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Characteristics of dialogue with the chosen

Guidelines for Critical Dialogue between Worldviews: as exemplified by the need for non-antisemitic dialogue with Israelis? (Part #5)

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Critical dialogue amongst "the chosen": For purposes of comparison, it is useful to distinguish the case of critical dialogue amongst those subscribing to a particular belief whether religious, scientific, political or otherwise. Here a degree of fundamental agreement is to be assumed. Criticism and disagreement are essentially superficial or focused on details of interpretation -- whether or not these are framed as a "major debate" between schools of thought of that worldview. The chosen dialogue amongst themselves within a "circle of trust" -- a complicity that is called into question by critical dialogue with "others". In the case of the Jewish diaspora, this might be termed "semitic" dialogue from which "anti-semitic" dimensions are necessarily to be excluded..

Judgment of those within the circle is muted -- in ways that evoke external criticism -- even when some of its values are betrayed. The P2 scandal of freemasonry provides an example.

Critical discourse by "the chosen": Again for comparative purposes, this is the case where a particular worldview is used as the basis for criticizing the inadequacies of another worldview -- without being open to any criticism in return, except to the extent that the arguments of the latter can be refuted from within the worldview of the former.

Preferred non-critical dialogue: As a development of the preceding condition, this is the preferred mode of discourse for exponents of any worldview. Its characteristics include combinations of the following:

  • unquestioning deference to a social authority whether a religious leader, the leading professor of a discipline, a political leader, a military leader, a corporate leader, etc
  • unquestioning deference to a moral or spiritual authority, notably including a priest, or guru
  • unquestioning reference to an authoritative text, whether a sacred scripture, or the work of a world renowned scholar
  • unquestioning application of a methodology

Under these conditions any questions are only acceptable to the extent that the response can be provided or the question can be proven to be inappropriate. The dialogue may be described in terms of:

  • "It is my role to talk, your's is to listen"
  • "I correct errors in your understanding"
  • "There are no errors in the position that I represent"

Typically the process of such dialogue may consist of a number of stages:

  • aspects of the preferred worldview are articulated
  • comments from those not subscribing to it are accepted
  • responses are made to those comments, correcting errors of understanding
  • if the degree of protest against those comments is deemed excessive after a "reasonable" attempt at "dialogue", then the "dialogue" is terminated
  • the protestor is stigmatized as "unreasonable" or "beyond reasoning" -- or "beyond saving"
  • in certain situations, measures may be taken to intimidate, isolate or even "terminate" the protestor -- some modes of discourse can indeed prove fatal (if only to a career position)

A common defensive strategy in response to this form of dialogue, especially in corporate culture, is that of the "yes man". Recent examples of faith-based governance have clarified the extent to which world leaders -- "chosen people" such as George Bush and Tony Blair -- consider themselves as "above criticism" normally characteristic of democratic governance. Ultimately they, and their supporters, consider that only God can appropriately judge them for the deaths they perpetrate in the name of spreading Christian Democracy.

Critical dialogue with "divinity": An especially problematic form of the previous variant occurs when a potentially critical dialogue, with potentially "fatal" consequences, takes place with the "ultimate" authority of the worldview rather than with an intermediary interpreting that authority's perspective. This may include:.

  • "God": the nature of any "critical" dialogue with God has been highlighted both with respect to key moments in spiritual training ("dark night of the soul", loss of faith, etc) and the experience for many of deep loss of a loved one. It is typically associated with an accusatory question as to "why" the situation arises, a sense of unfairness, and of being betrayed by God (amusingly explored in the movie The Man Who Sued God). Guidelines are not provided by the divine as to how to respond critically. An interesting exception is that of Buddhism where master practitioners have been reputed to destroy sacred texts, and even images of the Buddha, in order to free themselves from attachment to anything. A widely-appreciated quote from a Zen master describes the Buddha as "A dried shit stick" -- a statement which, if made about Mohammed or Jesus, would provoke outrage amongst Muslims or Christians
  • "Chief priest": here a person is recognized as the ultimate representative of divinity, typically as a leader of an institutionalized religion of which the clearest example is the Pope as leader of the Catholic Church, notably when speaking ex cathedra.
  • "President": this again may be similar to the situation with respect to "God" for many in institutional environments -- and indeed the person in question may be both referred to as "God" and may even perceive themselves as having "divine" attributes. This has notably been the case in monarchies or in those empires where the emperor was held to have divine attributes. Whilst presidents typically surround themselves by "yes men", appreciative tales are told of those few who take specific steps to ensure critical feedback. These have not however been translated into widely available guidelines. An interesting exception is provided by the traditional, and potentially dangerous, role of the court jester.
  • "Professor": similar to the situation with respect to "God" is that for a scholar of being confronted with the arbitrariness or betrayal by the ultimate superior in one's school of thought -- often referred to as "God". Professors are seldom reputed for welcoming critical discourse and take steps to avoid it. Guidelines to valuable critical discourse are typically not provided by them.
  • "Worldmaker": some highly creative individuals elaborate worldviews and "worlds", whether through story (eg Lord of the Rings), movies (eg Star Wars), interactive computer games (eg EverQuest), philosophy, or fundamental physical "Theories of Everything" (cf Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, 1978). By their very nature such constructs have no externalities and their creators have no need to build into them "backdoors" through which they are open to critical feedback.
  • Elective affinity: to the extent that a loved one is experienced as "divine" -- and in that sense above criticism -- the challenge of engaging in critical dialogue is recognized as problematic. How to communicate to a loved one a problem of inappropriate choice of clothing, halitosis or snoring? (cf Snoring of The Other: a politically relevant psycho-spiritual metaphor?, 2006) What guidelines to offer to ensure valuable critical feedback from those by whom one is above all appreciated?

