Organization of the week: Search for Common Ground

November 24, 2008

In light of my previous post, I want to highlight an organization that is doing the kind of bridge-building work I was talking about – and much more. This is an organization called Search for Common Ground. Their mission “is to transform the way the world deals with conflict: away from adversarial approaches, toward cooperative solutions.” Their goals and approaches go beyond traditional conflict resolution such as mediation:

At Search for Common Ground, we are not trying to end conflict, to prevent it, to mediate, manage or even resolve it. We are not a conventional conflict resolution organization that tries to resolve conflict in discrete pieces. We do include those things in our work as appropriate – there are times when mediation or negotiation is needed and useful – but these are usually applied to very specific problems. Our goal is much broader: to transform the way communities and societies view and deal with their differences.

They have a large number of programs around the world in conflict-torn areas. One bridge-building project that is particularly inspiring to me is focused on children: a bilingual and multi-cultural pre-school in Macedonia:

The primary goal of Mozaik is to socialize children into a multicultural environment at the earliest possible age, to teach tolerance and respect for the diversity of cultures, and to help different ethnic communities collaborate and communicate with each other. The project has helped build confidence and trust in everyday relationships and has been recognized by Macedonia’s educational authorities as a pedagogical model for all pre-school teachers.

Their other programs use a wide variety of techniques to foster independent media, dialogues, information access, regional cooperation, and other peace-building activities. Search for Common Ground is doing important and inspiring work.


We are all human

November 22, 2008

The other day Feministing had a post about a new anti-gay video produced by the American Family Association, titled “They’re Coming to Your Town.” As I imagine many of you will be, I was horrified when I watched it. Do people really think this way in the 21st century? It demonstrates an extreme level of paranoia about homosexuals:

It seems impossible to reason with the people espousing these views, and I think in fact it is. They will not listen to reason because for some reason they are very afraid. Fear drives all sorts of irrational and violent behavior, and we are not going to connect with people who are afraid by trying to reason with them.

I was struck by one other thing in this video, and that is the extreme us versus them mentality adopted by both sides of the issue. Most people who are sympathetic to the homosexual point of view will probably primarily notice the way in which the people in the video have turned gays into “the other,” apparently seeing gay people not as individual human beings but as an enemy to fight against. However, those of us on the opposite side are also guilty of “otherizing” and turning the people in the video into an enemy. One man in the video says “They branded us as fundamentalists, as Christian hate bigots” and has clearly taken offense at being so labeled. I actually felt a bit empathetic when he said this. No one likes to be labeled and judged, and most people are going to become defensive when they are told that they are a bigot. I think it is counter-productive for us to slap labels on the people who express anti-gay views.

Now, you may argue that they are judging gay people, so why shouldn’t we judge them in return? The answer is that it is not going to get us anywhere to judge in return. We will stay stuck in an us versus them fight as long as we engage in otherizing behavior. I have certainly been guilty of calling people fundamentalists and bigots (although perhaps not to their face) as well, but we all need to rise above the temptation to engage at the level of fear and hate.

What do we do instead? We need to instead engage at the level of shared humanity. We need to recognize that everyone, no matter how bigoted their acts may be, have valid feelings and fears and needs. Furthermore, we need to show the people who act in bigoted ways that gay people are just as human as they are, that gay people have feelings and fears and needs as well. We need to dream big and build bridges instead of walls. What about team-building workshops that bring together people on opposite sides of this issues, that require them to work together in cooperation to solve a problem? What about videos that show the human-ness of every individual, gay and straight, Christian and not? What about just sitting down and talking to each other, really listening to the other side, what they fear and what they need?

Living together in harmony is not going to happen when 51% of the population vote for or against something. It will only happen when we all connect as fellow human beings.

Nonviolent Communication

November 20, 2008

I recently read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph. D. Nonviolent Communication, or NVC for short, is an important approach to and process of communication that allows us to stay connected to our own human-ness and that of others. As Rosenberg describes:

NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of being habitual, automatic reactions, our works become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are preceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in a given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.

In a conflict situation, NVC is crucial in keeping things from escalating. If even one of the parties in the conflict uses NVC, they will be able to keep the focus on their own feelings and needs and those of the other party. It is only through acknowledging each individual’s feelings and addressing each of their needs that a conflict can be resolved in a way that makes everyone happy.

I am in some ways a natural at NVC, in large part because my parents were familiar with NVC when they raised me and they raised me very compassionately. I am good at both being aware of my own feelings and needs and at being compassionate and empathic with others and hearing the feelings and needs behind their words. However, there were still things I learned from reading this book, making me realize how complex and, at times, challenging the NVC process is. For example, I became more aware of how prevalent judgments are in our culture and language. Judgments show up in subtle ways, in phrases I would not have immediately labeled as being judgmental. Rosenberg effectively points out how many seemingly innocuous phrases are in fact judgments (or, as he also calls them, evaluations).

