[Drawn in part from Conflict Revolution: Designing Preventative Systems for Chronic Social, Economic and Political Conflicts, 2nd Edition, goodmedia press, 2015.]
"Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms, and prayers? Making peace between one another: enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the roots." Muhammad
“We are all partners in a quest. The essential questions have no answers. You are my question, and I am yours – and then there is dialogue. The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. Questions unite people, answers divide them. So why have answers when you can live without them?” Elie Wiesel
“From War to Peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence; it is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life… The world will be regenerated by the people who rise above these passive ways and heroically seek, by whatever hardship, by whatever toil, the methods by which people can agree.” Mary Parker Follett
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Desmond Tutu
As wars, religious and political differences, and international problems such as global warming, environmental degradation and poverty expand their reach, importance and severity, stimulating mass migrations and deepening social tensions, we are increasingly forced to recognize that military solutions cannot succeed; that legal processes take too long to implement; and that diplomacy does not reach deep enough into the ranks of those who are drawn to violence.
It is therefore essential that we find better ways of responding to contentious social, economic and political issues, and invite people to come together across the social, cultural, religious and national borders that divide them and improve their ability to listen, ask questions, discuss, understand, and act together to solve common problems.
It is essential that we find ways that all of us can participate in building bridges across our divided political and cultural landscapes, and not allow ourselves to become silent, passive or overwhelmed as difficult, dangerous and polarizing events drag us into their downward logic.
In the aftermath of wars, terrorist attacks, urban riots, violent conflicts and natural disasters, cleaning up the ashes and debris is a formidable challenge. But it is far more difficult to heal the fury, mistrust, rage, trauma and loss that blocks healing and sparks renewed outbreaks of violence. As Israeli novelist David Grossman eloquently wrote regarding chronic conflict in the Middle East:
I feel the heavy toll that I, and the people I know and see around me, pay for this ongoing state of war. The shrinking of the “surface area” of the soul that comes in contact with the bloody and menacing world out there. The limiting of one’s ability and willingness to identify, even a little, with the pain of others; the suspension of moral judgment. The despair most of us experience of possibly understanding our own true thoughts in a state of affairs that is so terrifying and deceptive and complex, both morally and practically… Because of the perpetual — and all-too-real — fear of being hurt, or of death, or of unbearable loss, or even of “mere” humiliation, each and every one of us, the conflict’s citizens, its prisoners, trim down our own vivacity, our internal mental and cognitive diaspora, ever enveloping ourselves with protective layers, which end up suffocating us.
In response to these overwhelming challenges, what can we do? While large-scale, long-term solutions to war and catastrophe can only be placed in motion by political action, it is possible for each of us in our families, communities and organizations to support the healing process. Often, this means working purely locally to resolve ongoing interpersonal conflicts, which contributes to our overall belief in the efficacy of interest-based processes and ability to stop the seemingly irresistible rush to war.
But it also means simultaneously working globally and preventatively to build the capacity and skills that will be needed if people around the world are to act differently in the future when high stakes political choices are made. This means teaching ways of communicating more effectively across cultural divides, solving common problems jointly and creatively, negotiating collaboratively, resolving disputes without violence or coercion and encouraging forgiveness and reconciliation, even after the worst atrocities. Without these skills, the suffering will simply continue, bringing fresh suffering in its wake.
What is Needed?
As a result of climate change, economic crisis, political corruption, racial and religious intolerance, and economic inequity, significant numbers of people around the world are migrating, moving to greener pastures and searching for better lives. As a consequence, economic resources have become strained, social divisions have deepened, political antagonisms have sharpened, and violence, hatred and intolerance have fractured once stable communities and alliances, escalating conflicts and bringing misery to many.
These issues have proved to be an internal wedge issue for ultra-right and neo-Nazi organization around the world that have scapegoated Muslims, Jews and immigrants as the source of societal problems and encouraged hostility, expulsion and violence in response.
The unimaginable is now stirring, and we are moving toward a watershed in world events, a crossroads where values, ethics and human rights are put to a very real test, creating a flashpoint that could lead either to a resurgence of hatred, violence and war; or to an increase in dialogue, respect and collaboration. The outcome depends, in no small part, on us.
Many countries in Europe are in crisis today, as religious differences and immigration have deeply polarized the population. These countries are not alone, but are rather a harbinger and bellwether of things to come elsewhere in the world. No country is immune from these problems, and no country has discovered a surefire way to solve them.
