Category Archives: Random Musings

What did we know and when did we know it? The mutability of facts

In 1770, in his historic defense of British soldiers accused of murdering five Bostonians, John Adams told the jury in his summation:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence…

Facts may indeed be stubborn things, but they are also subject to the vicissitudes of time and nature’s forces. Our thinking about those facts, and their significance to us, is often refracted through the lenses of culture, cognition, and bias. As our understanding of our physical world alters; as records are broken or measurements exceeded; as times, laws, borders, and customs change; our encyclopedias and other reference books, along with our memories, demand constant updating.

In a thought-provoking essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, author Geoff Nicholson pondered “The Joy of (Outdated) Facts“, a meditation on the mutability of factual information and the changing nature of human knowledge. Nicholson observes,

[B]ooks of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.

With hindsight, we can always see through the dubious “authority” of such historical sources. Few things look as unstable as the rock-solid certainties of previous ages. Since encyclopedias are supposed to be balanced and disinterested, the bias often seems even more naked…

Of course, ideas of what’s worth knowing, and even what’s interesting, are constantly changing: The fascination with trigonometrical formulas certainly seems to have receded. But in a world where ever fewer people care about, or even understand the nature of, fiction, where readers and viewers demand facts and reality, outdated books of supposedly impartial information can be a useful reminder of just how slippery facts are — as unreliable as the most unreliable narrator.

Also pondering the phenomenon of the mutability of factual knowledge is Mesofacts, a web site devoted to facts that change slowly over time – whether the population of the world or the number of new elements added to the Periodic Table since you graduated from high school.

To gain our notice, facts need human attention – to collect and record, to weigh or measure, to determine significance, meaning, or connection to other facts. They must enter the machinery of perception – where sometimes they transform themselves into something else entirely, not an objective reflection of what is but a mirroring of who we are.

In fact, I wonder what John Adams would have made of a Supreme Court decision like Scott v. Harris, a case that reveals the permeable boundary between the objective and the subjective. A police officer rammed the car of a fleeing suspect, who was seriously injured and subsequently filed suit alleging that the use of excessive force resulted in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Significantly, a video camera captured the entire chase on film. In an 8-1 decision, according the video evidence great weight, the Supreme Court held in favor of the police officer, determining that the officer’s actions were reasonable, and that the officer was entitled to summary judgment. The lone dissenter, Justice Stevens, insisted that whatever conclusions were to be drawn from the video should be left to a jury to determine.

The video which recorded the entire car chase has become the subject of much debate, as well as the focus of a study by a group of legal scholars. Their results suggest that what we see when we view that video may be the product of cultural, ideological, and other forces. A lone Supreme Court dissenter, Justice Stevens,

“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Jack Webb’s character, police detective Joe Friday, used to say in the U.S. television series, Dragnet. But the facts may be culturally contingent, temporary, or long past their expiration date. In fact, some facts may not be facts at all – much like Joe Friday’s catchphrase, imbedded in our cultural memory but never in fact uttered.

The sound of silence: listening between the lines

The sound of silenceSome cases you remember vividly; the impressions they leave are lasting.

The plaintiff, seated with my co-mediator and me, had just heard us convey the defendant’s final proposal. The plaintiff said, “I need a moment.” I asked if they (and I hope you will excuse me for using the pronoun “they” in the ungrammatical singular) wished to take a break to think about the offer. They declined and said, “No, let me sit here with you. But give me a moment to think.”

The plaintiff sat not for a moment but over the course of many moments – in silence for 20 full minutes. My co-mediator and I sat, looking at each other from time to time, witness to this inner struggle. So deep was the plaintiff’s concentration, so palpably serious, that we both felt humbled in its presence. Their focused concentration, and the accompanying silence, became a fourth person in that room. My watch ticked off the minutes. Into that silence of thinking and weighing, other, minute noises intruded. Around us, the building’s heating and ventilation system produced bursts of noise; my co-mediator’s stomach growled insistently; outside once we heard a siren wail. I could hear my breath, in and out, as we sat our patient vigil.

I knew that they’d reached a decision when suddenly I heard them exhale. “Yes,” they said, and the silence ended, as they thanked us for giving them the space to think.

Bearing witness to silent concentration was a profound experience. Later we discussed it, my co-mediator and I. The impulse to break that silence was strong at first. But as the silence lengthened, waiting became easier. Apart from sounds, too, there were other things to attend to. Their face, for example, spoke volumes about the progress of the struggle within, shadowed first by doubt and then growing lighter with certainty. Even in total silence, there is something to hear.

