In a polarized world, dialogue is a radical act

December 5, 2019
Posted in Blog
December 5, 2019 Editor

In a polarized world, dialogue is a radical act

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Julie Schumacher Cohen

Julie Schumacher Cohen is Director of Community and Government Relations at The University of Scranton. She is the former Deputy Director of Churches for Middle East Peace, Senior Fellow for the Telos Group and a facilitator for Soliya’s Connect Program.

December 03, 2019

photo above: iStock

 WN: A very wise and hopeful reflection.


Describing America as “polarized” is like saying “water is wet.” Our political moment is clearly fractured and scalded by resurgent populism, rising inequality and fervent nationalism. We debate whether or not to even talk with one another across ideological divides—especially on issues where there is a deeply personal stake.

Recent resistance to engagement was heard from prominent voices on the political left, after the 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump. It came to a head in summer 2018. Trump Administration officials were asked to leave restaurants by citizens opposed to their harsh family separation policies at the U.S.-Mexico border. In this confrontational political climate, former first lady Michelle Obama’s famous advice, “When they go low, we go high,” was replaced with Eric Holder’s version: “When they go low, we kick them” and Hillary Clinton’s assertion that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

Dialogue as a primary value
For the last three years, I have helped to create and lead a collaborative, interdisciplinary civic engagement initiative at The University of Scranton. It is aimed at “bursting our political bubbles.” We facilitate at this Jesuit university constructive conversations between students and also with local residents. Participants of diverse backgrounds and political affiliations come together to talk about tough issues, from guns to free speech to the kneeling protests in professional and college football.

The work we are doing brings to mind a similar set of questions about the efficacy of engagement through dialogue that arose when I worked for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Churches for Middle East Peace in the 2000’s.

Increasingly, Americans who have worked on international conflicts are bringing home their lessons learned. They are creating dialogue and discussion groups aimed at addressing dehumanizing political rhetoric, outbreaks of political violence and other “red flags” in our own democracy. (In fact, researchers have found that Republicans and Democrats ascribe positive motives to themselves and hateful ones to their opponents—what is known as “motive attribution asymmetry”—at a level comparable to that of Palestinians and Israelis.)

One international practitioner applying his experience to the United States, Shamil Idriss, CEO of the NGO Search for Common Ground, recently wrote that “when you study what actually transforms people… it is almost never the experience of being shouted down or shut out, but rather human connections with the very people that they had learned to hate.” A notable and provocative example is the work of the African-American musician Daryl Davis, who engages members of the Ku Klux Klan on conversations about race.

When you study what actually transforms people it is almost never the experience of being shouted down or shut out, but rather human connections.

There may be times and places where dialogue becomes close to, if not completely, impossible. It cannot solve all problems or bridge all gaps. Calling for coexistence without seriously addressing the issues that underlie polarization can become a shallow call for peace with no justice. As the University of Virginia professor Rachel Wahl has written, “In settings of inequality and conflict, asking people to learn from one another carries significant risks and trade-offs.”

The Israel-Palestine quandary
The Holy Land today is riven by Israel’s long-standing occupation and ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is literally divided by the system of walls and fences, the “separation barrier” that keeps Israelis and Palestinians physically apart and also cuts into land on which Palestinians have hoped to form a state. In this context, many Palestinians and some peace activists believe that dialogue with Israeli citizens risks “normalizing” these entrenched systems of injustices; in particular because these injustices reflect the imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians.

Calling for coexistence without seriously addressing the issues that underlie polarization can become a shallow call for peace with no justice.

The Israeli government, for its part, has opposed some person-to-person activities that challenge the status quo, including a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony. Moreover, many Israelis adhere to a mantra that “there is no one to talk to” about peace on the Palestinian side. This distrust by Israelis, buoyed in part by memories of historic Jewish persecution and reinforced when rockets are lobbed from Gaza, often persists even where there is no violence between the two parties. The result is an Israeli populace largely detached from the harmful impact of its government’s policies on Palestinian daily life.

