Welcome to our first guest post! Today we welcome Jonathan Waldroup, a first-year M.A. student in the International Politics program. Affectionately known as J-Drop, Jonathan likes international relations theory. A lot. Read more from him at his blog!
The media over the last week or two has been saturated with the saga of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood. The bulk of the media coverage was extremely negative toward Komen, while some like Ross Douthat of the NY Times presented a different view of the events. A quick hop on Facebook revealed exactly the same split, even among fellow SIS students. The traditional gap between the parties was reinforced by internet recollections from 2011, when Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart skewered Senator Jon Kyl after his statement on Planned Parenthood that was “not intended to be a factual statement.” (It should be noted, of course, that equally ridiculous quotes often come from the other side of the aisle – Politifact.com has plenty of fodder for both sides.)
Political rifts are just as apparent in the international arena, where we at SIS spend the majority of our time. Bring up Israel in any class at SIS and you will find at least some people with scathing views, unable to control their rage at the vast human rights abuses committed against the Palestinians. In the same room you will also find some who argue just as vociferously that Israel is a victim, surrounded by malevolent neighbors who would like nothing more than for Israel to drown in the Mediterranean, thus justifying every Israeli military act as self-defense. Views on the US are equally divergent. Those with post-modern, post-structural, or post-anything inclinations like to portray the US as a colonial power, unjustly imperializing the world, both overtly through forceful occupation and covertly through the power of discourse. To others, the US is the saving grace of the world, a glimmer of light and hope that must be spread to all corners of the earth, the provider of salvation to all the world’s lost.
We will never escape these conflicts in perspective, and they often serve positive purposes in encouraging debate. However, they also reveal two problems. The first problem is that we all exhibit biases. We come from unique backgrounds, have studied certain topics from particular angles, and constantly are burdened by moral, philosophical, and emotional baggage that mentally directs us along worn and comfortable paths. Breaking out of these biases is not easy and requires frequent interaction with those who think in completely different ways. Grad school is, of course, the perfect setting for such interaction – however, it is not uncommon to leave controversial debates in grad school having heard nothing the other side has said.
Such biases are detrimental because for all controversial issues, truth is almost always found on both sides of the debate. Israel does have a legitimate security problem, but it has also committed human rights violations. The US has forcefully subjugated countries and people-groups, both internally and abroad, but it has also done good in the world (PEPFAR, the Marshall Plan, and US leadership of the coalition to intervene in Libya, in my opinion, are all positives). It is easy to think in terms of black and white, Democrat and Republican (i.e., reverting to what we are used to), but in politics, perhaps even more than in other areas of life, nearly everything is gray.
The solution to this, in my opinion, should be a rejection of the typical dichotomies and an embrace of the reality that no one school of thought has a monopoly on truth. For me, postmodern thought is both new and very revealing. It has brought entirely novel ways of thinking about the world into my field of view, and I think it offers some terrific insights into the relationship between power and discourse. But as much as I like some aspects of postmodernism, I cannot accept that all truth is subjective. For instance, postmodernists will say that development is nothing more than a new discourse to be used for controlling developing countries, that the state of the poor around the world is merely subjective. But I cannot accept that discourse causes malaria or AIDS. No – people die of AIDS because it is objectively real, not because of subjective neocolonial domination. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some aspect of truth to the idea that development and all its practices are just neocolonialism by another name. Indeed, much development work has caused more harm than good for the poor while simultaneously enriching the “donors.”
I would propose that, as in many areas of life, the answer lies in moderation. Moderation recognizes that (1) we are inclined to accept information that fits what we already believe, and this may lead to rejection of the truth; (2) there are no sweeping answers, and no one stream of thought appropriately addresses every issue in the world; and (3) as a result, we as students of international politics ought to search for truth everywhere, accepting it even if it comes from unexpected sources. Even further, we ought to be looking for answers that are the “truest,” because often, the degree of truth in a statement depends on the question you’re asking. Some things are definitely true – my name is Jonathan, I like classical music, etc. But sometimes one truth can be truer than another. When talking about modern persecution of Christians, for example, I have heard many say that more Christians are killed today for their faith than in most other periods of history. This is true in terms of raw numbers. But it is also true that fewer Christians are killed today for their faith as a percentage of all Christians than in most other periods of history. The only reason the first statement is true is because there are so many Christians in the world today, so even a small percentage of deaths is enormous in terms of individuals. But depending on your angle—aggregate suffering of individuals versus trends in religious tolerance—one statement will be “truer” than the other.
Many of us came to SIS because we wanted to make the world a better place, and we thought SIS would help prepare us to pursue that goal. I certainly think it can, but to a large extent, what we make of SIS will be up to us. I believe that if we cultivate the willingness to consider the views of those we disagree with and a tendency to accept the “truest” reality, then we will indeed be able to change the world for the better.
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