What reminded me of that long-ago case? I happened to hear an interview on NPR with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, a man on a quest to record the sounds of natural environments and to protect land from the intrusion of human noise. Watch the video on the page I’ve linked to; whether the cry of swiftly flying birds or the steady melt of snow as winter recedes, it’s astonishing how much sound our natural landscapes contain when the din of human activity falls silent. Listen closely to what remains.

Buying the cow: mediators, money, and value

During the many years now I’ve been in the mediation field I like to think I’ve given of my time generously on behalf of our profession.

I’ve devoted countless unpaid hours to serving on numerous boards and committees to advance the ADR field; organizing numerous conferences and workshops for mediators; volunteering in community mediation programs mediating and mentoring new mediators; answering numerous phone calls and emails from people hoping to become mediators; providing tech support to colleagues struggling with ethical dilemmas; helping other ADR professionals master social media like Twitter; supporting fellow ADR bloggers through my project and other endeavors; and sharing what I know through this site, responding to every person who contacts me, including numerous requests over the years from mediators and mediation programs throughout the world seeking help locating resources, people, or information.

My digital door is always open.

But ultimately I’m a business owner and a professional, and there are things I don’t give away for free. Once, a mediator, just starting off, contacted me to ask me to meet them and their business partner on a regular basis to help them set up their business and web site. When I quoted my fee, I got an angry email in response, wondering how I had the nerve to ask to get paid for something they thought I should give them for nothing. This left me scratching my head, wondering why they didn’t respect or value my time as a professional.

I similarly upset some mediators in an advanced mediation training that I taught recently. The organization I was teaching for had provided a comprehensive training manual packed full of many practice forms for the participants to use later. As I was teaching one module, I mentioned that what I’d done in my own practice for this kind of case was to develop a handbook for my clients to assist them in preparing to mediate, suggesting to the participants that they should do the same. One participant raised a hand to ask if I would make my handbook available to them. I told them no, it was proprietary to me and my business, but that they should by all means create materials of their own that would serve them and their clients. I also reminded them that the organization providing the training had generously included in the training manual plenty of client forms for them to use and adapt.

My “no” evidently put some people off. Two participants complained about my refusal to share materials I’d created for my own business. One wondered why I was even there if I didn’t want to share my stuff.

This left me puzzled and a little sad as well.  I was in fact very willing to share – everything I know, the experiences I’ve had, the lessons I’ve learned, it was all available to them, unstintingly. I just declined to share my intellectual property – the content I’d created and customized to use in my business – the work product to distinguish me from the rest of the herd.

Unfortunately they heard only the “no”, and not the rest of my message: As a professional be willing to create your own stuff. Construct your own tools, the better to fit your hand.

Perhaps this view is just a consequence of living in the digital age, when we have come to expect content to be free and where the lines between original content and borrowed material have grown blurred. Surely no one could think that my appearance at the training program constituted a relinquishment of my rights in my own content or the keys to my office door.

But there’s another reason, an issue that haunts our profession. Almost four years ago I sent a message to ADR professionals: “Don’t sell yourself short: why fair compensation should matter to mediators.”

This post urged mediators to value themselves and each other more highly; too often we give both the milk and the entire cow away for free. In our negotiation with the larger world, we ourselves must start placing greater value on our work. To do otherwise diminishes our worth.

To be sure, ours is a profession devoted to helping others. It rests on certain important principles: value creation not value claiming; the notion of the ever-expanding pie; creative allocation of resources; and of course collaboration, teamwork, and sharing. These are noble principles to be sure, embodying the highest aspirations of our field.

This is perhaps why some of us are uncomfortable with professional self-regard. It seems to contradict these cherished ideals.

But just because we place a premium on collaboration does not mean that we must refrain from placing a premium on our services or the content we create as business owners.  As usual, the toughest negotiation is always with ourselves.

Rethinking social media: the worth of trust in online business networking

trust in business networkingIn the February 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine is an essay entitled “The Serfdom of Crowds”, excerpted from You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, the latest book by computer scientist, web guru, and author Jaron Lanier. You Are Not a Gadget serves as a bracing rebuttal to the loud hallelujah chorus of praise for all things internet-related. Of social networking Lanier writes,

An individual who is receiving a flow of reports about the romantic status of a group of friends must learn to think in terms of the flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at all. Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social-networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am. I know quite a few people, most of them young adults, who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, their statements can be true only if the idea of friendship is diminished.

