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Isomorphs of the Israeli case: challenging parallels and distinctions


Guidelines for Critical Dialogue between Worldviews: as exemplified by the need for non-antisemitic dialogue with Israelis? (Part #3)


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It is instructive to explore the following tentatively clustered, well-known cases where one worldview considers itself more developed, informed or appropriate than another -- and, to that extent, "above criticism". They seem to have dimensions with a degree of isomorphism to that of the challenges of critical dialogue with Israel and Israelis. The key questions are then:

  • whether and how to draw parallels or distinctions between potential isomorphs?
  • what forms of criticism is a coherent worldview not "above" receiving?

The problem in the case of Israel is frequently framed in relation to the challenge of a "chosen people" -- a people specially chosen by God and therefore necessarily "above criticism" (cf The Peace Encyclopedia: Chosenness, The Chosen People, Superiority; Paul Eidelberg, The Chosen People, 1998; Dovid Gottlieb, The Chosen People). There are other peoples who have traditionally considered themselves to be similarly "chosen", including the Chinese and the Japanese -- and, much more recently, the Americans. But the special divine relation, and its associated responsibilities, is also commonly recognized amongst many indigenous peoples.

It is therefore potentially more fruitful to review the challenge, for the "unchosen", of appropriate dialogue with "chosen people" in terms of a much wider spectrum of situations in which variants of this condition obtain.

Religion: Those subscribing to a religious belief are typically faced with similar perspectives and must develop a mode of dealing with anti-religious dialogue, notably as characteristic of humanists and atheists. The lack of any faith, irrespective of the faith chosen, may be considered as extremely problematic, notably according to the views of Islam (regarding an infidel, or kafir).

Here the challenge is one of dialogue with unbelievers stigmatized as having an anti-religious attitude. The corresponding challenge is that for the "unbeliever" in dialoguing with a person holding a particular belief. Whilst religions give a great deal of attention to dialogue (on their own terms) with unbelievers, as part of the proselytizing process, none is given to the guidelines for unbelievers in engaging critically, for mutual benefit, with those holding a religious belief.

It is a characteristic of religious belief to consider the truths of the chosen religion to be more fundamental than those of other beliefs, thus making them preferable if not superior -- offering a specially privileged understanding (and associated status). The challenge comes from any consequent constraints on dialogue. Examples include:

  • anti-Christian:
    • anti-Catholic: criticism of the Catholic worldview and its associated practices dates back over centuries -- notably resulting in the often violent relationships with "protestant" Christians stigmatized as "anti-Catholic" (as in Northern Ireland) and with Muslims (as in the period of the Crusades). It is however unclear that participation of Catholics in recent inter-faith dialogue initiatives has established guidelines acceptable to Catholics for critical feedback from those not subscribing to the Catholic worldview (whether other Christians, Jews or Muslims) -- especially when the Pope has so controversially asserted the superiority of Christianity over other faiths and especially Islam. Nevertheless the Pope has stressed that "We are in great need of an authentic dialogue between religions and between cultures" (25 September 2006). The situation is not facilitated by the Pope's typically strong views on the superiority of the Catholic faith above all others.
    • anti-Protestant: this situation is typically the reverse of the anti-Catholic situation. It is exacerbated by the fundamentalist beliefs of some Christian denominations, naturally convinced of the primacy of their worldview and their divine mandate -- notably in response to the Muslim worldview. Again there is little evidence of the emergence of any guidelines from such groups on the appropriate form of critical feedback.
  • anti-Semitic: criticism of the Jewish worldview and its associated practices also dates back over centuries -- with many horrific consequences. Judaism is also characterized by a range of denominations with contrasting worldviews (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Haredi, Hasidic, Modern Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist, Karaite, Rabbinic, and Alternative). Given this variety, the question is what guidelines might be formulated by Jews for fruitful critical feedback that could be usefully distinguished from "anti-semitism".
  • anti-Muslim: the past decade has seen intensive debate on the Muslim worldview by other worldviews (whether religious or secular) -- of which a major proportion is considered to be "anti-Muslim" by Muslims. The question for all concerned, as with "anti-semitism" in particular, is what guidelines might be offered by Muslims as to fruitful critical feedback -- if any is admissible. The possibility is complicated by the quality of the critical "dialogue" between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
  • anti-Buddhist: although less well-known in the West, Buddhism has been subject to strong anti-Buddhist actions (cf Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution) but also has a proactive approach to critical views (cf Against Buddhism - Anti-Buddhist ; Arguments; Anti-Buddhism Traditions). Buddhism has engendered one of the oldest attempts to create a framework for mutually incompatible views in the classical text on The All-Embracing Net of Views (Bhikku Bodhi, 1978) which identifies 62 philosophical views as constituting a complete set of inappropriate or unsustainable views -- together constituting a larger and more appropriate framework. Whilst these may be usefully framed as classical errors of interpretation, it is not clear however that Buddhism has generated guidelines for more spontaneous criticism.
  • anti-Taoist: criticism of early Taoism is clarified in an annotated commentary by Livia Kohn (Laughing at the Tao: Debates Among Buddhists and Taoists in Medieval China, Journal of Religion, 1997). Of particular interest in the case of Taoism is the special role given to polarities, raising the technical question of the modalities by which a polarizing external critical perspective is integrated (9-fold Higher Order Patterning of Tao Te Ching Insights, 2003; Discovering richer patterns of comprehension to reframe polarization, 1998) . It is not clear that Taoism has reflected its understanding of such dynamics in guidelines for its critics.
  • anti-Hindu: typically Hinduism is naturally accepting of non-Hindu philosophies and practices, although anti-Hindu prejudices within Indian tribal populations and amongst fundamentalists of Muslim and Christian persuasion have notably led to massacres of the Hindu population. As with Taoism, the Hindu concept of Indra's Net points to an encompassing of the total variety of views and counter-views. But again it is not clear that Hinduism has generated guidelines for critical feedback on its worldview. This conclusion would also appear to apply to contemporary spiritual leaders of Hindu inspiration.

