Today is the last day of the group travel portion of the OG Middle East 2011 trip. From now on we split up and travel on our own for a week, after which we’ll get back together for one night for “disorientation”. I’ve been meaning for a while to write something about the group portion of our trip, specifically in terms of how it has engaged the political situation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how it has enabled and disabled discussion about controversial topics. In short, it has largely dealt with controversial topics by presenting them to the group in the form of meeting with locals to gain their perpectives, or by visiting museums and archeological sites, but then avoiding inner-group controversy by not discussing within the group how we feel/what we think about the controversial positions that have been presented to us. This aversion has been talked about and justified in terms of the language of “polarization”.
The idea of a statement or view being “polarizing” means that its manifestation is compromising to the group dynamic – that it encourages people to withdraw from group discussions and only speak with those they feel they agree with. It is a mistake, however, to simply call someone’s political opinion polarizing – what is polarizing is the expression of a view in a context where it makes people feel uncomfortable with engaging. The way to deal with difficult political issues and not be polarizing about it is to create safe group discussions where people can bring up strong views without being dismissed, and without making people feel defensive. However, during this trip such group situations have been few or far between, and where something of their semblance has appeared, strong views have been cached out not in terms of their content, but in terms of what they express about someone’s personal development – focussing on the speaker’s feelings and history rather than on the political content on which they are trying to focus and develop a perspective.
This emphasis on the subjective side of strong perspectives has been justified by the idea of a “perspective” that has dominated this trip and been strongly asserted by the trip leaders. This idea of perspective is: “everyone’s view is only their perspective, and implicitly no more or less valid than anyone else’s perspective”. Implicit in the valuation of perspectives is the idea that the source of the conflict here is clashing perspectives, and its solution can come about by mutual recognition between people holding different perspectives. The emphasis on getting as many perspectives as possible, rather than critically engaging a few perspectives that play dominant roles in the conflict is a political decision which was made by the leadership of the trip/OG, and is not a neutral political stance at all but one that could be criticized on many levels – the most obvious of which being the way it ignores the relations between perspectives and power, and another important one being the way the idea of “complexity” in this conflict supports inaction, the status quo, and thereby the existing dominant power structure.
Moreover, this method of treating perspectives as all equally valid is insulting to the idea of moral life in general. It is trivial to say of someone that their view is “their perspective”. It follows tautologically from the fact that a view is held by someone, that it is the perspective that this person takes. But it does not follow from the fact that a view is a perspective that a view is correct, incorrect or neither, or right, wrong or neither. For instance, it can be my view that two plus two is four, but the fact that it is my view contributes nothing to the truth value of the statement. Similarly, it can be my view that to kill civilians for political reasons when a non violent alternative was available is wrong – and the fact it is my view does not affect whether this view is morally right or wrong; it is possible to think that it would be right or wrong independently of me having a view about it.
My views about things in the world are views about content. They are my perspectives, but they look at a world that is not only my perspective – the world constantly recedes behind my perspective, and shows itself to me in ways that confirm or disconfirm it. For instance, I could be of the view that a coffee mug was completely white, but as it turns the other side is revealed to be black – the world, which initially receded beyond my perspective, reveals itself to me in a way that disconfirms my perspective, forcing me either to change my view or to denounce the contrary information and become pathologically attached to my initial view. The fact that perspectives can be challenged by content, or by other perspectives, is the atmosphere of moral life – and it is the reason it is not sufficient to simply assert that everything in a political situation is someone’s “perspective”, no more valid or invalid than others’.
The idea of a positive group dynamic is important – certainly for a group that wishes to spend an extended period of time living together in a conflict zone. But it is my belief that the lack of whole-group spaces for political discussion has been the primary cause of polarization within the group. It is not coherent to call people’s political perspectives polarizing – what is polarizing is when the manifestation of a perspective causes people to retreat only towards those they agree with. In a group, people can not be individually blamed for not manifesting strong political views at a group level, especially when they have been singled out and reprimanded for bringing up strong views at the group level on account of their “polarizing” effect. In such a situation, it is normal that more strongly worded political discussions will happen between those who share stronger views on the political situation here.
I believe that in our trip, the failure of the leadership to create safe space for political discussions at the whole group level has been largely overcome by the actions of participants, who especially over the second half of the trip. People have, to some extent, made an effort to talk to everyone about their perceptions of the situation here, although never in a formal whole-group discussion.
In the future, Operation Groundswell/Backpacking with a Purpose trips to conflict zones should not attempt to be a-political, because the lack of any shared values between the participants while can be advocated by the leaders creates a situation where the vacuum is filled by a neutral valuation of every perspective, which decidedly ignores power relations, justice, and the benefit to the oppressor of maintaining the status quo through declarations of the “complexity” of the situation. Instead, Operation Groundswell should develop a set of political values coherent with its founding principles which participants and leaders can share and use to understand and critically engage with politically charged travel situations.