These words pulled me up short. Minutes before reading them, I’d received a request on LinkedIn for a recommendation from one of my contacts. When I clicked on their profile I realized that I had no idea who they were or how I had come to connect with them. At one time accepting their invitation to connect on LinkedIn must have seemed like a good idea, because here they were in my list of connections, and there they were asking me for my recommendation.

Let’s pause there for a moment and consider what LinkedIn has to say about accepting or responding to invitations:

LinkedIn believes that when it comes to building your network, it is all about the quality of the connections and not about the quantity of connections. Your network should be centered on quality of knowledge, resources, skills and advocacy that LinkedIn can help unlock.

…Invitations are a great option to ask people to join your network. When sending Invitations, ensure that you know and trust the person you are extending the Invitation to. This is generally someone you have worked with, collaborated on projects with or maybe attended school with. These will be people that can recommend you to others and will become your first degree connections.

Looking over my list of contacts on LinkedIn, I can honestly say that among them are a few people I don’t know well at all. They are people who’ve perhaps read my blog, followed me on Twitter, or are fellow members of a professional networking site. The basis for these connections at times seems arbitrary, because social media and human nature make it easy to manufacture or claim kinship, whether it’s sharing an alma mater, a profession, a political view, or a hometown. But are all these individuals people I could recommend, based on direct, personal knowledge and with a clear conscience? To be honest: no. Some. But not all.

In the end I declined the request and removed this person from my list of connections. If this person was willing to ask a casual acquaintance to recommend them, then this was someone I did not care to be linked with any longer. But it left me asking, in accepting a LinkedIn invitation without undertaking due diligence, are we devaluing the currency of online social networking?

How many of us stop to weigh the words “it is all about the quality of the connections and not about the quantity of connections” before accepting invitations from strangers to connect? If a business networking site like LinkedIn is to have any worth, it must depend upon principled users. Otherwise the recommendations that LinkedIn urges users to obtain to complete their profile remain suspect.

Readers, do not mistake this post for a rejection of social media by a long-time blogger. I am not denying that social media have value for me – as water cooler, newsstand, and town square. They have led me to substantial, real-world friendships and allowed me to keep in touch with people who matter to me. Nor do I argue that regular, in-person contact is the sole means to establish or sustain a meaningful relationship. Email, Skype calls, instant messages, telephone time, and, yes, messages posted on social networking sites, can nurture collegial ties and friendships across distances great and small.

As worthwhile for some purposes social media may be, their wow-that’s-so-cool impact should not blind us to their obvious limits. Strip away the hype to reveal the teetering house of cards that social networking constructs of our trust. Social media can reduce to parody what is meaningful and valuable about relationships and personal connections. They can lower our standards or overpower our discernment. The entrepreneur or social media expert may be a disbarred lawyer or a convicted felon. It’s hard to tell when the light’s dazzling our eyes. But let’s remember the enduring truth in the aphorism “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog“.

So long as trust is aspirational not dependably operational, what can any of us do? Two adages come to mind. In the words of the authors of negotiation classic Getting to Yes, “Be trustworthy, not trusting.” And, as a former U.S. president is purported to have once said: “Trust, but verify.”

As for me, I am in the process of drafting a LinkedIn policy, as I did for Twitter (although without the wiseassery). If you have one yourself, tell me about it. What guidelines have you set for accepting or declining invitations, or making or requesting recommendations? I’d welcome hearing from you.

New Year resolutions: on friendship

More than kisses, letters mingle souls, for thus friends absent speak; copyright Diane J. Levin, do not use without permissionThe start of a new year spurs many of us who observe the Gregorian calendar to take stock of the year just gone and to set goals for the year ahead, whether personal, financial, business, or spiritual.

In looking back on this past year, one event stands out: I lost my beloved friend Maureen last April when she died after a two-year battle with cancer.

What kind of friend was she? Here’s what kind:

Quite a few years ago, my career headed in a new direction, I was about to depart on an out-of-state business trip that would take me many miles away from home and well out of my comfort zone. (I also have to confess that I was terrified of flying.) Knowing how important this first trip was, how much was riding on it, and how absolutely petrified I was about getting on that plane, Maureen mailed me a card filled with handwritten words of encouragement, optimism, and love. I immediately put it inside my briefcase so that it would be with me on my trip. The trip was a success, just as Maureen predicted it would be.