Christianity has been the most successful in occupying the moral highground by ensuring that "unchristian" is widely held to mean "uncharitable" or "uncompassionate" -- if not "inhumane". Other religions have however successfully elaborated powerful symbolic understandings of "impurity", "uncleanness" and the like -- which would in each case typically apply to the practices of another worldview, including the Christian (cf Susan Handelman, On the Essence of Ritual Impurity (in Judaism), 1996; Christine Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities, 2002; Ritual Impurity (hadath and najasa in Islam); Guide to Ritual Impurity (asaucham in Hinduism)). Dialogue under such conditions calls for special precautions that need elaboration.

Academic and other disciplines and skills: It is a characteristic of those having acquired a discipline, often through long and arduous training, to be constrained in their dialogue with those lacking the understanding (and possibly status) arising from the associated insights. Typically the points made from other perspectives are held to be "unacceptable", "ill-informed", "unfounded" or "naive". This is the case with the "professionals" of many disciplines, whether mountaineers, meditators, masons, or musicians (a breadth of spectrum favoured by Paul Feyerabend (Against Method: outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge, 1975).

Here the challenge is one of dialogue with non-professionals, possibly pejoratively stigmatized as "amateurs" or "undisciplined" or having an anti-professional or anti-disciplinary attitude. The corresponding challenge is that for the "amateur" -- or one without skill -- in dialoguing with a person skilled in a particular discipline. Whilst professionals may give a great deal of attention to dialogue (on their own terms) with those lacking their skills, as part of persuading others to develop that skill, none is given to the guidelines for amateurs, especially the unskilled, in engaging in critical dialogue with skilled practitioners, for mutual benefit.

This cluster is most instructive in the case of science, especially the "pure" or "fundamental" sciences. Practitioners of such disciplines are renowned for the reservations they have in dialoguing with non-practitioners, which may extend behaviourally into forms of self-appreciation and elitism, including an unfortunate degree of intellectual arrogance. Many efforts are made to explain to wider audiences the excitement of the perspectives of these disciplines and the discoveries they make. This may be understood as a form of dialogue with those who are not necessarily persuaded of the fundamental value of science over all other approaches to truth. A striking example, highly critical of religion, has recently been offered by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006).

Such explanations are considered vital to ensure that voters and politicians continue to support fundamental research. But curiously those scientists who perform this role are often disparaged by their colleagues as "popularizers" who endanger their academic standing and research careers by doing so. Whilst pure scientists consider any other form of thinking as "unscientific" and subject to condemnation for its logical and methodological inadequacies, little attention is given to the challenge of how the unscientific should engage in dialogue with scientists other than on the terms of the latter.

The challenge applies not only to dialogue with non-scientists but in different ways to dialogue between practitioners of different sciences, whether or not they are "fundamental" or "pure". The problems with such dialogue -- whether or not it extends beyond the natural sciences into the social sciences and other disciplines -- have been explored under the heading of "interdisciplinarity" and "transdisciplinarity". For the practitioners of particular disciplines any such efforts may be seen to be as dangerously suspect as the concerns about syncretism in interfaith discourse.

