A personal pledge provoked by the debates about Syria
About 95% of all debates about conflicts and war that we see in politics, mainstream media, the Internet and social media focus on the violence, who uses more or less of it and who is, therefore, the evil party.
This approach places direct violence – such as human rights violations, killings, bombings etc. – in the centre of the attention and that is unfortunate because violence is always only a symptom. I call this the simplifying or reductionist approach; invariably it has populist connotations too and usually ends up in mud-slinging.
I argue in this analysis that this reductionist approach is counterproductive and that – because of the defining characteristics of these debates – the underlying conflicts/problems that cause the violence are never in focus and that no international complex conflict can be explained even rudimentarily by asserting that one single individual’s personality or behaviour is the root cause, the problem or the conflict itself.
Secondly, I explain what makes the reductionist approach so typical and ‘natural’ in the eyes of Westerners. We have to be aware of the deficits of this entire approach to conflict which, I argue, is also related to Western ways of thinking, including Christianity. (You may jump this section if you are more attracted to practical implications than to philosophy).
The third section deals with the conflict and peace approach as an alternative – arguing that only through that can we arrive at the necessary dimension: How can the violence stop and how can the conflicting parties change their perceptions, attitudes and the problem/conflict that stands between them so that peace can unfold. Like the science of medicine, it has a focus on the disease and we do a Diagnosis, Prognosis and Treatment by finding the root causes rather than just treating symptoms.
Finally I make the pledge to never again participate in discussions within the reductionist discourse of the violence and who-is-good-and-who-is-bad. I will spend my energy, instead, on the constructive conflict and peace approach that is also the only one that will benefit the innocent victims in conflict zone, the people who have never even thought of taking up arms.
In short, it is a refusal to let the violence and ‘evil’ individuals take centre stage in any discourse and instead look at problems and their resolution together with peace-building and thus – Gandhian style – let non-violence and peace-making by peaceful means take centre stage:
Since this author is a peace and future researcher, I shall no longer participate in any discussion or debate about a conflict or war in which the main focus is on the direct violence and one or more participants point out that they know who the bad guy is and seek to frame or place me on this or that or the other side.
Under “PS” you’ll find my four-part view on matter of justice which of course is part and parcel of peace-building.
• • •
I’ve experienced it repeatedly over the last good 20 years, since the bad old days of Yugoslavia’s dissolution wars and I see it now, only more viciously, in the discussions about Syria in the old media as well as the social media:
If you are not clearly supporting party A to a conflict you must be a supporter of B.
From that follows:
Since I am in favour of the good guy A, you are a bad guy because you side with B (or don’t side with A).
This approach can be categorised as simplistic and reductionist. It prevents an understanding of what a conflict is about and hinders peace thinking and proposals.
It also amounts to legitimating more war.
This approach is wrong and counterproductive because invariably it:
1) builds on the assumption that there are only two sides in a conflict; that is never the case in complex international conflict;
2) builds on the either/or fallacy that you must be pro-B since you are not pro-A, overlooking the simply fact that one could also sympathize with party C and/or M and/or V; alternatively that all participants behave in such a manner that you sympathise with no one;
3) focuses on parties, or actors, and not on the underlying problems that make the parties fight each other;
4) satisfies people’s more or less narcissistic need for being right and being confirmed as being morally superior – irrespective of whether or not they understand the issues;
5) builds implicitly upon the assumption that the two parties represent Good and Evil and that all of the good ones are on one side, all of the bad ones on the other;
6) creates endless, sterile debates because when you accuse someone of being on the “evil” or “wrong” side you achieve only a quarrel among the debaters who will begin to fight each other (arguments, accusations, slander etc) and then quickly forget their interest in the particular conflict;
7) leads to dangerous consequences: people side with actors they judge on the basis of their behaviour and since behaviour is often violent, the through-going theme tends to be: Who did most violence – who committed the worst crimes and how can you defend or take sides with somebody who uses (that much) violence?
