Opinion

The importance of dialogue, empathy

On Sept. 21, a close friend invited me to participate in a TalkIsrael dialogue event co-sponsored by Hillel, Muslim Students at the University of Miami (MSUM), Jews and Muslims (JAM), the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the I-Team. While I was intrigued by the event, I did not expect anything significant to occur there. After all, what could possibly be accomplished under a simple white tent on the Green?

I saw food, chairs, tables and a surprisingly large crowd of twenty people under the canvas. My good friends, Rabbis Robyn Fisher and Baruch Plotkin from Hillel, greeted me. After a brief exchange with them, I worked my way through the group to hug Sarah Hartnig. A hardworking diplomatic and outstanding person, Hartnig helped organize and promote the event. She is the Jewish president of JAM and was the sole reason why I was there. I also met the president of MSUM and the Muslim side of JAM, Fahim Adnan.  A creative and open-minded man, he contributed greatly to the set-up and dialogue of the event. My honorable friend Roiy Frenkel, an Israeli military veteran and student fellow at Hillel, was also present. He helped construct the tent and move the furniture to the Green. People of all faiths and nations of origin joined us in peaceful discourse about the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict that has consumed the world for millennia. By 2 p.m. (when I arrived), half of the discussion had already ended. What was left for me, though, was better than I had imagined.

I joined friends and strangers alike around a table, where we talked about diagrams. Each one depicted an abstract outline of the nation of Israel. As an exercise, we gave those pictures deep, personal meaning and then used them to answer questions about our perspectives of the Israel-Palestine question. The leader of the I-Team moderated the discussion. When asked about the media’s influence on the war, I referred to a sketch of a volcano. Someone else referred to a picture of a knife slicing through what appeared to be bread. To my surprise, everyone let me finish my thoughts. Everyone involved, regardless of creed or philosophy or agreement, demonstrated respect for the ideas of others.

TalkIsrael surprised me with its conclusion. Following a spectacular performance by the Hammond Scholars Choir, the peaceful discussion had evolved into a question-and-answer panel. Seven students — Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and American — answered our questions and shared the wisdom of their experiences with us.

This interfaith gathering reinforced the importance of dialogue and empathy in human relations to me. All of these great people united under a simple tent to teach me the lesson that great wisdom comes from patience, observation, and actively listening to others. By paying attention we can grow individually and with others. The University of Miami exposes us to incredible diversity — ethnic, religious and experiential. It’s foolish to discount the identities of others when discussing conflicts. However, we must balance the negative aspects of labels so we can move forward with issues at hand. Only by listening to those involved can we fully perceive and solve society’s problems.

Andrew Blitman is a senior majoring in marine affairs and biology.

October 2, 2011

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Andrew Blitman

Science Columnist


4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The importance of dialogue, empathy”

  1. Andrew says:

    The Christians talk of their sins being absolved by their prophet through the Bible, too, but sin is only a superficial problem of humanity. The deeper problems lie in ignorance and hatred, which are in my opinion the greatest underlying sins of all. There is a place for inner conscience and empathy, especially in Buddhism, Jainism, and parts of the Torah. And if it takes introspection to mold yourself into a moral person that does not intentionally infringe on the rights of others, then by all means it cannot be sacrilege unless the word sacrilege itself is morally sacrilegious in that context.

  2. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.
    http://Facebook.com/EmpathyCenter

  3. Arafat says:

    Speaking of Robert Reilly and Greek tragedy…
    Reilly says there is no word for conscience in the Arabic. That meshes seamlessly with this canonical hadith:
    Volume 8, Book 73, Number 95:
    Narrated Abu Huraira:
    I heard Allah’s Apostle saying. “All the sins of my followers will be forgiven except those of the Mujahirin (those who commit a sin openly or disclose their sins to the people). An example of such disclosure is that a person commits a sin at night and though Allah screens it from the public, then he [the sinner] comes in the morning, and says, ‘O so-and-so, I did such-and-such (evil) deed yesterday,’ though he spent his night screened by his Lord (none knowing about his sin) and in the morning he removes Allah’s screen from himself.”
    Notice how close the above hadith comes to saying that God will forgive Muslims any sin, provided they can get away with it. Notice how in this hadith, inner conscience does not matter; what matters is the honor or shame of appearances.
    Robert Spencer once referred to an honor/shame culture in which “the appearance of virtue is much more important than virtue itself.”
    Meanwhile, in the Greek tragedies, as one moves from Aeschylus, to Sophocles, to Euripides, isn’t it true that one can actually observe in the tragedies the birth of conscience in human consciousness? If I recall correctly, in Aeschylus, the earliest great tragedian, guilty people are pursued by furies, outer spiritual beings. But gradually, as we come to Sophocles’ plays, and then to Euripides’, the furies move within the soul. The furies, real spiritual beings once experienced in nature, have gradually slipped inside, and now harry from within. The inner conscience has emerged! The evolution of consciousness, visible before our eyes.
    I suspect we were all pagans once, and nature was more enchanted than many of us suspect. The early Greeks perhaps did experience spirits in nature. But that had to end, or at least go into long hiatus, for the sake of the emergence of the autonomous, responsible, individual, inspired by the I Am. As thought emerged in ancient Greece, and the gods and spirits began to withdraw to a distance, human beings were left free, insofar as the emptiness, the relative vacuity, of thought, does not impose any immediate action. The voices of gods do impose action of one sort or another. But thought carves a relative vacuum into the soul, which is thus liberated from the animal’s primordial, mystic, unconscious participation in nature and the divine. Then, into the empty space prepared by the ancient Greeks (and by earlier peoples who developed earlier stages of the evolution of consciousness) descended the divine I Am, the divine representative of humanity. The true ego emerged from its latency, a newborn, with a long vista ahead of transformation and development. Augustine’s Confessions, in reaching for the inner boundaries of the “I”, anticipated by more than a thousand years Descartes’ somewhat analogous systematic doubt, his “I think, therefore I am.” And with Goethe, a new form of participation begins to emerge, but now at a higher turn of the spiral, now conscious, individualized, potentially in tune with the I Am. That seems to be the long vista before us.
    But back to Reilly and the Closing of the Muslim Mind. In pointing out that there is no real word for conscience in Arabic, Reilly is developing his exposition of Islamic theology, post-Mutazalite, and how that theology allows little or no sway to the development of philosophy, reason, human freedom or inner conscience. Allah is a being of such absolute omnipotence, such pure will, that, like a despot, who obeys only himself, Allah is above every law. But Allah goes even farther, because not only is he subject to no law, whether moral or logical; all such “laws”, in Islam, if they exist at all, exist only as an arbitrary expression of Allah’s moment-by-moment whim, which could turn those “laws” upside down at any moment. Because of Allah’s divine despotism, it is considered sacrilege to decide for oneself on moral questions, to consult one’s own conscience. One is obliged to submit to Allah’s will in the Qur’an and to the example of Muhammad.
    Islam tells us that whatever the Qur’an says to do is moral, merely because the Qur’an says it, not because it conforms to an objective or independent moral reality of some kind. Allah is the only independent reality, and Allah is not obliged to be consistent, to be “moral” or not. The things the Qur’an commands you to do are not commanded because they are moral. They are defined as moral because the Qur’an commands them. In that sense, the Qur’an and Allah are beyond good and evil. And the individual’s independent, inner conscience has no place, except to submit to the Qur’an and Muhammad.

  4. I think the primary tool is empathetic, respectful dialogue that explores the conflict.

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