Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.


Book review: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

October 1, 2010

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a collection of eight essays by Wendell Berry. Although each essay is on a different topic, covering subjects such as economics, conservation, tobacco farming, war and peace, Christianity, and sex, all eight essays are closely linked through a centering focus on the concept of community. Wendell Berry is an exceptionally clear thinker and writer, and he presents compelling arguments for why globalization is causing more harm than good and why we must instead return to true, localized communities (and, consequently, economies). In the title essay, he defines community as follows:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature… Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

A community as described above serves neither private interests nor “public” interests, but rather the interests of the localized community as a whole. A major point that Berry makes is that it is only in the context of such a community that we will take care of each other and the land and live out the higher human values of respect and compassion. For example, in the globalized economy, where our food comes from thousands of miles away, it does not seem to matter how we treat the land around us, because it does not directly impact our ability to obtain food. On the other hand, when our food comes from the land near where we live, we see the consequences of poor treatment and are therefore are more motivated to care for that land in a way that ensures it continues to produce the food we need.

Occasionally as I read the essays I sensed a hint of glorifying the past. However, on the whole Berry maintains a nuanced perspective on the reasons our society is broken and what it would take to fix it. Although his proposal for more localized communities and economies does hint back to lifestyles in the past, I do not think the Berry is proposing that we return everything to exactly as it was 100 years ago. Although Berry does not address this explicitly, I believe that we can take the aspects of life 100 years that will improve our society (e.g. more tightly-knit, localized communities and economies) and leave other aspects (such as oppression of women) behind. Overall, Berry makes important points about globalization and communities that hold a lot of truth.

Although I agree with much of Berry’s arguments, I do not agree 100% with everything he says. Take this perspective on technology:

We must give up also our superstitious conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. Soil loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soil were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of “science and technology,” who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution – however many new problems they might cause in doing so. But soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

I do agree that we sometimes try to solve problems with technology when in fact they cannot be solved in that way, because they are cultural and societal problems. However, I think there is a place for science and technology, for example in harnessing clean energy sources. Our extreme overuse of unsustainable energy sources is of course partly a cultural problem, but ultimately we will need sustainable, clean energy, and that requires a technical solution.

Reading Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community left me feeling a bit hopeless. The community-based society he describes is so very different from our current globalized society, and things seem to be going only further in the direction of globalization. I am left wondering how we get from here to there? The obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable.

I do not mean to leave you with negativity, however. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community contains important, and at times very radical, ideas and one way that we will get from here to there is if more people read it and contemplate the ideas in it. I highly recommend it – you do not have to agree 100% with Berry in order to find his ideas worth thinking about. If you are not already convinced, here are some more quotes:

But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exists within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

Many people would like to think that our diseases are caused by one simple thing, like tobacco, which can be easily blamed on one group and fairly easily given up. But of course they are fooling themselves. One reason that people die of diseases is that they have grown old enough to die of something; they are mortal, a fact that modern humans don’t like to face. Another reason is that as a people we live unhealthy lives. We breathe unhealthy air, drink unhealthy water, eat unhealthy food, eat too much, do no physical work, and so forth.

So long as there is a demonstrable need and an imaginable answer, there is hope.

This war was said to be “about peace.” So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars “to end war.” But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of the failure, on the part of all its participants, to be peaceable.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice – though, of course, they all must try for it. The depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness – in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.


Pieces of a puzzle

September 17, 2010

Creating a world and culture of peace is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. In a jigsaw puzzle, each individual piece by itself gives only a glimpse of the picture of which it is a part. It is only when all the pieces interlock together that the whole picture becomes clear. Peace is the same way. We have a general idea of the big picture, but can only imagine what the final result looks like. We catch glimpse of it when two nations resolve a conflict non-violently, when an individual strives to lead a sustainable life in harmony with the earth, when a girl in Africa is able to pursue an education and earn her own income, when a Muslim and a Jew in the Middle East become friends, but it is not until all these pieces come together to form a whole that we will have peace.

It is possible to construct sub-groups among the individual pieces, in both a jigsaw puzzle and the path of creating peace. The natural way to work on a puzzle is to look for pieces with similar markings and put them together to create something larger. In peace, some of the pieces are naturally more related to each other than others, and through looking at these groups we can begin to gain an understanding of what the whole might look like.

The edge of the peace puzzle might be the values on which a culture of peace is based: healthy relationships and communities, cooperation, compassion, and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. These values are the container in which actions towards the creation of peace take place. When two neighbors decide to use mediation rather than the adversarial courts, one reason is because they value their relationship. When we push our government to provide social services, it is because we have compassion and believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Another sub-grouping of pieces are the ones focused specifically on building cooperation and addressing our tendency to categorize into “us” and “them”: conflict resolution, bridge-building, and restorative justice. These actions encompass inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues; story-telling; groups with differences doing cooperative activities together; individuals learning non-violent communication and learning to listen; individuals, groups, and nations resolving conflicts non-violently; and restoring, rather than punishing, people who have caused harms in the community.

