July 4, 2010

The Challenge of Hearing the Opposition

Last week, I had the privilege of guest lecturing about the uses of narrative for defense professionals at the National Defense University.  It was a terrific experience all around—the students were impressively willing to think and talk about storytelling, which isn’t exactly a traditional part of a military education.

I was eager to have the students work with material that reflects their real world, and thought a 2009 interview with an Afghan member of parliament telling the story of civilians killed by American bombing in her province would be of great interest. And so it was.

In my own eagerness to bring the content of the video into the classroom, I hadn’t made much of the fact that the interview had been conducted and released by CODEPINK, a women’s anti-war group. Not so the class. After the class, a couple of participants made it clear they disapproved of my video choice.

I’ve pondered this complaint a lot this week. If the students hadn’t known the source of the video, or if it had come from a mainstream news source, they would have easily engaged with the story told by Dr. Roshnak. But it wasn’t—it came from a group that directly opposes the war in Afghanistan, and by extension, the mission to which these students are all committed.  As a sign of respect, should I take the video out of future seminars and show something from a more amenable source?

After much thought, I’ve decided not to replace the video, at least, not because it was made by CODEPINK.  I’d rather try to get future classes to engage with the challenge it offers us: to listen to stories even when we distrust or dislike their source, or their teller, or feel that they distrust or dislike us.  Everyone in the class agreed that stories Afghans tell about their experiences must be taken into account by the United States.  Yet it was clearly difficult to get to a point where listening could take place non-judgmentally, the only point from which cool-headed decision-making can take place.  And not for lack of trying—these are smart, thoughtful, committed people.

In future classes, I’ll point out the CODEPINK origins from the outset, as a segue to talking about how our own predispositions can prevent us hearing stories that we need to hear. I hope will get us further down the road toward hearing what the people of Afghanistan have to say about themselves and their country.

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