How do people with dramatically different views get so misguided? Listening to the news or to a casual conversation that gets caught up in Big Questions can feel like a trip to The Twilight Zone—different views are alien territory.
A quick return home from those alien views to familiar territory can feel comfortable, but even just a little longer stay can pay big rewards. On this Memorial Day, The Public Classroom offers stories and videos with loyal military veterans and committed peace advocates squaring off against each other, but also learning from each other over Big Questions about war and peace.
Are you an advocate for security through war or for peace? Either way, hearing out these different views can help you understand the people around you who are, after all, part of the human mix. Plus understanding those strange others can be a way to strengthen the positions you do support because you’ll be better prepared to come up with counterarguments. For extra credit in the department of listening, learning about different thoughts and behaviors can lend touches of humility about your own views, since you might hear neglected facts and hints of insight on the other side that you rarely meet in the comfort of familiar values territory.
How much learning from different people is actually possible in this age of media segmentation, antagonistic cultural clusters, and polarized politics? This exploration of Learning From People You Disagree With offers a verbal and video tour with a large handful of citizens who took up this challenge on vital issues of war and peace.
In the spring of 2015, I taught two sections of the survey of Modern US History at Stetson University. Most Americans are familiar with courses like this, even in grade school or high school: there is a little bit about a lot of material from the Civil War era to the present. At the end of our semester, I assigned students to interview someone who had experienced the issues and events that we had learned about. This was not only a chance to witness the personal impacts of the historical trends in our classroom coverage, but also a first step toward reviewing for the final exam, since we would all hear each other’s whole range of stories. For the stories dealing with foreign policy issues, I invited community members with decidedly different points of view to comment on the stories, members of the Stetson Veterans Organization, and local peace advocates, including members of Central Florida Veterans for Peace, and of student groups advocating against genocide.
On April 27, 2015, we held the event, “Personal Memories and Values Choices: A Public Classroom Conversation,” with only one ground rule: Once we get the basics of your point, we’ll need to say, We got it!—to allow time for the next view and the next story. Then we began each hour-long session with the toss of a coin, to see which side would go first. I used a Liberty Silver Dollar from 1879, the year one of my grandmothers was born; she migrated to the US in 1912. I asked the audience: did she and millions of other immigrants come to this country for security or peace, two great values of democracy, represented on this coin by the stern warrior Eagle and by Lady Liberty with a garland of Peace. University Chaplain Rev. Michael Fronk read the tossed coin, and fate dealt an even hand: the veterans won the chance to speak first during the first session at 1:30 and the peace advocates won the toss for the 2:30 session.
Here are the full texts of the two one-hour sessions, each with two links:
1:30 Forum, with veterans Marissa Hehli, Jenn Brann, John Richardson, and Steven Cassell; and peace advocates Phil Restino, Kathy Bracewell, and Elizabeth Loudon:
Part 2, shows the beginning of the 2:30 Forum, which is continued in Part 3
2:30 Forum, with peace advocates Kathy Bracewell, Elizabeth Loudon, Phil Restino; and veterans Geoffrey Gose, Brian Wade, Patrick O’Brien, and Justin Baggs:
The two sides clearly differ about whether Americans fight more for aggression or for defense, with the anti-war people arguing, in Phil Restino’s words, that most American wars have been “bankers’ wars” (Part 3), and the veterans pointing to casualties in war zones already suffering before Americans become involved and the American commitment to “rules of engagement” putting limits on the harm inflicted, as Marissa Hehli emphasizes (Part 2). Each side argues from different levels, with the anti-warriors taking a bird’s eye perspective to look at the emergence of conflict from economic trends in the long-term shaping policy decisions, while the veterans emphasize the ground-level immediacy of security needs once those policies are already in place. If that peaceful bird would visit the ground, and those warriors would sometimes hitch a ride to get a broader perspective, maybe each side could gain “a whole new … point of view,” in the words of Aladdin in the cartoon movie (1992). But even without a love story and music, each side needs a build up of trust to begin to learn from each other—and for each do their own jobs better. Want a more secure and peaceful world? That’s the human majority, and for that world, advocates for each side need the other.