Of particular interest are the cases where the discipline has preoccupations with the subjective rather than the objective -- as with psychology, philosophy and aesthetics.

Political ideology: To the politically engaged, those who do not have a political commitment are typically considered naive, possibly dangerously so. This is exemplified by the adage: whether or not you concern yourself with politics, politics will certainly concern itself with you.

Here the challenge for politicians -- exemplified by voter apathy and the "democratic deficit" -- is one of dialogue with the apathetic, possibly stigmatized pejoratively as having an anti-political attitude. This has been a concern in both democratic countries and under more totalitarian regimes. The corresponding challenge is that for someone without political convictions, an "unbeliever", in dialoguing with a person with particular political convictions [more]. Whilst political parties give a great deal of attention to dialogue (on their own terms) with unconvinced voters, in the process of campaigns to solicit votes, none is given to the guidelines for the unconvinced in engaging critically, for mutual benefit, with those holding (strong) political convictions.

Well-known examples, usefully clustered as complementary pairs, include:

  • capitalism: capitalists present their case with great fervour and see their approach as fundamental to economic development. The "anti-business" resistance from "anti-capitalists" is seen as exceptionally problematic. For some corporate interests it justifies the use of "dirty tricks", possibly resulting in the death of labour leaders, whistleblowers, or demonstrators. Whilst dialogue by business to make the case for capitalism is conducted with moral fervour enhanced by public relations, there is no guidance from capitalists as how to make a reasoned critical case against the capitalist perspective, notably as formulated in the pro-globalization discourse. Any such critical discourse is viewed as highly suspect if not subversive. Interestingly however, "criticism tolerance" is viewed as a highly important characteristic impacting on interpersonal effectiveness and leadership -- successful startup entrepreneurs seem to have a higher criticism tolerance [more].
  • communism: as with capitalists, communists present their case with great fervour. Any "anti-communist" perspective is viewed as highly suspect. But no guidelines are offered by communists on how to engage in appropriate critical dialogue regarding the inadequacies of communism. Unlike capitalism, of particular interest is the emphasis on "critical" discourse within communism of whatever flavour -- even "self-criticism" (eg Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, Albanian). But the degree or scope of criticism is severely circumscribed. It is important to avoid "crossing a line" into inappropriate dialogue.

  • imperialism: in the past century imperialists made a strong case for the self-evident logic of their actions, subsequently discredited during the period of anti-colonialism and progressive national independence. Such logic was also seen as coherent in earlier centuries -- back to the Roman Empire. Resistance by "anti-imperialists" was considered completely unacceptable and resulted in swift stigmatization of those proposing civil liberties or independence -- associated with many bloody conflicts between righteous imperialists and the local insurgents in their colonies. The imperial logic has returned to fashion with the neoconservative Project for a New American Century and, somewhat differently, through the logic of "globalization". Perhaps not surprisingly this is historically coincidental with pejorative framing of active resistants as "terrorists". No indications are offered by imperialists regarding the modalities of appropriate discourse critical of imperialism.
  • independence: the fervour of independence from the yoke of imperialism has successfully resulted in the independence of many countries. Pressures however continue to manifest in favour of secession from existing national entities -- resisted with a logic similar to that of imperialism. Again no indications are offered by those opposing such secession regarding the appropriate critical discourse in favour of secession -- possibly vital in the event of such dialogue within the USA..

  • militarism: the arguments for military preparedness and for military action are presented through a well-known logical framework, supported by appeals to various principles and values: honour, defence of the motherland, noble cause, etc. The discourse in support of conscription is also well-honed -- currently on campuses in relation to military needs of the USA. Any criticism of the military enterprise is quickly framed in terms of disloyalty, cowardice and even treachery. Demonstrations made evoke a violently repressive response. No effort is made by those favouring military action to clarify the guidelines for appropriate dialogue with those presenting critical views of such action.
  • pacifism: here again, pacifists do not offer guidelines on acceptable modes of discourse critical of their position. Again contrary arguments, and those presenting them, are viewed with the greatest suspicion and stigmatized pejoratively.

  • industrialism: this well-recognized manifestation of the economic and developmental imperative does not suggest guidelines for appropriate critical dialogue from those highly critical of its assumptions and consequences
  • environmentalism: in this case it is environmentalists who present a coherent case -- regarding pollution, climate change, endangered species, etc -- and view contrary arguments with the greatest suspicion. Those offering such arguments are readily labelled with various pejorative descriptors. Environmentalists, despite recognition of the vital function of feedback loops, do not offer guidelines on acceptable critical dialogue against their position.