8 ) promotes automatically the completely wrong idea that the violence (say, violations of human rights and/or international law and war crimes) is the issue. It never is because violence is always only a symptom of some underlying issue or problem – i.e. the conflict/incompatibility itself;
9) divides the parties into good guys and bad guys and, thus, legitimates – implicitly, at least – that the (assumed) good guys that I side with can go on doing what he does, including using violence, because he is right and the wrong ones must be stopped. This in itself is, by definition, violence-promoting and builds on the idea that there is a good violence that fights evil violence.
This reductionist, self-serving discourse is typical of tons of quarrels we find daily in comments under articles on online sites as well as on social media such as Facebook.
They are counterproductive and a waste of time for peace-oriented people.
Where does this whole thinking come from?
It comes from a quite Western-Christian philosophical and political type of thinking or discourse that dichotomises – divides complex and often overlapping categories into two separate ones – such as left-right, female-male, believer-pagan, man-nature, centre-periphery, right-wrong, good-evil, body-soul, guilty-innocent – and so on.
And not only dichotomises things but make them mutually exclusive: It’s either/or and not both/and. There are no overlapping positions on a linear scale. No possibility of bridging. No way we could both both be right on some issue and perhaps wrong too on some other. In short two-fold tables, never four-fold tables.
Secondly, it comes from a Western emphasis on the individual not the group, the event more than the process and fascination with (violent) eruptions and turning points in history – all coming together in the way our politicians and media tend, without reflection, to perceive the world and present it to us.
A conflict must have a 1st class bad guy, we tell you how bad and dictatorial he is, how many he has killed and tortured etc – and if only he could be taken out of the equation everything will be fine and the conflict go away. The demon is needed to mobilise energy because “we” must sacrifice and fight that evil until the bitter end. It can be called fear-ology or mass hysteria depending on how it is done.
There has to be such a favourite hate object, someone we can project our own dark, shadowy side onto but, more importantly, someone whose personality and behaviour can serve in a favourite, carefully selected and propagated narrative as the explanatory factor and as justification for all what we do – which is not always so very noble as we like to believe.
Thus conflicts are located in a human being – that political and media elites have authorised themselves as high judges and appointed this or that leader as the embodiment of evil and who, in most cases, actually is not even being given a fair hearing. You know some of them: Manuel Noriega in Panama, Mohamed Fahrar Ideed in Somalia, Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia/Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and, latest, Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
These people are, by definition, non-human and do not have the privilege to be heard, no understanding and no talk with that type. They only understand one language, namely the language of violence.
In this dominant Western conception, evil and good for that matter – as well as the conflict itself (if ever mentioned) – is never, located in structures, systems, economies, history or trauma – no, evil resides inside a thoroughly bad person. And if he is not that bad he can always be demonised, made into a dictator – a new Hitler as President Clinton called Slobodan Milosevic before bombing Kosovo and Serbia.
Of course, it goes without saying but should be stated anyhow: this is possible because there is seldom a smoke without a fire.
The leaders mentioned above are not innocent; they’ve certainly done things that can be denounced, condemned. But it begs the obvious intellectual and moral question: What about similar characters at whom no fingers are pointed because they happen to be our friends, allies or partner in (our) crime?
And in those concrete cases: How come they were all friends or allies of the West until one day they did something unacceptable and from then on became demonised, a political target and, in some cases, had to be liquidated?
Thirdly, it comes from an obsession with guilt and punishment: Find out who is the guilty person – the culprit – punish that person and the problem will go away and justice restored to the community. The difference is that in a normal court room there is a lawyer and the accused is given a fair chance to defend her/himself. Not so in international politics. Once you are convicted, there is nothing you can do. Even if you do something acceptable or good, it is just a proof of how sly or cunning you are.
This way of thinking never leads to peace
This reductionist and simplifying approach ignores basically everything we need in order to make peace happen such as:
A focus on the problems that stands between the parties and for which reason they have come to use violence in the first place. As stated above: violence is never anything but symptoms. Discussions about who is using it and to what extent – who is “the worst” – completely miss the essential questions that can lead to resolution and peace:
• At what point did a latent conflict become manifest to the parties?
• What made them at that point take to physical and/or other types of violence?
• What can be done to the underlying conflicts so violence dies down?