Closely linked to the cooperation and conflict sub-group is another group related to education and treatment of children. Our parenting methods and educational systems must teach children the values of peace: cooperation over competition, listening, valuing needs and feelings, compassion for others, and democracy. We must teach children that they are valued as human beings with worth and dignity, and that community and relationships are important. Perhaps most importantly, we must model the behavior we would like our children to learn.

Another crucial sub-group of pieces are social services and basic human rights, the economy, and the environment. Basic human rights include water, food, shelter, health care (including control of one’s reproduction),  education, and dignity. It is crucial to the big picture of peace that our societies, economies, and governments be structured in such a way that all humans are ensured these rights. In order to do so, our economy must be based on measures of health and happiness, not on ever increasing consumption of material goods. Resources must be distributed equitably and created in ways that are sustainable and not using up finite sources. In our economy and our lifestyles we must value community and the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Two last pieces each exist in their own sub-group: empowering women and inner peace. It is impossible to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans without recognizing that throughout most of recent history women were not valued with the same worth as men nor afforded the same dignity, and that in creating peace we must take positive actions to reverse these effects. This piece is in fact linked to all the sub-groups I discussed above: we need education that teaches that women are as important as men, social programs targeted towards women (for example, job training and reproductive health care), an economy that values work traditionally labeled women’s work, and bridge-building between women and men.

Finally, there is the piece of inner peace. Although it is up to each individual to find and create it for themselves, many of the pieces I have discussed can help and encourage individuals on their path to inner peace. Conversely, as people reach inner peace, it will be easier and more natural for them to work towards peace through one or more of the actions above.

I am not under any illusion that I have definitively defined all pieces of the puzzle. What else can you think of that contributes to the big picture of peace?

As we work on our individual pieces in the puzzle of peace, let us remember to look as well for where we might fit in to the big picture. Together, and only together, we can create peace.


Dialogue online?

August 9, 2010

Is it possible for meaningful dialogue to occur over the internet? I ask myself this question over and over when I see the comment threads on prominent feminist blogs such as Feministe and Feministing. There are often huge flare-ups in the comments around topics of race, privilege, and other such incendiary issues, with people going at each other’s virtual throats. It pains me to see the extent to which many people race to share their own story without making an attempt to understand the perspective expressed in the other comments. It equally pains me to see the ways in which many people express themselves, using hurtful, accusatory, and divisive language – “you” statements dominate by far over “I” statements. On both ends, the comment discussion lacks crucial elements of dialogue, where individuals make an effort both to listen and to express themselves in ways that are respectful of others. I find myself wondering how productive the online, forum-style form of communication really is. An often-lauded benefit of the internet is the way in which it brings diverse people in contact who would otherwise never meet. However, if the way they are meeting is through divisive comment threads on blog posts, is that benefit lost?

I do believe that the most effective dialogue must occur in person. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice are all important parts of communication between individuals that help us empathize and achieve understanding. On the internet, we have only words. Skilled writers can achieve great things with only words, but the majority of content on the internet is not from skilled writers. Putting intense emotions and deeply-held assumptions into words is difficult enough as it is, but without the aid of non-verbal cues, it becomes that much harder. Dialogue also requires making oneself vulnerable. In some cases, the anonymity of the internet may allow someone to share something they would not otherwise. But in other cases, the knowledge that anyone in the whole world may read what you write can feel even more threatening.

However, I do not think that productive dialogue is completely impossible on the internet. Sharing stories is an important part of dialogue that does not require immediate response from others. The asynchronous aspect of the internet allows individuals more time to reflect on what they have read before responding – although many people do not seem to do enough thinking before responding, at least the potential is there. In general, I think that for dialogue to be truly effective on the internet someone needs to set the intention for it and explicitly invite the participants to interact in a dialogue format. This act of creating space for dialogue to happen is no different from what is needed for productive in-person dialogues. Most people have little experience with communicating in the ways required by dialogue, and therefore most conversations, either in-person or over the internet, do not take the form of dialogue.

In the end, we all make a choice about how we respond to the words we hear from others, either verbal or written. No matter what the context online, whether or not dialogue is a specific intention of the website, blog, or forum, we can each set an intention with ourselves, to read each others’ words with an openness of mind and heart, holding the intent of gaining a better understanding of each other and ourselves as human beings.


We must dialogue

August 6, 2010

In most conversations, we talk at each other, often without even really hearing what the other party has to say. As others speak, we are already preparing in our head how we are going to respond. This sort of conversation is often sufficient to get us through the day – we pick up on the content that is relevant to ourselves, the parts with which we already agree, and let the rest slide by.

However, when we get into conflict or encounter individuals different from ourselves, our usual approach to conversing will lead us to dehumanize each other. Typically, if we are having a disagreement, we work hard to convince the other party of our position, without making an effort to understand their perspective or attempting to discover common ground. We take our beliefs as a given and do not let ourselves question the assumptions on which our views are based. We will quickly become stuck in intractable conflicts with this approach, as each party refuses to recognize the validity of the other party’s perspective.

