Learning from people who I disagree with
Why talking with people whose views you hate can help you (and, maybe, them)
Befriending a would-be suicide bomber
I met Fadi on a dark, quiet residential street in Amman, Jordan, in December 2002.
He was being reckless; telling this stranger, this American, about his beliefs and his plans. He wanted to be a suicide bomber. He had done a fair bit of research and made some initial contacts with the men who could arrange his travel and equipment. He was deciding between his options: sneak over the border to Israel, wait for the Americans to invade Iraq and do it there, or he could travel to Kashmir or Chechnya. His words could get him arrested in Jordan. Worse, in those days after 9/11, he could have been renditioned to some prison somewhere.
I was being reckless, too. Talking to this quiet, thoughtful young man who wanted to kill me. Or, at least, people like me.
I learned so much from Fadi. I wrote about him in the New York Times Magazine and he and I have actually remained close. I just spoke to him last week. He long ago renounced plans to be a suicide bomber and leads the dull, if sweet, life of a middle-class professional with a family.
Back then, in those confusing days when the US had conquered one Muslim nation and was about to invade another, Fadi helped me understand the conflict with a depth and immediacy that none of my reading had provided. I spent a lot of time with him, learning why he so admired Osama bin Laden, why he found America so hateful, but also why he felt lonely and frustrated in a class-driven country where a poor, Palestinian kid with the wrong clothes, the wrong accent, couldn’t get ahead even if he were much smarter and harder working than the taller, slicker kids of the rich people who lived higher up in the hills.
I certainly never adopted any of his views or felt that I was encouraging him. By talking with him, I was simply better understanding one of the key geopolitical conflicts of that time. I also felt that I was enriching my own life by better understanding a kind of person whose beliefs were despicable. In that case, I actually really liked Fadi and was overjoyed to watch him mature over the coming years. He is still a devout Muslim, he still holds views I don’t share, but our friendship is deep and long and mutually beneficial. Years later, with some fear, I told him that I had kept something secret from him. I’m not only American, but I am also Jewish, and my mother is from Israel. He was horrified—not at my background but that I had felt too afraid to tell him earlier.
A few months after meeting Fadi, I moved to Baghdad, arriving just as the US took over, and stayed a year. I spent much of that time standing on street corners or sitting on divans while drinking tea, talking to other people who believed things I found horrific. One man calmly explained how wonderful a leader Hitler had been and how great it would be if more were like him. Countless people explained how 9/11 was a Jewish hoax. Others just explained how things work in Iraq. I became especially interested in the tribal system. I sat with sheikhs who explained the tribal rules about handling wrongful death. The rules are strict but humane. If a member of one tribe kills the member of another, the leaders of both tribes gather and negotiate a settlement. It takes hours of discussion. But the price isn’t typically high—about $1,000—and the two tribes move on. If a tribe refuses to negotiate, though, then there is bloodshed. The injured tribe is mandated to kill at least four members of the offending tribe. It’s an ancient system that is generally quite successful at ending cycles of violence. But the American military took embarrassingly long to figure this out. Many estimate that at least a third of Americans killed in Iraq in that first year—and maybe far more—were not killed by “insurgents” but by tribal members duty-bound to avenge the death of a cousin killed by the Americans. A simple meeting and some cash could have prevented those revenge killings.
One of my greatest joys as a journalist was meeting people wildly unlike me and learning how they think. In some cases, such as Fadi, I came to truly care for these people. With many others, I found that the more I learned, the more I despised the people. I sat with many Ba’athists, for example, who had acquired and abused power in the old system and were, now, desperate to hold on to their positions. I found most of them to be weak and unpleasant characters. But engaging with them, and learning how they think, was always helpful.
So why not now?
For the past six years, I haven’t been able to have these conversations here, in the US. I have lost whatever it is that allowed me to temporarily suspend—or, at least, temper—my judgment so that I could speak with people whose beliefs were abhorrent.
I haven’t been able to talk with Trump supporters. Even more, I find myself incapable of discussing a host of other issues: cancel culture (I am certain it’s a fake issue; a moral panic), trans rights (I’m for them!), systemic racism (I think it’s real and obvious), white privilege (same), and a mess of other issues that seem to divide us.
In the few cases where I did try to engage someone whose views of, say, cancel culture are different than mine, I’ve found it goes nowhere. I can’t stop telling them they are wrong. They can’t stop doing the same to me. I don’t feel my understanding of the world expanding. On the contrary, I find these conversations—even ones with people I know and like quite a bit—to leave me feeling more closed off, more certain of my rightness, more furious at their self-serving myopia.
More often, I just fully dismiss these jackasses. I have developed profound hatred of a whole bunch of people on Twitter who I have never met; I know that a lot of people hate me.
It is, perhaps, strange that I could easily chat with folks who actively want to kill me and everyone like me, but I am incapable of talking to someone who is nearly the same as I am in every respect save our views of “wokeness.”
But of course, it’s that way. Of course, we can engage folks from another culture much more easily than we can our neighbors. As an old religion professor used to say: a Hasidic Jew has little to say about a Buddhist monk but can tell you 1,000 ways that the Hasid next door is violating everything decent.
Shall we at least try?
So, I’m going to try. I’m going to try to talk—and write—with people I think are wrong. I’m going to try to challenge myself to lay out my views clearly and hope others understand them. I will try to understand the views I don’t agree with.
I am going to have to practice a mantra: understanding doesn’t mean agreeing understanding doesn’t mean agreeing understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. But understanding is good in itself. It’s helpful. It’s also interesting.
I’m sure, on some topics, I will find my views sway a bit, but I am not engaging this project with the goal of fundamentally challenging my own beliefs (if that happens, fine). My goals are both more modest and more radical: I want to see if I can find a better way to live in a world with people whose views I find distressing. Frankly, I’d rather not do this. I’d rather all the people I disagree with suddenly realize I am right and they are wrong. But that’s not going to happen. So, I’ll try this.
My first conversation will be a series of letters with Michael Moynihan about a basic question that undergirds so much of our current crisis: Do Trump and the GOP represent a mortal threat to America and the world. I think the answer is a clear yes. He is no Trump supporter, he won’t be arguing that Trump is good. But he will argue (I think, it’s up to him) that Trump and Trumpism will pass and America will be fine.
That’s coming soon.
I'm always fascinated by good, honest dialogue between people -- thanks for doing this!
Godspeed in this venture. So many of us loathe the current polarization and crave something messier and more real. Looking forward to reading more!