I’m an early riser; often spending an hour or so each morning after breakfast and before going to the office at my computer working on my latest book or an essay for local consumption. This morning, however, I became engrossed in a Facebook chat with a young Zimbabwean that completely altered my usual schedule.
The young man, whose name I will not disclose here for reasons of his personal privacy, is obviously angry at the West; and the US in particular, for reasons that after an hour of back and forth, I was unable to determine. What did come through clearly was that he has completely internalized the misleading information that has been fed to young people in Zimbabwe for the past several years, leading many of them to believe that Western policies and actions are completely responsible for the country’s problems.
Our conversation, quite blunt, and at some points bordering on outright rudeness on his part, went back and forth, more often than not veering into the past or far afield from the country, didn’t really go anywhere, and I doubt that I changed his views. What I did try to do, though, was show that it is possible to have a disagreement without becoming disagreeable, and that I am willing to engage in conversation with someone who holds views counter to my own. I might disagree with his opinion, but I will vigorously defend his right to hold them. I enjoy a lively debate, in fact, but find it more productive when it sticks to the issue and doesn’t wander all over the place, descending into ad hominem attacks and unrelated rhetoric when one side in the argument hasn’t clearly thought out his position. I also encourage young people to express their views – as long as they keep to the point.
While the morning wasn’t productive as far as my current writing project is concerned, it was nonetheless useful. I hope it at least demonstrated to this one young man that it is possible for a member of the general population to engage with a senior official. In a country, though, where one can be prosecuted or beaten for making veiled or even indirect criticisms of the head of state, it is unlikely that this young man will ever be able to engage in such a debate with one of his own officials. There’s the greatest tragedy.