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Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to accommodate it.

Watching the way the world has responded to the most recent spate of terror attacks – Barcelona, Manchester, Finsbury mosque, Charlottesville – we can observe how the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has also involved a seemingly never-ending tug-of-war between conflicting emotions. With each tragic incident, we have seen the tension play out between those calling for calm and unity, and those calling for swift, drastic action.

If we show that we are scared, we are doing the terrorists’ bidding and risk creating more reasons for people to join their cause. But if we stay too calm in the face of violence, it can feel like we are inviting our own destruction. On closer inspection though, this is essentially a continuation of the ‘facts versus feelings’ debate: people fighting for their entitlement to feel versus their responsibility to think. However, do we ever consider whether we can do both?

Of the countless think pieces about the best strategies to defeat terrorism, one basic idea is continually overlooked: in any healthy democracy, there needs to be a degree of conflict. Constructive conflict gives people the space to feel whatever it is their bodies are telling them to feel, before rationally working together towards a mutual solution.

If we, as communities, have a mutual interest in peace and the cessation of violence, then why aren’t we starting there instead? Is it simply too hard? Does it require too much long-term thinking and not enough short-term gratification? Or perhaps too much introspection and recognition of our own biases? And besides, how do we even have these constructive conflicts? In the absence of any one definitive answer, there is one clear starting point: paying more attention to how we talk and/or argue with each other about these issues, both privately and publicly.

"To assume that true peace is the absence of any conflict is the most dangerous delusion of all. If anything, true peace is about a community’s ability to balance competing ideas: of how to live; of the subjective interpretations of seemingly objective phenomena; of how (or whether) to maintain nonviolent discipline in the onslaught of seemingly unrelenting violence."

– Kosta Lucas.

For most Australians, terrorism has likely always been something remote or abstract. Now though, due to a volatile mixture of sensationalism and oversimplification, the phenomenon of terrorism has come to appear as an existential threat lying in wait in the shadows of our own society. A 2016 Australian National University survey found that 45 per cent of people said they were somewhat or very concerned that they or their family could be the victim of a terrorist attack in Australia. This is despite the overwhelming evidence showing other more dangerous and immediate threats to our everyday wellbeing. We should probably pay more attention to the horrifying statistics that show more deaths on Australian soil occur because of family and domestic violence. Or the oft-quoted statistic that you’re more likely to get hit by a car than die from a terrorist attack.

However, the very idea that terrorism has a very small statistical chance of injuring or killing you is often of very little comfort. It is the persistent not-knowing of the specifics and the knowing of the possibility of how badly things could go that is the greatest source of anxiety for people. After all, that is one of the biological functions of fear itself – to understand any possible danger in the quickest way so you can protect yourself against it. If there is an unidentifiable enemy that is actively seeking to destroy you when you least expect it, fear seems like a perfectly natural thing to feel. Declarations calling us not to be fearful can be strangely tone deaf, when the fact is that people are, in fact, scared.

But acknowledging these fears does not let us off the hook.  All this does is stifle some genuine conflicts we may need to have, to avoid bigger ones later.  If you try to understand how someone could be seduced by extremism, from their point of view, you’re considered an unpatriotic apologist. If you entertain the idea that someone might support a racist movement for non-ideological reasons, then you are automatically cast as uneducated and written-off.

As atomised individuals that share space, time, and resources, we are all perhaps guilty – to some degree – of shaming each other out of opening our hearts and minds simultaneously. The moment we rely on the ‘I think, therefore I am/They think, therefore they are’ dichotomy, we rob ourselves of the fullest extent of possibilities in how we can resolve serious issues that affect all of us.

Constructive conflict, if we allow ourselves the space to engage with it, has the potential to be the bridge between facts and feelings. It has the potential to validate what we have experienced and to cultivate the bravery needed to step out of our own comfort zones; to admit what our preconceived ideas are, whether they are right or wrong; to separate what we experience as individuals from what the collective experience is; to turn witch-hunts with predetermined outcomes into mutual pursuits for truth.

To assume that true peace is the absence of any conflict is the most dangerous delusion of all. If anything, true peace is about a community’s ability to balance competing ideas: of how to live; of the subjective interpretations of seemingly objective phenomena; of how (or whether) to maintain nonviolent discipline in the onslaught of seemingly unrelenting violence.

By no means is this an easy task – alternative dispute resolution practices like mediation and arbitration are third party interventions designed to keep people talking to one another. The key to these practices is more about keeping the lines of communication open than reaching a resolution. The underlying assumption is that sometimes it’s good to still talk even when we disagree because it suggests that there’s something being shared. It’s when we disconnect from one another that society’s fabric degrades, and extremist influences can run roughshod at the community level.

In the tug-of-war paradigm, there are only two possible outcomes: one side wins, or the rope breaks and we remain forever disconnected. That’s a fine outcome if you’re the side that gets what you want. But how sustainable is the romantic utopia that your side is fighting for when your support has been won by force, or force of argument? Probably another tug-of-war.

That is the nature of peace and conflict. If one side is not completely vanquished, discontent will linger and eventually resurface, maybe even worse than before. So, until we figure out what it is we’re all working towards, perhaps it’s time we put down the proverbial rope.

The Point

Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to accommodate it.

References

Tug of war by Jacky_168 (2015) https://www.flickr.com/photos/jackyliu168/17127234547/ Imaged sourced from Creative Commons.

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