Sunday, December 2, 2007

Difficult Dialogues, part 1

Several events in the past week have me thinking about how we talk about Important Issues. There was an unpleasant conversation with my son's teacher and principal. There was a controversial play and follow-up comments both on the blog and in real life.

And there was a thread of comments on another blog where I was accused of "intellectual dishonesty." Granted, I had been on my high horse, but as it is a horse to which I have dedicated some of my professional time and much of my a-vocational energy to over the past ten years, it is a horse to which I am particularly committed. The topic was climate change and the commenter was defending the "nay-sayers" in part by suggesting that those of us who are astounded that nay-sayers still exist don't really know what we're talking about. I have no doubt that I have read, thought and worked on this issue considerably more than said commenter, but pointing this out would have been both rude and unhelpful. So I let it go and the blog-owner came in with her own delicately stated and thoughtful response, as she is wont to do.

So ... I'm thinking about conversations about the things that really matter to us. I mean REALLY matter and on which not everyone agrees. For example, I do not know how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Honestly, I don't. I care deeply about the secure existence of Israel. And I believe strongly that buildling a wall, demolishing homes and farms and cutting off economic security for Palestinians is wrong. To me, holding these three truths together makes sense. I can care about Israel and not know how to solve the problems and know something wrong when I see it. Tonight, our church had an advent wreath-making time. Another woman present had also seen the Rachel Corrie play.

She: I find it hard to be impartial on this topic.
Me: Why would you want to be?
She: Well, there were Jewish people there who seemed very angry.
Me: Well, there are people who get very angry when I protest the Iraq war, but that doesn't mean that I need to change my convictions and become impartial about the war. I think the demolitions are wrong.
She: Some people would say suicide bombing is wrong.
Me: (thinking: some people? duh!)
Me (speaking): Yes, suicide bombing is wrong. But the connection is illogical. If only the houses of suicide bombers were being demolished, then perhaps that argument would have some validity, but demolishing hundreds of homes of people who are only connected by association is still wrong. It doesn't address the real problems that exist in the region; it merely makes them worse by literally walling them off.

There was more to the conversation, but you get the drift. Now, let me give some personal history. I have a severe case of WASPishness. I am a blond, blue-eyed, Protestant, well-educated mid-westerner, who could have joined the DAR had I wanted to. (I didn't). Both sides of the family can be traced back to colonial times, with relatives from England, France, Germany, Holland and probably more -- but all northern, western European and all here long enough to be thoroughly mixed together. I grew up in a small community with two industries: making fire-bricks from the local clay pits and hog farming. I do not exaggerate when I say that I had never met a Jewish person until I arrived at college. Given the diversity with which I have lived for the last 20+ years, this now shocks me, but it is nonetheless true.

So you might imagine how thrillingly exotic it was for me when I joined a college boyfriend at his home near DC for Passover. His large, extended family was there and I don't think his mother was particularly pleased that my waspy little ass had joined them. But the rest of the family were delightful. I learned much in my two days there. For example, they didn't just sip from the wine cup four times during the Haggadah. They drank four glasses of wine! A gorgeous, red-haired cousin stood up during the answering of one of the questions to give an impassioned, feminist mid-rash on the women who saved Moses' butt so that he could go on to get all the glory. I loved her!

Early on, his liberal New York relatives were discussing Israeli politics in the kitchen when his Orthodox sister and her family arrived, fresh from Israel and the kibbutz where they lived. Right away the liberals started in on the kibbutz dwellers, daring them to defend some recent action of the Israeli government. "Oh, shit," my friend whispered to me, "Let's get out of here before this place explodes." And he ushered me away, but not before I got a whiff of the diversity around that family table.

In the years since, I've continued to listen for that diversity. I'm glad that PJ piped in that she finds it anti-semitic to claim all Jews walk in lock-step or are too sensitive to withstand criticism. That's the kind of thing I can't really say from my cultural position, but it makes sense to me. It does seem to me that to give in to censorship in fact feeds the conspiracy theories of the all-powerful Jewish lobby controlling America.

When I stayed on the West Bank, I befriended a couple of the Arabic staff at the place I stayed. I would stay up late with them, drinking and listening to them quote Kahlil Gibran at length. They LOVE that guy. We talked about our families and poetry and education and religion and sometimes politics. I was shocked when, one night, one of them matter-of-factly stated something about how Jews run everything in America. I quickly jumped in and told them that this was only propaganda they had been fed and tried to give them as many real-life examples of how it wasn't true as popped into my head. They looked at me like I was stupid. They really couldn't believe that I was so blind, so naive, so ignorant of the workings of my own country. After a few minutes more of protest I realized I was making no head-way and shut up. It was a moment of realization of how deeply our fears can shape our beliefs.

We all have blind-spots. I have ideas where some of mine may be lurking, but they are blind-spots precisely because I can't see them. We all have the responsibility to wake up as much as we are able and to live with an awareness and maturity that allows for our short-comings, while still holding firmly to our convictions. We have a responsibility to listen carefully and respond compassionately when we disagree. But one of the things that saddens me the most about our country today (and, oh, there are so, so many things) is the willful blindness born of a strange mix of comfort and anxiety. We simply don't want to see the truth of our actions on the world. We don't want to believe there is a connection between our lifestyles and extreme suffering in other parts of the world or our foreign policy and the continued growth of terrorism.