Radical dialogue and "anathema": Dialogue with a group may, exceptionally, become of such a radical nature that it challenges the fundamental assumptions basic to the identity of the group -- even challenging its very integrity. This may for example occur in theological debate, in scientific debate, or in political debate. The consequence may be a schism in the group, with the more authoritative declaring the other to be the vehicle of heresy. In theological debate, the excluded perspective and the holder of it, may be declared to be anathema -- implying a degree of denouncement and banishment, namely a form of extreme religious sanction

Curiously the original Greek sense of anathema implied a form of suspension, something set apart as sacred -- even offered up to God. This accords with the sense of the perspective being out of a conventional frame -- "out of the box"?.

An excellent example has been provided, on the occasion of the Israel-Hizbollah conflict, by the widely publicized commentary of the renowned Norwegian philosopher Jostein Gaarder (God's Chosen People, Aftenposten, 5 August 2006), expressing his outrage against Israel's military operations and foreign policy since 1967. Vehemently contested by many (cf Shimon Samuels, Open Letter to Norway from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, 8 August 2006), his text, has been perceived by some as attacking not only Israel and Israeli policy, but also Jews and Judaism in general, and as such is considered an extreme example of anti-semitism [more]. Gaarder himself repeatedly dismissed such interpretations. Critics considered that he had "crossed a line", whether or not he realized it. Supporters, including the former prime minister of Norway, Kåre Willoch, criticized the attacks on Gaarder, stating that "whenever Israel's politics are criticized, there are attempts to divert the attention from what this is really about." [more]

Another example, arousing worldwide protest, is the Pope's quotation, without qualification, of the views of a predecessor claiming that Muhammed's innovations were "evil and inhuman" (12 September 2006). As noted by Jonathan Freedland (The Pope should know better than to endorse the idea of a war of faiths, The Guardian, 20 September 2006):

The Pope seems unaware that, for hundreds of millions of people, religious affiliation is not a matter of intellectual adherence to a set of abstract principles, but a question of identity. Many Muslims, like many Jews or Hindus, may not fully subscribe to the religious doctrine concerned, and yet their Muslimness, or Jewishness or Hinduness, is a central part of their make-up. Theology plays a lesser part than history, culture, folklore, tradition and kinship. In this respect, religious groups begin to look more like ethnic ones. Which means that a slur on a religion is experienced much like a racist insult.

Anything that is "anti-" that which has been "chosen" must necessarily be the epitome of "evil" (for religion), "ignorance" (for science), "incompetence" (for competitive business), "anarchy" (for politics and governance), "ugliness" (for aesthetics), "unknown" (national/ethnic culture), etc

Unacceptable denial of formative existential experience: Of major significance in any dialogue situation of the kind described above is any implied challenge, by the critic, to a fundamental formative experience sustaining the worldview that is questioned. Examples of such experiences from the above include:

  • religion: For Christians this is the founding myth and mystery associated with the crucifixion of Jesus, and the many Christian martyrs thereafter. Miracles are also important to Islam [more]. Most religions, especially Judaism, attach great significance to the persecution of their adherents down the centuries. In terms of personal identity, individuals subscribing to the worldview may attach fundamental, if not overriding, significance to conversion and "rebirth" experiences -- often following intense personal struggle to overcome dysfunctional patterns of behaviour..
  • science: The founding myths of science are associated with the struggles of those discovering, formulating and promulgating new theories against the resistance of the dominant worldview of the time. In terms of personal identity, individuals may attach great significance to their long educational struggle (and their associated penury as a student) to acquire the insights they now profess.
  • ethnic identity: The most horrific types of formative experience are those associated with genocidal massacre, forced resettlement, deliberate starvation and the withholding of assistance. The denial or demeaning of such experience is especially problematic. The case of the Holocaust is particularly significant as a central act of European civilization perpetrated by Europeans on Europeans with the complicity of Europeans. The efforts made by the Jewish people to ensure that it is not forgotten are therefore understandable in relation to the promise that Israel represents -- hence the challenge represented by the highly controversial study by Roger Garaudy (The Founding Myths of Modern Israel, 2000; The Theological Myths) [more more]. Although the validity of comparisons is questionable, other such acts may be as formative for the identity of the people concerned (eg the Armenian massacre, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the Rwandan massacre, the Cambodian massacre, and many others -- some, such as Dafur, currently underway).
  • labour: The struggle of workers to achieve rights from government and employers, now enshrined as principles in the international labour conventions, has often involved violently repressive measures justified by national institutions. These have constituted formative experiences for those in the trade unions movement -- notably exemplified by the Solidarity movement in Poland.