  • "consumerism": this widely promoted approach to the achievement of well-being and happiness through wealth does not offer guidelines for appropriate feedback critical of its consequences
  • "simplicity": advocates of the cultivation of voluntary simplicity, and creative approaches to relative poverty, do not offer guidelines for critical feedback to those pursuing wealth and a consumer lifestyle

Nationalism and ethnic culture: For those especially proud of their country, their culture or their ethnic group, any particular criticism is quickly framed as antipathy to the group as whole. Typically it is described as being "anti-X" and is seen as exemplifying an unacceptable discriminatory attitude -- even an infringement of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Here the challenge is one of dialogue with those unsympathetic to the culture and quickly stigmatized in terms of their antipathetic attitude. The corresponding challenge is for the latter, given their criticism of attitudes or behaviours of the particular nation or ethnic group. National cultures give a great deal of attention to dialogue (on their own terms) with the cultures of other groups to increase understanding -- as part of the process of cultural exchange that promotes tourism. In this spirit the United Nations proclaimed 2001 to be the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations -- ironically, given the consequences of 9/11. Very little attention is however given to the challenge for those critical of the behaviour of a collectivity to formulate their criticism in appropriate terms as a basis for such dialogue, for mutual benefit.

Classical examples include:

  • America: the USA is notable for recognizing its special relation to God and a sense of Manifest Destiny. Much has been written about "anti-American" attitudes and the consequent challenge for Americans of "winning hearts and minds" -- winning them over to the American perspective. Americans themselves have engaged in an awkward internal process of penalizing "un-American" initiatives. Little effort has been devoted by Americans to elaborating the guidelines for acceptable dialogue critical of American attitudes and behaviours.
  • Japan: continuing concerns are symbolized by the repeated visits of Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni shrine where convicted war criminals are honoured together with 2.5 million war dead, calling into questions the validity of the war crimes trials. This pattern has inhibited political summits between China and Japan since 2001. This complex mix of "anti-Japanese" perceptions by foreigners and political pressures on Japanese prime ministers to avoid "un-Japanese" behaviour is further complicated by the particularities of Japanese attitudes to foreigners (gaijin). Again little effort is made by Japan to clarify how others should fruitfully engage cortically with Japan under such circumstances.
  • Germany: as illustrated by the policies of the Nazi era regarding the Aryan race and the discriminatory and genocidal measures taken against non-Aryans -- now a theme of neo-nazism.
  • Israel: as reflected in Zionist policies, in support of the State of Israel, in response to anti-semitism and the subsequent confusion of "anti-Zionism" with anti-semitism. Seemingly there is no clarification by Zionists of the appropriate form of dialogue critical of Zionism, if this possibility is even envisaged as beneficial.
  • Other countries, notably those confronted by immigrants and multiculturalism, continue to express concern with erosion of national identity -- framed pejoratively (in English) as "un-British", "un-Australian", "un-Canadian", "un-Irish", for example. Turkey notably has legislation to curtail criticism of "Turkishness", especially by writers. How should the "un-British" engage critically with the "British"? How should those immigrants stigmatized as "un-European" engage with "Europeans"?

Aesthetics: Many of the issues of dialogue are highlighted by the interactions between different schools of aesthetic preferences, notably in the period in which new preferences and styles emerge, challenging dominant preferences. An effort has been made to map these differences by W T Jones (The Romantic Syndrome; toward a new methodology in cultural anthropology and the history of ideas, 1961).  Of particular interest are the strong preferences in the case of religious iconography, ranging from prohibition of any form of image of deity in the case of Islam, through the varying preferences of Christianity (from Catholic to Quaker), to the explicit non-attachment to imagery in Zen Buddhism (see below). This may be a factor in shared meditation -- as an ultimate form of dialogue (Aesthetic Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue as Exemplified by Meditation, 1997).

