Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

A Temporal Turn?

May 16th, 2012

  1. What is the purpose of dialogue?
  2. Pre-Occupied: Narratives (told and untold) that fill us up
  3. Engaging Youth’s Multicultural Reality
  4. The Key
  5. Green and Red Lines: Asking Different Questions
  6. The Light

In his remarks opening the 6th international Dialogue Under Occupation conference, founder Larry Berlin posed the question:

“What is the purpose of dialogue?”

Closing scene, Fantasia Opus 3, the fantastic range of children's dreams.

Closing scene, Fantasia Opus 3, the fantastic range of children's dreams.

It is a question that the people attending and presenting at the DUO VI conferences did not figure out. Perhaps part of the reason for the absence of an answer is in the framing of the question. We are mostly academics, which means we usually talk abstractly about things we study rather than doing them with each other.

There is less confusion (it seems) about the other key term in the title of our conference: occupation. I did not think of “occupation” as a synonym for “career” during Sophia Mihic’s keynote presentation on the near history of neoliberalism. Now, afterwards, this strikes me as odd, since her argument about the term “human capital” relies on the difference between “labor” and “work.” I suspect this is an instance of collective repression – a de-selection of one possible meaning in favor of another, and then forgetting having made thechoice. Sophia’s thoughtful presentation and critical engagement throughout the conference helps me wonder: are DUO conference participants in the process of producing a work of critical art? Or are these conferences solely labor – the repetition of rituals that must be performed in order to satisfy and maintain professional credentials? Could we somehow manage to do both?

Pre-Occupied: Narratives (told & untold) that fill us up

In a similarly linguistic vein, Cris Toffolo asked us to consider the difference between “post-occupation” and “post-conflict” as labels describing countries like Lebanon. The main distinction between the two terms involve the presence and extent of violence as well as its duration. DUO VI conference participants were undecided whether the use of these labels matter. Instead, we talked about the actions taken “post” – specifically whether the politicians, media, and populace (all of its diverse publics) engage an open communication process designed to promote healing, or choose some other coping strategy as the means to simply and quickly move on. I was particularly struck by the critique she found of Lebanon’s political leadership (Assi Collective Memory – Lebanon, by Elsa Abou Assi) which describes the decision to absolve insiders by blaming outsiders. There had already been a couple of strong statements issued during some of the Question-and-Answer periods about (for instance), there being no one to forgive but oneself for allowing the outsiders to come in and wreck havoc. There is so much to unpack in Lebanese discourse about war and conflict, so many stories that have been told (adult-to-adult) and passed from adults (especially parents) to children who are now grown up and coping in their varied ways with the underlying, unresolved tensions: of necessity finding courage in the face of fear.

Engaging youth’s multicultural reality

View from the castle at Byblos/Jbeit, Lebanon.

View from the castle at Byblos/Jbeit, Lebanon.

The DUO VI conference attracted few of the young people at Lebanon American University, let alone activists from the broader Beirut community. Most youth were more likely to partake in cultural performance events, such as a screening of Rabat. I was lucky to meet Director Jim Taihuttu; we talked about audience reactions to the film. The cast and crew put serious effort into capturing the way youth in Holland actually talk, codeswitching among languages (e.g., Dutch, Moroccan, Surinamese) and borrowing terms back and forth in an unpredictable, dynamic flux. The dialogue is so representative and “natural” that audience members of their peer group feel as if they’re “in the car” with the protagonists. In a generous gesture of inclusion, Rabat is captioned in Dutch as well as English and Arabic so that older generations and foreigners can understand the linguistic mixing. “I disagree with people who talk about multiculturalism as something that you are either for or against, “Jim said. “It is what we are living, a multicultural reality.”

The Key

Barbara Birch’s DUO conference presentation included some guidelines that apply to teaching in general. Countering the linguistic imperialism of English, Barbara proposes the use of the English language as a source of social action that can enable transitions from current injustice to preferable futures. The critical question for teachers involves identifying the moment when you can move students from a wide focus (learning how to say things in general situations) to a narrow one: how to say things in very specific situations. This move, from the general topic to the specific sociocultural transaction, allows the exploration of different norms in the immediate moment of communication. Turning that key opens a door to learning how to navigate the emotions and colliding (complementing and contradicting) narratives involving questions of history and justice. As skills increase, students and teachers learning together can take on increasingly tricky challenges, creating new rituals of being with “Others” and living a new world into being.

Green and Red Lines: Asking Different Questions

Ending violence: domestic, national, religious

Ending violence: domestic, national, religious

I do not know how the color symbolism came about, but I noticed the label of a “Green Line” is the same for both Beirut and Israel/Palestine. In terms of traffic lights, green means “go” – maybe this is a weird way to think of it, but it seems the very label has a subtext encouraging battle. The implication struck me when Ilham Nasser presented her findings on public acts of forgiveness in Arab culture. She discovered a “red line” beyond which people would not forgive others – it could be an insult, a misunderstanding, a failure to respect religious beliefs, etc. Again, it is the symbolism that seems significant: forgiveness is RED (don’t go there!) while war is GREEN (storm ahead, boys!)

The Light

Cris’ roundtable was about the limits and possibilities of talking about human rights as a way to leverage public healing processes. In political science, there is a lot of evidence that broad political-journalistic efforts of reconciliation are functional and productive (South Africa, Ireland, and Guatemala were named as examples). The information Cris shared complemented Professor Makram Ouaiss’ opening keynote address, in which he emphasized asymmetry as the way to shift conflicts from on-going cycles of violence to non-violent methods for ending occupation and establishing civil societies. Dr Ouaiss’ point is that non-violence is understudied, proven effective, and morally legitimate.

Given the right structure and support, I hypothesize that there are enough young people in Beirut willing and capable of having this difficult conversation. Despite the horrors they’ve been through, I witnessed some amazing displays of conviction concerning the things that really matter: including peace with Palestinians and sharing joy within one’s family. As Dr Ouaiss explained, persuading people of the logic and effectiveness of non-violence takes time and repeated efforts.

Written half in Beirut, half in Amherst MA.
Link to the NYTimes Art Review:
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language

Leave a Comment

Categories: addressing inequity, Call this ACTION LEARNING!, Democracy, Dialogue Under Occupation, history, Language, phenomenology, Reflexivity, Rhetoric and Performance, Series

Leave a Reply