Love, Hate and the Power of Listening
While confronting a friend who voted for Brexit, Nelufar goes on an ego-dampening journey that takes her from a conflict circle in Iraq to a prison in southern Illinois, as she learns why conflict resolution is more about confronting ourselves than others.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
Just a heads up, this episode deals with some difficult themes, including sexual and physical assault. If those themes are challenging for you, this may be one to skip. Thanks.
WOMAN WITH BRITISH ACCENT:
Look at the stuff that comes in my feed, literally, I don’t give a F about politics.
NELUFAR: You are impossible, Catherine.
WOMAN: No, but it’s not clear now.
NELUFAR: Where isn’t it clear?!
WOMAN: When you’re saying —
NELUFAR: Catherine — Cat — is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We grew up in the same town, we worked the same job, she’s the one who taught me about veganism seven years ago and I have never looked back. But there are some things we don’t have in common. At all.
NELUFAR: Say yes or no. You and I disagree on immigration?
NELUFAR: On paper, when it comes to politics, we couldn’t be more different. And to be honest, if those were the terms of how we met, we probably wouldn’t be friends. But maybe instead of constantly avoiding the gigantic neon-bright white elephant in the room or getting into vicious tetchy bouts with her, maybe there’s something I can learn from her.
This is Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. Each episode we’ll look at one big global problem…and meet the people who are actively working to fix it. I’m Nelufar Hedayat.
In this episode of Course Correction, I’m doing things a little differently. I’m putting my friendship on the line, and I’m challenging myself to negotiate our differences better. I’ll speak to a professional conflict negotiator:
FEMALE CONFLICT NEGOTIATOR:
It’s good to have a heated debate, but if you pass the, the point when it’s respectful, I think it becomes like a movie.
NELUFAR: And I’ll talk to someone whose life completely changed when he learned to see things from someone else’s perspective.
MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT:
Now I have to think, “What would she think? What would she feel?”
NELUFAR: Friendships like mine and Cat’s are rare. Politics is only the first in a long list of things we disagree on.
CATHERINE: “Pound continues to slide as traders fear impact of no-deal Brexit.” There was that one, from The Guardian.
CATHERINE: Because it was in the papers we must believe it.
NELUFAR: What do you mean?
CATHERINE: I don’t, I don’t believe anything I read in the papers.
NELUFAR: At all?
CATHERINE: Unless I see it, I don’t believe it. I think they’re kind of scaring us.
NELUFAR: Of course I disagree. I’m a journalist! Cat, on the other hand? She doesn’t trust most reporters.
CATHERINE: Fox News has quite a lot of good stuff on.
NELUFAR: That’s not even in England.
CATHERINE: Yeah, but it’s still good, because at least you get the side from abroad, like their opinion a lot of the time is less biased.
NELUFAR: Even though Cat has been friends with me — a refugee from Afghanistan — for years, she’s against the free movement of people — which is in fact enshrined in European law — and wants a cap on all immigration, including refugees. She believes that people like me should not be allowed into this country, that we’ve made her hometown worse. But when I ask her how, exactly — I mean literally, in what ways — I get a really sort of vague, hard-to-understand answer. Like, like this one:
CATHERINE: I find London so stressful now, on the Tubes. Everything is so expensive. Buildings are getting higher and higher because there’s more and more people. And also, it’s really dirty everywhere.
NELUFAR: Her feelings on immigration are part of why she voted for Brexit — probably why over half of the voters in the referendum did. Brexit, the exit of Britain from our wider European family, is an issue we have grappled with as a society for about three years. Brexit means leaving the European Union and severing ties built over 50 years or so. The people who voted for it say it’s a way of getting control over our borders, laws and economy. The people who voted against it say it’s like shooting yourself in the foot. Deliberately.
Cat and I are both really passionate about Brexit. Like spitting venom kind of passionate. Seeing red kind of passionate. Her biases are so clear when she talks about it. And so are mine.
NELUFAR: By your tally, like, I shouldn’t be here. If the country was run under your rules and Brexit happened, like would a kid like me be allowed to come here?
