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The Goal is Sacred Space

Naniette Coleman's picture

When Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first goal of the World Cup, that beautiful, upper right hand corner net buster, just minutes into the second half, I fell in love. I took to my suburban balcony, danced with wild abandon, and screamed “GOAL SOUTH AFRICA, GOAL BAFANA BAFANA” at the top of my lungs. I celebrated because during the 55th minute, of the first game, of the first World Cup on African soil, we all accomplished something great. No, I did not fall in love with Tshabala or South Africa or Bafana, Bafana per se in those moments. I actually fell in love with the idea of world collaboration all over again.   I fell in love with the idea that if we are all present in one room/stadium and devoted to the same initiative, magic can happen. It was ethereal, and I, I was committed and in love and on top of the world for about 24 hours before reality brought me and all that idealism back to earth. Actually, it was the words escaping the mouths of my fellow Americans during the US vs. England game.

The exact words spoken by the two inebriated gentleman, sitting just right of me in the Hell’s Kitchen bar in New York where I perched, watching the game, went something like this, “expletive South Africa,” “expletive England,” “expletive Mexico,” and so on and so forth until they had pretty much made their way through all eight groups of competing countries. Dumbfounded, with mouth agape, I literally stopped watching the game and started typing my blog into the sms function on my phone. I did not want the moment to pass without my taking serious stock of what I had just witnessed. What struck me was how fast we shifted from the world smiling and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu dancing, to “expletive South Africa.”  Why is it that loving my team, means hating yours?

The experience made me think back on a conference I recently attended called “The Media as Global Diplomat – Seizing the Moment: Media & Peace Building” sponsored by the Independent Television Service, the United States Institute for Peace and Sesame Workshop. The one-day event at the Newseum explored the role of media in public diplomacy. One particularly energetic panel brought the debate to life for me bringing the voices of veteran journalists, bloggers, foreign correspondents and academics to life.  The discussion entitled “The New News: Media at the Crossroads” was moderated by Michel Martin, Host of Tell Me More, on National Public Radio and included: Dan Froomkin, Senior Washington Bureau Chief, Huffington Post; Marvin Kalb, Veteran Broadcaster and Visiting Expert, U.S. Institute of Peace; Riz Khan, Senior News Anchor, Al Jazeera English; Rebecca MacKinnon, Co-founder, Global Voices and Frank Sesno, Director, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University

Over the course of an hour and a half panelists debated the changing media landscape and how and if the “new” news business could be used to improve global conflict prevention.  Along the way they raised some interesting points. Panel after panel had questions but no answers. In the end, all agreed that media is changing, and we can all influence what is out there because of social networking, blogging, YouTube et al. But much like the end of a soccer match where my team is playing yours the discussion ended with disparate views. We could not agree on the possibility of media, and hard journalism in particular, buttressing public diplomacy efforts. But what we could agree on was that we needed to keep exploring, keep meeting and not give up on the discussion.

I thought of this workshop and panelist and Huffington post staffer Dan Froomkin after my “Hell’s Kitchen” experience because Froomkin referred to conflict in general and he was in the middle of one in particular for most of the workshop. He said, in defense of social networking websites, war starts when we demonize our opponents. If we are actually friends with people from “there” on a social networking website it makes it harder for us to believe that they are evil. It is, after all, easy to think ill of “them” when “we” are over here, “they” are over there, and we do not interact. To his point, I would add that it is also easy to demonize our opponents when there is a perception (real or imagined) that they are not present in the room with us. In the case of my chanting American colleagues in Hell’s kitchen, “they” actually were present. A number of South Africans, Australians and Brits were at the end of the bar becoming fast friends because of their commonly perceived enemy. 

Conflicts are never as simple as bad versus good, right versus wrong or us versus them and rarely as simplistic as what appears in history books. When seeking to build coalitions across groups with cultural and linguistic differences, whether they are ethnic groups, tribal groups, nation states or rabid soccer fans, we cannot assume the camaraderie or simplicity that exists in a homogenous group. We will both have ingrained opinions on who did what to whom and whose fault it was. We will both have our deep-rooted views on history: who wrote it, why they wrote it the way they did and who was included or left out. 

One of the key takeaways I, well, took away with me, from the “Media as Global Diplomat” conference and Hell’s kitchen was the idea that new dialogue cannot begin with conflict or with history. History is always a point of contention between entrenched groups and will always remain open for interpretation. Coalition building across heterogeneous groups becomes more difficult when we focus on the demons of the past and fail to see the opportunity in the present. So, where should coalition minded homogeneous groups begin?  Perhaps by creating a space for dialogue with rules that respect our different takes on the past and our hopes for the future. A space where we can believe in our team, support other teams and the larger goal of our project. We may not agree on who started the conflict but we can all agree that we both want it to stop. We may not agree on how to stop it but we all agree that tomorrow is not soon enough. We may not agree on whom we want to win the World Cup but we can agree that no one benefits from the demonization of another team. 

On that note, go USA and go everyone else too!


Photo courtesy of Flickr user Axel Bührmann


Submitted by Jillian on
Love the blog Naniette, and the conference topic you mention reminded me of our week at the Deutche Welle last summer on the topic of conflict resolution in a multimedia age. Besides the boat cruise, this was memorable for me not because of the clarity of conclusions that were finalized, but rather the space for dialogue it opened. Totally agree with you there! Anyways, love the blog and your thoughts! Keep up the great work! Greetz from Entebbe, Jillian

Jillian, Thank you for the reminder of days gone by. I also enjoyed the 2009 Deutche Welle World Media Forum in Bonn, Germany. Please do keep me posted on your work. I'm glad our blog has been helpful! Greetings from DC! Naniette

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