In a dialogue situation great weight is naturally attached to such formative experiences. This may be articulated in the form of statements indicating that the there is absolutely no way in which the critic can understand how such considerations completely outweigh the validity of any criticism. Those of a younger generation are typically exposed to such argument from their elders, especially their parents, who attach a high degree of significance to the challenging conditions from which they have developed, from which the young now benefit. Typically the young attach relatively little weight to such arguments and view them with suspicion, whatever their respect for their parents.

Transformation of human rights into a defensive shield against feedback: The general approach to the above challenges has been articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately this document limits itself to promoting a high degree of tolerance and says almost nothing about the real-world situation of when, and how, to provide feedback to those who may be considered by others to be acting inappropriately -- in terms of those very same principles. As in the religious case of the 10 Commandments about what (not) to do, there are potentially 10 Missing Commandments about what to do in the event of failure to respect them -- beyond provision for "an eye for an eye" and a presumptuous anticipation of God's retributive justice..

Article 30 might be interpreted as pointing in a necessary direction, but only in a negative sense. It reads:

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Some efforts have been made by some groups to formulate corresponding declarations of human responsibilities (Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, InterAction Council, 1997-8; Citizens' Public Trust Treaty: a treaty of ethics, equity and ecology, 1997-8; Oscar Aries, Some Contributions to a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations, 1997). Such initiatives have been contested as ill-founded (Revised Research paper on the Draft Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, 2006; Sandra Mims Rowe, American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1997; Charter of Responsibilities Bill 2004, Canberra Parliament). Responses to such initiatives have been well summarized by Ben Saul (In the Shadow of Human Rights: Human Duties, Obligations and Responsibilities, 2001) -- with the conclusion that no further action is expected by the United Nations. But again such initiatives themselves fail to indicate when and how to provide feedback in appropriate form.

Such concerns regarding critical feedback may be implicit in proposals of the Hamelink Declaration (also termed the Draft Declaration on the Right to Communicate, 2002 or the People's Communication Charter) but objections to it by the group Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression (Note on the draft Declaration on the Right To Communicate prepared by C. Hamelink, 2003) raise issues of whether:

  • it would provide a broad licence to governments to repress critical or oppositional viewpoints.
  • it means, for example, that no one is allowed to criticize other people's ideas
  • the proposed right to freedom of religion could be seen as prohibiting individuals from criticizing religions, a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression.
  • to repress criticism of a controversial government policy on the basis that this is likely to encourage 'illegal' demonstrations against it, breaching the
  • open public debate depends on criticism of other people's ideas and creative work, even unreasonable or excessively harsh criticism. They become totally unacceptable when cast, as in the Hamelink Declaration, as obligations, which implies a legal requirement

The weakness of any such legal focus on isolated "rights" or "responsibilities" it that it fails to acknowledge the dynamics of the systemic communication processes through which feedback is provided to ensure a sustainable, self-correcting balance between freedoms and obligations. Critical feedback is a vital feature of this self-correcting dynamic.

It is within the context of the Universal Declaration, and various supporting treaties, that the question of how -- given the principle of free speech -- actions considered inappropriate may be criticized, in particular (as an example) when the person undertaking or promoting those actions is Jewish. In the case of charges of "anti-semitism", as condemned by the Universal Declaration, the challenge for all is to clarify when the charge is appropriately made. If the charge is extended as a protective device for any action undertaken by a Jewish person, its weight and value is progressively diminished. The consequence is illustrated by the well-known tale of the little boy who cried "wolf". In a dialogue situation it would be most useful to benefit from the insights of those sensitive to the charge to clarify what is "anti-semitic" and what is not -- and the grey areas to which all should be sensitive

The difficulty from a systemic perspective is that the charge of "anti-semitism" is used by some on occasion to block critical feedback, possibly dynamically. Michael Neumann (What is Antisemitism? June 2002) defines this dynamic as an identity shell-game:

"Antisemitism", properly and narrowly speaking, doesn't mean hatred of semites; that is to confuse etymology with definition. It means hatred of Jews. But here, immediately, we come up against the venerable shell-game of Jewish identity: "Look! We're a religion! No! a race! No! a cultural entity! Sorry--a religion!" When we tire of this game, we get suckered into another: "anti-Zionism is antisemitism! " quickly alternates with: "Don't confuse Zionism with Judaism! How dare you, you antisemite!"