There’s a young 9-year-old Catherine somewhere, and there’s like a Nel in Syria or Afghanistan, which is where I’m from. And they’re meant to be friends, but if we have these really strict rules of immigrants only being doctors and engineers, then those two would never meet. Like you and I would never meet. I’d probably be married with seven kids and like, popping them out yearly in Afghanistan.
CATHERINE: Well at least you aren’t popping out seven kids and living on benefits, eh?
NELUFAR: Do you believe that?!
NELUFAR: I don’t know how to convince you that we’re not all bad.
CATHERINE: I know you’re not all bad. I’m not saying you’re all bad. I just have an issue with people not fitting in. I just miss Britishness and I feel like it’s being lost.
NELUFAR: Not fitting in. “Britishness” being lost. Hearing her say things like that makes my entire body seize in anger. I stop thinking about the conversation at all. I want to say things that belittle her and hurt her, just as I feel she’s belittling and hurting me. Rationality flies out the window, and I become a ball of ugly emotion just waiting to lash out. So much that one time I lost total control and called Cat a racist.
NELUFAR: What did I say?
CATHERINE: “This is Cathy, and she’s a massive racist.”
CATHERINE: You don’t remember that? Do you not remember that? That’s not —
NELUFAR: Did I really say that?
CATHERINE: Yes! And I was like thinking, “What the hell.” It’s —
NELUFAR: Did I really say that?
FEMALE CONFLICT NEGOTIATOR: Well the first thing I would advise you is not to call her a racist, because what you did now is, you’ve shut the conversation, and she probably stopped listening. Did she stop listening when you said that?
NELUFAR: Well, yeah. She did.
And no, this isn’t a secret recording of one of my many therapy sessions. This is Dr. Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah. Her company, Kommon Denominator, figures out how to bring people together. She teaches conflict analysis, resolution and peacebuilding. She’s also very good at getting me off my very, very high horse.
She says, in the case of my spat with Catherine, my words didn’t bring us together, they pushed us apart.
ALMA ABDUL-HADI JADALLAH: When you called her racist, basically you labeled her, and you put her in a corner where she had to defend herself.
So you could have taken the conversation to a higher level on something, at least that you meet on, that you both care for what’s happening in the UK. But I think the labeling is one of the harshest tools. I mean, it’s a tactic that you use to provoke her.
NELUFAR: Labeling someone can feel great in the moment. It did feel great in the moment! It’s us versus them, and my ego reigned victorious. But at the end of the day, the disagreement isn’t any closer to being resolved. I’m feeling hurt, and Cat is, too.
Alma’s clients aren’t individuals like me and Cat, but groups that have much higher stakes. Alma has done everything from helping Syrian immigrant women to helping to build a new political system in Yemen.
She says that one of her biggest challenges was back in 2012, when the United Nations Development Programme hired her to help ease tensions between religious groups in Iraq.
ALMA: And during the invasion of ISIS, there was a lot of targeted bombing against the Yazidi community in Iraq.
What is so difficult about this is that they are very few in numbers, and any death or any casualties actually represent almost a death of an entire community. So the Yazidis were very upset and felt that they weren’t protected by their historical neighbors, whether they were Arabs, whether they were Kurdish or any other group around them. ISIS has not spared anybody. It created this intra-community conflicts in Iraq between many of the sects and the religious communities.
NELUFAR: So she gathered members from all of the groupS — Shiites, Sunnis, Yazidis — into one room and created a space for them to vent.
ALMA: We had the representation of almost every ethnic and sectarian group in Iraq. And during the discussion, they were labeling each other. And they were saying something to the effect like, you know, “All Yazidis are not integrating in society. They live on their own. They don’t intermarry.” Yeah. All the stereotypes that you can think of, of a minority group that is not well integrated.
NELUFAR: Remind you of anything?
CATHERINE: I just have an issue with people not fitting in. I just miss Britishness and I feel like it’s being lost.
NELUFAR: They might be on opposite sides of the world, but my mate Cat and these Iraqis have a lot in common. Hearing Alma say this felt like a clear bell ringing in my head. These fears — Cat’s and the Iraqi’s — come from the same place.
ALMA: There was a lot of pushback, but then all of a sudden, there was a bit of a conversation from some of them around how they too have suffered, especially from Shiites who have been suffering from a lot of explosions in their communities.
NELUFAR: It was at this point Alma asked a magical question that opened up a moment of understanding between the groups.
