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Sunday, January 18, 2015

A non-confrontational life

It has been a difficult week. Raif Badawi is getting flogged for creating a website. A lot of loved people are extremely upset about the world's position on free speech and expression. Poor Pope Francis, who I've long admired, is getting a lot of flak for saying that it is important to respect people's religious sentiments, and freedom of speech is not an excuse to be hurtful. My problem, and the reason why this week has been tough, is that I see both points of view. I dream of a world where people can make fun of anyone's favorite religion, country or football team without being killed for it. But I also find myself siding with the Pope; I worry that absolute free speech leads to hate crimes, and I would like freedom of speech to be tempered with generosity, respect and acceptance. But the toughest part of this week is the realization that I do not like long arguments. About anything.

Let’s say we were discussing the two sides in another famous argument: what is more satisfying as a reader - printed books vs books on e-readers? Let's say you take the former side, and I'll take the latter. You would say that the sensory experience of reading the book is as important as the intellectual. The way the paper rustles against your fingers, the smell of the book, the sound of the turning page - there's no way you want to give these up. And I would say that for me, the act of reading is simply a way of communicating with the mind of the writer, and I absolutely do not care about the medium. Whether I'm reading from a phone screen or the paper bag that groceries came in, my pleasure is dependent solely on the content. Sometimes when I read off my tablet in bright daylight, I have to cup my fingers around the screen to cut the light off; even that does not bother me if what I'm reading is interesting. In addition, I enjoy not having to carry books when I'm traveling, and the fact that I'm destroying fewer trees now than when I bought paper books. At this point, you would say that choosing e-readers over real books is impure love, and it's a little like choosing to eat instant noodles over a gourmet meal. This comparison will sadden me, but I will not respond. Not because I don't have interesting metaphors, or because I don't care enough to continue my conversation with you, but because this is about as much debate as I like, and I want to go back to reading or daydreaming. My favorite debate would be about 8 minutes long - let's define our positions, offer two sharp points each, get convinced to the other side or not, but admire each other's brilliant points, and end charmingly, fully respecting each other's right to stay with his point of view.

Is this is cowardly? Maybe. Will people like me never contribute to changing the world? If Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. Nelson Mandela were non-confrontational, would the world be the wonderful place it is? Maybe not. I did some research just now, and learned that the longest debate in the US senate's history took place in 1964, and lasted 57 days "including six Saturdays". Thinking about this exhausts me. What was the debate about? The Civil Rights Act, which aimed to end racial discrimination and segregation in public accommodations, public education and federally assisted programs. So yes, I get it that debates are important; they clearly change the world for the better.

But perhaps, the world also needs people like me, who will teach by example, participate in change-making, do the honest and the brave thing every time it needs to be done, without engaging in a 5 hour discussion about it.

Just like I prefer e-readers, I also prefer a non-confrontational life. And I would like the world to respect this, just like I respect the world's need to debate. So please continue to talk, but please be okay if I walk away.

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