In sharp contrast to the reductionist approach above, the issue or problem is not embodied in a person but
a) stands between the parties,
b) comes from an incompatibility of wishes, goals, perceptions and views of the desired future,
c) make the parties both fear and wish something,
d) has become so dangerous and violent because it has not been dealt with before or may have been treated wrongly/superficially before and, finally
e) may have grown out of traumas (i.e. past history ignored) and accumulated into hatred and an unstoppable desire for revenge.
We all know that when we go to a doctor it isn’t helpful if she or he only looks at symptoms. The symptoms must be seen as indicators of causes and when the causes are known and verified through diagnosis – and only then – can the doctor and the patient move towards treatment and healing and good health again. Or applied to the field of politics: towards peace again.
We must change this discourse
The focus on violence instead of problems promotes further warfare and violence. Because it legitimates the forces that drive violent impulses and self-righteous use of it.
The focus on problems – the incompatibility we call conflict – that stand between the parties is the relevant one because conflicts can only be solved and peace built when we know what the problem – not the symptoms – are. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what it is. You can’t help make peace if you do not know what it is the parties see as a problem – and that problem may be seen as “the others who stand in my way” but, more deeply, it is always about an incompatibility on several dimensions and then about something the parties fear and something they want to achieve.
A conflict can only be solved if there is a deeper understanding of a) all the parties and their complex histories, b) the issues that stand between them and, when they cannot handle it themselves, c) a neutral and impartial intervention by mediators who work with the parties about ways to move towards a better future. And here future is important.
No conflict can be solved by looking only for the past in the rear mirror – because that’s where the traumas, injustices, fear, threats and negative attitudes that lead to the use of violence are found. You can deal with these dimensions in a truth and reconciliation commission and sure, traumas and grievances must never be swept under the carpet because then they will come up again later.
But the future is where peace is situated out of the war and violence and therefore mediation and conflict-resolution processes are essentially about the future, or futures. It’s about dialoguing with each and every party (individually, then in pairs, then in larger groups) to the conflict what a good future would be in their eyes and then see to which extent there is something overlapping. It’s essentially about brainstorming and helping the parties to change attitudes, perceptions and behaviours to accommodate themselves into a space where all get as much as possible of what they want and as little as possible of what they fear.
It’s often about seeing a field beyond the “realistic”, bring in new elements, new ways of thinking and the wider horizon where what happens in war processes is basically tunnel vision.
Such a method is also the only way to secure that when they sign the peace treaty – something immensely more complex than a ceasefire agreement – they will also feel that the treaty is theirs, that they have a responsibility to implement it in good faith and that the process of building peace is theirs, a space for training co-operation and trust-building where before there was only confrontation, mistrust and worse.
Conflict-resolution, therefore, is a science and an art.
There are numerous techniques in the toolbox of mediation, dialoguing, conflict-resolution and peace-making – including truth-seeking, forgiveness and reconciliation. That is the science part and it takes professionally educated people to bring it about. Sadly such people are missing in all such conflict-handling processes around the world which are dominated by politicians, diplomats, militaries and other who, while often well-meaning, most often can be characterised by two negative characteristics: a) they are really aiming to help facilitating a peace that will be good for all conflicting parties but have orders to serve their own country’s (irrelevant) interests and b) they lack every professional education in conflict-analysis and all the rest on the way to sustainable peace.
Most of today’s negotiations about peace, say concerning Ukraine or Syria, can appropriately be characterised as conflict and peace illiteracy. It begins with the idea that a mediator can take parties straight from the battle field and sit them down around a table with the parties confronting each other as in that field; it goes on to inviting all the violent fractions and ignore the 95-98 per cent of citizens who have never touched a gun, who have suffered most and whose future is at stake and it ends with not even offering a referendum and not placing enough resources at the disposal of the parties to build the new, peaceful society and finally blame one or the other for ‘breaking the peace we so generously helped you plan.’
There is still a long way to go, for sure.
What then is the art part?
That is the part that deals with developing visions of a better future for all and plans to achieve such a better future. That takes imagination, creativity and very deep listening to all sides with all their different views followed by a highly developed ability to put the jigsaw possible or mosaic together into something desirable for all. In co-operation with the parties. It’s like the artist who stands at the empty canvas, has all the colours and brushes at his disposal and only has a vague idea about the final picture – and painting over here and there many times until it is right.
