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How interested are we in understanding 'the other'?

Posted by rob.a.lancaster on December 19, 2012 at 7:30 AM

At a time when much public debate consists of the divisive trading of strongly held (and opposite) opinions, Rob Lancaster asks if there is a better way.


I started writing this article, provoked by a news story about one of Australia’s most well-known and polarizing radio presenters, Alan Jones. Jones has been instructed to apologize publicly for vilifying comments he made about Lebanese Australians in 2005. Not only is he being forced to apologize, but the tribunal that has made the instruction has even written the wording of the apology for him. It brought to mind former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s talk in Caux earlier this year, outlining seven principles for an effective apology. It seems to say something about us as a society that the notion of an apology can be so warped into a mechanical and contrived legal remedy.


Later that same day we heard the news from the US. And then facebook exploded. On the one hand, there was a proliferation through social media of what I would describe as thoughtful, well-intentioned and constructive dialogue. People shared considered pieces that touched on parenting, gun control, mental health, or a combination, and often with a very personal dimension.


At the same time, I was taken aback by one facebook post from a friend in the Middle East. It was a photo from Obama’s press conference labelled: ‘Pretends to cry about school shooting... while bombing innocent men, women, and children in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine’. It reminded me of a post I’d seen just over a year ago as we approached the ten year anniversary of 9/11, which said something along the lines of ‘Dear USA, your 9/11 is our 24/7. Get over it. Sincerely, the Middle East’.


The debater in me has an almost irresistible urge to confront these sorts of comments. But what are they really saying? What is Alan Jones really saying when he vilifies foreigners? What are people really saying when they post insensitive material? What is someone saying to me when they yell at me apparently irrationally? What lies behind things we decry as hypocrisy (and then do it in our own way at other times)? What am I saying when I hurt someone unnecessarily?


Because behind all these people are individual stories, and perhaps it takes a leap to meet people not at the level of their arguments (which so often from my perspective will seem flawed), but at the level of their humanity. I was reading a book this last couple of weeks on social construction, which talks in part about conditions for meaningful dialogue. The author describes a gathering arranged between people of the pro-life and pro-choice ‘camps’ in the abortion debate. It began with a dinner, where people were asked to talk about anything except their stance on abortion, and then was followed with a dialogue around three questions:


    • ‘How did you get involved with this issue? What’s your personal relationship, or personal history with it?
    • We would like to hear about your particular beliefs and perspectives about the issues... what is at the heart of the matter for you?
    • Many people we’ve talked to have told us that within their approach to this issue they find some grey areas, some dilemmas about their own beliefs or even some conflicts... Do you experience any pockets of uncertainty or lesser certainty, any concerns, value conflicts, or mixed feelings that you may have and wish to share?’

An invitation to social construction (2009), 2nd ed, p 119


I’d hazard a guess that behind everyone who demands their right to a gun, there’s a story and an insecurity that I could identify with in some way; behind everyone in a war-torn country there’s a pain and insecurity that I may not be able to comprehend but can acknowledge and identify with to some extent, and so it goes on.


Difference won’t go away, and I personally wouldn’t want it to, but how do we create the space for a dialogue that will explore difference in a constructive way; in a way we can all draw insights from the people we don’t understand – perhaps don’t even want to understand?


This week to me was not about guns, nor mental health, nor about America; it was about what it means to be human; good and bad. And that manifested itself in many ways.


This first appeared as a Global Voices piece for the International website of Initiatives of Change - www.iofc.org

Categories: Facilitation Design, Human Security, Dialogue

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