Her card’s my good luck talisman and travels with me to this day, no matter where I go. The envelope that contains it is frayed around the edges, and the card itself is battered and worn from holding it in my hands so often, but the words, in Maureen’s handwriting, remain clear.

Maureen was an extraordinary, luminous soul, lit from within by all the qualities of character she possessed. She let that light shine brightly into the lives of those fortunate enough to have known her. Like that card I carry with me, Maureen’s love still travels with us, packed up safe inside our hearts.

I will always remember how much that simple and sincere gesture meant to me. A card, a stamp, a few handwritten words. That was all. Friendship is built upon such foundations – the thoughtful deed and the stalwart heart.

And so, in Maureen’s honor, there’s one resolution I set for myself this year: to be a friend like her.

With best wishes to you all for a joyful and healthy 2010, and may you be blessed with loyal friends.

Thanks so much for reading.

The future of conflict resolution: preaching to the choir or negotiating with tea partiers?

Getting people talkingI often find myself wishing I lived in California, if only to be able to regularly attend the magnificent events the Southern California Mediation Association plans and presents each year. These programs showcase the talents and intellectual achievements of some of the greatest thinkers and leaders that the field of conflict resolution can boast.

This past weekend attendees of SCMA’s annual conference fell under the spell of the magisterial Kenneth Cloke, who spoke eloquently about “conflict revolution” and the role that mediators can play in effecting global change. Victoria Pynchon has kindly posted Cloke’s PowerPoint presentation on her negotiation and ADR blog, Settle It Now.

Reading his presentation, I was moved by the power of Cloke’s words. If you read them, too, no doubt like me you will shake your head with weary recognition as you ponder the elements of demonization, mechanisms of moral disengagement, and the early warning signs of fascism. Alternatively, you will nod with approval as you read about the proposals for change that Cloke lays out – the 12 conflict resolution methodologies, the Mediators Without Borders 12-step program to address conflict systematically, and the personal choices in social change.

But I am also left uneasy, troubled by questions that have haunted me for many months. And I raise these questions now, not in disrespect or to impugn the message that Cloke delivered to mediators this past weekend.

There is no doubt that our inspiring leaders and, yes, our foot soldiers, too, command prodigious skills in negotiation and persuasion.  Why then do negotiation and conflict resolution remain in such disrepute here in the U.S.? Why, despite the Ivy League credentials and access to the corridors of power that the best and brightest among us enjoy, have we failed to influence political discourse on American soil?  We remain mired in incivility, fallacy, and fear, as daunting problems confound and oppress us, whether health care, climate change, unemployment, or threats to national security.

Negotiate with terrorists? Okay. But first we’d better figure out fast how we can talk with our opponents here at home.

Cognitive errors to watch for as the mediation profession discusses the important issues

watching out for cognitive errorsMomentum seems to be building for mediator credentialing in the United States.  Change is no doubt coming. What form that may ultimately take remains to be seen — whether public licensing by the state (least likely) or the adoption of credentialing mechanisms by major ADR membership organizations that dominate the national scene (most likely). This is but one of several difficult and divisive issues that the field will grapple with in the years to come.

As we contemplate and debate change, let us hope that we ADR professionals can do what we ask of our clients: to listen with open minds, to ask questions, and to be alert to possibilities.

I appreciate that doing so is easier said than done. I know this from my own humbling experience participating on a committee that wrestled with a possible change in Massachusetts state law that protects mediation communications. From the beginning, the work of that committee grew entangled with the charged issue of mediator qualifications; not surprisingly, stalemate resulted. Let’s just say that mistakes were made (by present company included).

Drawing on the lessons that tough teacher experience has taught me, I would present the following list of the cognitive errors I see as most likely to trip us up as our profession debates the important issues we face. And by all means please suggest your own in the comment section below.

Reactive devaluation. As readers know, reactive devaluation (PDF) is the tendency to devalue or discount a proposal simply because the person who proposed it is someone we don’t much like. We see our clients at the mediation table commit this very human blunder. Not surprisingly, mediators are as human as their clients. Honesty compels us to acknowledge that there will always be people, even within our own field, who rub us the wrong way. That doesn’t, however, mean that we should automatically discredit or devalue their opinions. Even jerks can be right.

Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out or interpret information that confirms what we already believe or to discount information that doesn’t support our world-view. Put your hand up if you’ve never done this. See? No hands in the air. That confirms precisely what I suspected.

