Back in April, I popped into Grinnell College for a few weeks to teach a course on the role of market actors in mass atrocity and to give a campus-wide presentation on the French National Railways (SNCF) as a case study.
The school organized a lovely talk, filling the room with students, faculty and community members. (After you've been doing this for awhile, you appreciate all the good planning. Presenting to two people at 8:30am after traveling hundreds of miles is the pits). Grinnell does it right.
The Peace and Conflict program had me had me in a bright, cheerful room in the library. I offered my presentation, talking mostly about responses to the Holocaust in France and only briefly mentioning my research with genocide survivors in Indonesia.
At the end of the talk, Valerie Vetter, who used to run the Peace and Conflict Program came running up to me.
"We need to talk. I was so surprised you called it an Indonesian "genocide." I had always heard it described as a "coup."
I got a bit nervous at first. Not because I doubted my word choice, but because the identification of what happened in 1965 in Indonesia is still contested. Some people who where in power then are still in power now. They are, as the expression goes, "Holding each other's beards."
The Holocaust is easier to study and write about than the Indonesian genocide because Germany accepted responsibility. (So did the French, except for Marine Le Pen who -- during this past election -- tried to rescind France's acceptance of its role. Sigh.)
Valerie and I were not going to cover the whole subject in a brief five-minute chat. So, she invited me to lunch. Her husband Roger was an ethnomusicologist at Grinnell College. He specialized in the Javanese Gamelan. That's an enormous instrument played by many people simultaneously. The two had spent much time in Indonesia.
Coup vs. Genocide: What's in a name?
Valerie made us a delicious Indonesian lunch of Gado Gado. We sat for a couple hours discussing this question of "Coup" versus "Genocide."
I started by saying that I had always heard the term genocide to describe what happened when Suharto took power from Sukarno.
During my field research, my colleges and I (led by Indonesianist Leslie Dwyer) went to Jakarta to see how the government spoke about what happened during that year when over a million people were murdered and power changed hands.
I explained to Valerie and Roger how we explored the national narrative at "The Communist Museum of Treachery"
National Narratives of Genocide
So what is this museum of treachery? Well, in Jakarta, a very cheap way to spend your day is to visit this museum-- kept inexpensive to encourage people to come. The museum has enormous dioramas showing Sukarno handing over power peacefully to Suharto. These were life-sized models enacting the events-- as they decided they unfolded.
The Communist Museum of Treachery is not at some random location-- it's at one of the most infamous sites in the country. The story goes, a number of top military generals were thrown down this well as part of a coup attempt. The photo below is of said well.
The funny thing is, Suharto was the only top military general untouched by the alleged coup. (This is the coup Valerie had heard about.) The museum recounts the tale of these generals, offers old uniforms and personal artifacts of each. Then, in display after display talks about all the terrible things the "communists" did to disrupt the country. Now, "communist" was more of a label than necessarily an affiliation. One could be labeled a "communist" simply to make them a target of the government. In fact, during our research when I asked survivors and their descendants what a communist was, few had a very clear answer.
It just meant, "enemy of the state."
The museum did not talk about the estimated 1 million people murdered. But it justified an actions taken against them. The image below is a display on the exterior of the museum showing how theses "communists" tortured innocent people.
Definitely not a kids museum....
When it comes to "coup" versus "genocide", we're really not saying "pot-a-to" vs. "po-tot-to." There's a significant difference between a group trying to overthrow a stable government and the mass murder of folks.
Valerie, Roger and I had a good chat about this. They were astonished at the narrative I had learned about what happened. We compared versions of history. None of us had been there. We all rely on stories, confessions and video footage. If you want more gruesome testimony, have a look at the films, The Act of Killing or The Look of Silence. Again, not for kids, I and I don't recommend watching it after 8pm. It disrupts the dream world.
Thanks to the Vetters for sparking this great conversation.
(This blog is part of the Never Eat Alone series)
The Never Eat Alone Series
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, Ferrazzi discusses importance of relationships for professional advancement.
The book sparked an idea!
What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone?
What kinds of incredible conversations might I have?
The purpose of this series is to record these rich conversations and inspire others to eat with others. See where these conversations take you. I would love to hear your stories, so please add them in the comments below!
Once governments, institutions, and the public acknowledge past human rights abuses, it has become a common practice for the perpetrating entity (even if all the actual perpetrators are dead) to issue an apology, commemorate the victims, offer transparency, and in some cases, offer compensation. Usually this occurs only after the harm has been made visible by an outside group. This happened in 2016 to Georgetown University.
