First, I have to apologise to Christalla for kind of stealing her thunder, but it was her fantastic and illuminating talk that gave me the inspiration to write this. Second, I will apologise to anyone who happens to read this (hopefully there is someone out there), because there are several threats running through it and I will do my best to bring these together in a coherent fashion.
Christalla's talk focused on intractable conficts and the socio-psychological barriers to resolution, which foster perpetuation even when the guns have stopped or are in a period of prolonged silence. When peace can not be reached or maintained, blame is laid at the political leaderships of warring groups. Whilst they are partly responsible, we overlook societal resistance at our peril. Christalla examined this with reference to the Cyprus conflict.
Yesterday, I witnessed first hand the socio-psychological dimension of intractable conflict in a small lecture theatre here in Perth, with relation to Israel-Palestine. A visting academic was here to present an Israeli position on the strategic dynamics in the Middle East and why Israel feels concerned for its safety and security: this is a position I can readily understand. His analysis, like that of most strategists/political scientists/analysts/military officials/intelligence officers, focused on arms races, foreign and military policies, and political rhetoric. This tends to be the focus when examining this and other protracted and intractable conflicts.
However, what struck me as I listened to the subtext, and observed the reactions of the audience, is that if this conflict, and others like it, are to be resolved, even if only to some kind of detente, then fundamental changes need to take place at the societal level - there needs to be both bottom up and top down approaches to conflict resolution and they need to take place in tandem. Only with a sense of equity, in suffering and injustice, can there be a genuine societal will for peace.
Now, I am going to preface the rest of my entry with a couple of qualifiers. The audience yesterday was primarily, dare I say it, overwhelmingly Jewish, and understandably pro-Israel. However, what I observed is not a behaviour that is exclusively Jewish/Israeli, as I have witnessed it in people of all persuasions, it just so happens that this is my case study, so to speak.
What I observed, both in speech and in body language, was a type of victimhood which gives rise to blindness to the suffering of others, a refusal to acknowledge self aggression or responsibility in the situation, a lack empathy for people on the opposing side, and a dehumanised sense of the other. It was displayed in sneers for any suggestion that Israel should shoulder some of the responsibility for the conflict, that they could be equally as guilty of attrocities as Hamas, or that Palestinians suffer as much at the hands of Israel as Israelis do at the hands of Hamas; and in cheers for any statements by the academic that vindicated and justified personal biases and inflexibility. I qualify this by acknowledging that I have met Muslims in possession of the same sense of victimhood and self-righteousness. Neither is helpful; both are destructive.
Even more so, this sense of victimhood silences and sidelines voices of reason, the one thing so desparately needed if this, and other, conflicts are to be resolved. There were two voices of reason yesterday, one Jewish (hi if your watching), one Muslim, who made the sobering, yet I feel, not well received, suggestion for understanding and empathy, to walk in the shoes of the other and to acknowledge that there is an equal sense of victimisation and suffering among Israelis and Palestinians alike. I talked to a couple of younger people after who shared this sense of reason and empathy, and who were concerned by the inflexibility shown by some members of the audience, particularly how this reflects on outside perceptions of the their community: they felt powerless to change these inflexible attitudes.
If there is to be any chance of bringing peace to the Middle East, and indeed to any intractable conflict, then more emphasis needs to be placed on confidence building measures, of the most fundamental kind. People need to be empowered, if you will, with a greater sense of empathy for the other; the other needs to be re-humanised; there needs to be more reflexivity in social discourse, of the kind that is critically reflective of the self and the other.
There has to be a point at which the other is no longer the other, but simply another.