A UBC prof on how to prevent Middle East tensions from hitting closer to home
Some of the violence in the Middle East has inflamed tensions closer to home. UBC expert Robert Daum offers his thoughts on navigating these frictions.
How do conflicts afar, like the Israel-Gaza situation, spark local tensions?
Sadly, some conflicts push people into rigid positions rooted in insufficiently rigorous, self-critical, and nuanced analysis. Simplistic narratives about historical and contemporary events resulting in loss of life raise tensions. Inadequate media coverage heightens tensions, and people tend to gather in narrowly circumscribed assemblies of like-minded thinkers. Conflicts such as these are teachable moments, but learning and teaching require an attitude of openness to authentic inquiry on the part of everyone. Imagine what we can do in addressing any number of complex conflicts and challenges if we can cultivate a culture of evidence-based, authentic inquiry and dialogue. I have seen this approach in action in my work with UBC’s Transcultural Leaders 2014 Conversation Series, SFU’s Centre for Dialogue, and Reconciliation Canada.
Have you been surprised by the tensions arising locally and across Canada?
No. In the context of genuine human suffering, we encounter hateful slogans, racist images, one-sided narratives, vicious social media comments, and self-righteous oversimplifications. This does not honour the dead. Inflammatory rhetoric gets most of the headlines. Research shows that anxiety and clear thinking tend not to be compatible. Our discourse has to be as levelheaded, sober, and reasonable as possible. People need to feel that they can learn in an environment of safety, civility, and mutual respect. I consider myself to be a principled pragmatist. It is precisely when we feel angriest about world events that we need to take a deep breath. Imagine if the Supreme Court had to reach decisions under fire. If we cannot learn how to share narrative space – that is, how to reconcile competing, deeply held, national narratives, in a way that does not require the annihilation or complete negation of the other’s position – then how can we expect geographical space to be shared at one of the most fraught intersections of regional and global politics? I have participated in forums on anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, the Indian Residential Schools, and many other issues. Two years ago, I co-sponsored with the Vancity Office of Community Engagement a three-hour public forum downtown on Islamophobia, featuring a critical media analyst, three Muslim speakers from very diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and three equally diverse non-Muslim speakers, including myself. A mixed audience of more than 250 listened to stories of prejudice experienced and prejudice confronted. It was a thoughtful, nuanced and multi-layered conversation over the course of three hours. And we were just getting started.
What are some healthy ways in which people can deal with tensions that may arise between themselves and others?
Seek to engage in a dialogue, rather than a debate. Ask genuine questions: “What did you mean by that? What are you trying to say? Have you considered different perspectives on this? Have you tried to understand why others hold positions different than yours? On what can we agree? Is there another way to understand the phenomenon, whereby our positions might be reconciled, even partially?” Try building on ideas and making connections between ideas. Don’t reduce multi-faceted conflicts to a single variable such as religion or oil, for example. Politics, history, and ethics are not reducible to simple equations. Complex questions can rarely be reduced to the logic of black and white, right and wrong. I may see the world very differently than you, but that does not necessarily make you (or me) wrong. Of course moral assessment matters, and I believe that some behaviours, like the intentional murder of civilian non-combatants as prohibited in the Geneva Conventions, are abhorrent. But, as any first-year law student knows, such an assertion is the beginning, not the end of the inquiry. If such matters were simple enough to be reduced to trial by megaphone, we would not need faculties of law or courts, let alone courses in ethics, history, politics, religion, gender, media, or much else.
Robert Daum is a faculty associate with the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality & Social Justice, a faculty member of Green College, project lead in UBC Transcultural Leaders, a Reconciliation Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, and a Dialogue Associate at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue.