Kirby Nails It

Once again, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby shows why he’s one of my favorite writers.

A Mormon Faces Toward Mecca

The other day someone suggested that there are people out there (perhaps even in my neighborhood) who have nothing in common with me. Frankly, I can’t imagine that. Back when I was teaching freshman English at BYU, I had my students talk how humans tend to cast themselves less as someone but as not-someone else. Religions do this in contrasting, say, the saved and the unsaved or believers and infidels. But we do this in all sorts of ways: race, politics, nationality, culture, education, language, and so on. I would ask my students to name someone with whom they had nothing in common. Since this was around the time of the first Iraq war, the name that came up most often was Saddam Hussein. We would then talk about what we did have in common with him. At first, they could only say, “Well, he’s a human being, sort of.” But then they would talk about how, like us, he had parents and siblings, faith, patriotism, and hopes and dreams. Soon it became obvious that Saddam Hussein wasn’t something other than human that was incomprehensible. He might have done terrible things, but he was a person nonetheless, and in some fundamental ways, he was like us.

I’ve been called naive because I’ve long believed that most conflicts between people, nations, religions, and so on, stem in large part in our ability to understand each other as people. We talk about jihadists, for example, as monsters, sociopaths, evildoers (in George W. Bush’s words)–as anything but people with thoughts and beliefs and desires and hopes. Conversely, I believe that we could do away with a lot of conflict if we could just sit down and talk to each other, giving each other respect and consideration as equals.

I know, it’s not that simple. We see, for example, that the world is getting smaller, metaphorically speaking, with the advent of communications. I can, for example, read today’s edition of El Diario, one of the newspapers in La Paz, Bolivia, and learn of floods that have killed 15 people. Or I can read news from such places as South Africa, Australia, Poland, and China. My knowledge of the world is potentially as broad and deep as my willingness to explore.

And yet it isn’t. I can do all the reading I want and learn about cultures and history, and even learn languages. But that isn’t the same as meeting people and talking with them, and more importantly, listening to them. One thing that I have learned from blogging is that it is extremely difficult to communicate what I think in ways that everyone will understand. I am often surprised that things I thought were positive or conciliatory were taken as negative and hostile. Obviously, I need to do better, and I am trying to do so. But really, a conversation needs two or more people coming into the discussion with a desire to understand and learn from each other; what I find is that we (I’m including myself) often–maybe always–come into a discussion with a particular perspective that we feel obligated to represent or defend. That’s usually what gets us into trouble.

I wrote last week about how “the best response” to the Charlie Hebdo killings was more mocking cartoons. Looking back, I realize that came from a defensiveness related to my perception that my values–in this case, freedom of expression–were being attacked. But the proper response isn’t to strike back but to defend my values in a way that upholds those values but brings people together. It’s clear to me that a lot of non-Western cultures don’t value freedom of expression in the same way that we in the West do. Even in the West there are disagreements about limits (see, for example, the Pope’s recent statements), and there’s an awful lot of hypocrisy and unequal application of this fundamental right. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to reach out to others and explain where we are coming from, but at the same time try to listen and comprehend where others are coming from.

Like Kirby, I don’t know an awful lot about Islam, even though I live in a neighborhood with a significant Muslim population. Not a day goes by that I don’t see someone wearing a hijab or salwar kameez (see? I have learned at least two new words from my neighbors), and I have had pleasant conversations with my Muslim and Hindu neighbors. But I haven’t talked to them about their religion, probably because it’s considered bad manners in this country. It would be easy, however, for me to do what Kirby has done and find a local Islamic center where I could learn. I think I’m going to try that.

I’ll keep you posted.

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