Georgetown University acknowledged (with some encouragement) that the institution sold 272 individuals as slaves to sugar plantations to keep the college afloat. A Georgetown working group, organized by the university’s president agreed to apologize, name a building after one of these enslaved men and offer descendants of these enslaved people priority admission. A good step. Sadly, as The New York Times pointed out, they did not offer to cover the cost of this education. So, these students could be saddled with $240,000 in debt at graduation. The school loses nothing; it keeps its money and boosts its reputation by showing a willingness to compensate descendants of slavery.
While rather stingy when it comes to compensation, Georgetown University made a move that could lead to a very interesting, and important response to slavery. With the African American Museum just blocks away from Georgetown in Washington D.C., the question of what to do about compensation for slavery hangs in the air. With the U.S. Holocaust museum just across the Mall, it stands as a constant reminder that some victims of slavery and persecution have been compensated in some way.
Money as compensation for violations
As part of my doctoral research, I interviewed over 80 Holocaust survivors about their thoughts on compensation. Man survivors received compensation in the 1990s or later and made comments like, “The money was nice, but it was after the war when I needed it.”
Many had no homes, no jobs, no bank accounts, and nothing to eat. France, for example was tremendously poor after the war. After returning to Paris from Auschwitz, Daniel recalls the bank telling him his family account was closed due to inactivity. Daniel told me, “I understood the bank had their policies, but it really hurt.”
The French, like many other, were quite poor after the war. People wore wooden shoes and used wood to fuel cars. People starved. Survivors lived in train stations. They needed the money then. (As did those freed after the Civil War.)
Some Holocaust survivors still desperately need money. Today, in Haifa, Israel a Christian organization cares for some of the very poor Holocaust survivors as does BlueCard in the United States.
But in most cases, the money arriving fifty or more years after the war was symbolic. Survivors told me they used the money for a piano, to build an addition on their house, to buy a locket for photos of murdered loved ones. In many cases, it was the letter of apology that meant more.
What's Better than Money? An Education
These hundreds of hours of conversation with Holocaust survivors made me think about financial compensation for irreparable harm. When I read the story about Georgetown, a new idea was born.
I heard an idea espoused during a book group dinner hosted by Dr. Sara Cobb, professor and Director of the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, I thought, “That’s it!”
A number of faculty and a few students were at Dr. Sara Cobb’s house discussing Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter about race to his fourteen-year-old son.
Because a number of us study how societies can and do respond in the aftermath of human rights violations, we soon moved to the question of compensation for slavery
Sara Cobb thought the best solution would be to give three generations of all descendants of slavery free higher education.
Free Education for Three Generations
Dr. Cobb suggested this because this would not only be a recognition of the harm and a significant financial contribution to folks, especially those attending schools with tuitions up to $60k/year, such a program would help up-end the structural disadvantages many African Americans still suffer. African American men are the group most incarcerated. Their salaries and advancement remain far below the average white American. Slavery has ended, segregation has ended, but structural violence remains entrenched.
This issue is close to my heart because this fall I will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Negotiations and Conflict Management within the University of Baltimore’s School for Public Affairs. The school ranks high in social mobility. Many of my students, masters students, will be first generation college students. I am concerned about the amount of debt my students will carry upon graduation. I do not want them to be saddled with debt that holds them back. Many taking my class will be working full-time and have young kids. I will do my part by not wasting their time in the classroom.
I also love the idea of having three generations (starting NOW) of descendants of slaves receiving an education. I would love if the University of Baltimore had the endowment to offer this.
The idea needs to be worked through, of course. There would be many details to consider. Would it be for any college? Who would pay for it? At the very least, I believe in no age limit. If you’re 85 and want to go to college, good for you! It’s never too late.
Perhaps you can help us come up with some answers. My goal today was, with Dr. Sara Cobb’s permission, simply to share her brilliant idea and see how it may grow now passed on to you.
In the spirit of The Language of Conflict, this blog demonstrates in the context of North Korea that how we talk about groups matters. How we frame groups even justifies and legitimize violence even before it has occurred.
When you read The New York Times or consume news through any major media outlet, you’ll read/hear lots of references to “North Korea.” The reference suggests that the whole country is involved. Of course, this is not new. For ages, we have talked about Americans, French, Mexicans, Men, Women, Homosexuals etc. as homogenous groups. Of course, in the policy and military context, this often refers to the governments of these countries. The language of nation-state has existed for quite some time.
