I usually start off my fall newsletters by addressing the inevitable stress of the transitions in families and workplaces as summer vacations come to a close. This year, however, the relaxing summer we leave behind feels tainted by the devastating news filtering in every day from fault lines around the world steeped in unthinkable strife and conflict. Many of us, whose daily worlds often seem to keep us strenuously occupied all on their own, are rightfully feeling pulled toward a more acute awareness of the broader, shared political worlds in which we live. However, the ways in which we receive information about conflict in the world frequently do not help us think critically. In the information age many of these stories fly at us in a rapid, decontextualized and disorienting pattern. Attempting to regain some feeling of security and locate ourselves in a world shaken by conflict, and the amorphous threat of its spread, we may end up demonizing other viewpoints, rather than being open to increased understanding.
Conflicts do not arise in a vacuum. Often the situation hits the news only when it has already escalated into violence or dangerous brinksmanship. In a reality where the possibilities of peace and violence are constructed strictly around powerful actors wielding coercive force, the specter of violence is answered with more violence, and human lives become abstractions. It is important to recognize that there can be other intervention points.
International mediation organizations, such as Mediators Beyond Borders (MBB), work to create the space for difficult conversations amongst members of society who can play a role in transforming deeply rooted conflicts. In GreeceMBB has partnered with The Hellenic Mediation and Arbitration Centre to address tensions arising from the charged combination of heavy austerity measures and large influxes of migrants. In another project MBB has worked to support and amplify cross-cultural dialogue and mediation efforts in mixed communities Israel.
The big and powerful actors, like state governments and militaries, can appear to function on an untouchable level to these kinds of efforts, but members in society who are able to organize and support efforts for peace show cracks in that impenetrability. For example, Guy Grossman, a reserve member of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), founded the organizationCourage to Refuse amongst IDF soldiers who felt a moral obligation to refuse to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories. These kinds of “acts of transcendence” that resist violent escalation from so near the very heart of its normative center can germinate and find support in the community ties forged through mediation and peace work.
Intentionally holding space for difficult conversations can also play a very significant role amongst the top-level actors in moving towards peace. The Swiss Peace Foundation, a practice oriented peace research institute, is supporting a reflective process for those involved in the peace process in Myanmar, where after more than 60 years of conflict the government and multiple armed groups are engaging in an ongoing peace process.
The point of this discussion is not to explain away, whitewash, or downplay the difficulty, complexity, or acute horrors of violent conflicts occurring around the world. When violence and coercion become the primary forms of engagement in a conflict the result is traumatic, and mediation is not always a possible solution.
Scenarios known as intractable conflicts, a topic I wrote about in June of this year, present as a deeply complex challenge to all practitioners hoping to use conflict resolution or transformation frameworks to preserve and create the possibilities for peace. However, employing these critical frameworks can still help in developing a deeper understanding of a conflict, and contribute to formulating thoughtful responses that avoid the trap of fearful reactivity.
One of the most difficult aspects of international conflicts of the sort that we have seen escalating this summer is the role of power in determining the context of interactions between disputing parties (see two of my blogposts from May & Juneabout power). Power is not a static variable, and in each of these situations the present eruptions are couched in a long history of complex power relations between different states, citizens, and other community affiliations. Cycles of power, injustice, and trauma are all embedded in the current moments of violence.
Seeking an alternative, deeper understanding of conflicts playing out among the global human population does not replace the need to reflect and grieve in the face of terrible human violations. However, it can help us to see where intervention into the issues at stake might be possible, and to identify initiatives we would like to support. Rather than responding with panic or disillusionment, we can choose to respond to the broader structural phenomenon that cause human suffering and give rise to violence and desperation. We can also seek ways in which it is possible to provide relief to those suffering most acutely from the violence, all the while remaining reflective of problematic power relations. Instead of giving up and “othering,” we can choose to participate in building a world where the end to such horrors is imaginable.
As the tips below demonstrate seeking understanding and dialogue supports the development of society norms regarding actively exercising care for others that are both far and near, and realizing that we are part of something bigger than just ourselves in living together as humans on this planet.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.