ALMA: My intervention is around who has the highest grievance in the room. Is it that the person who lost a hundred, or lost five, or 10 people, or five people? And we reached an agreement that any harm against any individual is not acceptable.
NELUFAR: As they talked, people from different communities started to learn about each other.
ALMA: Another Yazidi lawyer who was in the room, a female, they invited the other participants, the other young people, to come to their community and visit with them and to see firsthand what was going on. They extended an olive branch or they showed a goodwill gesture to one another. And I think the credit really goes to them. It doesn’t go to me. I just created the environment.
NELUFAR: Alma says that the key to all of this was listening — being a more careful listener.
ALMA: It’s good to have a heated debate, but if you pass the point where it’s respectful, I think it becomes like a movie, right? A wise listener is one that is listening to others without formulating a response. He or she is genuinely interested in what you are saying. Whether you like it or you don’t like it, you create the space and you give people the chance to express what they think. And that is a wise listener. He or she are listening deeply to what you are saying, regardless of how they feel about it.
NELUFAR: Listening. I know. It sounds like the most basic thing ever. But to be a careful listener means really trying to understand someone else’s perspective, not just getting enough information so that you can clap back with your own opinion. It’s about understanding, instead of doubling down on everything you feel and think you know.
But how do you do that? Particularly with someone you don’t like, with someone you just can’t talk to, can’t negotiate with. How do you really listen to someone when it’s gotten so far that you actually might hate them?
If that’s where you’re at, then you need to hear from Sammy Rangel. He co-founded Life After Hate, which helps people break free from extremist hate groups, and then teaches them how to, well, listen, and how to love again.
Warning: This is the part of the show where we’re going to talk about abuse. So if you need to duck out, now is the time.
Sammy told me that for him, forgiveness was the first step, especially for the person who hurt him the most: his mother.
I had always had the sense that my mom had spent most of my childhood trying to kill me through, you know, through the beatings and the torture and the abuse. Beyond being loveless, there was a lot of hatred inside of her, a lot of violence, and I think she expressed that through me.
An average day for me: I usually slept on the floor, on what I now know was like moving blankets. I used to pee the bed, so I’d wake up either being yelled at or hit because I had peed the bed. And then, depending on the mood, my mom might make me put my underwear in my mouth, or she might just beat me until I start bleeding from somewhere. That’s a pretty, that to me, that’s a pretty mild day.
NELUFAR: There aren’t really words for how hard Sammy’s childhood was. His upbringing in Wisconsin was full of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
SAMMY: From very young, you know, toddler, that I can remember — that was my life. I reached a point where I wasn’t going to be able to take it anymore. It wasn’t anger. It, I was, I do know that — it was not anger. It was more of the sense that I’m dying. I felt my life leaving my body, and at 11 years old, man, I walked out onto the streets, and I spent the rest of my life running from home.
By the end of that first summer, I was already committing crimes. I had already seen people murdered. Somebody tried to force me to murder someone. I had started having sex, I was in a gang, I was doing drugs and alcohol. I was committing crimes. I was being groomed by people who were trying to teach me how to survive the streets.
NELUFAR: At 17, Sammy was charged with a violent crime and was sent to a maximum-security prison in Southern Illinois.
This particular prison was a stronghold for white supremacist groups, especially the Aryan Nation Brotherhood. To protect himself in prison, Sammy linked up with a Puerto Rican gang. One day, all the racial tensions came to a head.
SAMMY: I survived a race riot — a full-scale race riot, like the ones you see on TV, you know. I was surrounded by 30 white supremacists, fighting them off, they were attacking me. They were all armed, I was armed, and here’s this black man who is unarmed — and out of everyone that gets shot — a black man died trying to save my life. He did save my life.
NELUFAR: The way Sammy tells it, this was one of the only times in his life he had experienced compassion and caring love. Sammy had been taught to hate. Generosity, selflessness — it didn’t make sense to him.
Over 10 years in prison, he got into more fights with inmates and even beat up a couple of prison guards. A lot of his time was spent in solitary confinement. Until:
SAMMY: I was in a really bad situation in a prison cell. I was in a maximum-security prison, triple max, and I was strapped to a steel cot just inches off the floor. But someone actually walked up to my cell and knocked on my door. And then he does something even crazier than that. He says, “Hello, I’d like to talk to you.”
