Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Opinions as identity, and learning

I have always enjoyed expressing myself, via words or music. The advent of the Internet into my life has proved very liberating, in affording me the opportunity to do both very cheaply. Of course I don't take sufficient advantage of the Internet, either as a resource or as a channel for expression. The sporadic nature of this blog attests to the latter.

I have been on some stimulating email fora (sorry, did some school Latin and have to show off), but blogging is quite new for me, and has accompanied a lot of changes in my life. Those changes, and reading blogs are making me increasingly interested in learning rather than indulging in language as a self advertisement.

As in daily life, you get more out of people by being concilliatory, and I find myself increasingly drawn to a less flamboyant, or at least less confrontational, mode, in an attempt to find out what others are saying, or mean by what they say, rather than the trench warfare which characterises polarised exchanges, which often don't merit being described as discussion.

Things I have to watch out for to keep a constructive focus.

Understanding the difference between testing/exploring someone else's views in order to better understand them, and trying to win the argument. There's more to belearned from the former, and arguing, even as in debating, can be more fraught with danger than I used to think.

By way of explanation, I need to digress, but it's my blog so I'll digress if I want to.
My recent experience of debating online had been via the mailing list of my former school, a boarding school for blind kids which combined selective entry by competitive examination with a non-fee paying environment, since our fees were paid by our local education authorities. I joined this list a very long time after I left that school, during which time I had deliberately avoided all things to do with blindness and related issues. But, in the nature of such things, even after a long gap, I found, and perhaps wanted to find, that the former students' mail list retained something of the ethos of the place as I remembered it. Although, as boys between 11 and 18, we had our share of physical competition and fights, in this blind and partially sighted environment, it's not perhaps surprising that vigorous debate was very much part of the fabric of everyday life, and I dropped back into that very easily.

Then I encountered blogs, and my natural impulse was to assume that Worcester rules would apply, and everyone would understand that, since I'm crap at chess, debating could fill much the same role, even if discussing matters of genuine importance.

So we all make assumptions about what the rules of engagement are. The chemistry of inter-personal dynamics is, to me at least, very mysterious, in that tension communicates itself to us, and suddenly a discussion can begin to feel like our value has become embodied in our views, and we are defending ourselves, rather than simply stating our opinion about something. So, to be clear, the whole focus of a discussion can change, not just for one party to it, but for both, and to both parties' surprise.

This is of course a particular danger for people who care about what the other thinks, and people who have thought their insecurities safely concealed. So this has left me temporarily somewhat tentative about the rules of engagement for online debate, and I'm concentrating on asking questions related to learning and understanding. Being right and winning are, after all, much less important, or should be.

As a final thought, I would add that, in our dialogue, we need to find a way to convince each other of the difference between "this is what I think", and "I know I am right".

This isn't the post i intended to write, but it's the precursor to the next two which, hopefully, will be what I intended to write.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Making the first move - forgiveness

Ever since yesterday evening, when I played James Taylor's "Belfast to Boston" on my weekly radio show, this recurrent preoccupation of mine has resurfaced. Conscious of the fact that I have nothing new to say, I feel compelled to say something.

James Taylor's song was written before the efforts of UK politicians, the good offices of the Irish government, and particularly the tireless efforts of US Senator Mitchell, with the backing of President Clinton, produced the current level of peace in the north of Ireland (Ulster), and brought an end to the daily horror of "the troubles".The song is a very direct, and therefore quite courageous, message to Taylor's Irish-American countrymen to stop funding this terrorist campaign through organisations such as Noraid. Terrorism doesn't work because it doesn't give people the kind of present in which they can make rational decisions about their future. It is negative and disruptive, practised by people whose chief concern is some kind of self-fulfillment.

This is all well known. Those whom the terrorist claims to represent are urged to lay aside their sense of grievance and go forward through reconciliation and forgiveness. Because there were terrorists on both sides in Northern Ireland, the aftermath of the troubles has been easier to manage. The difficulty comes when one side of a conflict is enjoined to embrace non-violence, while the other side basks in self-righteousness.

This is why Senator Mitchell has a much tougher assignment in the case of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Both sides have shown contempt for the life of civilians, and a version of God is alleged to agree with both of them. Because of their vastly greater might, the Israelis have managed to kill and starve much more effectively, while citing the efforts of their poorer neighbour by way of justification. One is defending its security, while the other is a terrorist. Why? Because Mr Balfour drew a line on a map?Isn't the God of the Jewish people, and therefore its state, a merciful God? Is it not for the mighty to exercise mercy? Besides which, repressed peoples can never be permanently and reliably disabled by repression, and military solutions to political problems never work. By deliberately smashing the Palestinian economy, and reducing the inhabitants of the West Bank to 15 litres of water per day (the U N minimum for "emergency" water supply), do successive Israeli governments really believe that this is somehow going to magically disable every Palestinian with rage in his heart, so that the Israeli citizen can sleep peacefully, as promised by God? With its own particular history, the Jewish nation surely cannot believe that the aspirations of others for some kind of homeland can be persecuted into extinction.

Northern Ireland shows us that some kind of reasonable life expectations are the basis for any kind of rational debate. No-one should be expected to debate the fine distinctions between legitimate national security and terrorism while they're hungry, thirsty, unemployed, and in fear of reprisal missile attacks. I certainly can't imagine myself being very motivated under those conditions.

The fact that all the affluent nations stand by and allow this to continue is completely indefensible. If financial clout ultimately has more value to us than the mercy, magnanimity and forgiveness advocated by the scriptures of all the major world religions, then we shouldn't be surprised if the triumph of power over compassion has consequences for us rather closer to home than TV images from east of the Mediterranean.