Status quo bias. Recently journalist James Surowiecki, in an article for the New Yorker, wondered out loud whether the American public’s resistance to changing the existing health care system results from status quo bias –a tendency to prefer things the way they are.  Such resistance to change is rooted in loss aversion, according to “Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias” (PDF), a paper published by professors Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch, and Richard H. Thaler, which points out that “individuals have a stronger tendency to remain at the status quo, because the disadvantages of leaving it loom larger than advantages.” If you catch yourself saying “because we’ve always done it this way” or championing “the devil we know” over “the devil we don’t”, you may have fallen into the status quo snare.

The influence of authority. In his famous work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini delves into our susceptibility to the manipulations of others, describing six basic categories of weapons of influence. Included among the six is authority, a particularly powerful instrument of persuasion, used to influence everything from consumer purchasing decisions to support for political candidates. In fact, mere symbols of authority trigger our compliance, from impressive-sounding titles to “the well-tailored business suit”.  But if there’s one thing the current economic crisis has taught us, it’s that even the experts can get it wrong. So let’s draw advice from a sixties-era bumper sticker: Question Authority.

Finally, let us not forget the overconfidence effect – our boundless optimism about our own abilities and talents, despite evidence to the contrary. That includes of course our overconfidence in our ability to recognize and avoid cognitive errors.

For now, let us all be supremely overconfident that we will, one way or the other, slip up.

Of death panels, Hitler, and the healthcare controversy: media literacy, now more than ever

media literacyEighteen years ago, on a brilliantly sunny day, I attended a Fourth of July barbecue in a pleasant suburb a few miles outside of Boston. I was sitting at an umbrella-shaded table by the pool, watching my son splashing happily in the water with the other kids, when one of the guests nearby turned to me and asked me a question that caught me off-guard.  He said, “Why don’t you Jews celebrate the 4th of July?”

“Why in the world would you think we don’t?” I responded (although I will admit that I used much more colorful language than that to convey my astonishment).

It turns out that this guest (a native-born, college-educated American about my age, mind you, not a confused elder or a recently arrived immigrant unfamiliar with U.S. customs) believed that Independence Day was a Christian holiday.  There was of course more, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that there was no convincing him otherwise; he believed unswervingly in the radio talk show host he’d heard it from. It was, as you might imagine, a wholly unsatisfactory conversation.

Not surprisingly, I’ve thought of him these last several weeks as the debate over healthcare reform has raged. I’ve heard his voice in  the ludicrous accusations about death panels and forced euthanasia, in the offensive comparisons to Nazi Germany that have diminished civil discourse.

At a recent town hall meeting on health care a disgruntled citizen, bearing a photo of Obama doctored to look like Hitler, confronted Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank (who happens to be Jewish). She asked him, “Why are you supporting this Nazi policy?” Frank, viewing her with cool contempt, asked, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”, and dismissed her, saying, “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.” (You can view the video yourself to watch their exchange.)

I understand fully the impulse that led Frank to respond as he did. Although 18 years have passed, I still recall vividly that exchange at that long-ago party. I remember how the anger seared when I heard his contemptuous “you Jews”. I can still feel the frustration, the stunned disbelief at his willful ignorance and full-bore stupidity.

But a mediator I know asked me the other day if I thought Frank’s response was appropriate. I had to answer no, it wasn’t. Emotionally satisfying on a primal level, yes. Appropriate, certainly not. The last thing we need these days is more insolence, more incivility, more personal attacks. Frank had an opportunity to educate; instead he chose to alienate. Frank may perhaps be unrepentant, but other members of Congress should heed seasoned public facilitator and dialogue and negotiation expert Lawrence Susskind.  Blogging at The Consensus Building Approach, Susskind proposes a wholly different approach in his post, “How Should You Respond to the Noisy Health Reform Critics?

Although Susskind’s post makes good reading, my primary concern is not in getting people to speak civilly to each other. I’d like that, yes. But I’ll leave that for others to ponder.

I’m far more interested in a bigger and more pressing issue, one we must address before we can have discourse that is truly civil: How do we eradicate ignorance? How can we create a better informed citizenry? One that is capable of thinking critically, of relying on reason and logic, of analyzing and evaluating data, and reaching decisions and making judgments based on sound information, not sound bites? In other words, what can we do to improve media literacy among citizens?

