A Common Word (3)
What I have called “the Doom Scenario” suffers from a number of serious ailments, each of which is potentially fatal. It is logically unsound due to its dualistic presuppositions; it is morally questionable because of its jingoistic tone and consequences; it is historically weak because of its neglect of all inconvenient evidence; it is a policy prescription masquerading as an objective analysis; it is incredibly essentialist in its treatment of both “Islam” and “the West,” sometimes to the point of overt racism; and, in many ways, it is a recycled version of the misguided Cold War rhetoric about the dangers posed by the “Evil Empire.” Perhaps the worst problem with “the Doom Scenario,” however, is that it is based upon, and therefore perpetuates, the discredited paradigm of win/lose thinking.
A much better alternative to win/lose is, of course, win/win, as Steven Covey of the “Seven Habits” fame informs us. But why should we choose win/win if we know that we are much stronger than the adversary? Insn’t win/win a strategy of the losers? Why should we give them any concession, or even lend them an ear, if we are practically assured of our victory? If we can fulfill all of our needs and then some, who cares if they don’t meet theirs?
I can offer only a single reason in defense of choosing win/win, and I think this reason should be sufficient for all sane people. We must choose win/win because there is only one world available to us, and because our situation in this world is such that we are inextricably linked with each other. Ontological independence is an illusion, and no ethics is possible without an acute sense of the essential unity of humankind, not to mention the essential unity of everything. This means that we simply cannot hurt or harm or deprive another person or another people without at some point becoming victims of our own actions. The forces of globalization are not only shrinking the planet for the benefit of “free trade,” they are also dramatically shortening the time it takes for the boomerang of our actions to complete its return journey back to the source. The artificial means of keeping “them” away that we so proudly employ . . . passports and visas, boundaries and walls, fences and alarms . . . are no protection against the inevitable consequences of our actions. We reap what we sow, and what I sow for you is exactly what I end up reaping for myself.
We cannot, then, build ourselves fortresses from whose safe heights we can harm or hurt or deprive other people without ever getting harmed or hurt or deprived ourselves. To live on the same planet is very much like being in the same ship; a hole in any one part of the ship will sink the entire ship, drowning the VIP passengers as well those in the economy class. Either everyone on earth will benefit from peace and prosperity, or none of us will; for one group of people cannot enjoy freedom and dignity at the expense of another group’s suffering and humiliation. Any illusion to the contrary would merely perpetuate the madness of the last five millennia of civilization.
If we agree that win/win is the only practical and rational and ethical approach, where do we begin? Of course, we must begin where we already are, and if we are in a state of clash or conflict or, at the very least, a state of unpleasant tension, then that’s precisely where we have to start. And how do we begin to put the win/win scenario into practice? What, in other words, is the alternative to fight and flight? What do we do if we wish to neither surrender nor resist? What’s the third way?
There is nothing mystical about the third way that transcends the fight/flight and surrender/resist dichotomies. We do this everyday with our loved ones. When there are conflicts or tensions between lovers, spouses, parents and children, siblings, friends, and even colleagues, choosing fight/flight is the least desirable option, certainly the least effective. Of course we often try this approach, but anyone who has lived long enough would know that in interpersonal relations win/lose thinking very soon leads to a loss for both sides. Any long-term solution to relationship troubles must come from win/win thinking, and that takes place not through the fight/flight approach, but through genuine connection, empathy, bridge building, and the like.
Connection with another human being begins with listening . . . real listening. The same goes for conflicts between groups, nations, and civilizations.
We try to get out of the hard work of listening by telling ourselves that the other party is too “different” from us, and hence there is no point in listening to them and there is no hope in dialogue or discussion. We start on a pessimistic note, assuming that we cannot understand them and they cannot understand us, and so there is no point in even trying.
This is not only false, it is a recipe for disastrous consequences. It is false because, so long as we are talking about human beings, there is much more that is common than what is different. Social, cultural, and other differences make it more challenging for the two sides to communicate, but such differences, no matter how extreme, do not preclude either the possibility or the desirability of establishing connections. The assumption inevitably leads to disastrous consequences because conflict, once dialogue is not an option, can only be solved by force.
Former Iranian President Muhammad Khatami recognized precisely this truth, and offered a “dialogue of civilizations” as an antidote to Huntington’s scenario in the late 1990’s. While the United Nations listened and took several initiatives to put that idea into practice, the leader of the Western world paid no attention. The United States thought that dialogue between civilizations was a silly idea, perhaps because it assumed a parity between the dialogue partners, and so the clash paradigm remained in place.
Well before the tragic atrocities of 9/11, the ony effective way to prevent and/or abort “the doom scenario” was already on the table, but the offer was turned down. For those who feel they are dominant and are going to win no matter what, the notion of dialogue and discussion, connections and building bridges, sounds ridiculous. Ethics in international relations? What a dumb idea! Empathy and compassion is what you practice with your spouse or children, not with other nations!
As all of us have seen in the last decade or so, however, win/lose thinking has been bringing us nothing but more and more trouble. The more of “them” we kill, the more they want to kill us. What is shocking is that this surprises us. What, we ask, is wrong with them? We have killed so many of them, and they still want to kill us! How irrational. Haven’t they learned that killing is wrong? Don’t they understand that you cannot get your way by violence?
But reality has a habit of correcting our misconceptions, sooner or later. Is it any wonder, then, that there are signs of hopes emerging from the White House itself? It is easy to be cynical about President Obama’s rhetoric, but for someone in his position to even admit the necessity of dialogue is a major progress. Perhaps the United States will one day catch up to what the Iranian leader was saying more than ten years ago.