Referring to governments in this way serves as a kind of short-hand. The New York Times is not going to say “the North Korean government” every three lines. It is exhausting. So, what is the drawback? Well, especially in the case of North Korea, where Cold War discourse has taken over, the abstraction of 33-year-old Kim Jung-un into all North Koreans is a set up. The whole country is being positioned as a threat.
In advance, any necessary military force can be justified because North Korea is the evil enemy.
But many North Koreans are starving and ultimately hostages in their own country.
Rather than an evil empire, I see it as a country of people who seek liberation, trapped by their leader.
The video below of the young Yeonmi Park, who escaped North Korea, makes a case for this
narrative. Her speech humanizes North Koreans. They are people and are not targets justifiably attacked at all costs.
Shifting the language now, before missiles are exchanged would not only influence the kind of military exchanges, it places the conflict in a totally different paradigm.
No longer a battle between two (or more) entire countries. One of those countries is being held hostage. Talking about the liberation and protection of starving people terrorized by a tyrannical government would lead to a very different approach than one that treats the entire country as a danger to our way of life…or to our lives.
This subtle distinction between North Korean government (largely run by Kim Jong-un) and the millions of people trapped under him could lead us all into vastly different futures.
Words matter. I hope the current tensions with Jim Jong-un and his leadership lead to the opening of that country and the feeding (physically, intellectually, and emotionally) of its people.
There's a lot of talk about forgiveness these days. The health benefits alone, they say, are astounding. I don't disagree. Hanging on to resentment and blame for years can do a number on our lives and our bodies. Hatred long held can be like a cancer literal or figurative in our lives.
But there's another side to forgiveness, a dark side. It's often used in response to people who are angry. I have recently experienced a large betrayal and have been expressing a healthy amount of anger in response to something very painful. Within 72 hours, people were already telling me to forgive.
This got me thinking, "What's the rush?"
The Rush to Forgive
I started to realize that my anger was making people feel uncomfortable. They wanted me to forgive so they could quickly move back into peace. That's fair, they don't have to hear it, but that doesn't mean the rage must dissolve so quickly.
Sometimes, the call to forgive -- or calm down -- was a way for the church to keep control over people. Don't be angry, forgive. Don't stand up for your rights and be angry, find peace and move on. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is all about this. He talks about the white man's request that African Americans slow down, calm down, and wait for segregation and racism to end "peacefully" was really a means of pacifying a justified rage. He didn't buy it. He knew they were afraid of giving up power.
Forgiveness is not dissimilar. Telling someone to forgive someone who betrayed them can stifle the healthy processing and expression of rage. As MLK said, no one gives up power willingly. Rage has power in it and if responded to in a healthy way it motivates action. If we skip to forgiveness, we may miss the changes we need to make. Especially women, who are often seen as hysterical when they are angry. And especially spiritually-minded people who want to be perceived as evolved. Sorry, if you're alive you will feel these uncomfortable emotions. That's just part of the deal.
Forgiveness is like the make-up sex of emotions.
One of the reasons we have so much conflict and tension in relationships is not so much the words we use, it is the fact that we do not take the time to really talk to each other.
Of course, we have all been hearing and reading about how our time investment in our technology and time in our cars has isolated us, but it's hard to understand what this means without having any comparison.
We only know what we are accustomed to. One of the students I taught in France this December told me how depressed she was when she lived in America,
"There was no café culture." She told me. "People don't just hang out and talk."
I do love this about Paris, though my French friends have become rather busy and swept up into modern life. 20-somethings can still hang out at cafés and retired people, but the working-French are -- well, working. Instead they have dinner parties where there is usually outstanding and lively conversation.
I had a number of such enjoyable nights during my time in France teaching this past fall.
Flying to Brazil for more conversation
In Brazil, I used my computer minimally and without cell service there was not much else to do other than listen to those around me.
January was listening month
I paid attention to what they were saying and asked follow-up questions. I let go of trying to be known and focused on knowing them.
February: listening without trying to change or judge
What I mean is, just letting people be.
With so little time for people to communicate fully and deeply, I suspect many problems (ADD, Depression, OCD, Anxiety, Marital Problems, etc) come from lack of human contact. So, if we dive in and try to solve each other's problems, we often miss the opportunity to tend to the isolation at the heart of many symptoms.
Few folks want to be treated like a broken toaster.
If you choose to take on my February goal, I'd love to hear how it goes for you. Feel free to post comments below! Would love to hear how it goes.
What prompted the story was a chat about "Restorative Justice" practices used to help the accused reintegrate and, at times even allow for exchanges between them and the victims. At the very least, these conversations allow for more emotional processing than typical justice processes.
