Department of Education, Oikos, Netherlands

Round-table “From confrontation to complementarity: Ukrainian context, European experience”

October 2, 2014

How to contribute to mutual respect? A reflection from a European background

Making the point that I am a European citizen doesn’t work as a strong reference for being good in expressing respect. Our history doesn’t provide a long list of examples of respect. Or in other words: it provides very many opportunities to take out some learning’s from our past. As part of that learning a colleague of mine in Northern Ireland and I were the key-developers of the methodology “Dialogue for Peaceful Change” (DPC). This method is recognised as useful and fruitful in many countries in the world, like Ghana, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and definitely also in the Netherlands. And also in Northern Ireland – the place were Protestants and Catholics have a history of confrontation, fights, murders, civil war. The Netherlands were also involved there since in 1690 King William III – with a Dutch background - fought in Ireland and won a battle. Now every July this battle is memorised in marshes in several places in Northern Ireland – and at these moments tensions between the two groups are made visible again.
Our DPC-method is also applied in the United States, where it was integrated with the concept of the High Performing Community in Antioch, California. I can’t go into detail about our work there – but the important effect is that many youth went out of youth-gangs groups, which were killing each other. After our intervention young men and women went back to school – leaving the gangs and going for a better future. Staying in the gangs would imply the chance that they would have been killed in the next 10 years to more than 50%.

Conflict is normal
This brings me to a first learning point regarding Diversity and Respect: conflict is normal. With conflict I don’t mean violence, killings and such elements. Conflicts however appear in our normal lives as elements which shape our identity (“I am a Protestant, not a Catholic”), which support our career (“I was selected for this job where there were 80 more applicants”), which contribute to our learning (“Through this confrontation I know better what my strengths and weaknesses are and how to make use of them”).
The fact that we can accept the “otherness” of the others, the fact that we are different with own identity, characteristics, contributes to the identity. Conflicts at a low level of escalation can help with this process. Nothing wrong with that. For me as a Dutchman this was quite a hard thing to learn. In our country we avoid open conflicts most of the time. It is said that this derives from our history. Our land lies for about 60% below sea level – I was born in a polder which is land, reclaimed from the sea. In my childhood I lived about 5 meters below sea level, protected by dikes. In our country we are aware about the importance of these dikes: if you don’t maintain them properly, everyone gets wet feet or even will die. So even our bad neighbour, our enemy in the next street is also important to protect the dikes. Together with me. And we all have to pay taxes for that, otherwise we all will be drown.
This brings me to a second learning point: accepting the idea of interdependency is key to any positive change. In our world no one lives alone. Everyone came into existence in a very close connection to a mother, no one produces all the clothes, all the food, the cars and the phones and the electricity someone needs in just one day. We live in a very dependant way to many others. This is a matter of fact, leading to the question to which extend we are aware about this fact. Any sustainable solution from any tension or conflict will carry a characteristic of accepting mutual dependency.
This doesn’t mean that it is easy to realise. I give you an example from Northern Ireland. After the Good Friday Agreement (late 90’s last century) it was agreed that the police should be the national police. Until then however, about 95% of the police was member of a Protestant church where at the same time about 45% of the population was Catholic. You can imagine how these Catholics felt when they were stopped by a policeman: “they are looking after me since I am a Catholic”. Even when it is not true, reality is perceived through the obvious lens, the easy way of describing and blaming the other – in this case being a Protestant Policeman. The Agreement recognised the underprivileged position of the Catholics in the Police force and it was worked out that from then at each recruitment of new police men and women it would be guaranteed that the appointments were made 50% Protestant and 50% Catholic – until to total share of Catholics would be 30%. From that level on, it was “We go for the top scores with the applicants”. Before reaching that level it was accepted that the top-Catholics (for the 50%) could have a lower level than the top 50% of the Protestants – since these Protestants were a majority among the applicants. Was this fair for the Catholics compared to the history? Yes. Was it fair to the individual Protestant applicant who could have been better than the chosen Catholics? No – of course not. And yet for the society as a whole it was accepted as the better solution. The painful conclusion: justice at the level of a society isn’t always felt as justice for the individual. Equity doesn’t always come through painless steps – and quite often these steps are required.
Indirect involved people
The third learning point can be illustrated with a graph of the Iceberg, as produced by my friend Colin Craig. I walk you through this Iceberg in a very short way – leaving out very interesting and important details for now. The learning is about the role of the observers, the indirect involved people. I illustrate this with a story at the personal level first:
I planned to give a training in another continent about Dialogue for Peaceful Change. My contact person has set a date – and was forced to change the date. I had not booked a plane, so no problem. However, I had some bad feelings regarding the very slow way in which he communicated about this. There was a preliminary new date, a co-trainer was booked and things went fine. A final confirmation hasn’t reached me after several requests. In the meanwhile there was communication between me and that contact person person – without any indication about the training. Only 5 weeks before the training should have taken place I got a message from my co-trainer that the training was cancelled. I got furious, exploded almost on my contact person. And sent an angry email to him, accusing him for non-communication. I almost forced him that they should immediately set a quick date! Within two hours he replied – so communication was possible – accusing me of colonial behaviour. He copied the message to his Board (the famous cc-messages), thus involving many other people in the system, in the conflict. I am still convinced that there was a good justification for my angry attitude – but I also saw the argument that some words were too unspecified, too general and some even beyond my competence. I decided to write back, made a draft and waited for a full day before sending back. In the meanwhile I informed my director, to avoid that blackmailing was possible and would have surprised her. After my message, reduction took place. I got support from those who agreed with my angriness and after a while I also got some positive feedback from the “other side”. First on a personal level – without CC – and afterwards more in general. That person is still not a friend of mine, but we are in a communicative mode, without too much damage.

