Conflict and Conversation
A few years back, I worked as an intern and then as a member of two councils of interfaith for Rochester, New York. They worked on doing projects to increase the knowledge and educations of different faith communities between each other and to the outside community at large. I served them for five years before eventually leaving, but I came away with an interesting perspective on dealing with conflict and the obstacles that come with that.
The groups believed in solving prejudice and injustice through dialogue and education. People misunderstood Muslims because of stereotypes put out there by the media and certain individuals. Christians were hated and feared by some Muslims because of misunderstandings and a centuries old blood feud. Sikhs weren't even considered a separate a religion by most people because the average American thinks they're Muslims! You get the idea.
The people on these councils had been doing this for twenty plus years, I respected their experience and opinions greatly. However there was one thing that I noticed that served to not only hinder their efforts, but also any similar undertaking in society when dealing with members of opposing groups who don't trust each other.
The focal point of these efforts was connecting on points of agreement. Perspectives that were at least similar, so that a bridge of communication was established. From there it became a game of talk, educate, and action. While good, I also thought this could missed the elephant in the room: the points of conflict or more importantly, their reasons and the reach they had into what the groups wanted to accomplish.
Handling conflict in general is always a thorny proposition because each side believes in the righteousness of their cause, and this doesn't have to be in a religious context either. Students who demand the removal of statues from bygone eras or changing university names do so without compromise because they genuinely believe it is for the good of society. People will back a right winger politician because they genuinely believe his or her promises of going back to the good ol days will bring back prosperity and security to their societies. No one, for the most part, is coming out of the gate with deliberately evil purposes.
The problem this creates for dialog and education is that while both are needed and effective, they hinge on the opponents' desire to want to be educated. To want to know why you think Trump will make America great again. To want know why you think removing an institution's name will change anything. Without this will, the pillars of educate and dialog crumble from the inside out and more often than not, I see this happening.
This is a big problem today because many of us don't want to tackle the hard issues for three reasons. Fear of compromise, a perception that its not our problem, and a general goal of happiness as the reason for our existence.
Fear of compromise derives from the perceived righteousness of the cause. When two or more sides talk rather than fight or try to conquer, it can potentially introduce cracks in the foundations of their revolutions. Questioning the reasons for one's cause can lead to seeing these cracks for the first time, and I think on a certain level, we're aware of this. Therefore many of us lock it away, pretend it never existed, and shout all the louder that we're right and you're fucking wrong!
It's the oldest rule of conflict since humanity started fighting each other: never sympathize with the enemy, never consider their position or how they came to that position, and never-ever-see them as human beings with an equally legitimate and respectable intellect and reason as yourself. The consequences that can result from compromising on these tenants can range from inaction because of doubt, to even converting to the other side and become something worse: a traitor!
Even if not done physically, you crush your enemy's positions, slam the door on their arguments, and do we need to go into why they're arguing that position in the first place? No, because of course, we already know why!
Not My Problem Until it Becomes a Problem
Dialogue's second obstacle is apathy. I am not necessarily referring to a general lack of caring. There can be many reasons why a person would not want to educate themselves on conflicting positions. Some people are perfectly content with what they know or don't know. It is not inconveniencing their lifestyle and being intrusive. Or we maybe caught up in other causes that we feel is not related. And dialogue often involves some extra effort as well as possibly going into an uncomfortable and unfamiliar place in order to come to an understanding. A good chunk of our nature is to not do that.
Other people feel they have too much going on in their lives to add the extra effort. Rather than a luxury, its about pressing concerns for their families, bills, and daily work which are consuming enough. Trying to fit in something as potentially upsetting as understanding a adversaries' position would be difficult at best. I have seen this scenario play out working with Rochester's different ethnic and religious communities.
Inner city Black churches have often been invited to participate in interfaith activities and have been mostly refused. The reason being that they feel that the issues of misunderstanding and persecution is too far removed from what Blacks are struggling with in their communities. From what I've seen at least, that's where it ends.
Similarly, despite leading roles being taken by many of their religious leaders, it was always difficult to get average Muslims to participate as well, though it did happen. It was for similar reasons to city churches. And most suburban churches refused because they felt they knew enough about other religions and not doing harm to them. It was either outside their realm of concern, or seen as going against the mission of converting people to Christ. And the non-religious feel they're already not prejudiced anyway so between that and available time, many largely ignore the interfaith efforts as well.
While a very human response, the hierarchy of care becomes a problem when these seemingly foreign problems crash into their worlds, with no care of whether they want to deal with it or not. We are suddenly stuck with confronting an issue or enemy with little or no knowledge, and even then what we do know maybe be misunderstood or just wrong.
This can be seen with how many of us see Trump and his supporters. We laughed them off, made fun of them, and raged at them for months, but despite this they will not go away or back down. Many of us already see paint the lot of them as racist, uneducated, violent people. The other problem this causes is missing opportunities to form combined fronts to help each others' causes. The Civil Rights movements' power came from many people of different backgrounds coming together and supporting each other. It would have died early on otherwise.
The Control of Happiness
The last obstacle will not make sense: happiness.
Or rather, the pursuit of happiness. Our society believes today that the goal of living is being happy. Surround yourself with people who reinforce that, do activities and go places that foster it, do whatever if you need to achieve your happiness.
There is nothing wrong with happiness by itself. It's a natural human emotion just as much as anger and love. However the degree to which this can be taken can cause problems for dialogue because speaking to someone on the other side doesn't make us happy. If anything it will probably make us unhappy. Yet how often has life and the actions of others far outside our worlds forced us into that place?
It would be nice if we lived in a world that responded to what we want or didn't want. To essentially be gods because we would have complete control of our lives, but that isn't the case. And when those situations come upon us, we often let our anger and grief dictate our reactions and vilify those we believe caused suffering to our happiness. Instead of a naturally occurring human expression, happiness can become a drug that we are so addicted to that we will do anything to hold on to it, even persecuting others or allowing them to suffer.
Eyes on above and Below
I believe in understanding people because the only other option is perceptual conflict. I believe in talking to people who disagree with me because many times I have found myself thinking wrongly of them and why they took up that position, even though I may still agree with it. It may not be so far off from something I would do if I were in that same place. However, even though I believe in such lofty and noble practices, that doesn't mean I ignore what obscures it. That would be self-imposed denial, willful blindness and when that occurs, why should the other side listen to anything I have to say, or possibly change? It only increases their push back of the same hostility and yes, can potentially end violently because it becomes a situation that humanity has come across too many times before: the world is not big enough for the both of us and someone has to go.