The panelists also offer very different views of the American Marshall Plan after the Second World War, which supplied economic aid to war-damaged countries including former enemies. The advocates for the realism of security turn to arguments with an economic realism in critique of the Marshall Plan for taking resources away from US domestic needs, but the peace advocate position supports this policy for economic aid because it offered the promise of prevention of war by reducing economic want which can lead to reduced cultural resentment, and muffle the drumbeats for war.
For all differences in debates, these discussions also present real opportunities for the contrasting sides to benefit from their contrasting insights; for example, anti-war activist Elizabeth Loudon hopes for the prevention of war if we can do less “dehumanizing” of the enemy (Part 1); and that awareness of the actual people hurt by war can become part of effective military strategy with increased understanding of the facts—and the people—on the ground in war zones to prevent what veteran Brian Wade calls the “push button slippery slope” descent into indiscriminate destruction (Part 3), and to lead to more successes.
Some issues remain open, such as the question about how much economic prosperity and free trade require an extensive military: does all that trade need extensive protection, as veteran John Richardson argues (Part 1), or is the growth of trade a form of competitive but peaceful human interaction that can displace the need for the fierce interactions of war? The US is clearly committed to an on-going large national security state and police action around the world. In light of this tread of the discussion, how much of this is needed, and how much of this encourages the turn to military solutions for knotty global problems when there may be other remedies available? Or more bluntly, do we need all those military hammers or do they encourage us to see everything as nails?
Since both sides clearly prefer peace—the one side explicitly and the other side, in the words of veteran Patrick O’Brien, seeking peace “on the other side of war” (Part 1)—this convergence of contrasting positions can serve as a reminder for us all to look for ways to prevent violent conflict by adding personal understanding about the concerns of those alien Others on the other side. How? We can all contribute toward prevention of conflict before it flares out through promotion of fair trade (here’s a good example: http://www.estrog.com/), by questioning the next public speaker who presses the slippery-slope button to tap anger, or by just looking at our own anger directed toward people we don’t even know.
Both veteran O’Brien (Part 1) and Chaplain Fronk (Part 3) refer to the standards of Just War, which compromises our hopes for peace with our impulses for suspicion, anger, and attack. Just War theory demands that any turn to aggression should only emerge in response to attacks, and that wars should be fought as humanely as possible; it acknowledges the value of security under restraints from the value of peace. The discussions during these Forums could convince any viewer that wars are tragic events even for those who fight—especially for those who fight, as this Memorial Day should bring to mind—witness Gen. Douglas MacArthur soulful observation, as O’Brien reminds us (Part 1), that “the soldier above all others prays for peace for it is the soldier who must bear and suffer the deepest wounds and scars of war.” Now back to you, Dear Viewer: where do you draw the line in naming war just, and calling any particular war justifiable?
We live in a democracy, a government that includes the people’s voices; but those voices are diverse, and even in conflict. To live in a democracy together, it is important to listen to each other; that’s what we were up to with these Forums. But that is pretty rare in these days of politicians and commentators talking right past each other or resorting to verbal ridicule. We’ve got lots of views, but do you really think that ignoring them or insulting them will persuade people from the other side? Meanwhile, the polarization often keeps us from getting things done.
We’ve heard stories from recent American life, and differing interpretations about their meaning. Now it’s time to think about your own values choices—about the past, and about the future. These sessions gave chances to hear stories and different points of view about them, and to hear about our shared American culture. This may even be a chance to think about how other views might impact your own.
A recent ad for a credit card company includes a tough-looking character glaring at all of us on the other side of the screen, asking “What’s in your wallet?” So back to you: what do you carry around in your values wallet? And even if you know your position for sure, consider a visit to another values country—the dividends could be tremendous, for you and for our country.