Here the indirect involved persons are very many. The two of us had our conflict. However, all others were also involved as well – as observers, as applaud-machines for one of the parties. I knew that I could count on my friends and colleagues, so I included them in my CC. And he knew about this effect as well. In a very short time the conflict was escalated through the involvement of the indirect involved people.
These indirect involved play an important role in every conflict – in our society as well as in yours. The pastors, the politicians, the priests, the painters and those who repair the damage of a conflict – they have a certain role to play. Some of them will continue to fuel the conflict since it in in their interest. As a person, as a politician, as a priest or pastor, as a partner you can play a constructive way in any conflict you are aware of. Either promote exchange, fruitful contact, next steps towards solutions – or support the conflict to stay on. That is the case in Northern Ireland, in my country when we deal with unemployed people (“It’s all their fault”), the Muslims (“They aren’t skilled for the job and they don’t learn our language”), when Northern Irish people deal with their politicians. And I am sure you recognise in your country, your community, your family or circle of friends. There is a huge role to play by the indirect involved people. And be aware: we are indirect involved in almost all conflicts!
The fourth element I want to stress: the role of the other. René Girard is a scientist from France who changed jobs and went as a professor to Stanford University in California, USA. He described processes in persons, in cultures, in literature, where the safety in a group is organised through the role of a so called scape-goat. In many religions a scapegoat plays an important role: the one who takes all guilt on his/her shoulders and by doing so is freeing the others from their (real or perceived) guilt. Sometimes it is a choice. Most of the time it is not: Jews in Germany in the last world war, black people for a long time in the USA, Catholics for the Northern Irish Protestants and the other way around. Rivalry between groups can quite easily lead to a scapegoat. With a scapegoat you always blame someone else. You never say: I am the scapegoat. A scapegoat takes away own responsibility for what has happened and leaves the responsibility to someone else, to another group. A scapegoats frees you in an easy way. By consequence when a scapegoat is identified, you don’t have to change anymore. Clean hands, and no activity. However, this doesn’t change the world for the better.
My conclusion in many cases: When a scapegoat appears people hide from their own responsibility. You recognise it easily, when there is “us – them”-language, when people avoid to mention their own responsibility for the past and by consequence for their role to work on options for a better future. In other words: when they respect both themselves as well as the other people too little.

Or to reframe it in words which are used in this week: when diversity is not accepted it is difficult to recognise the existing interdependency. The consequence is lack of respect, a scapegoat, fights for too long. Conflicts are normal and human in my view. It is also human to deal with conflict in a human and intelligent way. That is a lesson which I take from history. We are not obliged to kill each other; we are able to do things better than that. Let’s do so.