Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Physics and Peace

From The Catholic Voice, the paper of the Diocese of Oakland, CA:

Abbey Engstrom of Woodland joins other students at Saint Mary’s College in a Nov. 2 protest of the Iraq war. Dressed in black to remember the war dead, the students did a peaceful walk-out of classes and gathered in front of the college chapel to hear student speeches and to sing. The SMC Democrats, a student club organized this year, sponsored the action, part of a nation-wide demonstration against the war, which has killed more than 2,000 Americans.

Notice the chic black t-shirt. notice the peace symbol carefully crafted to look hand drawn. Notice the word "Peace" written in several languages.

If only peace could be achieved so simply: by walking out of class and listening to speeches and singing. Such a contrast, isn't it, with the images of the rioting in Paris?

The problem is, one can only have a dialogue if all parties speak the same language and operate in the same frame of reference. In physics, if two observers have different frames of reference, they may obtain different results. In diplomacy--or in business negotiations, for that matter--what I say may not be what you hear. Or what you understand. If you believe to compromise means to capitulate, then my offer of compromise means you win.

I am willing to hazard a guess that most of us in the U.S. operate within a common frame of reference. Difficulties happen when we assume the rest of the world operates with the same references. They don't; at least, not always. Business deals have turned sour because the parties to the negotiations didn't realize this: "Yes" doesn't always mean agreement, measurements are not always in inches.

How much more likely that this type of misunderstanding will occur during negotiations between cultures? Especially when one culture feels threatened by the other?

We have two choices, as I see it: continue to operate in our frame of reference, regardless of what the enemy's is or recognize the enemy's frame of reference and consider that in our response. How can we best defend what we believe in language the enemy will recognize and understand?

Sometimes, you have to beat up the bully in order to get him to leave you alone.