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.

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Violence is not the solution

January 9, 2009

Last night I got into a discussion about Gaza, and, as is typical for me in a verbal discussion, I was not able to defend my arguments against violence very well. I was accused of “feeling” that violence is wrong, but not providing any rational argument against it or suggestion for an alternative in this particular situation. I think this is a valid point; I do “feel” that violence is wrong, but not everyone does, so in order to convince people to try something different it is important to show why violence is not just wrong, but ineffective, and to provide ideas for what to do instead.

I therefore would like to attempt to set feelings aside and argue that rationally-speaking violence is not an effective long-term solution to the conflict in Gaza, as well as propose some alternatives. I welcome thoughtful discussion; please feel free to leave a comment.

Why violence is not the solution

An argument in favor of Israel’s actions usually starts out with the point that Israel has a right – and perhaps even a moral obligation to its citizens – to defend itself. The word defend automatically brings up the image of force, but force is not necessarily the best defense. If what Israel really wants to do is ensure its security; that is, to protect itself and its citizens, then we need to stop thinking of violence as the only option.

Using force against one’s attackers will not ensure long-term security for one significant reason: violence breeds more violence. When people feel threatened and attacked, they naturally feel anger towards and fear of their attackers. They are not going to suddenly decide that they love the people doing the killing and want to make peace with them. No, they are going to continue to hate them and want to do violence in retaliation. Thus, Israel’s current actions are not surprising: Israel felt threatened and attacked by the rockets and decided to retaliate. However, the problem is that their retaliation will only increase Hamas’s hatred, anger, and desire to retaliate in return. Violence is a vicious, escalating cycle.

At this point one might argue that the vicious cycle does not apply in this situation because Israel’s military is so much stronger than Hamas’s. Israel can very likely “win” this particular battle, achieving through force their immediate goal of stopping the rocket attacks. They can perhaps even take down the terrorist-led government by killing many of the key people in it, leaving behind a seemingly subdued group of people. In the short-term, therefore, Israel may feel as if they have greater security after they have succeeded in this battle. However, their sense of security will be an illusion. The hatred will not have magically disappeared. No matter how many of the key militants they kill, there will be someone left behind in which hatred is brewing, someone who will become a new leader. Eventually the Palestinians will acquire more rockets or other weapons, and once again attack Israel. The violence, the battle that Israel appeared to have won, only ensured a short-term peace. There is no doubt that the conflict will spring up again, and another cycle of violence will begin. We do not need to only theorize about the future to be convinced; taking a look at the immediate past of the region shows clearly the cycles of violence and “peace.” Violence has been tried many times before and clearly does not work. Why should we continue trying to use an approach that will get us nowhere except to more violence?

In short, violence is not a solution because all it can do is lead to more violence and hatred. Violence cannot breed peaceful coexistence, because the use of violence requires an us versus them mentality that turns a group of people into the “other” and excludes mutual acceptance.

As I mentioned above, Israel’s actions are not at all unexpected given the situation. In the context of a society where we condone the use of violence as a solution to conflict, it does not make sense to condemn Israel’s actions. I condemn them in a larger context, one that says violence will not lead to long-term peace, as evidenced by history, sociology, and psychology, and therefore we should look for a different solution. I challenge Israel to take the high road, to break themselves out of the cycle of violence and try something different.

Alternatives to violence

Let me preface this section by pointing out that if I had all the answers, I would be over there helping them resolve their conflict, not sitting here writing a blog post. I am not an expert on the details of the situation and I have not studied the history of the region in depth. I do not presume to be able to solve a centuries-old conflict in one short examination of it. However, I have a few ideas of things they could try. Some of them may seem a bit out-there, unlikely to ever happen, but this is the type of problem that requires creative brainstorming of solutions. You never know until you try.

At the root of all conflicts are needs and feelings. Every human being has needs, and when those needs are not being met, conflict (and violence) often results. Every human being also has feelings, and when those feelings are not acknowledged and accepted, conflict (and violence) often results. (Note that accepting a feeling is NOT the same thing as accepting an action based on that feeling. It is possible to accept that Palestinians feel anger towards Israel without accepting their actions of shooting rockets at Israel). So one place to start with the conflict in Gaza is to do active listening with the key individuals involved. This means individual meetings where the person in the role of “counselor” listens to the other person talk about their perspective on the conflict. In order for it to be effective, the counselor needs to probe for the root needs and feelings (the person is most likely not aware of what these are; a good counselor can draw them out) and reflect back to the individual what they hear, thus acknowledging the person’s needs and feelings and making the person feel accepted.

I am aware that this may sound a bit too touchy-feely to many of you. Most of us are extremely uncomfortable thinking about our own or anyone else’s needs and feelings, let alone talking about them, because our society has taught us to repress them. This does not mean they are not important, however. In fact, I maintain that addressing each individual’s underlying needs and feelings is absolutely necessary to reaching permanent resolution of a conflict. As long as there are feelings going unacknowledged and needs going unaddressed, the conflict will not be resolved; people will continue to harbor resentments and bitter thoughts.

