Monday, April 4, 2011

Facts, Controversies, and Change of Mind – Part 1

by Miki Kashtan

In response to my blog piece In Appreciation of Complexity, I received 6 comments on this blog and 5 on the Tikkun blog where I am cross-posted. I read them all with great curiosity and interest. I am grateful to everyone who wrote back. I have no capacity to explain to myself, let alone others, why one comment caught my eye enough to want to respond.

Here’s the original comment from Susan B. posted on March 6th:

“Well, no, actually, those arguing against the Goldstone report are not asking for recognition of millennia of suffering.

Rather, they are objecting to the gross mis-statements of fact, which have been pointed out in various other documents, including reports and information that were available to the Goldstone commission before their report was published.

There have been many things written about the many factual errors and omissions in the Goldstone report, which led to incorrect conclusions, as well as their apparent misunderstanding of international law in regard to what is or is not a war crime.

So, maybe he was brave to take the job, but the problem is that he botched it badly.”

Given the focus of my work, which is much more on how we hear each other, how we come together across differences, how we learn to hold everyone with care, I am not planning to get into the actual content of the Goldstone report and what critics have said.

Even without the specific focus of my work, I wouldn’t likely get into the details, because I see so much complexity in how facts figure in major controversial issues. This is what I do want to write about. I hope that Susan finds some understanding in what I say below.

What Counts as Facts?
I am far from the first person to point out that more often than not controversies are so difficult to even talk about because part of what’s being disputed is reality itself. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, here are some perennially unresolved questions of fact:

  • What really happened in 1948? There are at least two stories, and they clash. I am not going to spell them out here, because the references are ubiquitous and the details are complex on both ends.
  • Who is victim and who is oppressor? Here I am familiar with at least three stories:
    • Tiny Israel is fighting for its capacity to exist against a largely hostile vast Arab world backed up by an even larger Islamic population.
    • Palestinians were kicked off their land by Zionist imperialist colonizers backed up by world superpowers.
    • Two peoples live on the land, both with painful histories, and they are struggling over a piece of land without seeing each other’s humanity.
  • Who is ready for peace? Here the stories are endless:
    • Neither side is ready. There will never be peace, and they will drag the world down with their obstinacy.
    • Palestinians are ready and have been willing to compromise so much and can’t go any further when Israel is totally entrenched in maintaining the status quo and unwilling to negotiate.
    • Israel has been waiting for decades for a partner, and there is really no one who wants to talk about peace, because in reality all they want is to eliminate the state of Israel.
    • No side will come to the table until they are forced, and it’s never too early to impose a solution.
    • Given the challenges both parties face, better options are necessary to make dialogue palatable. When the invitation is authentic, when good facilitation is available, and when they can be fully heard, peace will flourish.

And the list goes on.

The lesson for me here is that what counts as fact is always within a particular frame of reference. Our notions and wishes color what we see. And so it doesn’t surprise me that people completely disagree about the Goldstone Report on the factual level.

I plan to post the 2nd part of this post tomorrow, addressing two more questions about the role of facts in controversial issues. One is about whether facts can settle a controversy, and the other is about whether facts lead to change of minds.