PIERCING THE CARAPACE
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 4 Mar 2009
Are we just wasting our time? That’s the challenge, to those of us working in the peacebuilding field, from two of its most respected figures, Simon Fisher and Lada Zimina. Their Open Letter to Peacebuilders argues that this should be our moment. Cold war rivalries have receded into distant memory, while hot war as a tool for spreading peace and democracy has been thoroughly discredited, in the eyes of world publics, by the atrocity of Iraq and the quagmire of Afghanistan. We are in a “window of opportunity”, they argue, “for transformative peacebuilding to come of age, to be taken seriously by governments, social movements and business alike, as major crises continue to resist military solutions and global environmental constraints combine to throw up intractable new conflicts”.
Except, they say, it’s not – being taken seriously, that is. The problem is captured in a well-known paradox: in the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of violent conflicts has steadily fallen, according to the Human Security Report published annually by Simon Fraser University in Canada; but the money spent on armaments over the same period has remorselessly risen, as reflected in statistics compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. We have more peace, at least in that narrow sense of a diminution of direct violence, but we are not enjoying a peace dividend. Elements of the institutional frameworks within which we operate – those identified by Fisher and Zimina – tend to present an impenetrable carapace to the insights and perspectives of peacebuilding.
On the other hand… I’ve spent the last few days at a conference in Cleveland, Ohio, to design a National Peace Academy for the United States. The intention is to create a resource base for peace to be brought to bear on any and every field of endeavour, from government policy-making, to journalism, to toy-making (yes, really). Its chief purpose would be to spread peace education, both by offering its own academic courses, probably at postgraduate level, and by inculcating it into school curricula. But it should also, in the eyes of many gathered here, make resources available – in the form of training, funding and sheer connectivity – to peace workers and peacemakers across the US and beyond.
The proceedings are facilitated using a technique called Appreciative Inquiry (AI), by its chief exponent, David Cooperrider, who is part of the Weatherhead School of Management at the local Case Western Reserve University. In contrast with the opening gambit of the Letter to Peacebuilders, we are encouraged to accentuate the positive; to locate, in fact, the “positive change core” at the heart of our commitment and our activities. The enthusiasm evinced by the 150-odd participants has carried more than a faint echo of Barack Obama’s campaign rallying cry, which is still resonating across America: “Yes we can!”
Indeed, some of the terminology of AI sounds, let us say, a little different when filtered through the ironic reflex that is traditionally stronger elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The conference has been encouraged through stages of deliberation, labelled “Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny”. We watched a feature from ABC’s Nightline program, on the efforts of a commercial design company to re-conceive the shopping trolley, or ‘cart’, as an example of the “rapid prototyping” approach we were being asked to apply.
A growing concern
But it’s easy to mock, of course, and less easy to do. Peace, as a going concern in academia, is growing – an article in the International Herald Tribune last October put the number of programs in universities around the world at more than 400, and every one that I know of is busy making room for more students, more lecturers and more research. The creation of Peace Academies could add to its credentials and respectability in the academic world, as well as helping peacebuilders in the ‘real world’ to find the language, ideas, support and contacts to apply their insights in the way Fisher and Zimina call for.
We’ve come a long way since the creation of my own centre, at the University of Sydney, which required a campaign by students and staff to bring it about. Every other subject was taught within its hallowed walls, the argument went – so why not peace? The response, from the university authorities, was to accede – with the proviso that ‘conflict’ be added, hence, the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Graduates typically go on to careers in aid agencies, humanitarian organisations, think-tanks, government departments and the like, as well as universities. And there is now a thickening web of contacts with branches of government here in Australia, which may show that our expertise is finally starting to be regarded with due respect and seriousness. We even received the first ever approach, recently, through the university’s careers service, from an employer keen on the opportunity to make a presentation in CPACS: Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation.
(I know this because one of our recent alumni works in the Careers Service, and I asked her what she would have to do to bring this about. Provide the DIO with a list of names, she replied, of Peace and Conflict Studies students. To which I made the obvious rejoinder – if they’re any good, they’ll have one already…)
Joking aside, the NPA initiative is a larger equivalent of our own current series of meetings, aimed at strengthening the sense of coherence in the peace studies academic community in Australia and New Zealand, and bringing us into contact with employers. Aside from university folk, participants have included representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Defence Force Academy.
On the face of it, this sounds like good news – maybe we’re not wasting our time after all. But Fisher and Zimina’s message is more challenging than that. Formal contact with ‘officialdom’ is not the problem, they say – it’s the content of what passes between us. In specific terms, “many activists in the peacebuilding field no longer own the vision which inspired the first pioneers of this field, and have settled for what we are calling a ‘technical’ approach to dealing with conflict, in contrast to the ‘transformative’ approach which characterised the field at its inception”.