I am an American-born daughter of a Jewish Israeli. It was in part the lack of Israeli-Palestinian interaction and wariness toward engagement that led me, nearly 20 years ago, to study abroad in East Jerusalem. There, I volunteered in the West Bank and studied under a Palestinian Catholic professor who became a mentor and friend. These were transformational experiences that have informed my work since.Today, those relatively few Israelis and Palestinians who do choose to engage in dialogue face significant obstacles, even jail time; some are motivated by the shared devastating loss of a child as felt by the 600 bereaved mothers and fathers who come together through the Parents Circle Families Forum.

Dialogue, advocacy, protest and solidarity with the marginalized are not actions mutually exclusive of the others.

The Jesuits and American opportunity
Dialogue, advocacy, protest and solidarity with the marginalized are not actions mutually exclusive of the others. None represents the only way to pursue nonviolence and peacebuilding. For instance, it is altogether possible for a Jesuit institution of higher education both to advocate in support of its undocumented students—presidents of these colleges writing letters in support of DACA, for instance—and create space for open discussion on immigration policy where different views can be expressed.

Understanding what is at the heart of the matter for those with whom we disagree—what lies under the surface, what they most fear losing—can actually make one a more effective advocate for their own cause. Seeking to make change by searching for “root” causes is the etymological basis of what it means to be a “radical.” Dialogue is a way to identify those underlying issues at the source of conflict, and potentially realize shared values and areas of common ground. Some moments call for grassroots action and protest, while others call for building bridges. Engagement with one’s opponents represents an active refusal to write them off.

Jane Addams was noted for her “ability to advocate for change and to maintain relationships across powerful differences.”

In the Ignatian tradition, as the late theologian Frank Turner, S.J., has described, advocacy itself is a “form of conversation or dialogue: it seeks to include those people we challenge in the conversation, not to reject them… [it] is done from the perspective of the oppressed and excluded, but in an open spirit.”

Similarly, the environmental justice advocate Kristin Shrader-Frechette has coined the term “open-minded advocacy,” which has been used to describe the work of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, who was noted for her “ability to advocate for change and to maintain relationships across powerful differences.”

Also relevant is the Ignatian “plus sign”, whereby one attempts to look for positive, not only negative, intentions and bases in others’ words. As another Jesuit, Helmick Raymond, has explained in relation to his work in conflict zones, this “benefit of the doubt” is not rooted in mere charity but rather aimed at education. It is about learning what, if any, truth might be found behind the distasteful impulses of an antagonist. The best kind of faith-based advocacy tries to address our opponents’ legitimate motivations and concerns, even as that advocacy charts new, more just solutions.

Using the Ignatian “plus sign”, one attempts to look for positive, nopt only negative, intentions and bases in others’ words.

In reality, few of us would boast about how much we actually love our enemies—what the theologian Walter Wink described as one of the “acid tests of true Christianity.” This act of loving is not a matter of optimism. Rather, it is an attempt “to live the Beyond here and now”—the sort of eschatological theology proposed by Christian de Cherge. A French monk and Catholic saint, de Cherge practiced a Christian-Muslim dialogue through his life and ministry in Algeria during that country’s post-colonial transition. De Cherge continued to see God in fundamentalists whom he called “brothers” even as it became clear they might kill him.

Critics fail to grasp what is in fact the difficult and countercultural nature of nonviolent communication.

Helen Prejean, C.S.J., a longtime anti-death penalty activist, said that “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives”—words echoed by various change-makers. She was talking about individuals whose crimes were truly horrific. Yet she engages them, loves them, prays they might repent and hopes that the victims’ families can forgive and find solace in nonviolent justice.

Positive results
It may only seem possible for a select few to fully respond to the Gospel entreaty to love even those who hate us. Yet it is the responsibility of a much larger contingency to dialogue across differences in the divided democracy of today’s United States. This work demands much of us.

Please click on: Dialogue as Radical Act

  1. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  2. [2]It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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