Physically-characterized social groups: Those distinguished by certain physical characteristics may have a tendency to frame any critical feedback as inappropriately discriminatory -- possibly to the point of using accusations of "discrimination" as a protective device for what might legitimately be perceived as inappropriate behaviour. This highlights the challenge of determining how to draw parallels or distinctions between issues that are:

  • gender-related: development of the analyses and empowerment of women has constrained facile criticism of women and successfully stigmatized such criticism as anti-women; the challenge for feminists remains that of providing guidelines for appropriate dialogue critical of women; the corresponding challenge for men might be how to clarify fruitful modes of dialogue with women critical of men
  • age-related: the considerable empowerment of youth similarly highlights the challenge of the guidelines that might be fruitfully produced by youth to enable adults to engage effectively with them in critical dialogue; a corresponding challenge clearly exists for elders demanding of respect, perhaps inappropriately
  • disability-related: the modalities of appropriate criticism of a physically-challenged person could fruitfully be elaborated by the disabled
  • colour-related: whilst considerable attention has been given to colour-based discrimination (of every kind), little attention has been given by those affected to formulate guidelines for any appropriate critical feedback
  • size-related: again considerable attention has been given to such discrimination (whether in terms of height, girth, or otherwise), little attention has been given to appropriate guidelines for any appropriate critical feedback

Social status and behavioural skills: Status and skills are typically used to frame any critical feedback as "out of place" -- possibly to the point of calling for some form of rebuke or retribution. They may well be used as a protective device to camouflage inappropriate behaviour. This raises the question of how any such groups can formulate guidelines for appropriate dialogue critical of their behaviour:

  • social elites, aristocracies and royalty have long elaborated protocols for dialogue on their own terms, partially embodied in rules of etiquette. Whilst these may extend to the required behaviour of "inferiors", they do not encompass the form of critical feedback from inferiors -- from whom none is expected
  • groups of elites and power-mongers (such as the Club of Rome, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, World Economic Forum, etc) cultivate an internal dialogue through which they attempt to influence world events. They are exposed to criticism which they condemn as inappropriate, but make no attempt to articulate more fruitful modes of critical feedback.
  • employers have long established modalities for interacting with their employees. Trade unions have given considerable attention to procedures for dialoguing with employers. But employers have seldom devoted attention to the guidelines for appropriate critical dialogue on the part of employees.
  • intellectual elites typically give little attention to fruitful guidelines for interaction with them on the part of those of lesser intelligence, including the intellectually challenged. It could be argued that a similar point could be made with respect to "emotional elites", although as yet poorly recognized for their degree of emotional intelligence.

Lifestyle preferences: The dialogue challenges here have been widely acknowledged in the cases of: anti-smoking, anti-alcohol (temperance), anti-drugs, anti-abortion, anti-sex, or anti-homosexuality. Typically from the perspective of those critical of the behaviour for which others have a strong preference, possibly linked to a sense of fundamental right and even personal identity. Typically the campaigns against these preferences have offered guidelines as to how to protest the behaviour. Unfortunately there are few guidelines from those favouring such behaviour indicating how critics might dialogue appropriately with them.

Alternative and hypothetical: Interesting challenges to dialogue are illustrated by the following where in each case there is an opportunity for eliciting (or envisaging) guidelines from the groups regarding appropriate modes of critical dialogue:

  • intentional communities: of whatever kind, these are typically trapped into an us/them mode characterized by defensive dialogue with outsiders. What form might guidelines from them take to clarify appropriate critical engagement with them?
  • semi-secret societies, sects and cults: the Freemasons, Scientologists and Opus Dei, as examples, have all been recently exposed to criticism but have not indicated what form of critical dialogue by others might be appropriate in order to engage effectively with them
  • hypothetical: what form of guidelines regarding critical dialogue might be expected from extraterrestrials or from the subjects of conspiracy theories?
  • deluded: whilst many in therapy (and notably in mental institutions) suffer delusions, and there is concern as to how to dialogue with them, it is worth considering how to elicit from them guidelines to appropriate critical dialogue on behaviours resulting from their perspective

Other examples of extreme perspectives posing a challenge for dialogue are given elsewhere (Norms in the Global Struggle against Extremism: "rooting for" normalization vs. "rooting out" extremism? 2005)

A number of these worldviews combine most unfortunately to sustain a pattern of denial -- notably associated with the consequences of regional conflicts engendered by them. This is most evident in the widespread use of landmines and cluster bombs. Millions of unexploded cluster bomblets now endanger civilian populations in rural areas long after any cease fire. This is the case in Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. It is a notable consequence of the military strategy of Israel in southern Lebanon in 2006 (cf Israel's 'immoral' use of cluster bombs in Lebanon poses major threat, UN News Center, 30 August 2006). Countries adopting such strategies tend to do so covertly, denying use of inhumane weapons at the time, and offering no guidelines as to how criticism of such policies could be fruitfully formulated as a contribution to policy-making (cf Brian Rappert, Controlling the Weapons of War: politics, persuasion, and the prohibition of inhumanity, 2006).


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