An Understanding Gap

A number of years ago, I read an excellent book called From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman. In this book, he talks about one of the primary reasons that Middle-East peace is so elusive: the two sides do not understand each other, do not understand the other’s culture, do not speak the same language, and make no effort to do so. This was illustrated again in this week’s attacks (and in the predictable response to them).

This is made clear in a very nice article in the LA Times that talks about the differences in culture. We tend to forget that most Middle-East countries (perhaps all, with the exception of Israel) do not have free speech. They have a media that is heavily controlled by the government, and to them any statement made by a media outlet in a country is equal to a statement made by the government. They are in an environment where un-permitted speech can result in the offending item being removed forthwith, and the offending author likely being equally removed. Thus, when they see offensive speech posted in a Western country, they presume the same: it is a government statement, and the lack of action by the government against the speaker is tacit approval of what was said. The US notion of “free speech” is a completely unthinkable and inconceivable concept–so inconceivable, in fact, that they will not believe Government protestations to the contrary. Thus, when some clown posts an islamophobic video on YouTube, this is interpreted in those cultures as the US being against Islam.

What they don’t understand is the free speech is cherished in this country. Most people are not willing to stifle speech with which they do not agree,  just because the principal is so important. This is why groups such as the ACLU defend the rights of neo-Nazis to march, of the KKK to express hate speech… because if it is stifled in one venue, what prevents its stifling in another. Although there may be some small pockets that would like to suppress speech they disagree with (especially when that speech is sexual), I think a majority of the country would defend a citizen’s right to speak, even if they disagree with it or consider it stupid.

We have similar misunderstanding of other cultures. Many countries have religion dominating law and politics. We think we have it in the US, but we really do not. This is why Islamic law is supreme, why we see punishments that horrify us, why blasphemy is heavily prosecuted. Religious law is supreme.

This is a foreign concept to us in the US. Although many profess that they want a Christian nation, they don’t understand what that would really be (all they need do is look at England before the US split off). Many of the freedoms that are cherished wouldn’t be there. We are so used to our freedom here that we often just take it for granted, instead of fighting for it, even when that goes against a personal belief. Again, here we must be vigilant not to drop into a society where one religion’s views — even if they are in the majority — are not forced upon everyone. To me, the sanctity of freedom from a government-imposed religious morality is a strong reason why abortion must be legal, why women must be treated equally, and why there must not be discrimination based on sexual orientation (but not the only reason — the primary reason is that they are the right thing to do).

When faced with understanding gaps, our response must not be bravado and bluster (as some candidates have done), but calm and forceful reiteration and explanations of the differences (which other candidates have demonstrated). We must condemn violence in response, for an immediate jump to a violent response without understanding is never warranted.


4 Replies to “An Understanding Gap”

  1. Unfortunately I completely disagree with you. Not reacting is like a dog rolling over and admitting defeat. Just as culturally our two worlds are very different – behaving like an Omega instead of an Alpha now would actually cause more violence.

  2. “…but calm and forceful reiteration …” didnt work so well for Neville Chamberlain trying to curb Hitler.

    A totalitarian state run by a loony dictator (or cabal of loonies) will not respond sanely or responsibly to a stern talking to. These types of leaders cannot back down or act reasonably, lest they appear to be weak – and thus encourage opposition from their own people.

    And sometimes, violence isn’t a response, it’s a consequence.

    1. True, but one big difference with Hitler was that you were dealing with a national entity in control of its people. There normal diplomatic approaches, including war, were effective. In the middle east, we’re not dealing with national entities but multinational groups, if indeed the groups protesting have formal leadership at all. They do not understand how the United States works, they do not want to understand how the United States works, and they have no one with the authority to calm them down even if they did understand. Given there is no one that the US can respond to stop the violence from within the group, the statements and responses are for the other nations in the region.

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