This often sees peace groups “co-opted”, they complain, leading them into an “undue deference to political and economic power”. It’s a syndrome familiar to environmental campaigners too. Back in the mid-1990s, concerns over ever-growing traffic volumes, together with emerging evidence of the severity of man-made climate change and the health effects of living in the fume-filled canyons of British cities led groups such as Transport 2000 to believe their moment was at hand – this was their window of opportunity. What was more, a change of government was clearly on the way, with the rising ‘New’ Labour party now willing to listen, where the incumbent Conservatives had largely turned a deaf ear.
This led the campaigners to devote copious time and energy to producing briefing papers for shadow ministers and civil servants, collecting evidence and arguing for more sustainable transport and planning policies. Whilst some government thinking was unarguably influenced in this way, many of those involved ultimately felt the effort had not been worthwhile – and that their previously critical stance had, as a result, been fatally blunted. So there’s a risk that peacebuilding may now go the same way.
The public sphere
A suggestive and useful theoretical framework to consider this syndrome was provided by the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, in his writings on the public sphere. We human beings, he argues, share the innate quality of “communicative rationality”. Put simply, if we can sit round a table, on a roughly equal basis, and free ourselves from preconceptions, we can exchange “justified statements” and derive, between us, an agreed “moral framework”. That’s how we form our “public opinions”. The problem, Habermas suggests, is that this public sphere has been transformed, so that now it can easily be dominated by remote vested interests which set the questions in advance, in order to get the answers they want, to serve their own agenda. This, he calls a “cognitive-instrumentalist” rationality, based on “egocentric calculations of utility”.
There’s a comedy series made by Australia’s ABC television that captures the sense beautifully. The Hollow Men follows the adventures of ‘the Unit’, a group of political advisers to the Prime Minister (who never actually appears in the programme, but is constantly referred to, with his supposed preferences prayed in aid of the characters’ competing agendas). Each episode begins with the hero, Murph, offering a recommendation for government action on a particular problem, which he quickly works out from first principles. The interests of government members and clients then intervene to cause him and his colleagues to have to ‘build a case’ for just the opposite course of action. The problems they face in fiction also loom large in reality, including difficulties in recruiting to the armed forces, and the low levels of public concern about the ‘threat’ of a ‘major terrorist attack’.
What’s the answer, then? It must, inevitably, come in many parts. There’s a difficult trick we’ve been discussing here which, if it can be pulled off, may answer Fisher and Zimina, and build on our existing strengths as per the Appreciative Inquiry method. In practice, denizens of these apparently impervious institutions have a keen sense that all is not as it could be. Public servants, journalists, even military personnel, can be drawn into system-critical conversations, if we can find the right language, in each case, to do so. By system-critical, I mean taking issue with what Fisher and Zimina call “the way the world works, which can be characterised by two phrases: geopolitical hegemony and globalised business, at the expense of the planet and most of its inhabitants”.
The purpose of their text is explicitly to ‘sing to the choir’, of course, as its name suggests. To address other audiences, we have to get inside the equivalent jargons and assumptions, and work with them to find or create common vantage points from which they can be inspected on the outside. In my own field of peace journalism, the word, ‘peace’, is not always helpful, as an opening gambit: indeed, it can seem confrontational. As a former practitioner, I have found I can talk to professional editors and reporters, from most countries, and raise the perspectives of peace journalism to their agenda – including some which are certainly ‘system-critical’ – but it often requires the initial proposition to be more inclusive. ‘Reporting the World’ was one such project, in London a few years back; Media Mirror is the one currently being proposed in Sydney, which has yet to find a backer.
Another contributor here, former film director Ari Cowan, recalled a presentation he made to US Navy pilots – ‘Top Guns’ – when his speech introducing peace perspectives was challenged by a veteran flyer who threw in a liberal helping of impenetrable jargon. Impenetrable, that is, to the uninitiated; it was then that Cowan revealed his party trick, in the form of his own barrage of jargon, garnered during his training as a fighter pilot years earlier, an aspect of his background he’d previously kept hidden. Once he was accepted as one of them, his questioner even went so far as to act as the ‘enforcer’ of his message, he related, to the rest of the audience.
This need not mean co-option or compromise. Kai Jacobsen, director of the department of peace operations of the Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania, who’s also in Cleveland, has grown accustomed to adapting his message to many different audiences, from grassroots environmental activists to the Commonwealth secretariat. About 85 percent of the content remains the same, he told me. The trick is to do what he called “practical peacemaking”, which entails listening carefully to the concerns being identified by participants as the leading edge of their critique of the system they’re in – how does it make itself manifest in everyday working life?
Equipped with this awareness and the right kind of conflict literacy, we can ask what David Cooperrider calls “the unconditional positive question”. AI assumes that “every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive”, he says. “Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized”.
It’s an inspiring account, and the National Peace Academy will need to draw heavily at that particular well, if it is to flourish as people here hope and believe it will. It’s a response, then, to what Fisher and Zimina call a world order “in flux” and becoming “more complex and less amenable to domination by any one group or state”, something which “big business and high politics agree is becoming more difficult to manage”. That changes the instrumental logics that have hitherto confined peacebuilding, in its more challenging forms, to the margins.
The window of opportunity is opening a little wider.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Mar 2009.
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