2. Is the space safe(r)? Who is being heard? How are decisions being made? For the dominant ethnicity, what is the program providing to support them as they wrestle with shame, guilt, and erasure? For the marginalized ethnicity, what is the program providing to support them in their struggle to be heard, to affect power dynamics, and to enter and build the space as equals?
3. Who is hearing these youth co-creations? What role can media and social media play in amplifying youth voices?
4. As educator-facilitators-practitioners, what are you doing to bolster your own practice, whether through dialogues, reading, research, podcasts, etc.? Are you able to look into the eyes of your own biases and name them?
5. Does the space you are building with your youth musicians have an “ethic of care” (Holloway & Krensky, 2001) and self-care for staff and youth musicians alike?
Lastly, I close this post with the wisdom of bell hooks:
“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” -bell hooks
APA Citation: Gottesman, S. (2015, September 30).Vulnerability: A Center Piece to (Re)Generating Equal Social Relationships. Retrieved from: https://musicintervention.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/vulnerability-a-center-piece-to-regenerating-equal-social-relationships
- Bazelon, E. & Margalit, R. (2013, Feb. 4). A History of Misunderstanding. Slate Magazine. Received from URL: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2013/02/israeli_and_palestinian_textbooks_researchers_have_conducted_a_comprehensive.html
- Berlak, A. (2004). Confrontation and Pedagogy: Cultural Secrets, Trauma, and Emotion in Anti-oppressive. In M. Boler (ed), Democractic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence (pp. 123-144). New York: Peter Lang.
- Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
- Brown, B. (TED Talk). (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability. Podcast retrieved from
- DiAngelo, R. (2011). White fragility. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3).
- Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.
- Greene, Maxine. The dialectic of freedom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.
- Greene, Maxine (1973). “Teacher as stranger.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Holloway, D.L., & Krensky, B. (2001). The Arts, Urban Education, and Social Change. Education and Urban Society, 33, p.354-365.
- “The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach.” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Living. NPR. KUHF, Houston, Texas, 12 Jan. 2012. Radio.