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Lucas Welch

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Why We Need A Million More Chris Stevens and How We Can Get Them

Posted: 09/17/2012 3:27 pm

I first met Chris 9 years ago. What struck me most about him was how well he listened. He believed deeply in quintessential American ideals such as freedom of expression and religious tolerance, but he was humble. He recognized that our actions as a nation did not always live up to those ideals, and he believed we had to constantly listen to the people we affected and work with them to better align our words and deeds.

Many have commented on the tragic irony that a man so committed to helping liberate the Libyan people would suffer the ultimate fate at their hands. Many have asked, "Is this what he fought for? Where is the Facebook Generation that inspired the world with their calls for freedom and democracy? Why are they not out in the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli now outraged that he has suffered this injustice?"

Over the last decade, I have had countless conversations with young Arabs from that generation. The vast majority would be strongly opposed to the violence against Chris, but few would go so far as taking to the streets to condemn it. To most, the injustice Americans have suffered pales in comparison to what Arabs and Muslims endure on a daily basis. The sentiment I've heard time and again is that we Americans care about our ideals only for ourselves and we don't respect their culture, their religion, their dignity.

Personally, I don't think that's true of most Americans, but I don't blame a young Arab adult for thinking that based on their experiences. In the new media sphere that increasingly shapes their worldview, the American ambassadors are the filmmaker behind "The Innocence of Muslims," the Florida pastor burning a Koran, the soldiers urinating on dead Muslims and the politicians lecturing them about the righteousness of American values while seeming indifferent to Muslim civilian casualties in the wars we wage.

Many Americans would say that these unfortunate expressions are the inevitable costs of our most cherished freedom. But if we are unyielding champions for freedom of expression, do we not also have a responsibility as a society to ask how are we using that freedom? Is it OK that Terry Jones and "Sam Bacile" are our ambassadors?

In the social media age, the most provocative, sensationalized and all-too-often hateful voices are those that get amplified. It is profoundly frustrating that these individuals have come to represent us as a people, but this is the reality of our time. We can either lament that challenge or rise to meet it. In Chris' life and death, I believe he has offered us a lesson in how we can meet that challenge, and we owe it to him to learn that lesson.

For the people in Benghazi who interacted with Chris, America was not defined by "Sam Bacile" or Terry Jones. Based on the relationships he established and the interest he showed in them, they were able to see a more nuanced picture of American society and make distinctions between specific individuals and our nation as a whole. As a result, many in Benghazi fought to protect Chris when his life was threatened, and many more immediately went to the streets to condemn the attacks and show solidarity with Americans in our loss.

Chris has shown us the power of relationships, but we need to translate that power into the age of social media. We need to determine how we can leverage the power of these new technologies to emulate the way he interacted but at a vastly larger scale, so the hateful bile of fringe Americans is not what defines us, and so our actions as a society are more informed by a respect and understanding for the people they affect.

What if all of the Arab youth who have taken to the streets in recent years had an American in their life who listened to them, showed respect for their values and cared about their rights? And what if our next generation of policy-makers, journalists, and religious leaders had Arab friends and worked to ensure our policies and pronouncements genuinely lived up to the ideals we espouse for them?

Exchange programs are the primary way we have traditionally sought to foster these relationships. But in our hyper-connected world, vastly more people can directly influence relations between our societies, and the costs and logistics of study abroad make it inaccessible or unappealing to all but a select few. (Approximately 2 percent of American students in higher education study abroad, for example, and less than 2 percent of those go to the Middle East and North Africa.) Even if we were to vastly increase the number of students studying abroad, which we should, it would still only be a drop in the bucket of public opinion.

Over the last year, a coalition of organizations has formed to advance exchange 2.0 - a next-step in international education that leverages the power of new technologies to vastly increase the number of youth who have a profound cross-cultural experience as part of their education. Each of these organizations (including Soliya, the one I work with) has developed "virtual exchange" programs which are integrated into curriculum and have demonstrated significant impact cultivating relationships and developing cross-cultural respect and understanding. Based on the cost-efficiency of these programs, it is conceivable that such programs could become a fundamental part of education in the coming decade and literally millions of new relationships could be fostered across the divides where they are most needed.

There will always be radicals who espouse hate. But they need not always define the relations between our societies. Unfortunately there will never be another Chris Stevens, and we cannot expect our State Department to deploy enough diplomats like him to form relationships with millions of Arab youth.

But we should recognize that we don't have to. We can use the same technologies that are amplifying hate to build millions of personal connections based on mutual respect and understanding; connections that would ensure marginal voices stay on the margins and help us bring about the kind of world Chris Stevens died trying to build.

 
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