The question in such a dynamic context is then how to formulate critical feedback -- or is it the case that none is ever acceptable in the case of "the chosen" (of any variety)? Clarification of the scope for dialogue is especially problematic when the charge is coupled with reference to the Holocaust as a guarantee of unquestionable validity. It then becomes a potential dialogic weapon -- the ultimate moral weapon -- to which no response is possible without triggering the device. Further dialogue is impossible. Suicide bombings -- perversely mirroring the perpetration of genocide -- might then be considered a response by individuals placed in this "dialogue" situation.

Dialogue with gated communities: As noted elsewhere (Dynamically Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge society , 2004), increasingly social groups, typical of the diversity of civil society, might be usefully understood as forming into psycho-social analogues of the "gated communities" that are now emerging in affluent suburbs [more]. Whilst in the latter case it is for security reasons to sustain a particular lifestyle, in the psycho-social case it would appear to be a question of sustaining a particular belief system or worldview. The process is being reinforced by the rapid commercialization of the web and the creation of exclusion zones -- gated communities in cyberspace -- accessible only to those who can afford access to them and therefore explored as viable business models [more].

A distinction was made there between:

  • Conventional gated communities: residential; business incubators; nonprofit incubators; residential intentional communities
  • Conceptually gated communities:
    • worldviews and mindsets: exclusive clubs and groups; sects, cults and closed groups; scholarly schools of thought; invisible colleges; secret societies; movements of opinion;
    • self-referencing research networks: mutual citation networks; academic citation networks; networks of equivalent security clearances; financial constrained networks
    • dialogue networks: web dialogues and fora; balkanization of the internet; incestuous conferencing; quality dialogue
    • political, ideological and business worldviews: self-referential networks; strategic gaming; faith-based governance; constraining power of dark vision;
    • designed environments: thinktanks; networks and centres of excellence; intentional communities; cocoons; developmental groups and contexts
    • media-engendered contexts
    • language-related contexts
    • contexts determined by physical aspect
    • preference-related contexts
    • personality-centred contexts: media stars; political personality cults; spiritual leaders
    • timing-based contexts: style and fashion; improvised music; dance; service delivery; "timeships"
    • open source contexts: software development; reference tools

The generic challenge is then one of dialogue with such a conceptually gated community -- a conceptually walled worldview -- when that community is essentially defined dynamically by its "internal" dialogue processes and their distinction from excluded external processes. "Internal" may of course be understood to include modes of "externality" such as the divine, with conventional understandings of externality then reframed as mundanities to be transcended. Dynamic "gating" may also be understood in terms of communication specialization of operational responsibility in an emergent self-organizing system requiring conservation of variety.

Two distinct dialogue situations then exist:

  • where the boundary is primarily created and sustained by the walled community, as in most of the situations above defined by "the chosen". However, it also includes:
    • many national boundaries
    • fortified boundary walls as with: the Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, the USA-Mexico border fence, or that separating North and South Korea
    • fortresses, closed monasteries (including Mount Athos), secure establishments (research laboratories, intelligence facilities, think tanks, etc)
    • compounds as with "diplomatic ghettos", the Green Zone, and those for expats in Arab countries
  • where the boundary is primarily created and sustained by the surrounding environment, as with reservations, ghettos and certain institutions (penitentiaries, asylums, quarantine zones, etc), or the Israeli West Bank Barrier (to contain Palestinians)

More generally there is a case for seeing any form of constructed shelter as a container for relatively exclusive dialogue. The sets of such dialogues might then be seen as visibly replicating the pattern of such constructs -- from the castles and fortified chateaux of past elites to the ambitious corporate skyscrapers of their modern counterparts, including the range of institutional architecture. Urban street layouts and buildings may then be understood as effectively mapping specialized dialogue settings, the relationships between them, and the challenge of "access" to "ring-fenced" environments. They can be understood as a kind of "dialogue architecture" embodied in concrete. This framework of course raises interesting questions about suburban monotony and the quality of dialogue contained and enabled by slum dwellings and favelas. This architectural metaphor gives focus to the universality of disputes between neighbours as an exemplification of the encounter between contrasting worldviews.

Any dialogue across constructed boundaries is severely conditioned by the coherence of the language on either side and the force with which it seeks to penetrate the barrier -- or oppose such penetration -- with or without the consent of the other. Those on one side may adopt a highly defensive attitude. Much may be dependent on the image that those on either side cultivate of the other -- or project onto the other. Typically any such "wall" is an edifice of binary logic -- separating an understanding of "appropriateness" from an understanding of "inappropriateness" or some form of "impurity".

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