Another important aspect of NVC that I understood with new clarity is the importance of owning our feelings. This is particularly important when it comes to anger. Although we may feel a certain way in reaction to a particular behavior, another person’s behavior does not make us feel that way. We feel that way because we have a need that was or was not met by the behavior in question. Rosenberg describes this as distinguishing stimulus from cause. For example, imagine that you are meeting a friend and she is late. You may feel angry that she was late. However, her behavior is the stimulus but not the direct cause of your anger. The real cause of your anger is that your need to see her for the full hour you were planning to be together was not met, or your need to not walk in to a show late was not met. It can become easier to distinguish stimulus from cause when you imagine a situation where the same thing happens but you feel differently. For example, another time your friend is late you may not feel angry but instead relieved, because you had scheduled things too close together and you needed some downtime in between. It now becomes clear that your friend being late is not the cause of your anger in the first situation.

As you can see, NVC is about more than language itself. It is an entire approach to life. I believe that compassion and empathy are key components to peace, and the best way to prevent violence and instead have peace is to make sure people stay in touch with their human-ness. NVC is an important tool for doing that.

I also reviewed this book on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany. I highly recommend it.

Obama and hope

November 8, 2008

There is no question that Barack Obama is a charismatic and inspirational speaker and leader. Like many others, I am hopeful about the change he has promised to bring to this country. As many are saying, he has a lot to live up to, and no doubt he will disappoint some – perhaps many – people. He is, after all, only human, and he will inherit some huge problems with this country.

However, I maintain my hope because I am inspired not only by Obama’s own words, but by the movement that has arisen in his wake. Tuesday night was historic not only because he was the first African-American man elected president of the United States, but because of the unprecedented celebration and joy at his election. Unprecedented in my lifetime, at least. I have never before witnessed people taking to the streets in celebration in the numbers that they did Tuesday night, and that itself is incredibly inspiring to me. To see people from many different communities, of different colors, genders, abilities, and ages, out on the streets together crying and hugging and cheering. To see them out there together sharing happiness and excitement with each other. I contrast these images with ones that have been more common in my lifetime: thousands of people on the street rioting, burning things and hurting each other. The celebration of Tuesday night around the world gives me hope that people can stop the violence of the past and recognize that they live together in a global community.

Obama is indeed a powerful leader to inspire this kind of excitement in people. My hope is that people will maintain their optimism about the future and their sense of connectedness with others, because that is how change will really happen. Yes, Obama will be in a position of power, where he can enact certain changes, but ultimately the change has to come from the people who recognize that we are all one community and who, most importantly, believe that change is possible.

Reduce, reduce, reduce

November 6, 2008

I am sick of consumerism. Just plain sick of it. I am tired of living in a country where the measure of the country’s “health” is based on getting people to buy more and more stuff each year. I am sick of being bombarded day in day out by advertising trying to convince me that I will be happier if I have a new car, a new house, the latest cell phone, and countless other unnecessary items. I am sickened by the fact that thousands of factories in impoverished areas spew poisons, ruin the environment and use up our precious resources to produce useless plastic junk that will just end up in a landfill somewhere.

I think people know, deep down, that they are not going to be made happy by their material possessions, but so many people have repressed that knowledge, have convinced themselves and been convinced by advertising that they will be made happy if they buy more, that they are happy now that they own some new product. But if they stop to think they might feel an emptiness, something in them that has not been fulfilled by their constant buying.

Yet it seems like a never-ending vicious cycle. Our economy is built on the concept of producing and consuming. How do we stop that in its tracks, turn it upside down, and demand that the economy be based on something else, such as compassion and treating others fairly?

Colin Beavan of the blog No Impact Man has a good post on “The ridiculousness of relying on ‘market indicators’ to run our planet” last week. At the end he says:

We know that blowing the top off a mountain to get coal and that burning the coal to cause global warming is not good for anyone. We know that putting people to work helping people in the developing world get fresh drinking water is better than making throwaway razors.

Do we really need “free market signals” to tell us that? Why do we need to include externalities in prices before we do what we should? We can’t we just accept that economics are not the be all and end all and just do what is right?

He also had an article at WorldChanging on moving beyond the concept of sustainability. He says we should not just settle for making the same old products in a more sustainable manner, we should look at whether those products are actually contributing to our betterment:

When our measure of sustainability asks only if a given activity is something we can get away with doing — and fails to ask whether that activity is worth doing at all — we fail to see the larger picture.

“Sustainable” implies something can be done, but it says nothing about whether it should be done. It says nothing about whether our precious resources are being used for our betterment.

When we are deciding whether to buy something, we should ask whether the happiness and enjoyment we think it will bring us is worth the resources used in its production.

We will be a happier, healthier people living on a healthier planet if we reduce firstly our consumption and consequently our production of useless, even harmful products and resist the idea that material possessions equal happiness. We need to stop the senseless stream of consumerism that has taken over so many of our lives.

A vote for Obama is a vote for peace

November 4, 2008

Today is the presidential election in the U.S. and I voted for Barack Obama. There are many reasons I did so, but I want to highlight the reasons most relevant to peace. Based on what Obama and McCain have each said and the various analyses of their positions, I believe that Obama will make much greater progress towards a peaceful world than McCain will.