It is not peace-making when an outsider prepares a plan, presents it to the parties and say: Sign here on the bottom line! That is amateur peace-making – without even a referendum for those who shall live inside that new structure – is no peace at all and it will fall apart, sooner or later, and perhaps lead to a new war.
Concluding with a pledge
Since this author is a peace and future researcher, I shall no longer participate in any discussion or debate about a conflict or war in which the main focus is on the direct violence and one or more participants point out that they know who the bad guy is and seeks to frame or place me on this or that or the other side.
For years, I have tried patiently to inject conflict and peace knowledge, common sense and decency into such discussions. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is negative energy and time wasted for true peace-making. And it’s a thoroughly populist, anti-intellectual game in which some little knowledge about conflicts and peace is virtually absent.
In its consequences, it even prolongs the violence and the suffering.
It stands in the way – takes energy from – of the necessary and open-minded dialogue and creative exploration through diagnosing, prognosing and treating conflicts that help people to live in peace again.
This also means that I abstain from defending myself against accusations by those who adhere to the reductionist, simplifying approach that I am on this or that side and must be denounced for it.
I believe that my contribution to peace – however small it is in the larger scheme of things – will be just a little larger when I adhere to the constructive, non-violent and professional conflict and peace paradigm and educate others in that – it is quite attractive but also more complex – than if I try to persuade people who adhere to the reductionist paradigm.
This, by the way, is parallel to my decision to invest no more energy in trying to get through in the old media but spending all my energy in the communication on the Internet and the social media.
This may reduce my own and TFF’s influence at the moment but in the longer perspective the old media as we know them today will be dying out and people – youngsters in particular – will get news and views in other ways than picking up the newspaper in the mailbox and watching the prime time TV news.
Finally, this is not only a Gandhi-inspired decision and pledge. It is also expressive of a philosophy expressed so brilliantly by George Bernhard Shaw that I have quoted here and there oftentimes:
“Most people look at the world as it is and ask: Why? But what we should do is to look at the world as it could be and ask: Why not?”
Readers who have followed this far may ask: But what to do then with people who have committed crimes? That is very understandable and legitimate concern and my answer has these elements:
a) Follow first the philosophy I have explained above and focus on the conflict, solve it and make peace also when sometimes that requires the participation of those who are believed to have committed crimes;
b) Even if it goes against our sense of justice and fairness think through this humanitarian dilemma: If you believe someone should be punished because he or she has committed crimes against a few, many or even masses, weigh that consideration against the possible costs to even more victims of not finding peace, of letting the war continue because you want the evil guy to disappear (likely through warfare until he falls) before the peace process starts. Remember, while Saddam Hussein murdered thousands and invaded Iran with huge human costs, it cost about 1 million innocent Iraqi lives to get rid of him through 13 years of sanctions and ongoing warfare since 2003. And there is nothing that can be called peace in that land by 2017 when this is written.
c) Remember that all alleged criminals party to a violent conflict must be equal before the law. Selective justice is no justice and if it systematically lets leaders of Western interventions, arms traders and militaries as well as Western-supported proxies/allied militant parties to a conflict at large forever, there is no legal or moral capital left – thus, better drop the whole issue;
d) Always try first a truth and reconciliation process that can open up for more reconciliation, truth and trust-building throughout post-war society.
Nelson Mandela did not insist on trial and punishment for all whites which would, in all likelihood, have released a nationwide blood bath. Together with F. W. de Klerk, the last head of state under South Africa’s apartheid system, he pioneered another process that provided a path to truth and reconciliation rather than punishment and wish for revenge. No, it wasn’t perfect – but not because it was bad or wrong but because there is no perfect way out of such tragedy.
To the extent that such a philosophy could be implemented in other serious, hard and longterm conflicts, it deserves to be tried. Hard justice is not always the only or main way. Personal forgiving and mutual reconciliation – and those impressive humans who do not want to see their son’s murderer punished but want to meet that murderer and understand what happened – deserve to be provided much more time, space, funds and attention than has hitherto been the case in international conflict management and in our media.