How do we have these conversations? How do we speak difficult truths? Or more to the point, how do we learn to hear them? To be continued ...

8 comments:

Wormwood's Doxy said...

This is an excellent and thought-provoking post, LJ---I want to think about it before I chime in with my two cents, but I wanted to thank you first for laying this all out so well.

Diane said...

this is exactly what I have been thinking about lately. On the one hand, I don't weigh in on issues so often. That's not the main purpose of my blog. but on the other hand, I do want to try my voice on some things that are important to me, so once in awhile I post on an issue. I don't want to wimp out on things I care about, but I don't always know the details (how many nay-sayers really are out there? I don't know)

Often our blogs are mostly the likeminded. When we do get an opposite view, sometimes it's a troll, just trying to make trouble.

It's rare to find a real conversation between people who disagree, in the blogosphere, or anywhere else.

btw, sometimes I think I'm a little TOO delicate with my responses.

pj said...

Excellent post.

I loved your Passover tale. My brother and I have a policy: when my Very Liberal family gets together, all issues are fair game – except for Israel. This is because, while my brother and I have developed fairly nuanced views on the situation, my sister is immovable.

To be fair, she is 16 years older than I am and she still thinks of Israel the old way: as a secular Jewish near-socialist utopia. (Kibbutzes and folk songs and cute dark-haired guys...) And as a refuge for Holocaust survivors and Jews from Ethiopia and elsewhere, which it is.

I don't know what she thinks about the army mowing down kids with bulldozers, because I just refuse to get into it with her. (I did once tell her that she could always put her money where her mouth is, fly over there and pick up a gun. That stopped her for a while.)

The wall is an absolutely terrible idea. Did the Berlin Wall help anyone? No. The whole situation is exhausting and awful.

lj said...

Thanks, all.

Diane, you are not too delicate -- you are thoughtful and lovely. I have never been accused of being too delicate!! I know I come on like a bull in a china shop and the anonymity of my blog lets me charge on rather thoughtlessly. As to the naysayers, my number may be an underestimate ... but I read a book years ago called "The Heat is On" that detailed exactly which scientists were being paid by whom and there were really an astoundingly few who were called upon regularly by CNN, etc. to be the "counter-point" to the hundreds of scientists who were warning about the effects of climate change. Anyway, no need to beat a dead horse here. You are so right about us talking among ourselves to those in agreement.

PJ, I can imagine how you might want to keep things cooler by avoiding those conversations about Israel. The friend to whom I referred actually left high school in the states to go serve in the IDF at age 16. One of my most tender memories with him is the night we went together to see the VietNam Memorial and he wept, remembering the fighting he did on the Lebanon border. In a way, his courage and conviction as a teenager, wanting to leave the comfort of his suburban life to fight for Israel, is not unlike what led Rachel Corrie to leave her college and go stand vigil. It's horribly complex. And I'm an armchair quarterback here, at best.

CresceNet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
johnieb said...

Yes, PJ,

Israel is not a subject to challenge Aunt Kay on, though one may engage her younger son Michael, with respect, and he's lived there. My Mama has trees planted in Israel in her memory to defend the homeland; I'm grateful.

And besides, I'll do anything for that three year old daughter of his. Yes, almost anything.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

LJ---my problem is that I've moved 180 degrees from where I used to be, and that moving took a long time, a lot of pain, and a lot of thought. I simply don't feel I have the energy to keep having conversations with people who are determined to remain stuck on the other side of the rainbow (so to speak).

I have proven that I can change my mind when presented with new information. I simply don't know what to do with people who say "Don't confuse me with the facts!" You cannot engage in conversation with people who dismiss any evidence that does not support their preconceived ideas.

I recently had a neighbor tell me that Rush Limbaugh--his major news source--is right about 99.9% of the things he says. The ignorance it takes to make that statement with a straight face is just astounding to me. What do you say to someone who holds an opinion like that? (FTR, I said, "Even a busted clock is right twice a day." ;-)

I don't know how we bridge this divide. Part of it would be to start teaching critical thinking in kindergarten---but no school system in the country would dare. Critical thinking demands a willingness to question authority---and we don't want children questioning authority. (I confess, I don't like it when my kids do it to me!).

Public schools in the U.S. have become nothing more than training factories for Big Business. Read the history of "education reform" since 1983 and see who and what have been driving it--you'll see Lou Gerstner's name a lot. Gerstner was the head of IBM during the 1990s.

Big Business doesn't want employees who question authority either.

You generally have to go to college to learn to do critical thinking--and only about 30% of the U.S. population has a college degree. But then you end up working for Big Business, which lets you know very quickly that the only critical thinking you need to do relates to getting people to consume more stuff and raising profits.

I'm obviously cynical about this whole business. I wish I weren't...

lj said...

Doxy,
I hear ya, hon! Loud and clear. And to be honest, I mostly surround myself with like-minded folks so I can remain insulated from comments like your neighbor's. I would agree that conversation there is probably not so helpful or hopeful.

But you say that you changed 180 degrees. I'm guessing there were gentle, compassionate people somewhere in your life who helped you make that turn. Or helped you as you began to make it yourself in reaction to whatever you were turning away from? People like you do change. People like my parents can change on g/l/b/t issues, as they did. It's those folks I'm thinking of. Thoughtful people who simply disagree.

Meanwhile, I remain insulated.