Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tapping into creativity

Social conflict is both complex and organic, yet consists of identifiable ecological elements. Pruning a conflict by reaching an agreement between contesting parties will produce growth of that conflict elsewhere and once it has been determined where that growth has begun, good management can continue to transform that conflict from destructive to constructive.

Some struggles trend more toward an intense conflict but waged within legitimate bounds and by shared rules. Some conflicts are marked by such a fatigue that all parties are motivated to regard the agreement as an entree to continued progress. Some have known so many atrocities that the slightest spark can shift away from the agreement back to destructive conflict. Some situations reveal ersatz agreements that are really momentary and cynical pauses in ongoing hot conflict aimed at total victory. Some agreements manage to exclude or offend significant parties and thus become the basis for further destructive conflict. Some agreements are imposed as a victor's 'agreement' with vanquished foes, and may eventually produce the re-emergence of a reconstituted adversary.

Two features of a conflict are particularly significant for settlement and subsequent conflict sequences: the adversaries’ goals and the adversaries’ balance of resources (Kriesberg, 2007, p. 296).

This is where nonviolent struggle is so superior. Goals are transparently announced and ultimate goals are not obscured. Thus, Martin Luther King Jr was able to discuss complete freedom for African Americans as the ultimate goal, with incremental, winnable goals that obtained in any campaign. His opponents were not credibly able to say that he wanted African Americans to rule white people, that he wanted the Soviets to invade, or that his goals were at all unreasonable. When violence is used, credibility is damaged because the real goals are not trusted and even unreasonable ultimate goals seem possible.

This then relates to the transparency about the complex of resources at the command of the parties. If a violent force can assassinate key members of an adversary, it is assumed they would and security is mounted to prevent that. Everything is veiled by worst case scenarios. In a nonviolent movement, the worst case is that someone who has ill gotten gains may have to share them, either power or money or access to other resources. Surprise moves are feared and efforts are made to deny the adversary access to his resources. This encourages pre-emption and the descent back to destructive conflict.

We see now the improbability of honest agreements with constructive outcomes for someone like Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, who has been bombing and strafing his own people and who has foreign mercenaries slaughtering demonstrators in the streets. Gaddafi has been ranting death to all who oppose him and these ultimata have effectively precluded negotiation. His removal is virtually the only outcome acceptable to Libyans. On the other hand, even long-ruling strongmen like Hosni Mubarak can negotiate a peaceful transition to the extent they do not physically attack their own people. Mubarak goes to a resort and the army assumes temporary control while Gaddafi paints himself into a smaller and smaller corner. He has generalized the terror and so has generalized his opposition. His isolation is completing itself and his negotiating power is diminishing daily as he refuses to agree to anything except complete victory--which he has already lost.

Conflict resolution and nonviolence are all about creativity; it takes all our energy to brainstorm options that can give everyone enough of what they need. Someday our world will witness nonviolence so massive and disciplined that even morally bankrupt state terrorists like Gaddafi will be able to the wisdom of coming to agreement. We have certainly seen the strong hints of that in the current sea change in the Arab world, which is bound to move south into black Africa to begin to replace rulers who have arrogated decades and $billions to themselves. Tahrir Square and Tunisia have put them all on notice. I'm sure they are all trying to consolidate their resources now, so Horn of Africa and West Africa movements will need to anticipate that learning curve and get out ahead of it. Nonviolence requires step-ahead creativity.

Kriesberg, L. (2007). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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