What is clear is that we require not war and cycles of violence; not denial of problems or well-meaning official pronouncements; not rhetorical speeches, racial denunciations or apathetic silence, but courageous conversations, authentic engagement, genuine listening, and creative problem solving. What we require is dialogue.
What Can Be Done?
After the shooting is over and before the next round of violence, revenge and recrimination begins, a range of possible interventions can be applied broadly in neighborhoods and communities to stimulate healing and prevent the cycle from repeating itself. It is possible, for example, for an international team of experienced conflict resolution professionals, in collaboration with local mediators, trauma specialists, dialogue facilitators and community leaders, to:
What Makes Dialogue Successful?
To achieve these ends and implement these proposals, we need to discover that it is possible to conduct political conversations without sinking into pointless personal attacks and aggressive, competitive, or hostile accusations and counteraccusations that scuttle learning, undermine collaborative problem-solving and democratic decision making, destroy relationships and eliminate any possibility of improvement.
To illustrate how, here are a few questions that can initiate dialogue and shift political conversations in an empathetic or problem solving direction:
The purpose of these questions is not to eliminate or discourage disagreements, but to place them in a context of common humanity and allow genuine disagreements to surface and be discussed openly and in-depth. These questions also reveal that political conversations need not be pointlessly adversarial, but can be transformed into authentic engagements by allowing opposing sides to come to grips with difficult, complex, divisive issues without being hostile or abusive.
A House-by-House, Block-by-Block, Community-by-Community Approach
It is possible for local neighborhoods to establish an expanding network of simple, replicable, peer-based dialogue and community mediation projects in crisis areas, in which multicultural teams of experienced mediators and dialogue facilitators train peers who volunteer, or are elected by their neighbors in the blocks where they live, supporting them in developing their capacity and expanding outward into new areas on a house-by-house, block-by-block, community-by-community basis.
A simple “block-by-block” project might begin, for example, by selecting a small number of diverse families in the same neighborhood, bringing hostile or divergent groups together, asking them to identify the sources of conflict between them and selecting the processes and techniques they might use to resolve them. It would then be possible to train cross-cultural co-mediation/community facilitation teams to help prevent, resolve, transform and transcend local conflicts; or reach consensus on shared cultural values; or facilitate dialogues and problem-solving sessions; or design conflict resolution systems to prevent future conflicts.
In many U.S. neighborhoods, cross-cultural teams of mediators representing African-American, Hispanic, Asian Pacific-American and white communities can be trained in processing feelings of grief and loss or trauma from recent tragedies, solving problems and negotiating with police, officials and other communities; facilitating community dialogues; reducing prejudice against people from different cultures who are seen as “enemies;” using state-of-the-art mediation techniques to resolve community and cross-cultural conflicts; reaching forgiveness and reconciliation; and training trainers in these methods so they can reach others. These efforts can then expand house-by-house, block-by-block and community-by-community until they begin to impact entire societies.
A 12-Step Program for Integrated Capacity Building
Taken together, these strategies and techniques suggest a simple, generic 12-step plan that could be used to increase the capacity of families, neighbors, communities, groups and organizations to help prevent, resolve, transform and transcend their conflicts. These 12 steps can be modified to match local cultures and conditions, and used to break the cycle of revenge and violence that ultimately impacts all of us:
Implementing these generic steps and modifying them to fit local conditions will allow all of us to substantially reduce the destructiveness of conflict and create a platform on which deeper social and political changes might take place. By comparison with the long-term costs of conflict, the most ambitious program imaginable would be inexpensive and well worth undertaking.
Tactically, we are always required to work with what is, but strategically we need to actively create the skills and conditions for effective communication. We cannot, in the long run, afford to leave anyone behind.
On a larger scale, all nations, groups, minorities, cultures, classes, races, and individuals seek to satisfy their own self-interests, yet rarely realize that satisfying the interests of others, including those of their opponents, is essential to satisfying their own. Modern forms of warfare, ecological concerns, revolutions in communication and transportation, and economic globalization no longer permit isolated, short-term understandings of self-interest. The long-term interests of each are now increasingly and directly the interests of all, and vice versa. Albert Camus said it best.
We live in terror because dialogue is no longer possible, because man has surrendered entirely to history, because he can no longer find that part of himself, every bit as real as history, that sees beauty in the world and in human faces. We live in a world of abstractions, bureaucracies and machines, absolute ideas, and crude messianism. We suffocate among people who think they are right in their machines as well as their ideas. For those who can live only with dialogue, only with the friendship of men, this silence means the end of the world.