The guys over at Sublime Magazine have produced yet another thought provoking edition of their international ethical lifestyle mag. If you haven’t read a copy yet, then do check it out, you won’t be disappointed. The latest (first anniversary) edition has taken the theme, Love Your Enemy, and includes an article I wrote for them about conflict resolution, of which I’ve posted an extract below . . .
WHO’S MY ENEMY?
Human beings set against each other is one of the great tragedies and (so it would seem) inevitabilities of the world in which we live. Wherever people gather and dwell, seeds of conflict are sown. Despite optimism that humanity is becoming more humane, and a twentieth century that purportedly saw the ‘war to end all wars’, at any given moment there are scores of situations around the world that are on a knife edge. What is more, dozens of already violent conflicts are being fought over land; resources; political, religious and cultural divides, as well as reasons that have been lost in the midst of time, but the residue of which still causes hatred, bitterness and division. Evidently, the motives, incentives and excuses for dispute are both myriad and complex, ensuring that peace and reconciliation is a long process, and that no single approach can be brought to bear in order to resolve any given situation. The Middle East, Rwanda, Darfur, Sierra Leone, The Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and North and South Korea, all areas of the world that are synonymous with conflict, and each with their own unique circumstances as to why tension, discord and violence exists.
Within such diverse conflicts, one of the major hurdles to overcome is the fact that each party involved has their own narrative, or story, as to why the ‘other’ is ‘the enemy’. Seldom, if ever, is consensus a dimension of these opposing narratives. Neither are truth and reality necessary aspects of the story being told, especially when the conflict becomes protracted. Indeed, in many situations, ‘otherness’ has become sufficient grounds for conflict to exist, and the means by which it is sustained. For while the origins of division, discord and violence may have their roots in some geographical, political, economic, or religious dispute, such historical realities are not always the basis on which the idea of the ‘other’ as ‘the enemy’ is perpetuated. Therefore, for conflict resolution to have a fighting chance, it is mutual understanding that will have a far greater impact than the truth of the matter, however strange that may seem to our modern sensibilities. As Search for Common Ground themselves point out, when it comes to conflict resolution, ‘the absolute reality of a conflict situation is often less important than what each party’s perception of that situation is.’
Given the seriousness of many of the current crises around the world, and the atrocities that sometimes occur when conflicts escalate, it may seem rather inadequate to be focussing on the stories being told within these areas, rather than taking a much more pragmatic and direct approach in addressing the actual causes of conflict. Naturally, there is some merit in approaching the world’s tensions in this way, but to ignore the stories being told in these situations is both to deny the power of the narrative in justifying oppression and violence, and its value and purpose in bringing about peace and reconciliation.
In situations of conflict, stories can be employed to undermine, or even dehumanise the ‘enemy’. A ‘savage’ (being precisely what ‘we’ are not), is far easier to enslave, trade, own and do away with than a human being of equal worth, made in the image of the god you worship. Equally, an ‘Axis of Evil’ sounds far more threatening than a ‘Fertile Crescent’ when you are looking to gain popular support for a war on terror. However, like so many narratives of justification, ‘Axis of Evil’ is at best a half truth, based on stereotypes and dubious characterisation, and cast like a blanket over a vast area, as if all who dwell there are hell-bent on the destruction of Western democratic values – ‘values’, perhaps being the moot point, and certainly one of the elements that shapes the narrative of Islamic extremism that portrays the West as the enemy. Such ‘myths’ about the ‘other’ engender ignorance, which in turn leads to fear, and fear, when it if fully formed, becomes the foundation of violence.
The fact is, the history of human conflict should serve as a warning: narratives about ‘the enemy’, if told without redress, or countered by an alternative story, can become so deeply ingrained within the conscience of a community, people-group, or society, that nothing short of the total annihilation of the ‘other’ is an acceptable ending. The Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, and all acts of genocide have a narrative that serves to defend such inhumanity and evil in the mind of the perpetrator.