In order to move beyond the “us vs. them” mentality, beyond dehumanizing people different from ourselves, beyond the concept of “the other,” we must make intentional efforts to engage with each other differently. We must dialogue.

In dialogue, we enter into conversation with the intent of understanding each other better, understanding ourselves better, and being understood. Together, we uncover and explore the assumptions and experiences that lead to our different perspectives. We listen attentively to each other’s words, and speak openly and honestly. We do not use rhetoric to try to convince others of our position, but instead share personal experiences that influence our current beliefs.

To dialogue, we must be willing to change. It requires us to put ourselves in a place of vulnerability. We may question previously held beliefs. We must be interested in valuing relationship above closely guarded views of “right” and “wrong.”

In order to create a world in which we can each reach our full human potential, where we live with our differences without feeling threatened, and where we resolve conflicts through non-violent means, we must be willing to enter into dialogue with each other.

I am particularly inspired by the work of Libby and Len Traubman, who founded the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues in San Mateo, CA, 17 years ago, and continue to do inspiring work with dialogue.

For a more in-depth exploration of the dialogue process, I recommend an excellent essay at BeyondIntractability.org. Here is an excerpt:

In dialogue, participants explore the presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that shape their interactions; they discover how hidden values and intentions control people’s behavior and contribute to communication successes and failures. For example, it begins to become clear why a group avoids certain issues, or why it insists, against all reason, on defending certain positions. Participants can collectively observe how unnoticed cultural differences often clash, without their realizing what is happening.[18] These observations help participants to determine what is blocking effective communication.[19]

However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another. Because its broad goal is to increase understanding about parties’ concerns, fears, and needs, dialogue centers on inquiry and reflection. Participants refrain from assuming that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other.[20] Instead, they assume that the other is speaking honestly from experience, and listen closely. This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it. They gain insight into the “assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided.”[21] Each participant can examine the preconceptions and prejudices that lie behind his or her opinions and feelings, and then share these insights with one another. Participants not only expose ideas to one another’s scrutiny, but also open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be changed. This means that they try to appreciate what the other side is saying and keep their ears open, even when they do not like what they hear.[22] To be fully open to new ideas, participants must be ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. They must be willing to change their minds and emerge from the dialogue as altered people. If they instead strive to convey their own points of view and defend their positions, genuine dialogue will not be possible.[23]


Restorative activism

April 17, 2010

Today I attended a workshop on Restorative Activism, offered by Scott Brown and John Ehrhart of Open Path Trainings. It was a beautiful, inspiring, and renewing experience.

Below is a short summary of what restorative activism is, but I recommend Scott Brown’s blog post on it if you want to learn more.

The fundamental premise of restorative activism is that we must prioritize relationship, recognizing that we are all connected. A quote from Neem Karoli Baba captures the essence of this philosophy:

Do what you must with people,
but never let anyone out of your heart,
not even for a moment.

Engaging in restorative activism requires engaging with oneself, by cultivating mindfulness and self-awareness. Through connecting with our inner self and paying attention to what is deepest in our heart, we can then reach the place from which we can be out in the world. Being authentic with ourselves is the only way in which we can be authentic in the world. True activism stems not from anger and hatred, but from love, compassion, and recognition of our interconnectedness. This form of activism is not divisive and does not lead to shaming or blaming. Instead, it leads to healing and repair of relationships.

The atmosphere at the workshop was calm, safe, and accepting. Everyone spoke authentically and we all went deep in our self-exploration. Much of the content resonated deeply with me, and I came away feeling connected and less alone in my beliefs in peace and compassion. I also feel that I gained some small bit of clarity about how I need to engage with the world, in part through the many mindfulness exercises we did. I found these exercises both challenging and renewing, and I am contemplating finding a mindfulness practice to incorporate into my routine life.

The workshop was a beautiful experience and I will hold it in my heart as a source of inspiration.


Organization of the week: Mural Arts Program

January 25, 2010

There is a fabulous organization in Philadelphia, PA, called Mural Arts Program. Their mission statement says that they unite “artists and communities through a collaborative process, rooted in the traditions of mural-making, to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives.” They organize community and school murals, art education programs, restorative justice projects, and other special projects. Their programs bring together people in the community, giving them a common goal to work towards together, with powerful results for the individuals and the community:

The Mural Arts Program includes the community in every step of the mural-making process, from selecting a theme to selecting a muralist, and from collaborating on a design to celebrating the mural’s creation. This way the mural fulfills its intention by becoming a living part of the community long after the project is completed.

We strive to have our mural projects represent collaboration. The mural-making process builds lasting community relationships, bringing together people whose paths might otherwise never have crossed. When diverse community members have joined together to promote the community, the finished mural celebrates their collective creative force.

Community-building, as this program does, is one of the foundations of peace. People who work together on one project are more likely to work together in the future. To conclude, here is a quote about the program from a muralist:

I’ve seen murals bring people together. They don’t solve all of a neighborhood’s problems, but they can bring new life and energy to the people who live there. They can be a catalyst for change.

—Donald Gensler, Muralist