Sunday, January 17, 2010

Identity as image

The root cause of war is this old, and now obsolete, mental division of the world into “us” and “them.”
—Winslow Myers, Living beyond war, p. 53.

Who we are in the eyes of others is the image we project, but of course it’s different for everyone who reads it because, as we know from the field of constructive conflict management, no two people’s perspective is identical. Thus, we try to project an image of who we mean to be and it’s perceived as that image modified by each person’s observational powers.

Some are affected by personal trauma and cannot see that we mean them no harm.

Some are affected by cultural bias and cannot trust that we have no secret hegemonic agenda.

Some are professionally trained to be suspicious of all who lodge a challenger message.

Some are mostly sheltered by their own narrow vision blinkered by their struggle for survival.

Many are overwhelmed by the clutter of contradictory information and infused with the media imagery that extrapolates from one version of reality into hyperbole and distortion.

How can we overcome these blocks to accurate perception of our identity? Primarily patient persistence.

For example, when I went out into the north woods of Michigan to physically dismantle a portion of the thermonuclear command center, I used my jail time to write letters to editors of small town publications. I did an interview on the local affiliate of public radio. I met with the editor of the only daily paper in the area. Although the first reaction in all cases was incredulity or hostility, careful reworking of the arguments, considerate reframing of the issues, and the simple discipline of restraint and establishing commonalities with the local people helped.

It was a bit like the Paul Newman character in Nobody’s Fool, when his adult son yelled at him and stormed out of the room. Newman didn’t retaliate. Another person said something cutting. Newman said, “Yeah, but I’m wearing him down.” I’ve never heard a line in any movie that more resembled how I feel when I endlessly try to persuade people of a particular point of view that is antithetical to their worldview. It’s doable, but it takes time.

And the same is true for identity. For nonviolence to break into mainstream consideration, we need to wear them down. We need to humanize themselves to themselves and then ourselves to them, to the majority.

Myers, Winslow. 2009. Living beyond war: A citizen’s guide. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

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