On Conferences and Anti-Conferences

EDITORIAL, 15 Sep 2008

#24 | Johan Galtung

Point of Peace in Stavanger, Norway, just concluded a 3 days so-called summit conference with some Nobel Peace Prize Laureates on Alarms and Solutions; with no solutions. The themes: “Facing the Climate Challenge”, “9/11 And Then What?”, “The Challenge of Informing the Public”, and the Millennium Development Goals, MDG.

Much money, much establishment, a crown prince in the first row, much effort not to be controversial, all made their impact. So the conference was treated to a Nobel laureate, the Chair of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (from nuclear power India) who described the calamity without a word on how much, or little, is human-generated, and no remedy beyond eating less meat; a CEO from the Norwegian company Statoil whose remedy was taxes without mentioning how easily they are pushed unto the customers, hitting the poor; a panel of “young coming leaders” who had been through a “syntegration” exercise paid by Statoil without a single concrete proposal; to a minister of the environment who evidently wanted a follow-up to his disastrous facilitation-ceasefire in Sri Lanka, with a strong admonition to look forward to the USA as the leader in mitigating the problems; another Nobel laureate with a touching, beautiful appeal equally far away from concreteness; another Nobel Laureate very concrete about the history of Korea; a former prime minister who led Norway into three wars–two of them illegal–with a US agenda based on US lies using “dialogue” as a way of promoting Western agendas, and some bla-bla about the MDGs of which he knew nothing. In short, the standard, normal fare.

Expert papers on alternative energy and on why neo-liberalism makes the MDGs unachievable passed unresponded to. Like superb local high school and elementary school kids, far above many adults in their realistic understanding and approach to conflict.

At the end came the launching of a You-tube style “Peace Channel”, sponsored by the Association of World Trade Centers, to be run by the Bob Geldof-a highly controversial person in Africa-mdia company Ten Alps. The World Trade Center! – as the New York Times revealed, one of the tenants in that building was the CIA office for spying on and recruiting top UN diplomat from foreign countries. Some trade. The list of tenants reads like a Who is Who in the US Empire. Their peace philosophy? Peace through trade. The Trade Channel, in other words. Forget about it.

Enough complaints. This was the classical conference format. What is the constructive-creative-concrete alternative format? How does one organize a conference which is not a show–a flow of badly related monologues with “panels” with shorter monologues and some debate–but a dialogue with mutual search and brainstorming producing idea? How does a conference end with a list of concrete creative proposals, and not only with moralizing bla-bla?

By turning it into a workshop. A flat floor, no podium. Lots of dialogue tables each with six very different persons, the tables in semi-circles, one behind the other. I have done it with 50-l00 numbered tables, in other words 300-600 participants, but the ideal is 4-5 tables. One or a half day for each theme, like the excellent list above. Some informative papers sent out in advance but participants are not obliged to prepare themselves; openness is more important. Some plenary inspirational presentation is in order, for the more passive public.

And then: each table is a universe. The name of the game is creativity, not consensus. Not the common denominator, but a maximum of creative ideas. That is problematic for some who cannot stand ideas other than their own. In other words, be tolerant of the new, yet probing, including into your own ideas.

It is important to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. The goal in a debate (battre in French, beat) is to defeat the opponent; the goal in a dialogue is to inspire each other to arrive, together, at something new.

It is strenuous, demanding and very active, just the opposite of sitting nicely organized in rows imbibing messages, like a well-behaved congregation in a church. For that kind of non-activity, sitting in front of a TV-set can be recommended. For people who want to be the active, compassionate, creative ferment in a true democracy, something like what has been described above is recommended. Organizer! pick your choice, what do you prefer?

At the end the tables will be asked to list their proposals; how they arrived at them, the process, the changes they underwent in the dialogue being of minor importance and fairly standard. The proof of the dialogue pudding is in the idea list eating.

The facilitators may then call on tables picked randomly to have a spokesperson present their proposals under the general rule that when one table speaks the others are silent. But won’t the ideas overlap? Yes, but better too many than too few. And also give other views at the table a voice (Russian: glasnost’).

The tables may then appoint an editorial committee who may group the proposals according to content, eliminate duplicates, but by and large live by the rule that all proposals are born equal and have the same right to realization, provided they are creative and nonviolent. And reversible: do not take irreversible steps, your proposals may not be as perfect as you think.

The world knows there are unignorable messages and alarms, and people want proposals and solutions. The standard conference does not deliver that. The anti-conference does, like the Pugwash conferences, which had considerable Cold War impact. Do likewise.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Sep 2008.

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