Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Enemy Images in Politics

Since one of my themes is the harm caused by “enemy images,” I can’t ignore our collective backyard, that is, U.S. politics. Talk show host Dev Ulz-Advokit recently interviewed me about this topic:

D.U. What is the harm caused by Democrats and Republicans railing at each other like enemies? Doesn’t it spice up the news a bit?
T.I. Sure, it generates great entertainment, but it doesn’t make a great country. If we didn’t see each other as enemies, we’d listen to the other side’s legitimate concerns and incorporate them in wise policies, instead of simply posturing to make the other look bad.

D.U. But neither party is going to jettison its position on the issues. Why try?
T.I. The object is not to produce homogeneity. A democracy needs varying perspectives because each side brings up points that the other side may need to hear. For example, beneficial government programs need to be checked by concern for costs, waste and fraud. Military decision-makers need voices apprising them of effective nonmilitary alternatives. In the current health care debate, the moral imperative to provide health care for all needs to be balanced with economics and efficiency.

D.U. OK, so dissension is cool. What’s the problem then?
T.I. The problem is tone. Many debates are undermined when the speakers mischaracterize or ridicule the other side and/or its motives. Then more energy is going into attack and defend, than actual substance and problem-solving.

D.U. You heard that everyone: mischaracterization and ridicule are un-cool. But isn’t that the way of the world?
T.I. Maybe we all need to practice a new way. If Republicans and Democrats can’t even discuss the issues productively, how can we expect, say, the Israelis and Palestinians—who have a much deeper, visceral situation to address—to arrive at a peace agreement? Or the various Iraqi factions to chisel out a viable government?

D.U. Right. So is there anything the average Jane or Joe can do, or are you just blowing hot air?
T.I. We all contribute to the climate of the country, so yes, there is plenty an average person can do. Consider your words, watch your tone. Present your ideas without blaming, put-downs or ridicule. Talk to individuals of a different political persuasion from you and uncover their underlying, after-peeling-away-the-layers concerns and hopes.

D.U. And then what? Don’t leave us suspended.
T.I. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found out their core values were about the same as yours—let me guess—they want security, freedom, fairness, respect and caring? Even if you disagree on how to manifest those values, at least you’ve discovered you’re both humans of the same species who can engage in a constructive conversation.

D.U. Well, thank you, Ms. Idrobo for speaking with me. Now, to our listeners, any dissension out there?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mining "Black Gold"

Because it’s spring and because I just gave a composting workshop on Sunday, I thought I’d write a post on composting.

There are so many benefits to composting, it should be on everyone’s To Do list. It’s enough that composting helps the earth—decreases garbage, reduces use of chemicals, conserves water—and that it brings the joy and satisfaction of being close to nature.

But what about the bottom line? Shh, let me let you in on a secret—that coveted finished compost isn’t called “black gold” for nothing! Compost is a natural, virtually free soil amendment for your garden or lawn. It enhances not only the fertility of your soil, but also its water retention and texture (makes clay soils more loose and sandy soils more substantial.)

Now here’s the clincher: Most towns pay by weight to have garbage hauled away. If more people composted kitchen scraps and yard waste, municipal budgets could save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our cities and towns need that kind of gold rush today, wouldn’t you agree?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Half of a Yellow Sun

Stories can sometimes help us grasp a complex situation more readily than reading dry facts.

With the tragic cycle of killings and reprisals in Nigeria in the news, I was reminded of the novel Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2006) The novel takes place in the 1960’s before and during the failed war of secession of the Igbo people of the eastern region of Nigeria. The story unravels through the eyes of three characters—Ugwu, a peasant houseboy working for a revolutionary Igbo professor; Olanna, the girlfriend of the professor; and Richard, an Englishman living in the country who falls in love with Olanna’s twin sister. Their lives are interrupted and their loyalties tested by the bloody three-year civil war.

The novel is not only a gripping story of love and betrayal, but it will also clue in foreigners to the complex history, ethnic make-up, and class differences of Nigeria. Through the personal stories of Adichie’s compelling characters, we see the roots and immediate causes of the violence, and how the lives of peasants, intellectuals and the elite alike were affected.

I know much has changed in the past fifty years, but still the novel provides some background to understand modern-day Nigeria. Most importantly it brings the human dimension to readers who sometimes are numbed from all the statistics of death and violence in the world today.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Intersection of Fiction-Writing and Social Change

Good Guys beat Bad Guys—thrilling, suspenseful, satisfying, right?

I enjoy an exciting story as much as the next person. However, as I read hundreds of bedtime stories/novels to my daughters when they were younger, I wished at least some stories featured just-as-gripping nonviolent tactics to save the day. Or explored the whole concept of “the Bad Guys” in all its complexity. Laudably, books on nonviolent social change abound in the nonfiction section. But on the fiction shelves they are as rare as a four-leaf clover.

At that same time, I was a volunteer state coordinator in the campaign for a U.S. Department of Peace (see http://www.thepeacealliance.org/ ) It was very inspiring work, and I loved it. Still I couldn’t help but notice that while I felt lucky to speak to 20 or 25 people about how to move toward a culture of peace, books and movies were easily drawing in thousands of people.

A light bulb went off—Why not get creative types to write novels and screenplays highlighting not-violent, win/win victories? Let people see, through story, how nonviolence works and how valuable it can be. Interestingly, I discovered many others had that same idea. Probably with the turmoil in the world today, we’re all seeing the need to train the spotlight on alternatives to violence.

There is an intriguing intersection of fiction-writing and social change activism. Of course, the road to publication is long and difficult, but it’s a trip worth taking. And there is a whole writing community to help along the way. Now that’s what I call good luck.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rethinking Enemy Images

A guy tries for ten minutes to merge onto a busy boulevard, cursing out the drivers that pass as ignorant and selfish. Finally someone gives him a break. Once on the road, he goes by several merges further on, also with long back-ups of cars waiting to get on. His friend suggests allowing in one of the cars. “Why should I let in any of those idiots?” he responds. “I’m in a hurry.”

It is just human nature to assess our own motives as reasonable and justified, and the motives of others as selfish, despicable, or even evil. This habit, while bad enough on the interpersonal level, can become deadly when practiced by groups or nations. Yet that mindset can be transformed by the simple act of getting to know the “enemy” or “other” and engaging in problem-solving.

I love stories that confront us with this truth. In the middle-grade novel Beyond the Dragon Portal (2005- Melissa Glenn Haber) Sadie travels to Dragonland to find her lost sister. Just when she thinks she understands this strange land and is fired up with anger against the enemy who is killing her dragon friends, she discovers that the truth about the Dragons’ war is much more complicated than she thought. I don’t want to give anything away, but this well-crafted story cleverly enables readers to get an insider’s view of the “enemy” and of war.

I am compiling a list of books that inspire readers to rethink enemy images. Let me know if you have any nominations!