On Monday evening, the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life held a panel discussion in the Reading Room of the Mandel Center for the Humanities entitled “Extremists and the Challenges of Public Conversation.” The discussion was moderated by Daniel Terris, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.
According to Terris, the Schusterman Center promotes dialogue between divided peoples, examines how people engage in civic discourse and looks at productive discourse happening within and across divided societies. This is accomplished through the engagement of the arts along with judicial and other legal figures. One of the difficulties presented in situations of intense conflict is the question of how much extremists should and will be involved in the discourse aimed at reaching a solution. Some of the questions that arise are: Should a government engage extreme elements, those who “use violence in their toolbox?” Does marginalizing their voices help or hurt matters?
Of the three panelists, Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka Shiranee Tilakawardane, the first woman in Sri Lanka appointed as a Court of Appeal judge, sat in the center. She is a strong advocate for children’s rights and an expert in issues of gender and justice.
“Everyone, every human being, has a right to peaceable assembly, free expression, ” Tilakawardane said.
She stressed the importance of going to the grassroots level to figure out the needs of a community that often are not represented in the media.
“Extremes are already represented in debates, because they are the most sensationalistic and generate the most interest,” she said.
She pointed to the issue of the status of Tamil women in Sri Lanka being entirely dependent on a male relative (a husband or brother). Without that relationship, they have no standing in the community, which puts them at a disadvantage. The 30-year Sri Lankan war from which the nation is still recovering involved Tamil separatists who wanted a separate country from Sri Lanka, and it saw the rise of single mothers, a precarious social status. Tilakawardane claimed that the Tamil separatists’ rhetoric was removed from the needs of people they claimed to represent, and that the Sri Lankan government needs to address concerns at the grassroots level.
To her right sat Diego Arria, a former governor of Caracas, Venezuela, and businessman in addition to being deeply involved with the United Nations. He pioneered the “Arria formula,” implemented in March 1992 when he was President of the Security Council, an arrangement that informs the Security Council about issues that jeopardize international security. A vocal opponent of Hugo Chavez, he charged him with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Arria spoke of the turmoil in Venezuela: “Things seem simpler in other countries, but when it hits home, it’s much more complicated,” he said. “Venezuelan society is divided: There’s hate on both sides.”
Today, Arria said the political climate is extremely polarized, and after 20 students were killed in an insurrection that arose from a denial of human rights, the leadership saw the need for dialogue. He attributes a large part of the blame to the inaction of outsiders.
“Other Latin American countries haven’t lifted a finger to help protect the human rights of Venezuelan citizens, and the United Nations established a moral equivalency of both parties,” Arria said.
He added that the government uses language and rhetoric itself to discredit the opposition, and that the very label of “extremist” becomes a valuable tool to marginalize opponents. He cited President Carter’s visit in 2004 as enabling Hugo Chavez and remarked that “dialogue is with the businessman, not with the people.”
Between Terris and Tilakawardane sat Richard J. Goldstone, a retired Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and Chair of the Ethics Center’s International Advisory Board since 2004. He is a lawyer and a judge who served as the Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and chaired the Goldstone Commission, which investigated sources of violence that endangered South Africa’s transition to a post-apartheid society. He headed a fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict in 2009, which gave rise to the famous Goldstone Report.
Goldstone addressed the issue of protest and free speech at university campuses, recently brought to attention by a rally conducted by the extreme group Islamic Jihad at Brandeis’ partner Palestinian university, Al-Quds. The controversy stemmed from the protestors’ use of Nazi iconography and anti-Semitic rhetoric. In response, Brandeis suspended its partnership with Al-Quds University.
“People are entitled, especially on university campuses, to express unpopular extremes that incite extreme sentiments as part of their right to freedom of speech, but a meeting of minds is crucial,” Goldstone said. “It’s easy to sit from our position and dictate what someone else should have done.”
In a recent incident that took place on a South African university campus, a new head of a student dorm was appointed, and her peers greeted her with a Nazi salute. Goldstone estimated that at least 90 percent of students who gave the salute didn’t know what it was, and thinks that if one spoke to the students and explained the significance the gesture held to Jewish South Africans, they would rethink their behavior.
On the other hand, a comedian in Paris recently adopted a pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic routine that Goldstone claims was intended to get publicity. Different solutions are required for different situations involving extremes, and in some cases, dialogue helps. If it is genuine misunderstanding, a different approach is required than towards malevolence, in which giving them an opportunity to speak enables them. He suggested adopting a case-by-case approach and claimed that it is crucially important to listen to the voices of the victims.
The mission of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life is to develop effective responses to conflict and injustice by offering innovative approaches to coexistence, strengthening the work of international courts and encouraging ethical practice in civic and professional life.