On October 14, talks about the building of a mosque on ground zero became quite heated during the Hot Topics segment on The View (a morning talk show on ABC). Bill O’Reilly, conservative host of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, cited President Obama’s liberal support of the cause as inappropriate, and interpreted the then upcoming mid-term election as a referendum on his politics. While the relatively younger hosts tried to be heard, even Joy Behar’s protest, “This is America,” was drowned by O’Reilly’s paternal set down: “Listen to me, because you’ll learn.” Whoopi Goldberg tried to clarify if he was trying to claim that most Americans are not smart enough to understand presidential/political remarks in light of the constitutional rights of the people. But when O’Reilly categorically blamed (all) Muslims for causing destruction on 9/11, both Goldberg and Behar walked out.
Veteran host, Barbara Walters, who was also present, chastised her fellow hosts, declaring washing off one’s hands or walking off is no way to handle an issue; moreover, O’Reilly was their guest. More importantly, she took O’Reilly to task for not finessing his words, pointing out that he couldn’t demean an entire religion. She told him he owed an apology for attacking “all” Muslims if he meant “some” extremist elements among them. He did so, excusing his remarks as “inartful.” While Walters, with the returned hosts, then turned to O’Reilly’s new book, Pinheads and Patriots, her opinion of his behavior was clear in sum, “And at this point, it’s very hard to see which you are.”
Publicity gimmick or genuine drama? Millions wondered.
Regardless, it is moot if Bill O’Reilly was merely “inartful" in explaining himself and his apology genuine or if he was backed into making that apology. Walter’s point is well made, however. “All” and “some” are not interchangeable clauses. And there are extremist elements in other religions/groups. Indeed, there are many occasions when we may be guilty of being “inartful" in explaining ourselves, and thus cause others grief, at the very least. But stoking prejudices, exacerbating hard feelings, and provoking debate whether to sell books or talk shows to maintain one’s lifestyle is unacceptable. And when our thoughtless utterances may breed terror and hatred, it is unconscionable.
While Behar and Goldberg were right in peaceably protesting their disagreement with O’Reilly by walking off, instead of indulging in any form of violence, it is even better if we can stay and find a resolution. But doing so is often not easy. Perhaps their walking off was even necessary to provoke Barbara Walters’s reprimand and consequent insistence on an apology. We need to be able to openly discuss controversial issues and insist on a respectful hearing.
For many, this incident (especially the first part leading to the walk-off) exemplifies why they fear controversy and conflict. But it is time to break this taboo, and go beyond our dependence on formal disciplinary education and career diplomacy for conflict resolution. It is time to recognize that such interaction begins on a nuclear level of society: the family, and spreads outward. It is time we welcomed these topics into our classrooms and coffee shops and national conversations without sexist set downs and the fear of being lampooned.
Conflict, in this case, religious conflict, does not just arise at the national or international level; it grows malevolently at the cellular level. And it stands to reason that if we are unable to hold these conversations with any sophistication among families and friends and across regions, we can not suddenly expect to be successful in brokering peace treaties between entire ethnicities and religions and nations.
The incident revealed once again that we don’t know enough about other cultures; it also revealed a lack of ability to look at oneself, one’s own religion and culture or even language, critically. Certainly, a greater recognition and appreciation between and among global cultures is required. We need more, not less, dialogue between cultures, groups, religions, etc. It is time for the elder statesmen/women to form meaningful partnerships across all ages and allow these relationships to strengthen their collective voice. It is a weighty role, and we need many such people to help foster civility and tolerance to broker peace, understanding, and hope in our world.
From guest contributor Anju Kanwar