NELUFAR: This visitor was Dr. Masakio, a prison psychiatrist who was also a hostage negotiator. He seemed to see Sammy. To acknowledge his personhood. To validate his existence. He made Sammy feel human and worth listening to.
Dr. Masakio convinced the prison to let Sammy visit his office without being chained. That’s where Sammy learned the empty chair exercise.
SAMMY: When he asked me to imagine my mother sitting there, I had to re-humanize her, ’cause I had to see her body there. And what I saw, what I would see in my mind, was a monster. The worst person in the world. Like the most — you know, like this villain. And I had to see her sitting there and wondering what, what that might be like, you know? But what was even worse was when he made me sit in the chair and pretend to be her, right. Now, now I have to think, “What would she think? What would she feel?”
NELUFAR: It was a game-changer.
SAMMY: It made me see her as a human being. That’s what it did for me, you know? It took all the hate and put it back into the shape of a person, you know, that I still loved.
NELUFAR: Putting himself in the chair of the person he could not understand — could not even bring himself to speak to — it did two things. It forced him to see the monster for what she was: a flawed person, but a person, nevertheless. It also gave him control over the situation and what he was going through.
SAMMY: He put my humanity back on, you know, he turned it on. He helped me flip the switch. And it was, it was in that moment when I had to say what I thought she would say — what I guess maybe what I wanted her to say, which was, “I’m sorry” — and mean it. And when, when I was able to verbalize that on her behalf, it was in that moment I knew I was going to change. Like that I wasn’t going to be this way anymore. And I haven’t looked back since.
NELUFAR: When he got out after nearly 15 years in prison, Sammy got a master’s in social work and co-founded Life After Hate in the process. Now he helps victims of abuse and he helps ex-members of hate groups to reintegrate into society.
[SLOW SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: Sammy’s experience is completely different to mine. He suffered abuse and forgave his mother. I had a political disagreement with my best friend. But if Sammy could forgive his abuser, surely he could help me learn to accept my friend — and our differences.
NELUFAR: When I called my friend Cathy a racist because of how she voted when I have been her best friend for over nine years. I, I called her a racist because I wanted to hurt her as much as she hurt me. ’Cause I thought she represented a system that was trying to hold me down.
SAMMY: Well, I think it’s important to remember –– you mentioned the word “hurt.” And while I was expressing hate, what I was really expressing was hurt, like a long list of hurts. And of course, you know, to hurt, like you said — I think you really captured that, you know, you wanted to hurt her as much as, you know, you were hurt by her. And I think I spent my whole life, 30 years, you know, doing that.
It’s what I call time-bending. You take your points of time where you were injured, but you’re not actually responding to that moment. You’re responding to everything that moment reminds you of.
Hate forces you to move so fast, you know, too fast. It’s the speed of light, you know, it’s… Love requires that you slow down and, you know, you, you face it, you confront it, you feel it, you absorb it, you give it back, you know, like nurture it. You can’t nurture anything when you’re running from so many things in your life.
[SLOW SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: When Cat told me that she voted yes for Brexit, I was enraged and confused. I felt like I was on a debate stage in front of a live audience, fighting against someone I barely knew.
But a good friend needs to give the other space to be heard, and needs to take the time to reflect. During my conversation with Cat, I noticed that she did the thing that I needed to do. She gave me space to make my point about immigration. And with that space, I got what I needed off my chest. I did not reciprocate.
Listening and forgiveness work hand in hand. It’s almost impossible to talk to a friend you’re angry at, and it’s even harder to give them the space they need to feel heard. If you can put yourself in their shoes and really carefully listen, it becomes possible for one or both of you to change — and for your friendship to grow closer.
I’m going to take the time with Cat. I need to reflect on the way I’ve been negotiating our vote over Brexit and immigration with her. I need to do what she’s done, and try to find common ground where possible, and ease the pain and fear where it isn’t.
That’s our show today. And I want to hear from you. How are you finding ways to agree, to disagree, with others in your life? Tweet us at @DohaDebates, and me at @Nelufar.
Course Correction is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. If you like what you hear, please rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.