Earlier this week the European Commission issued guidelines calling on European Union member countries to promote media literacy:

Media literacy is the ability to access the media, to understand and to critically evaluate different aspects of the media and media contents an to create communications in a variety of contexts.

Media literacy relates to all media, including television and film, radio and recorded music, print media, the Internet and all other new digital communication technologies. It is a fundamental competence not only for the young generation but also for adults and elderly people, for parents, teachers and media professionals. The Commission considers media literacy as an important factor for active citizenship in today’s information society.

In its recommendations (downloadable in PDF), the Commission observed,

Democracy depends on the active participation of citizens to the life of their community and media literacy would provide the skills they need to make sense of the daily flow of information disseminated through new communication technologies.

Unfortunately, some here in America remain suspicious of “Old Europe” and any of its ideological exports, whether law or policy. But surely (and I say “surely” with only the slightest hint of cynicism) there is nothing controversial about a better educated, well-informed, media-savvy public.

Common courtesy should not be an oxymoron

thanksA recent article in the New York Times about the decline of manners in a Blackberry age prompted one executive coach to write to the Times editor to share an anecdote drawn from his own experience working with professionals. He wrote,

I was told by a client, who is a former board member of a large cosmetics company and now a venture capitalist, that she had decided to refuse to help fellow alumni from her prestigious university. When I asked why, she explained how over an 18-month period, she had gone out of her way to help six alumni network into new jobs. In response to all her efforts, not a single one took the time to thank her.

This is a glaring example of how politeness and manners seem to have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

This letter resonated with me deeply. A year ago I described my own experience with the deterioration of manners in a post that asked, “Whatever happened to thank you? Thoughts on gratitude“. What prompted me to write it was my disappointment in the failure of a former student to thank me for a favor I had performed on his behalf. His thoughtlessness produced one positive result at least: it made me think what “thank you” really means:

It is not simply expressing gratitude for the extra mile, the care, the thought. “Thank you” is also about renewing or building relationships. “Thank you” honors a past deed. “Thank you” affirms hope for the future.

Common courtesy, alas, these days seems increasingly uncommon. All too often, I note its absence. This is in fact why earlier this week I published “Please contact me…but kindly read this first if you need advice“. I remain delighted to be of help; but I also hope that those who seek my assistance may be prompted to take a moment to consider the time it takes to give it. And because I cannot ask more of readers than I would of myself, I will also take especial care to be sure to show my appreciation for the time that others give me. And so I thank you, gentle reader, for your time, now and always.

Remembering Morad: thoughts on Iran and US relations

Iran and US relationsHour by hour, print, TV, and web sources bring news, narratives and dramatic images from Iran of protests and violence as Iranians take to the streets to voice opposition to the results of the recent presidential election.

The news from Tehran has brought back memories from a summer long ago. In 1976, a 17-year-old just a year away from high school graduation, I spent the summer studying Russian language in the Norwich University Summer Russian School, a full-immersion Russian language and cultural program. Norwich, a private military college in Northfield, Vermont, was also the site of another kind of cultural exchange program. Enrolled at Norwich at that time were about 30 members of the Iranian Imperial Navy, young men given the opportunity to study in the U.S.

One of them, Morad, became my friend. When I wasn’t studying myself or involved in Russian School activities, I would hang out with him, taking long walks or gamely learning tennis under his patient tutelage. He was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in his life. He missed his family, particularly his sister, and his friends in Tehran, and would describe his life with them back home. We constituted our own small cultural exchange program as we asked each other questions and eagerly swapped stories about life in our respective countries.  He spoke English flawlessly, enjoyed language study, and appreciated my own curiosity about foreign languages. He was pleased when I asked him to teach me some words of Persian, and he happily did so, pointing out the similarities between his native language and mine, both Indo-European tongues.

As I recall, he phoned me once or twice after I’d returned home when my program ended, and then we soon lost touch as kids do. In 1979 the Shah fell from power, toppled in the Islamic Revolution, and months later the U.S. severed all diplomatic ties. At that time I thought of him and the other young men from the Iranian Navy and feared for their fate on their return.

The news from Iran resurrects these half-forgotten memories of a long-ago friendship. I wonder where Morad is now and whether he is safe. I think how fortunate I was to meet him, to learn something of his country and language with their ancient cultural roots, and to spend a little time with him — two kids, just talking and hanging out.

If only diplomacy were so simple. If only our shared humanity and mutual curiosity were enough.