One issue is fundamental human rights, including health care and the right to privacy. Obama’s health care plan is much more comprehensive and goes further towards providing coverage for more Americans than McCain’s does. Obama has pledged to protect women’s right to privacy in the arena of reproductive rights, and I’m confident that he will make efforts to reverse the damage done around the world by the global gag rule. In general, I believe that Obama is in touch with the needs of people whose rights are not being upheld, and McCain is not.

Another issue is economic security. Obama’s plans will allow more people to be economically secure and obtain jobs. This is very important, since conflict is most likely to arise when people are struggling to obtain basic necessities. Again, Obama has demonstrated through his words and his sincerity that he understands the hardships of these people, while McCain has shown himself to be deeply out of touch.

Finally, most directly related to peace, there is the war in Iraq and homeland security. Both Obama and McCain have pledged to end the war, but McCain emphasizes ending it “victoriously” while Obama emphasizes ending it “responsibly”.

In the area of homeland security, McCain primarily focuses on having a strong military. On his website, it states that “He knows that to protect our homeland, our interests, and our values – and to keep the peace – America must have the best-manned, best-equipped, and best-supported military in the world.” He also believes in strengthening our missile defense and increasing the size of the military. In other words, McCain believes and will act upon the idea that security is found in being the strongest, biggest, baddest kid on the block. I strongly disagree with this position.

On the other hand, Obama addresses a wide variety of approaches to security, including strengthening biosecurity, protecting information networks, improving our intelligence capacity, protecting civil liberties, protecting and modernizing our transportation infrastructure (including public transportation), supporting first responders to crises (who received budget cuts under Bush, supported by McCain), and preventing nuclear terrorism. It explicitly says on his website that “Barack Obama will show the world that America believes in its existing commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to work to ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons. Barack Obama fully supports reaffirming this goal, as called for by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, and the specific steps they propose to move us in that direction. He has made clear that America will not disarm unilaterally.” Nuclear disarmament is critical to future peace and I am pleased that Obama supports it.

Obama has a much more well-rounded view than McCain on what it means to be secure. McCain seems to have a one-track mind, that the military is the end-all be-all of security, which is quite a frightening prospect. I want someone as president who has demonstrated that he is aware of the complexities and multi-faceted aspects of security, and I believe that Obama is that person.

It is true that Obama does not go far enough for my liking. Clearly he will be willing to use military force and I do not know how much he would hesitate before doing so. Will he try diplomacy, mediation, and other nonviolent techniques to resolve conflict first? I do not know. However, I think I can safely predict that McCain definitely would NOT hesitate to use force. I would much rather take a gamble that Obama will try other things than take the guarantee that McCain will not.

These are only some of the reasons that I believe Obama will make positive change. If you haven’t voted already, please go vote for Obama!

Inspiration from the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

November 3, 2008

I recently read the book We Speak as One: Twelve Nobel Laureates Share Their Vision for Peace, edited by Arthus Zajonc. You can read my full review of it here, but in summary it contained short biographies of and an imagined conversation (created by juxtaposing quotes from each individual in such a way that it could have been a conversation) between 12 of the Nobel Peace Prize winners. I found it quite inspiring to read their words and I would like to read more in-depth writings by each of them.

Each laureate has a strong hope and vision for a world at peace, and they each feel so sure that there is a better way than war and violence. Their words address many of the fundamental causes of war and violence and express the strong belief that our problems can ultimately only be solved peacefully. It was so encouraging to be reminded that I am not in fact a crazy liberal with wild, out-there ideas about how we could all live in peace, that peace is not just about hippis singing about living in harmony. It is a realistic and important vision and these laureates are people who have been widely recognized for their serious, on-the-ground work towards peace.

A few quotes (selected more or less randomly; pretty much everything they say is quotable):

We have somehow bought into this lie in the human mind that we have a right to kill each other, so we train people to go out there (which is totally against our human nature), and we train them to kill. This is wrong. We need to organize our societies on a new value that we can solve our problems without killing each other.
– Mairead Corrigan Maguire

When a country like the United States believes that it needs to control the resources, the power of the world, it denigrates other possible solutions because ‘nonviolent solution’ implies you sit down, you discuss. So you have to make people who think differently from you seem weak, you denigrate nonviolent solution, you denigrate multi-lateral discussions to resolve problems, you make peace really seem ridiculous and absurd. You conjure up the image that always makes me insane, of the butterflies and birds flying over the rainbow, proving that it’s a storybook image of peace. There’s nothing storybook about peace, it’s really hard work all the time…You get up and you struggle every day to make a difference in the world. That’s not utopian. I wish it were. I wish it were as easy as visualizing world peace. It isn’t. It’s finding ways to address the things that bother you.”
– Jody Williams

In my opinion, I feel that the safety of mankind begins in the community. We are not human beings alone; we hare human beings socially, spiritually, politically and economically, in concert with each other. I believe that it is through the community, the community of the family, the community of our villages, of our religious beliefs – this is what enables us to have security and to grow as persons. We cannot stay in the mind-set of ‘individualism.’
– Aldolfo Perez Esquivel

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.
– Aung San Suu Kyi