How might a person step into the shoes of an "anti-American terrorist" and NOT be labeled "anti-American"?
It seems as though we often label people "anti-American" on one side and "ignorantly patriotic" on the other -- and then once we determine which category a person falls into we often stop listening because we think that we already understand him or her.
I think I know myself quite well and I don't fall into either one of these groups. I'm just a person who is deeply committed to understanding what other people have to say and I am constantly surprised to find out that what I imagine a given individual thinks is often not at all what they believe (or that it's only one small slice of complex web of thoughts). So I suspect that most of us are really more alike than we imagine but too often we don't take the time to sit down with people who we perceive to be our "adversaries" in ideological jousting. By not doing so we miss out on our great many similarities.
Of course, what is really at work is that by "not doing so" we are also able to keep our sense of self in tact because we don't have to challenge ourselves to change what we think and believe.
So getting back to my question at hand, is this just a task that no American should ever do? Is it just out of bounds or is there a way to do it? Is some of the negative backlash from my talk a result of the fact that I empathized so well or was it more because I fell short of my goal?
Closing Statement from Sam Richards
I write this final answer from Kuwait City, where once again I find myself confused about the world -- as I probably should be and probably should always hope to be. I've been engaged in conversation with people from so many points on the political spectrum and find the range of opinions varied and vast. Interestingly enough, however, what I keep encountering is a sense that Americans can seem a bit thin-skinned when it comes to a critique of their own country. Not everyone says this, mind you, but it's a perspective that keeps coming around...and around...seemingly so often that I might be able to accept that it might just be how it is.
What I keep stumbling over with people is the many similarities that are shared by people from different cultures. "We need to stay focused on our commonalities," people say. And I fully agree. In fact, our work on the World in Conversation Project does this very thing. We focus on what unites people and no what divides them. "If we could only put people in a room and have them share a coffee," one Kuwaiti man mused.
What would happen would be that people would empathize with one another's lives -- people would see a little of him or her self in that person across the room as the conversation unfolded.
After a long and fruitful conversation this afternoon my wife asked me what stood out and I replied that I never really put myself in the shoes of a Kuwaiti after the Iraqis invaded in the summer of 1990. For Kuwaitis it was traumatic; for me it would have been traumatic and I, too, might have hugged George Bush as one man told me he did when Bush visited in 1991. And so I guess my job is to remain open to trying on new pairs of shoes and stepping outside of my own small little world.......and then doing it again, and again, and again. And pretty soon I might begin to make sense of what us two-leggeds are really all about.
Thanks for the comments.