One of the conundrums of teaching conflict resolution is that we can become really, really good at explaining why things are such a mess. We have thousands of theories and empirical studies to help explain our conundrums and many reasons to just put our heads in our hands and give up.
Unfortunately, when studying problems you can forgot how much power and voice you DO have.
That's why, this semester, half-way through a masters class at the University of Baltimore on Ethnic and Cultural Factors of Conflict, I decided students needed to be reminded of their power by cultivating their voices.
The Extra Credit Assignment
I offered students the following extra credit assignment:
1. Write a letter to someone in power (could be a politician, business owner, etc)
2. Tell them what you're concerned about
3. Tell them why it matters to you
4. Then tell them exactly what you want them to do about it.
I wanted to share this with folks, in case you have students and can assign this as well. If every student in graduate or undergraduate school wrote a letter, can you imagine the amount of voices we would have active in this country?
Nawal Rajeh, co-fouder of By Peaceful Means, Baltimore's free Peace Camp, knows all about this power of engagement. Her campers repeatedly and successfully protested the closure of the pools in their Baltimore neighborhoods. They were not even teenagers!
If you have folks you can assign this to, for credit or extra-credit, please consider doing so.
I study how we talk about evildoers and how this affects how we respond to them. When we label folks or events as "evil" we never have to reflect on our own role in the crime, violence, or loss.
We love these good-bad binaries. Our superhero films are filled with them. They bring us comfort, they reassure us of our pure victimhood and help us identify the bad guys so we will not be harmed in the future.
What I am finding, however, is how we talk about the "enemy" often sets us up for more long-term problems.
Negotiating with IRMA
I spent most of Sunday terrified as IRMA barreled towards my family huddled on the 4th floor of a condo in Naples, Florida. First we waited to find out if they lost the roof and if the windows had blown in. Then we waited to see if they could survive the 10-15 foot anticipated storm surge.
First we focused on their lives and then all their few, but most precious possessions. The surge never came and the roof remained, but we are all changed. Below is a photo of one IRMA victim near their home.
I began last night's negotiation class last night talking about times when negotiation is NOT possible -- IRMA you cannot negotiate with IRMA. And yesterday was the 9/11 anniversary. You cannot negotiate very well with folks willing to die to drive a plane into a building. Accountability seems very clear in these instances; IRMA ruined the beaches and the terrorists killed those working in the Twin Towers. This seems so clear.
Is IRMA Innocent?
Then a National Geographic video challenged this narrative that IRMA and her friend JOSE are at fault. They showed how rising sea temperatures increase the likelihood of category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Some scientists anticipate these can become the norm, not the exception. My parents survived one, but I am not sure they can survive another.
National Geographic talked about how this administration will not acknowledge any connection between climate change and these hurricanes. This made me wonder, who benefits when we externalize IRMA and JOSE making us innocent victims of these abstract, inhuman perpetrators? Does industry benefit? Do consumers unwilling to change their behavior benefit?
By naming them and blaming the storms, we opt out of responsibility wherever it does lie. I am not a scientists, I cannot say whether rising temperatures are causing these hurricanes. But no one wants to inhale pollution, everyone wants clean water. Rather than just being victims of an outside terror, the storms are if not a call at least an opportunity to step up and cool down the planet.
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."
Language Of Conflict