By Kirk Johnson
Advisor, Right to Peace
The Network Secretariat
Recently, I was disturbed by a comment from a friend who remarked that all Muslims are clearly in a war to destroy Christians since no Muslims are speaking out against the increasing amount of terrorist attacks. This perception of inter-religious conflict seems to be growing among individuals of Muslim and Christian faiths. There are in fact many Muslims speaking out about terrorism, preventing terrorist attacks and suffering because of terrorism. This us vs them perception shown by the comment of my friend is not a new phenomenon but simply another example of conflict caused by a lack of information. Similar to the art of photography, forming one’s opinion depends on focus area and information exposure.
Conflict theory holds that people often divide themselves into social groups during times of conflict and emphasize a social group identity over their national or human identity. For example, when resources are scarce in a country people divide into smaller groups to contend for them. This also affects us by restricting the information we ingest. Locked into their group identity, individuals refuse to listen to any positive information about others not a part of their group. Even being aware of this human tendency does not keep individuals from falling into this trap.
Religion, in particular, is one of the most powerful social identities as many consider it to be the highest authority in their lives. While other social identities such as culture, ethnicity and homeland refer to ways of life, religion touches on spiritual issues that transcend daily life and ways of living. This is difficult to understand for individuals who are not spiritual but it is worth reflection because of religion’s power to incite individuals to action. Let us remember to emphasize our identity of humans and world citizens above all other identities in order to open ourselves to information and points of view from disparate cultural, ethnic and religious groups.
The media we expose ourselves to also has an effect on our perception of conflict. Dominant western media tends to sensationalize stories because this brings significant attention increasing readership and sales of their magazines and articles. Unfortunately news stories often tend to focus on one particular view of an incident, interview individuals from similar backgrounds to their readers and report biased statistics in favor of their points of view. This is a human tendency to focus on one version of the story and promote a simplified, single-minded understanding of the issues involved. In this day and age there are so many English language news services are available on the internet from many countries such as Al Jazeera, Russia Today and China Daily just to name a few. Even if we are surrounded by information from the same point of view we need not restrict ourselves to such a narrow point of view from relatively few sources when broadband internet is so widely accessible.
Lastly and related to the previous point, there is a tendency of forming opinions based on very little information. As soon as we form an opinion we restrict the data to which we expose ourselves. We stop listening to others and gathering information about the subject. It’s difficult to admit ignorance or that we don’t have enough information on a topic to have an opinion. The world is full of people who want to form our opinion for us: politicians, talk show hosts, your neighbor or coworker…all try to convince you that their point of view is correct. May we all have the courage to listen and ask questions and actively search for information before forming an opinion, especially on issues of deep emotional significance that translate into physical and political actions towards others.
As a final point, our opinions we form are affected by our focus. You may be familiar with the saying, “separating the forest from the trees…” Many judgements on smaller scale may seem to be suitable and just but are these opinions applicable on a wider scale? Solutions to some problems on the local level cannot be scaled to a regional or national level. Viewed in another way, we may decide that a picture we take of a forest meadow shows beautiful, healthy nature but hidden from view in the grass may be signs of pollution and decay. So our initial impression based on the picture would be incorrect just as our judgements and opinions must fit the context.
The world we live in is increasing complicated and global. We are constantly bombarded by information and opinions and required to make decisions based on our judgements. There is not always time to gather more information and listen to many opinions before making a decision but when a decision is not required immediately let us make every effort to gain as much information as possible before forming an opinion or taking an action. Let us strive to gain enough exposure to information and the proper focus to develop our picture of the world around us to a clearer, most accurate view suitable to our purposes.