Our International Political Economy class discussions have really heated up over the past few weeks. The topics are intentionally provocative and Jean-Pierre does a good job of mixing class time between his expert knowledge and our inter-student debate. As we have 44 countries represented in our class, it’s like participating in a mini-UN. Before our eyes we see age-old conflicts unfold between individuals.
For example, between our one Israeli student and two Lebanese students we saw the Arab-Israeli conflict play out last week. Each student had “facts” supporting an assertion that the other side was to blame, each pointed out the death and destruction wrought by the other, and each refused to back down. It was exactly the same thing that happens between countries. Both sides know that the only way to resolve the conflict (the original source of which may be long forgotten) is to step back and offer peace/goodwill but instead they just escalate the rhetoric.
On the one hand, it is frustrating. We aren’t here to argue about who is right and who is wrong; we are here to learn a better way. On the other hand, though, it is instructive to witness the individual interactions and learn from them about the inter-country/inter-ethnic-group interactions and reactions.
It is also interesting to see the nationalism and defensiveness come out during these discussions. For example, I asked a question today about China’s investment policy in Africa. China (and Africa too) claims that it is a no-strings-attached policy. This is contrasted with the historical Western policy of lending money or making investments but requiring democratic, human rights, economic, and other reforms in return. According to our African students, Africans prefer China’s approach.
My question was about whether Chinese investments were really better for Africans or, given the presentation we had just heard about Africa’s history of corruption and leaders embezzling government funds, were they just bribes by a more palatable name. I.e. by not attaching any strings was China just giving corrupt leaders more leeway to take the money for themselves? It was an honest question asked to understand the situation better, not an attack on China. The first response I received, from the presentation group, was fair and rational. However, it was then followed by several responses defending China. At the root of most of these arguments was, “It’s no worse than what the West has done in the past.”
This is, of course, a classic “tu quoque” fallacy: “Something we are doing is OK because, hey, you’re doing it too.” The objective isn’t to point fingers; it is to find a better solution! I ran into a similar situation when conversing with a Chinese classmate about China’s massively increasing polution levels that are predicted to lead the world in just a few decades. The rebuttal was, “Yeah, but the US currently leads the world–why do you want to accuse us of wrong-doing?!” I wasn’t accusing anyone of anything; I was pointing out a trend that, now that it had been identified, we have an opportunity to reverse before it is too late. Can we please stop dwelling in the past and start finding ways to make the world a better place?!
Still, there is learning in these discussions. Perhaps the logical fallacies are not soley the fault of the arguers. Perhaps the way I present my questions is perceived as confrontational or accusatory. Perhaps I could find better ways to communicate across cultural boundaries, resulting in greater productivity in such discussions. I’m sure such learning could be applied not just to the individual interaction level but also to the group, company, and country interaction levels as well. I will collect feedback and work on it; I owe at least that much to my current and future colleagues.