Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Bell Curve of conflict

 "Conflict is normal in human relationships, and conflict is a motor of change" (Lederach, 2003, p. 5).

John Paul Lederach and I were talking in the hall about the basic introductory texts in our field of Peace and Conflict Studies. I was complaining about them. "They are all about conflict reduction and elimination, and they are mostly granularized at the nation-state level," I groused. We were at his home base, the Notre Dame Kroc Institute, a center of conflict research, teaching and, with such outstanding faculty as Lederach, practice. I was learning a lot.

Lederach nodded vigorously, and said, "Exactly. We have to teach that there are many times we need to escalate conflict, not de-escalate it. Injustice is conflict and needs more of it to achieve real peace."

This is why nonviolence is so crucial. Those who favor preparing for violence by having guns and bombs often believe or at least claim that they need the threat of violence to keep violence from breaking out. This deterrence theory has some merit, of course, but the costs every time it fails are tremendous and too often the rationale is a fig leaf for maintaining injustice by threat of violence.

Nonviolence, on the other hand, is transformative when it is used with assertion and with strategic effect, since it tends to bend that moral arc of the universe closer to justice without committing more injustice to get there. Violence, wrote Fanon (1961), is cathartic and liberating for those who are oppressed, but at what price and can that price be lowered?

There is a Bell Curve of conflict, where too little allows injustice to fester, as Dr. King told us in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, but too much is dysfunctionally destructive. The sweet spot, of just the right amount of conflict, will drive our parties toward sustainable and satisfactory solutions. That is the distinct advantage of nonviolence over the immorality of apathy and the unnecessary wreckage of violence, which virtually always spurs revenge, even if that revenge takes generations. This is why nonviolence=conflict transformation=conflict resolution. Violence produces no resolution, just a perpetual downward spiral of destruction.

Liberating ourselves from violence is the next evolutionary step--a Nonviolent Evolution, using that Gaussian pattern of maximal effect. Sign me up.

Fanon, Frantz (1968). The wretched of the earth: The handbook for the black revolution that is changing the shape of the world. New York: Grove Press. (original Francois Maspero, 1961).
King, Jr., Martin Luther (1963). Letter from Birmingham jail. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Lederach, John Paul (2003). The little book of conflict transformation. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

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