Few people really enjoy conflict. That’s one argument for peace. Yet, retreat from tough issues rarely solves a problem, especially when a topic like “fake news” has many people questioning the validity of news sources generally, especially when some leaders are so quick to challenge reports with which they disagree. Instead, there is everything to gain from knowing how to face problems, handle the attendant emotions and explore possible solutions. Long-time advocate of a culture of care, Nel Noddings (2003) encourages us to develop these abilities. “If we value critical thinking, if we commit ourselves to encouraging it, then we must allow it to be exercised on critical matters. . . If we really believe that knowledge and critical thinking contribute to living fuller public and private lives, then we must allow the study and discussion of such critical and controversial issues” (148).
Discovery learning is a well-studied approach that provides a framework for exploration, helping people identify a problem, consider various approaches, test their ideas and decide on a way forward. Everyone can do that on a particular issue, seeking out a range of reactions and interpretations, evaluating each for its authenticity, before making a final decision. Yet, success with discovery also requires that we learn how to manage the time we have for this kind of assessment. We also have to discipline ourselves to do the “homework” needed to satisfy our concerns about what we can trust as well as to manage our emotions, channel our anxieties and deal any number of other challenges we may be facing. When have you faced a conflict or controversy and discovered useful insights in the midst of concerns about “fake news” and what sources you could trust? How can we help others to do the same?
In 2006 I received a Fulbright Specialist award for my work on Peace and Reconciliation Studies and returned to Northern Ireland to gather material about veterans and peace activists who are deeply committed to finding nonviolent solutions to conflicts and what I term a “deeper democracy,” where dissent is celebrated as an essential guard against excessive militarism and enforced orthodoxy. This opportunity permitted me to have six weeks at the University of Ulster’s UNESCO Centre to address education for a people whose nation is emerging from 800 years of conflict and violence over power, rights, respect, religion, opportunity, discrimination, sovereignty, and more.
In the past forty years alone, bombs, killings, beatings and intimidation have made peaceful coexistence between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists here nearly impossible. Yet, this small and divided nation of 1.5 million did sign a peace accord in 1998 and is in the process of disarming the militant wings while seeing a drawdown of the occupying British military forces.
I take the train down to Derry, the walled city still celebrated by Protestant loyalists for resisting the siege of the Catholic King James in 1690, to hear a talk by Irish historian Kevin Whelan about memories, stories and their role in reconciliation. We meet at The Junction, a community relations resource center funded through the European Union’s Peace and Reconciliation Program. that sponsors various projects including Toward Understanding and Healing, an effort to address the violence of the past thirty years through storytelling and dialogue. The statue in Derry represents the hope for a meaningful reconciliation
The audience of some fifteen locals includes one man in his 50’s—I’ll call him “Tom”—who was at the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights demonstrations in 1972 when British soldiers fired on a large group of marchers, killing fourteen and wounding another seventeen. Many nationalists quickly concluded that this attack on unarmed civilians would be the spark that would light the fuse of armed resistance and discredit the use of nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi in India and then by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
After Professor Whalen concluded his remarks about the malleability of memory, how each of us constructs our worlds based on our recall of what we have experienced and been told, Tom confesses. He clearly remembers the bullets flying on Bloody Sunday and the British paratroopers with their distinguishing berets at that first barricade, something that nationalists are hard pressed to forgive. To use elite combat troops against unarmed civilians was clear evidence of British brutality and the naiveté of nonviolence.
But then Tom admits that he has been wrong for all these years. At a recent meeting on reconciliation, when the discussion turned to Bloody Sunday, someone produced a photograph from 1972 of those infamous barricades. When Tom looked closely, he could clearly see that the British troops were all in helmets, not berets. Yes, there were paratroopers nearby and, yes, they did get involved and join in the shooting later, but it was a revelation for Tom to see something so different from what he distinctly remembered.
In the heat of any wild and traumatic moment, anyone can be forgiven for missing certain details. Yet Tom’s memories had led him to embrace more extremist calls for reprisal. Now, some 34 years later, he needed to admit his errors, rethink his positions and commit to healing himself and others.
So the question for me is what memories will Americans need to revisit as we rethink our latest war in Iraq? For example, surveys indicate that over 70% of the U.S. troops in Iraq fully believed that Sadam Hussein was directly involved in the attacks of September 11th. What will it take, intellectually and emotionally, for these troops to confront the facts and reexamine the connections between their participation in that war effort and their own memories? What will it take for any of us to step back from the polarized debates that have surfaced since then to see how we can discern about the published analyses we read and what is “spun” or “fake”.