Susan told the story of two young kids, teenagers, who on a dare harassed a woman. The harassment got out of control and the teenagers ended up shooting and killing the woman.
Decades later, the woman's mother met with one of the teenagers who had been imprisoned during this time. She forgave him and then he told her the most astonishing story about her daughter.
When two boys had the woman on her knees with the gun to her head, her daughter said right before they pulled the trigger, "I forgive you and Jesus will too."
The now adult man never forgot the woman's words. He had felt terrible about what he had done and remained haunted by her kindness.
The daughter's words did not save her life, but they seem to have touched the man's heart and arguably saved his.
Had the mother not agreed to meet and forgive this man, she likely would never had heard about the beautiful forgiveness offered by her daughter. And neither would we.
I was one of the few folks in Washington D.C. bouncing back from the holidays eager for the year to start. I was eager to get back because I was about to meet with this winter’s Common Bond participants.
Common Bond was born out of Tuesday’s Children, an organization started to support the kids who lost a parent in 9-11. The organization grew and folks found a way to expand it to meet the needs of young people all around the world who have lost a parent to terrorism. Now they have a summer camp held at Bryn Mawr College. Young people come together, often from “opposing” sides of a conflict, discuss their losses and how to move forward.
Common Bond meets Conflict Resolution
A group of twenty 18-25-year-olds from this program came to the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University because they want to prevent cycles of violence.
This special group not only wants to thrive in spite of their tragic losses, they want to contribute to the world around them.
4 Day Crash Course on Conflict Resolution
My colleagues and I (Alex Cromwell, Nawal Rajeh, Leslie Dwyer, and Joseph Green) taught them conflict resolution basics as well as how to use theatre and poetry to work through issues of loss and oppression.
It was a whirlwind. (What’s great about working with 18-25 year-olds is that they can stay up until 4am talking to each other and show up in the morning ready to roll! I don’t think I was ever able to do that…it’s incredible.)
Responding to Mass Atrocity
Having never lost a parent to terrorism or lived in a conflict zone, it seemed in appropriate to tell them about loss. So, I shared with them what I learned spending thousands of hours with 80 Holocaust survivors during my doctoral research.
Today’s survivors almost all were children during World War II, meaning many lost their parents around the same age. They also had a great deal in common with our students from Haiti, Palestine, Sri Lanka who are living in active conflict zones.
I shared with the Common Bond participants firstly, that I know 90-year-olds still struggling with the murder of their parents. This issues last and affect them differently over the many decades of their long lives.
I also shared with them the myriad of ways Holocaust survivors have responded. Luckily, they had just spent a day at the museum so had an idea of the scope and nature of the atrocity.
From my research on the multi-decade French National Railways (SNCF) conflict (about a train company who transported Jews towards death camps and still exists today), I learned that survivors varied in their social and political responses.
The public responses to mass violence and atrocity are often addressed under the title of ‘transitional justice.’ This includes issues of financial compensation, apologies, commemoration, transparency (the opening of archives), trials (lawsuits) and truth commissions.
We talked about how certain political events can make any of these more or less difficult. In the case of the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall, created the space for much discussion about events of World War II. The Cold War had effectively frozen discussions. In their cases, many still live under corrupt regimes, so archives, apologies, compensation, etc. will likely not come for many years.
Those from Ireland explained that certain archives have been locked for 100 years – effectively making sure they only open when everyone responsible has died, all the victims, as well as all of their children.
We talked about how new information will likely surface throughout their lives creating new opportunities to participate in lawsuits, commemorative spaces, etc. One participant who lost a parent in 9-11, for example, says she has just joined the lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. She talked about her mixed feelings about this.
Holocaust survivors I interviewed also had mixed feelings about lawsuits, even when they participated. The seminar gave us time to start to talk about these complicated feelings.
Not Everyone Wants to Fight
I also shared stories from people who did not want to fight, they chose to share their stories with high school students, write memoirs, help people currently fleeing persecution. There are many ways to contribute.
I warned them that they might feel pressure to respond in certain ways. Holocaust survivors sometimes pressured and judged one another about how their counterparts responded or did not.
Hierarchies of Suffering
Survivor groups are far from homogenous. There are pressures and there are judgements. There are also, I discovered, hierarchies of suffering. For example, some believe only those who went to the death camps really suffered whereas others claim being a hidden child was no picnic either. Many hidden children were physically or sexually abused. Others I met nearly starved to death.
