I am working on a book (coming 2017) with a couple colleagues that touches on the 1990s push towards diversity training. After Bosnia and Rwanda and a variety of other inter-ethnic bloodshed, the field of conflict resolution began to promote cross-cultural understanding.
We had hoped that if people understood one another better and could appreciate differences, then maybe we could stop the slaughter.
It was a hopeful and colorful attempt. There were cultural diversity nights filled with dancing and ethnic foods. We took cultural awareness classes and engaged in diversity training.
It was fun, it had some good sides...and it also increased political correctness. Those unwilling to appreciate others at least learned how to hide their intolerance so they wouldn't lose their jobs.
A dear friend said something the other day that caused me pause. He went beyond the political correctness as a repressive side-effect of our enthusiasm for embracing difference.
He said that America has given up on itself.
Did we make room for more cultures or give up?
Let me be clear...I love exploring other countries. I've been to 35 countries and still feel that it is an embarrassingly low number given how much travel is possible.
That said, his comment resonated with me. It was not until watching a few episodes of the HBO John Adams series. Have you seen it?
It's now available on Amazon Prime.
The show reminded me what an astonishing accomplishment it was to pull away from Britain, declare independence and try to create a lasting government that would appeal to all the colonies.
It's really amazing it worked at all. Or did not absolve after Britain was pushed back over the Atlantic.
Even though I live in Washington D.C. filled with infinite reminders of the colonial period, it's easy to lose touch with the values that inspired the separation.
The airwaves are filled with U.S. nationalism that often seems to have more to do with the U.S. military complex or anti-immigrant rhetoric. It's so far -- for me at least -- than the inspiring words drafted by these founders "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."
The words were even ahead of those who birthed them. They could not seen then that ALL people- male/female, black/white are created equal.
If you get to Washington DC, do stop in to the Archives on the Washington Mall and look again at the original Declaration of Independence. It is quite faded. You will barely be able to make out the words. Try anyway...the ink is fading and perhaps our identity with it.
Those are the values that make me proud to be a part of this country...They are not just elementary school history lessons.
Now, back to the John Adams series...I need to see how they prevented the French from taking over the new colony.
Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, will not let anyone in her office use the word "tragedy" or the phrase "tragic events."
Her reasoning is really salient for this blog on the Language of Conflict. Why has Ambassador Power banned the word? She says that it suggests we have no agency over what happened.
We say, "Oh, what happened is so terrible. It's a tragedy." We release a sympathetic sigh, shake our head, and then continue munching our salad.
We believe we cannot do anything about tragedies...we are as powerless as Oedipus was not to kill his father and sleep with his mother...as powerless as Romeo & Juliet were to interrupt their fate. Oh the whole situation was "star crossed."
If the event is described versus labelled we may be able to see more opportunities to influence -- if not what happened -- at least what happens next.
For example saying, "It's such tragedy what's happening in Syria" is quite different than saying "there are millions of displaced people unable to return home because there is a war in Syria that no one has gone in and interrupted."
As you move about today and this week, pay attention to the use of the word tragedy...
How do you feel when you hear it?
Do you feel a safe distance away?
Who do you think may benefit from us using this word?
Who is protected from your engagement?
What is the cost?
I like Power's position on the word. Tragedy's belong on the stage and in novels.
Celeste Fremon's ethnography G-Dog and the Homeboys follows the work of Jesuit priest Greg Boyle who embedded himself in the lives of LA's Mexican gangs.
The book follows Boyle (known affectionately by the gang members as G) and his interactions with dozens of LA's kids trying to survive in a lawless and parent-less world.
The work seems hopeless and yet reflects what now in 2016 almost looks like a nostalgically simpler time. Though, of course, in the 1990s nothing was simple for Boyle or those he loved.
Fremon's book highlighted such a salient point about language, I could not let it go by. This blog is dedicated to understanding how words play a role in conflict. Boyle said demonstrated how language framed the landscape between police and gang members.
What do the police call you?
Boyle told Freeman,
Apparently, whenever [the South Central LAPD precinct] used to get a call that to gangs were fighting they would characterize the call by saying, 'We've got an NHI...' Which meant 'no human involved.'
This meant you had lighter touch on the gas pedal, you got there just in time to be too late, to mop up, to take names-- because, after all, no human involved. (Freeman 41)
The construction of the perpetrator as "Other" is not new. Talking about the despised as other than human is not new (Cockroaches, vermin, etc.). When the police force, whose task it is to Serve & Protect frames individuals as in-human, it is easy to become quite disheartened.
Seeing Those Who Scare Us as Human
Boyle's deep work with the individuals in these gangs taught him -- and reminds us -- that change only comes when we work to increase our humanization of others.
Boyle says, "If we don't believe they are human beings, then what we have to do is simple: We will continue to build more prisons, have tougher cops, stricter ordinances. We'll lock them up, and we'll be sure to lose the key."
We Want Them to Go Away
When we talk about bettering neighborhoods, I am concerned that we really just mean getting rid of the people who are problematic. Replacing them with better ones. That does make a neighborhood less likely to erupt into violence, but it doesn't do much for those individuals. Boyle's life and work touched me. His willingness to throw himself into the setting of these young folks. They are no longer faceless NHIs through Boyle's eyes. In this simple act of seeing them as human, he challenges all outsiders who wish to simply lock them up and lose the key.
Fremon, Celeste, and Tom Brokaw. G-Dog and the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles. Revised & enlarged edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.
To say I understand my life would be a total farce. Thursday morning, I found myself at Le Comptoir des Saint Peres in Paris meeting with a colleague from SciencesPo (France's international relations school) and discussing the recent dismissal of France's Minster of Justice. By Monday, I'm in the U.S. Congress lobbying for representatives and senators to pass legislation that works to prevent -- or at least interrupt -- genocide.
What a delicious start to 2016...
Learning to Lobby
For my doctoral work, I interviewed lobbyists and studied the mechanisms of lobbying, to better understand what happened during the French National Railroad conflict (see here for summary). but had never done it. It was new to me and since it is something open to all of us, I wanted to share what I learned as part of the Lemkin Summit.
The Lemkin Summit is a weekend dedicated to atrocity/genocide prevention and sponsored by the Enough Project and Jewish World Watch. Scholars, activists and students came together to share their world around the world to reduce genocide and then we talked about legislative bills currently floating around congress related to mass violence.
10 Things I Learned About Lobbying
Democrats and Republicans Don't Fight About Everything
The prevailing discourse is that our congress has become so divided along party lines that nothing can be done. One of the nice things about working on genocide prevention is that -- as they pointed out at the Lemkin Summit -- no one is lobbying FOR genocide.
No Member of Congress (I think I can safely say) wants to see thousands of people slaughtered and thrown into mass graves to serve the interests of power-hungry war lords who increasingly kidnap children to do their killing for them.
Of course we may disagree how best to interrupt violence and how much the United States is willing to invest...but we are agreed that no one wants it.
Maybe lobbying for clean water (poor Flint, MI) is the same.
Why You Want to Lobby At Least Once
I loved the lobby day because it helped me remember on a visceral level that this is MY government too. That I do have a voice--- it might be small. But maybe not. And it is exciting and quite precious to have a system like we do. Why not use it?
It also made the world seem a bit smaller and less frightening. There are faces on my representatives now. I know what their offices look like and have a sense of what matters to them.
Yesterday The Washington Post published a front-page story about loneliness being a serious health risk. Lobbying helped a bit with a kind of political isolation I was feeling from my own government. TV, media, and the imposing buildings make the government feel far away and larger than life.
Go in, knock on the door...you actually do not even need an appointment. Let me know how it goes...