Learning to accept new opinions.
It’s hard to learn new tricks. Especially when it comes to things we should be learning about. I was recently asked to host a Q&A for an audience of a few thousand in Melbourne. The star attraction was Sam Harris: a neuroscientist, author and TED Talker extraordinaire. He received international attention for an exchange he had on television with Ben Affleck, in which he referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas”. Affleck responded that this was a racist sentiment, earning applause and Twitter’s unbridled support. In the past, Harris has argued that while not all ideologies are equal, they should all be up for debate. But this was lost amid the harshness of his word selection and Affleck’s ovation. The other guest at the talk was a man named Maajid Nawaz. His biography plots some seemingly disparate points – once a member of the fundamentalist group Hizb ut-tahrir, he was imprisoned in Egypt, embraced by Amnesty International, emerged as a reformer espousing secular Islam, ran for election to the UK Parliament with the Liberal Democrats and now drives an organisation that successfully rehabilitates radicalised youth. Also a great talker of TED, he’s suggested that democracy needs the kind of grass-roots, digital support that more extreme ideas enjoy. Without it, says Nawaz, fundamentalism will continue to take root. Among other topics I was to Q, and they were to A, included the nature of public discourse, Islam and whether a fear of appearing bigoted is preventing an honest discussion of terrorism. Given the esteemed personnel at the talk, you may wonder why I was invited. Well, I was asked, above all else, to keep things light and entertaining. Having worked in the field of light entertainment for some time, I felt qualified. But my reason for participating in the conversation was something else. I wanted to have my mind changed. When I watched the Harris/affleck brouhaha, I’d felt inclined to agree with Affleck. And if not him, then maybe his applause. Things like the pointless Senate inquiry into Halal certification, to me, smack of basic xenophobia. And it’s in no reasonable person’s interest to throw their lot in with the Reclaim Australia mob. Yet there are few more pressing issues in the world than the rise of militant extremism, and I feared that if my opinions spent their time chasing applause, I may never hear something more important. To my surprise, when the event was announced, I became controversial. There was a backlash to me accepting the gig, with suggestions I shouldn’t be involved. Apparently, to sit down with the guests was to endorse and even participate in Islamophobia. Conversely, I was also a terrorist sympathiser for merely talking to Mr Nawaz. And finally, just for good measure, I was accused of intolerance of all religious people because Mr Harris is an outspoken atheist and friends with Richard Dawkins. I wonder if they were trolled for associating with a light entertainer. When it comes to terrorism, almost everyone would agree that the status quo is unacceptable. Yet if nobody is willing to even listen to anyone else, let alone adjust their positions based on what they may learn from others, then improvement is a logical impossibility. Nonetheless, we hear the same nonsense from our politicians about national security and the responsibilities of community leaders, mixing in the ether with accusations, aggressions, declarations and tubthumping of those just talking to win. Remarkably, Harris and Nawaz had been somewhat intractable rhetorical adversaries themselves. Yet they began a dialogue about each other’s position, which became a book, and which became our Q&A. Harris had started to at least entertain the thought that a secular Islam was possible, and Nawaz had embraced the rigorous intellectual probing that an atheist neuroscientist could bring to his own faith. And by the end of our time together on stage, my mind had been changed – to the extent that my beliefs had become more flexible. To achieve anything like the multicultural, secular, progressive society that I, and many others, desire, orthodox frameworks like Islam have to accommodate inquiry and examination. But that inquiry and examination must be fearless and open-minded about what it may discover. And all parties have to be willing to learn things that may make them uncomfortable. They may even have to become comfortable with learning that they’re wrong. n
“PEOPLE MAY EVEN HAVE TO BECOME COMFORTABLE WITH LEARNING THAT THEY’ RE WRONG .”