One of the greatest gifts I’ve derived from being a journalist has been to repeatedly face situations in which what seemed obvious to me made no sense to someone else. This helped me understand that's it's an enormously complicated world that requires empathy toward others to comprehend it at any depth.
This can happen when you're fortunate enough to mix with people who have a world view that’s quite different than your own. You learn that preconceived notions about “the facts” of a story can be a barrier to grokking the heart of the story.
Crux, the online Roman Catholic journal, reminded me of this last week via a series of stories it published about besieged Christian villages in the Lebanese-Syrian border region.
That's a pretty tough neighborhood. In such places, simple survival -- particularly for religious and ethnic minorities -- can mean assuming positions that seem morally unthinkable for those of us fortunate enough to live in far gentler environs.
Take the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example. Who of us thinks him to be anything less than a brutal murderer with little -- “none” might be the better word -- regard for anything but his own survival? Who of us would be willing to live under his leadership?
As part of the series, Crux editor John L. Allen, Jr., in a piece labeled analysis, wrote that what seems apparent about Assad to most of us in the West holds little sway for Christians living in Lebanon and Syrian. His piece ran under the following headline: “Meeting Middle East Christians is where Western stereotypes go to die.”
Here’s an extract from Allen’s essay. It’s a bit longish but key. (The entire Crux series can be accessed via this link.)
For most Western nations, it’s a foreign policy a priori that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is a bad actor, a thug and a bully who’s gassed his own people, suppressed dissent, and cozied up to Iran and Russia to preserve his grip on power.
The cardinal principle of much Western thinking about Syria, therefore, is that whatever future the country may have, it can’t involve Assad, and Western nations won’t get fully behind Syria until he’s gone.
That’s not at all, however, the thinking of most Christians here, who don’t see Assad as the alternative to a thriving democracy. Instead, they see him as the alternative to chaos, meaning a takeover by ISIS or some other form of Islamic extremism. In that equation, Assad looms, by some order of magnitude, as the lesser of two evils.
Antoun Fadel, for instance, is a lifelong resident of the Catholic village of El-Kaa, located in northern Lebanon near the border with Syria. He’s under no illusions about the benevolence of the Assad dynasty, since his village was where Syrian forces under Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, poured into the country in 1976, triggering an occupation that didn’t end until 2005.
Yet Fadel said he’s got lots of Christian friends in Syria, and talks with them on a regular basis, in addition to the Syrian Christian refugees he’s come to know - almost 1,500 of them, in a village whose population before was just 2,500.
I asked him, if there were a completely free and democratic election in Syria, what percentage of the Christians he thought would vote for Assad. He answered immediately, “100 percent.” I pressed, asking, “Really? Are you completely sure?”
Fadel hesitated, thought for a minute, and then replied, “Well, okay, maybe 99.9 percent.”
Let me be clear. In no way am I defending the likes of Assad or other cruel autocrats who care only about themselves. Nor am I saying that the United States should utterly withdraw from seeking to bend international norms toward such Western values as political democracy and social equality -- this despite growing questions about the quality of our own nation's commitment to such values.
My intent here is only to remind GetReligion readers, and journalists in general, that people in extraordinarily difficult living conditions sometimes choose to go along with leaders the privileged rest of us find utterly repellent. They are forced to accept the lesser of two enemies.
This understanding has tremendous implications in the foreign policy arena. For much of my adult life I've watched successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican, seek to impose Western values in nations where they are alien concepts and life is far more tenuous. And where failure carries deadly consequences.
Some examples: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt.
Yes, individuals want to have a say in how their nation is run. But it does not necessarily follow that they also want a level playing field for all, which creates the fearful possibility for them that opposing factions might gain an equal shot at political or economic dominance.
For many -- particularly those living in violence-prone regions, such as the Middle East, where minority groups are often at the mercy of brutal overlords -- such Western optimism is an unaffordable luxury.
Yeah, it's tough to just sit back and watch one ethnic or religious group obliterate another. It's difficult not to want to help a group such as the Iraqi Yazidis. Its even more difficult when the group getting kicked around is one you identity with because of your own ethnic or religious ties.
Again, I'm not saying that Western, or more precisely American, interference in difficult foreign situations is always to be avoided. Only that it be done with a lot more forethought and less political grandstanding.
Here’s how Allen put it.
… Perhaps the moral of the story is this: Before drawing hard and fast policy conclusions about the Middle East, Western governments and activists might want to talk to the people who actually live here, to see how issues play out in their experience and draw on their up-close-and-personal perspective.
Doing so might point the way to somewhat different Western strategies for the region, which is probably long overdue -- if, that is, we accept the maxim that one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
The same holds true for journalists. We fail our readers and sources if our reporting holds fast to our preconceptions about right and wrong.
Not that giving them up will necessarily ease global problems or assuage our guilt or frustration over having to live in a terrifyingly imperfect world. But that's not journalists’ goal.
Our task is only to gain as much insight as we can into why situations are as confusing as they are. Empathy gained through on-site reporting makes this easier.