Is Iran our enemy? That's currently a question without a clear answer, highlighting just how difficult it is to negotiate an agreement over nuclear weapons with them. Many in our country — and theirs — see our two nations as enemies.
Throughout history, the tried-and-true method of justifying war has been to dehumanize the enemy. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith argues in Less Than Human that we are hard-wired that way: "Dehumanization," he writes, "[is] a way of thinking — a way of thinking that, sadly, comes all too easily to us."
Label an entire population as terrorists, and there you have it. The government of Iran does support some nasty things, but is that fair to its people?
Other thinkers have wondered how we can overcome these appeals to our animal instincts. The late humanist Richard McKay Rorty concluded in his essay "Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality" that since emotions drive dehumanization, "sentimentality may be the best weapon we have." His favorite example is the book Uncle Tom's Cabin, an emotional hammer that helped to end slavery. In recent times, you could point to Clint Eastwood's parallel World War II films — Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the latter told entirely from the Japanese perspective. In those works of art, the dehumanized become rehumanized.
All that's a long way to say that you should check out the new video series on nytimes.com called "Our Man in Tehran." The seven short films came about after the Times' Tehran Bureau Chief Thomas Erdbrink spent four years seeking permission to film daily life in Iran's capital city. New clips are posted every Tuesday. You'll see how Iranians are not that different from us — they buy Nutella at the corner market, they love Porsches and their government, too, is locked in a debate over progress between religious ultra-conservatives and a more pragmatic, younger bloc. Tehran even has a Startup Weekend.
But you are also constantly reminded that Iran is a totalitarian state — women are banned from, of all things, volleyball matches, and Erdbrink's colleague, Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post, has been jailed for no stated reason since July.
As a way to humanize the people of Iran, the films are powerful. Erdbrink, who is Dutch, has been in Iran for 13 years, speaks Persian and even married a local, photographer Newsha Tavakolian.
In the great tradition of journalism, Erdbrink's videos show us what is true. And when one Iranian woman wonders, "We used to be friends, why are we enemies now?" he challenges us to reflect on how we are conditioned to think about Iran. ♦