This month marks the first anniversary of Arlene’s blog. In one of my first posts, I wrote about a consulting project I was doing with Global Kids’ Newz Crew Project, which involves high school-age kids in online dialogues about global issues. As I am a certifiable fogey, this project also gives me a chance to dip into whatever the young folks are saying and doing. When they want to acknowledge respect for each other, they say it this way: “I give you mad props for that, my friend.” (For my fellow fogeys, “mad” refers to amplitude — much, plenty, very — and “props” in this context means proper respect: “mad props” equals “you’ve earned much respect.”)
To evaluate the project, I’m in the midst of conducting telephone interviews with young people across the country who’ve participated in online discussions. The most popular have dealt with issues of personal morality such as abortion, drugs and same-sex marriage. But they also got into the election, the war in Iraq, and core belief questions, such as “creationism vs. evolution.” One thing I’ve been asking the kids I’m interviewing is whether their own views have been changed by the online debates and conversely, whether they’ve influenced others: in other words, do they perceive most people as simply restating the position they already hold, or do they see positions changing?
From what they’ve told me thus far and what I see from reading their posts, with few exceptions, participants in the online discussion groups come in knowing what they think and hold that position. This is interesting to think about, because it seems easy to generalize to our big national debates: people don’t seem much influenced by each other’s arguments, which often become a repetition of fixed positions.
But here’s something encouraging: several interviewees told me they had been influenced not in the content of their beliefs but in their ideas about matters of opinion. “I’m less attached to my own point of view now,” one kid said, “because I see that there are different ways to look at things — not just one right way and a lot of idiots.”
It seems to me we often see our dilemmas in those terms: how the one right way can triumph over lot of idiots. When we understand our task as convincing idiots to see right, it’s an uphill battle. I’m not an ultimate relativist myself; the way I see it, some views are definitely beyond the pale. But I want to give mad props to one group that’s defining the task as crafting The Tent of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah, a container that can hold the differences of people of goodwill without splitting apart. The project was initiated by The Shalom Center, headed by my friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, to bring Muslims, Christians and Jews together for action through public engagement rooted in spiritual sharing, now focusing toward the month of October, which features a convergence of Ramadan, the Jewish High Holy Days and Christian Saints’ Days and other commemorations. (Although the focus is on the faiths that share Abraham as a prophet, there are ideas for involving Buddhists and Hindus too.)
I’m one of more than a hundred Jewish signers (joining signatories from Christian and Muslim faiths) of their declaration entitled “God’s October Surprise,” exhorting Americans to unite “From sunrise to sunset on the day that for Muslims is one of the fast days of Ramadan and for Jews is the fast day of Yom Kippur — October 13 — we call for all Americans to observe a Nationwide Fast for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal. We encourage those who join in this Fast to take visible steps in the world to Seek Peace Feed the Poor, Heal the Earth.”
The other encouraging thing I am learning from the Newz Crew participants is how their relationships change when they come to know each other as individuals. Intractable debates broke out in several of the online groups, with kids taking hard-line polar-opposite positions on heated issues. These sometimes degraded into personal insults requiring the project’s monitors to intervene and reassert the rules of decorum. In speaking with some of the combatants, I’m discovering that their intense argumentative engagement had made them want to connect outside the group. Several kids who never agreed about anything in the discussion groups found clever ways to circumvent the rules and get each other’s personal email addresses to continue one-to-one conversations via email and instant messaging. There they discovered they liked each other as people.
“When you know someone just on issues,” one boy told me, “it’s easier to make them not human, not to think about them as a person. But now that I know [his antagonist] better, I can’t call him an idiot anymore.” He pointed out that the online discussions contain many threads that have nothing to do with global issues — favorite music, relationships, etc. — “because that’s a community thing, people have to get to know each other.”
Mad props, therefore, to my friend Rabbi Phyllis Berman, who authored a piece on the Tent of Abraham site on “How to Raise a Loving Tent of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah.” Phyllis wisely counsels exactly the same approach as my young friend, focusing as much on getting to know each other as humans as on exchanging views. “Getting to know one anothers’ hearts did not prevent us from accomplishing our task,” she wrote. “If anything, it deepened our resolve to complete the task because we had come to care about one another, we had personalized the faces of the other, even in the short time we were together.”
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