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Feb 12 2007

Talking to those with whom you disagree

I watched the documentary What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism on Tuesday and Wednesday. Director Bassam Haddad, a professor of political science at St. Joseph’s University, had a good mix of interviews from America, Europe and the Middle East. It was especially interesting to hear the views of a spectrum of regular people, intellectuals, journalists, and activists from the Middle East, since we rarely get to hear those voices here. Listening to them, you are made aware of the common humanity that binds us all and transcends ethnic and religious divides. You realized that there was strong agreement across the board on some basic ideas of what kinds of actions were justified and what were deplorable.

But Haddad also highlighted the fact that the nature of the discourse on the topic of terrorism is very different in the west from that in the rest of the world. It even starts with the lack of east-west consensus on what the word means. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for labeling an act as ‘terrorism’ and the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’? Does it depend on who the perpetrators are? The nature of the victims? The nature of the act? The motive behind the act? In the absence of such agreement, the word ‘terrorism’ has become used to denote not some well-defined quality, but as a pejorative label to discredit the actions of those whom we dislike.

One important distinction that was highlighted was that in the west, terrorism is seen exclusively as the actions of individuals or sub-national groups, while elsewhere terrorism by nations is also included in the mix.

We know that many policymakers refuse to talk to people on the ‘other’ side, claiming that it would give them a legitimacy they do not deserve. Haddad used an interesting technique for creating a dialogue between sides that would not normally talk to each other. What he did was to use film as an intermediary to create a dialogue. He would interview someone, say a spokesperson from Hizballah or Hamas, then fly to the US and show that film interview to someone from (say) the American Enterprise Institute (a pro-war ‘think tank’) and then film their response. Then he would fly back and show the response to the original speaker and get the response to the response, and so on. As viewers of the final film, we could watch a person watch the interview of the ‘other’ person, then Haddad would stop the film, and then the person would respond.

Watching the two sides engage each other via film, even if they often spoke through each other and did not seem to, or want to, understand what the other person was saying, was the best thing about the documentary.

Watching it, I realized how impoverished the political dialogue is in the media here. I think everyone would understand much better what the issues were if the spokespersons for Hamas and Hizballeh were on the talk shows here, and had their writings published on the op-ed pages to present their positions, so that viewers and readers could judge for themselves what the merits or defects of their arguments were. Instead we are treated patronizingly, and get their positions second-hand, having other people tell us what Hamas and Hizballah represent. It is as if we had to be shielded from them.

al-Jazeera and other Middle Eastern news outlets routinely have high American officials such as the Secretary of State on their shows to give the American point of view directly to the population in that region. Why cannot the same thing be done here with those groups that represent important constituencies in the Middle East? And yet, even al-Jazeera English TV cannot get access to the basic cable services here. Clearly the news media here practice a form of self-censorship that hinders deeper understanding. Although it would be perfectly defensible for a news media outlet to have representatives of Hamas and Hizballah on their shows, this happens far too rarely for the views of those groups to be well understood by the American public.

The people in the documentary were willing to talk to the opposition via an intermediary even though they might not want to be in the same room and talk directly. This strikes me as a meaningless distinction. This unwillingness to talk directly to people with whom you disagree, especially concerning grave issues of war and peace, is something I find hard to understand.

I recall a time when I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka when the students were agitated over an unresolved issue with the university administration. We were planning on striking over an issue and I was a proponent of this action. (Student strikes are not an unusual phenomenon in Sri Lankan universities.) Before the final vote on whether to strike, I suggested at an open meeting of the student body that we invite the University President to appear before the student body to make his case. Some student leaders opposed this suggestion, arguing that the President was a clever person, had a charming personality, and was a smooth talker (all of which was true), who might win over the students and convince them not to go on strike.

I responded that that was a ridiculous position to take. If we could be so easily swayed, that meant that our case was weak to begin with and we should not go on strike anyway. So a vote was taken as to whether to invite the President. The student body was overwhelmingly of the opinion that they could judge the President’s arguments for themselves and did not need us as intermediaries, and the vote was yes. The President accepted our invitation, came and spoke, and we had a cordial debate on the pros and cons of the issue. Eventually the students voted to go on strike anyway. Soon after, the President and the University Senate accepted the student position and the issue was resolved peacefully and quickly, with both sides negotiating a compromise. I felt that this result was obtained partly due to the fact that the two opposing sides had listened to each other and understood the issues much better than before, and were thus able to better understand the other’s position and arrive at a workable solution

I simply don’t understand the basis for the position that you should keep certain people out of the discussion. While some people may disagree with the positions taken by Hamas and Hizballah, there is no question that they are major players in the Middle East and command the support of millions of people. They are also members of their respective governments. It is silly not to talk with them and listen to them. When you eliminate negotiations, when ‘the other’ is excluded from the discussion, violence becomes inevitable.

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Today is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. To celebrate it, you can see the film A Flock of Dodos by filmmaker Randy Olson which looks at the debate in Kansas over evolution versus “intelligent-design.” The link takes you to amusing trailer for the film.

When: Monday, February 12, 2007, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Goodyear Auditorium, Clapp Hall 108, Case Western Reserve University.

The film is free and open to the public. For more details, see here.

There is now a website containing Darwin’s entire collection of works. (Thanks to Ross Duffin for telling me about this site). Here is a BBC news clip about this project.

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