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Know your neighbor

August 11, 2008

My friend David just got back from Israel and Palestine, where he participated in a two week program to gain perspective from all sides of the physical and ideological conflict there. He’s begun blogging about it, including a new post called “Who is my neighbor?” which is up now. In it, David remarks on the fact that most Israelis don’t personally know any Palestinians and vice-versa, a fact that shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. I’ve long believed that most (if not all) of the world’s problems stem from ignorance–hatred of the Other, which is the primary literary theme I work with, exists because of ignorance of the Other. Homophobes are unlikely to have gay friends, and I think this is a cause rather than an effect. Likewise, the people who talk about Muslims or terrorists (and to a depressing number of Americans, those words are synonyms) as a “transcendent evil,” to quote the increasingly terrifying John McCain, are unlikely to have personal experience of Islam (this is unfortunately untrue of John McMCain, who can’t claim ignorance as justification for the barrage of irresponsible statements and policies he’s been launching on the American public).

Our biggest challenge, perhaps second only to religious fundamentalism (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and any other flavor you want to add), is insularity. You see it in anti-immigrant rhetoric, in hate speech of all kinds, and you also see it in what appear on the surface to be positive expressions of national, religious, or ethnic pride. It’s most obvious recently in the tide of folks who still recite easily disproven rumors of Barack Obama’s being a Muslim as a reason not to vote for him. The idea is so ludicrous that very few people ask the additional question: what would it matter if he was? David gave me a bumper sticker when I saw him last that challenges these sorts of nationalistic insularities: God bless the people of every nation.

This is, incidentally, the reason I teach literature. Short of travel, which I feel is extremely important to understanding our place in the world, literature is the surest way to walk in the shoes of our neighbors. Ian McEwan said that “imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” He’s absolutely right. We are only as good as we are empathetic. And when our empathy stops with those who have the same god or skin color or sexual preferences, then we’ve got a long way to go.

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