Attempts at reconciliation should first begin by working to eliminate antagonism; namely by bringing two or more stories to the table and revealing to each party the perspective of ‘the other’.
By Katerina Antoniou
International relations scholars often find themselves trying to untangle conflicts around the globe. For the purpose of this article, reference will be made to intra-territorial conflicts – not necessarily intra-state, but rather conflicts that are confined within a defined territory and whose inhabitants share a common characteristic, i.e. their disagreement. Political or economic, ethnic or racial, serious or not – a disagreement causes the inhabitants of that territory to face one another, creating two or more antagonistic groups. And more often than not, it takes decades – and even centuries – for these antagonistic groups to suppress their antagonism and heal the wounds, regardless of whether political settlements are agreed upon. As a result, war-torn societies expend more energy on justifying why one side is right compared to the other, with the parties involved often acknowledging a threat to their collective identity. The question is why has this practice become more important than healing society itself? And more importantly, what can be done to diminish the counter-productive effects of such practice?
The tactic of antagonism
It can be argued that facts can be manipulated in the war of diplomacy in an effort to prove one’s point. Indeed, societies in conflict and communities struggling to protect their identity often follow the tactic of ‘proving the point’, which further results in growing antagonism toward the opponent. A perceived vulnerability of collective identity is often found in hetero-cultural social groups, minorities or autonomous communities with minimal institutional capacities. An imbalance of power dynamics between a territory’s hetero-cultural groups – whether institutional, military or resource-oriented – can also be seen as a threat to identity and hence further amplified. Examples of insecurity over collective identity and the inability of multiple identities to coexist have been found in both intra- and inter-state conflicts, such as Israel-Palestine, Sudan, Lebanon, Ireland, Cyprus, Russia, Bosnia, Serbia and so on.
When it comes to hetero-cultural groups protecting their identity within a confined territory, it is expected that one identity will try to prevail over the other or in other ways solidify its position as the primary, original, sole identity of that particular territory. Attempting to prove a territory’s cultural homogeneity – through ethnicity, nationality, religion or race – when in fact that territory’s inhabitants are hetero-cultural, can only lead to antagonism between these cultures, and eventually to conflict. In other words, what starts as a tactic of survival develops into a strategy for territorial dominance; in essence, into a tactic of antagonism.
Antagonism and sentimentality
However, not all is merely about tactics. When antagonism results in violence, insecurity is justified by actions; when the battle of cultural dominance escalates into conflict, the respective antagonised sides give precedence to this battle’s continuation. From a vast array of facts, one builds a story based on one’s own perspective, within which some facts were more important and had a greater impact than the other. The same story might sound quite different when another perspective gives priority to other facts. Sentimentality and manipulation of post-war sentimentality can make these stories diverge or converge, thus creating long-term enemies or mutually-suffering partners. Unfortunately, the struggle for a group’s territorial dominance leaves no room for perspective convergence.
Antagonism and perspective
Throughout history, the fight for survival and dominance progressed from defined nations celebrating their homogeneity to a world of supranational entities and the emergence of multicultural societies, cities and states. If homogeneity is no longer the ingredient of a stable territory, and if survival no longer depends on collective identity, are some intra-territorial conflicts between hetero-cultural societies outdated?
If these conflicts continue through a battle of discovering ‘who is right’, the main justification for their continuation lies in the battle of their perspectives, which – as discussed earlier – coexist within the same story of facts. Today, post-war antagonists focus more on presenting their ‘justified’ argument to the international community and clarifying their perspectives, without considering how to resolve these discrepancies with their foes. Prolonging perspective discrepancies until one side of the story prevails can most likely lead to the intractability of cultural disputes.
As a result, if conflict is drained by its tactics of antagonism, it is highly unlikely that a viable settlement will be reached, since antagonistic parties will continue with their animosity. Instead, attempts at reconciliation should first begin by working to eliminate antagonism; namely by bringing two or more stories to the table and revealing to each party the perspective of ‘the other’. Traditionally, steps towards reconciliation start from negotiating over the politics of ‘who gets what’; the mere tactic that causes these antagonistic perspectives to diverge in the first place. Would results be vastly different – and more fruitful – had the antagonistic parties been brought on the table not as opponents, but as perspectives of the same story?
Perspectivity in conflict is not just a practice to be applied to the political and decision-making level, but is an approach to be fully infused within society. As soon as war-torn populations are able to acknowledge their perspectives as part of the bigger picture, more of those involved will be able to look beyond the conflict, conceptualize reconciliation and discuss the realities of survival and collective identity within a heterogeneous territory.
Katerina Antoniou is a PhD Researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, UK. She completed her BA at the Clark University, Massachusetts, on Political Science and Economics, and obtained a MSc in International Relations Theory at the London School of Economics. Katerina is a Fulbright Scholar. Over the past two years, she has cooperated with the Youth Power Cyprus on a number of civil society youth initiatives, working with a number of international and local organizations across the island’s divide.