As Brigittine French observes, “not all participants enter into the contest over memory as equals; some actors have lost more than others.”
I shared this as a way to preempt repetition of this hierarchy within their group. There is no need to compare suffering and loss. The issue, of course, comes when financial compensation is involved. How much is your father worth? Why are some people paid for their losses and others are not? Who decides?
It ultimately just is not fair. Someone who lost a parent to violence in Haiti will simply not receive nearly the compensation and support of someone who lost a parent in 9-11.
In spite of these tremendous differences, these young people came together and supported one another.
I am starting 2017 with such a tremendous optimism. The masters’ students I met this fall teaching at SciencesPo Lille in France as well as at the University of Malta were all astonishing, eager, intelligent and ready to make their contribution.
Much light still shines…made even more apparent by a dark room.
…We’re all in this together…
 French BM (2012) The Semiotics of Collective Memories. Annual Review of Anthropology 41, no. 1: 343.
When people learn my doctorate is in Conflict Resolution, many understandably ask something like,
“Do you mean the conflicts between couples, within organizations, or the more like the conflict in Israel?”
In a sense, they are asking do people hire me to work with individuals, groups and/or contested spaces. It turns out, all three.
Curiously, over the holidays, one of the most contested spaces I studied was the Kitchen!
Yes, the Kitchen. Capital "K."
You’ll find many wonderful books and trainings about dealing with difficult people and having difficult conversations with loved ones, but you will find fewer about contested spaces, unless – of course – you’re reading about Israel.
There are certain places in our daily lives where issues of power, domination, recognition, security, belonging, dignity, and even competition show up more than others. It’s important to know where these spaces are so that when you’re in them, you’re thinking more carefully about the games afoot -- I wouldn't want you to caught in any crossfire.
Think for a second about any kitchen near you during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Chanukah. Hopefully it was filled with laughter, creativity, wonderful smells, tasty treats strewn about...and, perhaps some crazy weird tensions over, say, whether canned cranberry sauce is selling out?
Who Runs the Kitchen?
Usually, one person – often the host or hostess is the kitchen’s King or Queen. When visitors accidentally upset the hierarchy, or break invisible rules, tensions can soar. When loving folks arrive with half-baked recipes and need ovens, spoons, and dishes, their presence – welcomed a first—can also cause a bit of a kerfuffle for the hosts.
Kitchen tensions are not always spoken. Yet, what you feel and witness often tells you about power dynamics in family. Social order is often negotiated here. I heard from a colleague about his mom and his aunt having a battle two weeks before Thanksgiving about the kitchen. After a recent divorce, the Aunt, he suspected, was feeling insecure about her place in the family and tried to claim the kitchen (via her recipes) to reassert her place.
Sometimes a younger family member will want to demonstrate adulthood by cooking a new dish or a family favorite. This can cause upsets in the ranks. Elders may become afraid of the “children” cooking – even if said children are 50. Older ranks may also feel they are being replaced. Younger folks may judge the elders for their “rules.” Rank and social position is constantly negotiated – what makes holidays fun for an anthropologist is watching that negotiation play out over pecan pie and oven temperatures for turkey.
Who Avoids the Kitchen?
Some folks skillfully avoid the kitchen. It’s like they intuitively know that they should stay away. Of course, during extended stays this is hard. But even during short stays figuring out kitchen etiquette isn’t always clear. Trying to help with the dishes, for example, is usually a double-bind (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).
Learning About Your Family by Studying Kitchen Subtleties
Many of the family’s patterns and tensions will become more visible in this space. Because kitchens store our food our brain might be anchored to register as a site of primal importance. It represents security and often, comfort.
For this reason, the kitchen can be a site of vulnerability. We are mortal, we can live without sharing our political opinions over the holidays, but panic without food we are often at the mercy of others during this time.
Then there is the common equation of food with love or comfort. You may come to the kitchen looking for love in the form of a sugar cookie and find yourself caught between two folks quibbling over whether to run the dishwasher.
Couples and Kitchens
Couples know about kitchens. Just ask them. All kinds of dynamics play out – I think three boyfriends have left me over kitchen issues; one over how I cut avocados, another other because I didn’t cut the individual sections of the grapefruit for him and the third because my pot cleaning did not show significant respect for his mother’s home.
In each case, the kitchen felony I committed symbolized something much greater to them.
So, I trust no kitchen.
What happened in your holiday kitchens this past year and what’s happening in your home now?
Now I say, have fun, play anthropologist and study the domestic dynamic.
You may find the bedroom a less contested space than the kitchen.
Language Of Conflict