Saturday, August 30, 2014

Steering the conflict train

The central goal of the field of Peace Studies, in which I teach, is to learn how to transform conflict from destructive to constructive. Sometimes it's impossible and sometimes it only seems to be.
In his most contentious prime, researcher Gene Sharp gave a keynote address at one of our academic conferences. He had no patience for the ultimate challenges, such as 'How do you use nonviolence to stop Hitler at your border?' He brushed them aside, saying that was like asking how to stop a speeding train when it's about to go over a cliff.
My colleague Erin Niemela finally improved on Sharp's simile. Imagine indeed that violence is a train and you know the tracks lead to a cliff. How are you going to stop that train from going over? Most of us would say, well, first, try to get to it early, while it's still a long way from the cliff. Then start braking. Hopefully you get there in time. And this is the logical line of thought that leads peace-oriented people to seek to negotiate, to dialog, to bring reason and fair play into the equation. If those methods fail, however, what are our options? 
Niemela says, well, it turns out those conflict train tracks often have hidden switches that can reroute the conflict train from destructive to constructive rails. We have to look for, and find, those hidden switches. We don't always need to stop that conflict train; we need to reroute it. Destructive to constructive. Conflict is forever, but the means by which we manage it are negotiable.
We need to look toward the experts, who can often give us examples of surprising case studies and who can help us think about the theoretical elements that might explain why some conflicts that seem hopeless suddenly start to get better. And then we can try to find those hidden switches in the conflicts we see around us. 
Some years ago there were cartoons in a Danish newspaper that depicted Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. Those cartoons were regarded by some Muslims as so insulting to their central religious figure, their holiest of founders, that they started demonstrations against the Danish government for allowing it. This spread globally to Danish embassies and then others, with increasing rage and violence, and people were killed and embassies burned down. Page one news for many days. Lead story on the TV news.
Pakistani students burn Danish flag
Suddenly it all stopped, end of story, on to the next news cycle, the next bloody story. No explanation, just ended. 

As it turns out, the Danish government called one of the founders of Peace Studies, a very old man named Johan Galtung in Norway and asked if he could help. Galtung told them OK, he'd try, and he would need three Danish officials and three Muslim clerics with a powerful reach of message. So he went from Norway to Denmark and mediated for some days. When the six all agreed on terms of an agreement--and one of the terms was to not specify the agreement details, which is common in mediation--they concluded the mediation and the next morning there were zero fires at embassies anywhere in the world. The demonstrations stopped. And so did the cartoons. 
We never know when a wise person or a group of wise people will find that hidden switch and turn the train away from the cliff. When no one looks or no one is clever enough to find the switch, we have violence and revenge, war and retribution. We are best off catching that train very early--certainly a culture that avoids dissing someone's religion would be better than having to try to stop burning embassies--but no matter how destructive, we may still find that hidden switch that stops the killing and allows us to disagree in a civil manner and think about more lasting agreements. 


Anonymous said...

It is rather common sense in most regards that preventing violent escalation is preferable to addressing ongoing conflict. In so much as this is concerned, you are correct; stopping the train early is essential.

But I think that in many situations, that train is long since passed. The most serious conflicts in present day have historical roots that are deeper than most of us been alive. It is somewhat comical to equate the minor danish incident (where a cartoonist harmlessly poked fun, and oversensitive zealot Muslims did what the world has come to expect from Muslims by displaying violence) to say Israel/Palestine conflicts or NATO/Russia.

The question we need to address is, how do we stop these historical conflicts? I believe that once peace has been given a chance and fails, that overwhelming violence of action is the only rational recourse.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Duly noted, that is that.