We cannot stop there, however. After individual meetings with the leaders as I described above, I would propose bringing the leaders together for mediation. I realize that negotiation has been tried and not succeeded numerous times. Perhaps true mediation has also been tried, but I do not know. By true mediation, I again mean something that includes needs and feelings. Negotiation by itself is not sufficient because it jumps right to the last step, of trying to come up with a compromise. True mediation starts by getting each party to truly hear what the other party is saying. They take turns explaining their position, and the other party is required to reflect back what they hear. The act of doing this results in each party gaining a better understanding of the other position. Only at this point will they be able to make progress together towards a solution. Furthermore, they should be seeking a win-win solution, one that meets ALL of their stated (true, root) needs, not a compromise with which neither side is completely satisfied.

It would be very difficult for Israel and Hamas to initiate these actions all by themselves. This is where the third side comes in. The rest of the world needs to put serious pressure on both Israel and Hamas to stop their censeless fighting and try something else. Some uninvolved third-party needs to step forward and lead the steps I proposed above. Someone needs to initiate individual meetings with each leader and work through their needs and feelings with them. Someone needs to lead the mediation (or most likely series of mediations) between Israel and Hamas. We cannot expect the involved parties to take these steps by themselves; the rest of the world must take action to help them work towards a non-violent solution.

However, perhaps none of this will work. Perhaps the Hamas leadership is simply too irrational, and there is little hope of doing enough individual counseling work with them to really reach to the root of the conflict. We of course cannot know this unless we give it the best try we can, but assuming that we do encounter failure, do we just give up and go back to violence? No, we should not go back to violence. There are other things to try.

I suggest to you that the majority of the people living in Gaza do not in fact harbor such virulent hatred against Israel. Yes, they elected a terrorist as their leader. However, I have read suggestions that this was because this same terrorist promised them social services programs, something the previous leader, being corrupt, did not provide. I do not know how accurate this evaluation is, but I don’t doubt that there is some truth to it. The people who elected Hamas likely made a very rational decision: when you are struggling for your survival on a daily basis, you are probably going to vote for the person who promises you the most hope of a better life, regardless of what other policies and beliefs that person might have. So instead of looking at the needs of the leaders, who may be beyond hope, let’s instead look at the needs of the people.

I can perceive a few needs from my perspective, although to really find out we could of course have to talk to the actual people living in Gaza and Israel. The needs that I see include the needs of those living in Gaza for sufficient food, water, power, health care, and education, and the needs of those living in Israel for assurance that they and their loved ones will not be hit by a rocket. I want to focus on the basic survival needs of those living in Gaza, because they are the ones who elected a terrorist. I suspect that if these people’s needs were met, they would be much more likely to elect a leader who is not a terrorist. Such a leader may be more rational, and thus more willing and able to enter into mediation with Israel. Furthermore, the people would not need to use Israel as a scapegoat for their problems (which they may or may not be doing now, and Israel may or may not actually have caused some of their problems – the point is that when people are struggling to survive they will look for someone to hate, someone to blame their struggles on). Essentially, meeting people’s basic needs for survival is a prerequisite to reaching peaceful coexistence. Thus, what can Israel and the rest of the world do to work towards a solution to the conflict? Ensure that everyone’s basic survival needs are being met.

However, meeting the general population’s basic needs is probably not enough. It is important to recognize that the mutual hatred and distrust between Arabs and Jews is centuries old. Many Arabs and Jews grow up with little exposure to each other, and they are taught – not necessarily explicitly (although that may be the case), but through their society and culture – to hate and more significantly to fear the other. Removing the centuries-deep layers of distrust and fear is neither an easy nor a fast process, but it is a necessary one.

Meaningful exposure and interaction is critical to removing fear and distrust. It is not as easy to fear a group of people as the “other” when you have a human connection with someone from that group. To bring this out of theory and back to the current situation in Gaza, I propose activities that bring Palestinians and Israeli Jews together in activities where they must cooperate to solve a problem. How about forming many small mixed groups and having them work together to tear down the barriers along the border of Gaza (if there are physical barriers)? Or having them work together half the day rebuilding a destroyed Israeli structure and half the day rebuilding a destroyed Gaza structure? Or perhaps building a community center together that sits right on top of the border, and then having them work together to come up with programs and activities that the community center could host. Some other ideas are an exchange program where a young college-age Palestinian spends a week living with an Israeli family and vice-versa, or bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to live in a Kibbutz-like setting for a month. Forming connections between children is also critical. How about a mixed Arab/Jew elementary school or after-school program that emphasizes cooperative interaction between the children, where they have to work together to solve some problem? Some of these ideas may sound impossible, but the point is that we have to be creative. We have to think of ways we can bring people together to build bonds and trust with one another. If we come up with enough ideas, we are bound to come up with something that is possible.

Building mutual acceptance, trust, and peaceful coexistence between two groups of people that have hated each other for a long time is anything but easy. It requires creativity and hard work, thinking of solutions and things to try that go beyond the easy, instinctual reaction of using force and violence. Violence may appear to solve conflicts in the short-term, but it is an illusion. As long as the two groups are using violence on one another, they will continue to fear and hate each other. Long-term security can only be guaranteed by breaking the cycle of violence and reaching beyond it for human connection and the gradual return of trust.


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.