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Craig K. Comstock

Craig K. Comstock

Posted: April 13, 2010 01:10 AM

Citizen Diplomacy Where? Part II

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In part one we asked "where can radical misunderstanding and isolation be eased by Americans taking the initiative in two sides meeting together and listening to one another?"

Without ignoring trouble spots around the world, one surprising and urgent answer would be citizen diplomacy at home, here within the U.S.

It's now a cliché to speak of the domestic culture war. A gang of radical-right "patriots" was recently arrested and charged with a plan to kill police and thus try to foment an uprising against the government. A former vice-presidential candidate told her followers not to retreat but to "reload" after the other side passed a health care bill actually modeled largely on a plan passed in Massachusetts under a Republican governor.

No need to panic: American politics has been rough since the beginning. But there is a need to act, and ways to do so. In the U.S. we now have communities that don't talk to each other, that actually demonize the other, each of which knows that it is absolutely right and the other side is, well, wrong, and sort of evil; possibly even satanic. (Obama won the Presidency in part because of the hope that he'd succeed at being bi-partisan, if not trans-partisan.)

From the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, Jeff Golden urges a doable step down the trans-partisan path. "Take a blockhead to lunch," he suggests, while knowing that his companion might regard him as a blockhead. At the risk of sounding like a goodie-goodie, he recommends finding a person with whom you profoundly disagree, breaking bread together, and then listening (and sharing life stories instead of just arguing about issues).

Another resident in the Rogue Valley founded the "Transpartisan Alliance" (now in Seattle). Joseph McCormick started his adult life as a Ranger, a member of the 82nd airborne, after which he ran for Congress in Georgia as a protégé of Newt Gingrich. When his life fell apart in various ways, he repaired to a cabin to contemplate the scene, and emerged with the realization that the enemy is people coalescing into groups that are mutually isolated from one another, a prelude to what he calls "uncivil war."

Assume it's possible to encourage people to listen and talk about their deeper concerns, not with the goal of converting the other side--an impulse that comes all-too-easily in a civilization based in part on sacred proselytizing--but with the goal of understanding and even somewhat respecting the other person as a fellow inhabitant of earth. How do we get started?

McCormick has run "world cafes" and a "leadership retreat" at which different and normally isolated communities share the same space and gradually learn, to some extent, to listen to one another. The leadership retreat in the Rockies drew both Al Gore and Grover Norquist, the latter being the convener of a weekly meeting of right-wing honchos.

I suppose the eventual choice is between living together peacefully and fighting. To put the choice in European terms, the choice is between Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia on one side, and the Netherlands or Switzerland on the other. All these places encompass radically different communities, whether defined by religion, by ethnicity, or by language. One side shot enemies and set off bombs; the other side worked out forms of tolerance, agreed to disagree and, at best, to listen to and work with the other side.

If citizen diplomacy could work between the peoples of empires that routinely threatened one another with nuclear destruction, could it not work between mutually contemptuous sides within the U.S.? In the Netherlands, for example, they speak of their society as a set of "pillars," in which each community has its own institutions (radio stations, publishing houses, summer camps, sports leagues, etc.). In some situations it seems best to separate as gracefully as possible. But the Dutch also have major areas where they engage one another and cooperate.

It is arguably an aspect of the American genius to show tolerance toward people with whom we disagree. The very first amendment to our Constitution, which prohibits established religion, and any religious test for holding office, is not an attack on religion, but a recognition that people differ in their beliefs and we can live with that. A tension exists between the urge (at least in Christianity and Islam) to convert everybody to what is felt to be the one true way, and the human achievement of tolerance in a society that respects individual beliefs but firmly declines to lend state power to any one belief (or doubt).

Can we reaffirm an agreement on tolerance, when possible in its broad form, but always in at least its narrow form? Narrow tolerance might be defined as the avoidance of sensitive subjects and mutual allowance of private practices; broad tolerance, as the willingness to engage other people with respect. The TED talk by positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt gives hints for those willing to engage.

If we surrender our hard-won capacity for tolerance, what keeps us (apart from sheer apathy) from the slippery slope toward civil war ? The health of a society based on tolerance is expressed in the recognition that other groups contain good people, even if those people have what seems like misguided, absurd or ungrounded beliefs about religion or politics.

What forms could citizen diplomacy at home take?

Our schools in general do not yet teach the skills of listening, or of mediation, which are arguably more crucial than some subjects now covered and largely forgotten. We know how to teach these skills, both to students and to adults.

Whether promulgated by Marshall Rosenberg or the followers of David Bohm, a practice of dialogue is based on exploring disagreement in a deep and respectful or (what Rosenberg calls) a "non-violent" way. Learning to listen without trying to fix or to convert may, on average, bring up a gender difference, but everyone can learn this skill, useful not only in civic affairs, but also in a relationship.

What if we didn't feel a need always to defend our own views? What if we obviously desired, as the philosopher Spinoza would have said, to understand? There is magic in sincerely listening.

As a child, my parents taught us lessons about reaching across the invisible lines of religion, class and ethnic group. I recall a backyard picnic between my family and the family of the man who repaired our shoes. He was Italian Catholic; my parents, Lutheran. Sociologists would assign him to a class "below" that of my father, who was an engineer and corporate executive. We played badminton, ate greens from his garden, roast chicken, and ice cream, and enjoyed one another's company. I have wondered whether there is any connection between this kind of reaching-out and my one sister marrying a Japanese scientist, and the other a Jew who studied Tibetan Buddhism.

After travel, many of us are happy to be home, where things are familiar, almost everybody speaks English, and the food is identifiable. In the same way, people who "take a blockhead to lunch" may thank some higher power that they are not so benighted, but they might also recall Shakespeare's Shylock arguing that, regardless of ethnicity, we're all human: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" If we have lunch together, can we not understand one another better and maybe even bond a little?

I close with a joke that shows where intolerance leads, a joke set in the city that saw the self-devouring end of the French revolution. I heard this joke from a notably good-humored Baptist, but it could be adapted to fit any group, certainly any group to which I've belonged. Two American strangers meet in Paris on a bridge over the Seine. One of them is about to jump into the cold water far below.

The other visitor runs over toward the railing and says, "don't do it." "And why not?" asks the potential suicide. "There's so much to live for." "Like what?" asks the first. "Well, are you religious or atheist?" "Religious," comes the reply. "Me, too. Are you Christian?" "Sure." "Me, too. Catholic or Protestant?" "Protestant." "Me, too. Which denomination?" "Baptist." "Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?" "The latter." "Wonderful: me, too. Do you accept the Reformation of 1879 or the Reformation of 1915?" "The former." Whereupon his rescuer shouts, "Die, heretic scum," shoving him off the bridge.

Operating in a more inclusive spirit, what are the ways in which we could learn to listen to, instead of denouncing, one another?

Some relevant links:


Jeff Golden's article
Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt's talk at TED
Joseph McCormick's organization
Marshall Rosenberg's center