Monday, 20 April 2009

A walk-out's a walk-out

I'm perplexed (this often happens on a Monday...) I'm reading reports on BBC News Online that western diplomats have walked out of a speech being given by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UN conference on racism, seemingly because he referred to Israel as a "racist government."

Now if translators are to believed, Ahmadinejad is someone whose views about Israel are wholly offensive, and he is clearly acting true to form today. However, as I switch on "Devil's advocate" mode, I can't help but wonder what the response of the Israeli, American, British and other western governments would be if the diplomats of the entire Arab, or Muslim world (whatever they may be), were to walk-out of a speech given by Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he referred to the dangers posed to his country and the region by one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I imagine our diplomats would be outraged at such truculent behaviour. I had thought that if anything, the UN was at least a talking shop, at which the disparate nations of the world could debate issues, talk to each other. I was always taught that if you disagree strongly with someone, it is best to listen to their point of view and then argue vehemently with them about why in your opinion, they were wrong, in the hope that you might at least make them reflect on their comments. We are often told that one of the strengths of western liberal democracies is our respect for free speech. Pundits often misquote Voltaire, in saying "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." I agree with this sentiment. I would apply it to racists such as the BNP, or extremists who claim to be Muslims in the UK. However unpalatable it may be, we have to engage with those whose view of the world differs with ours. Walking away in disgust is not, in my view, an expression of strength, but more of intellectual arrogance coupled with a lack of rhetorical robustness.

It seems that at the international level, we're going to have to get a lot better at "jaw jawing" if we're ever to move towards ending the nascent "war warring" that sadly exists in the world. We can't just turn our backs and hope that a cold shunning of those we find distasteful will make them go away. It won't.

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