Conflict – an inherently negative and destructive occurrence?

TransConflict is pleased to present contributions to the second Peacebuilders’ Panel, which is designed to stimulate debate about peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

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The second debate focuses on the principle that:

“2. Conflict should not be understood solely as an inherently negative and destructive occurrence, but rather as a potentially positive and productive force for change if harnessed constructively;

Professor Brian Walker, MBE, Winchester Centre of Religions for Reconciliation and Peace, University of Winchester

Conflict is not inherently destructive; nevertheless we seem to be surrounded by and often immersed in violent conflict. Modern Wars (Bedjaoui, 1986) finds that in 3,400 years of documented history, 3,150 years (92.5%) were war-years. Gittings’ The Glorious Art of Peace (2012) counters; asserting that even in the twentieth century, with some 80 million war-deaths, 96% of humanity died in peace. Gittings concludes, “…we need…to take an optimistic view of the human potential for peace”.

If so, how do we take an optimistic, or positive, view of conflict as a productive force for constructive, beneficial change?

By recognizing that conflict as “a mental or spiritual struggle within…” (OED, 2012) – within self; family; community; state; humanity – we can work to lessen conflict for the benefit of both self and ‘the other’. Within self or family, ‘the other’ is myself or someone known personally, who like me needs and aspires. Beyond family, it becomes easier to see ‘the other’ as stranger, opponent, inhuman. Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace (1996), however, urges us “to embrace the other, even the former enemy”, whilst employing ‘double vision’, ‘from there’ and ‘from here’, finding constructive ways forward together. This requires a paradigm change in each of us; those directly involved in any conflict, and those of us looking on passively. This change is the ‘Diagenetic Paradigm’ (Walker, 2007), an ongoing cycle of:

  • Diagnosis – through knowledge, seeking cause and effect;
  • Dialogue – through word, exploring tension between existing actions, pointing to the need for change;
  • Dianoia – through mind, praying, meditating, reflecting, opening to new ideas;
  • Diacrisis – through separation, allowing differences to enrich and empower, leading to metanoia, a ‘change of mind’;
  • Dialectic – through discussion, choosing together actions that will make a beneficial difference;
  • Diagenesis – through creative action, together transforming conflict from a cause of violence into to a resource for peace and development.

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Piero Stillitano, M.B.A., M.A., Conflict Free Zone

Conflict results from real or perceived opposition to one’s values, actions, desires or general interests, and when unmanaged, it can create anger, frustration, division and low morale in the same environment. When properly managed, however, conflict may become a positive source of collaboration, produce high-quality decisions, encourage growth and strengthen groups/individuals.

To manage conflict properly, you must be able to identify an actual or emerging conflict, assess the level of constructiveness/destructiveness, and be able to deal with it in the proper manner.

Conflict is constructive and positive if behaviors are flexible to the situation, the nature of the conflict in general, and the belief is that all parties can win.

Granted that you cannot expect people in a conflict to be smiling at each other and showing pleased, blissful dispositions, but generally speaking, constructive conflicts show the following characteristics:

  • the parties feel comfortable with the level of disagreement and acknowledge a need to compromise;
  • the parties show a shared willingness to embrace change;
  • the dynamic of the conflict tend to be centred on interests rather than needs;
  • the conflict tend to be open and dealt with openly; and
  • the parties involved focus on flexible methods for solving disputes.

It is important to understand that a key to a healthy and productive conflict is giving importance to the process and not just the desired end result. You must encourage a steady flow of communication, and help the parties to locate a common link between them, so that they may engage in the proper process of reaching a shared decision. To be sure you are on the right track, look for the following signs:

  • The people are showing empathy;
  • They are engaging in active listening/asking;
  • They show open/positive body language (example, relaxed posture & leaning forward…)
  • The communication seems to be direct, clear and honest;
  • The parties are using the other person’s name.

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Rev. S Chandra Mohan, Adviser, Association for Women and Children Concerns, Tamil Nadu, India

In each country, dominant, fundamentalist and exploitative forces use intellectual class, status quo, structures, ideologies, attitudes, symbols, systems and institutions, plus the creation of certain ‘threats’, to ensure their dominance over – and exclusion of – others. Since they are aware that the intellectual class is the most influential class, and that the mass of the people usually follows and imitates the intellectuals, they pay and use the intellectual class to twist the truth. By doing so, they stay in hegemony, in power and in control of global resources. Against their dominance, in each country, democratic forces (a portion of intellectuals are with these forces) operate. In other words, there is a war between these dominant-fundamentalist-exploiting forces and the democratic forces. Dominant forces accuse the others of creating conflicts. Democratic forces assert that it is the dominant forces that are creating conflicts and undermining the dignity of the people. Both these groups use measures, sometimes also violence, as means of controlling the others.

One of the current conflicts in India is the resistance of the coastal people against the atomic power plant near Koodangulam in South India. Coastal people are against this plant; they are afraid that their generation will be wiped out if the plant explodes. Civil society, progressive political parties and environmentalists are backing the coastal people. The Indian government, however, is adamant and has decided not to withdraw the plant. Hence conflict continues. Similar such conflicts between the respective national governments and people of their countries over atomic power are growing since Chernobyl. Recently Japanese youth demonstrated such resistance against their government. People want energy but not atomic energy. Similarly, the Dalit Untouchable uprising in India is a progressive conflict against the dominant caste forces for the dignity of life. The shrinking space for the Palestinians is a non-dignified action by occupying forces. Those resisting domination and occupation use means that they deem fit their cultural context. What is therefore required is a contextual socio-, political-, cultural- and economic analysis of these respective conflicts, but not a declaration that all are inherently negative and have destructive elements. The role of peacebuilders is to harness such resistance and progressive conflicts and transform them positively and productively so that all people can lead a life of dignity.

Please visit TransConflict.com in the coming days for further contributions to this debate!

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