Thursday, October 2, 2008

Picnics for peace and other idiotic pacifist ideas

In the documentary film 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, His Holiness suggests that one way we might see more peace in troubled areas such as Jerusalem is to have more gatherings like picnics and festivals. No doubt this strikes many people as foolish. After all, it is a religiously political struggle? (Or is a politically religious struggle?) Inequity and injustice require some kind of top down solution, right? Economic, military, etc. You've got to have high level meetings, and political road maps, and a week at Camp David between the leaders of the parties in conflict, right? Having people meet and greet is just idiotic. Isn't it? Do we really buy all of the teachings of such renowned spiritual leaders?

But let us ask ourselves why the Clinton initiative failed to bring a peace settlement in Israel. There is no single reason, but a huge one includes speculation that Yasser Arafat knew his people wouldn't accept the terms he was negotiating, and his counterpart, Ehud Barak, claimed he couldn't offer any more concessions. Both leaders realized they couldn't get any closer without alienating key segments of their populations, particularly powerful political supporters. This kind of impasse is rooted in the attitudes of certain groups of Palestinians and Israelis toward each other and fed by past and present conflict. These attitudes, which perpetuate and support the political and economic structures producing inequality and conflict, include distrust, fear, and hatred.

Daryl Davis and the Klan

Now let's turn to another historic example of distrust, fear, and hatred - the Ku Klux Klan and African-Americans. You may not be familiar with Daryl Davis. I first heard about him when his story was included in the film Understanding Race (part of the Films for the Humanities series). I later learned that he had published a book about his experiences going to Klan meeting called Klan-destine Relationships. None of this may strike you as peculiar until you hear the subtitle of the book: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan. His story is also told in a brief article that appeared in the Washington Post.

In brief, Davis met people who were in the Klan and was eventually invited to a Klan meeting. He was curious and friendly and non-judgmental, and became a familiar face at Klan events. In fact, an Imperial Wizard made Davis the godfather of his child. But what is really interesting is that his presence has been a catalyst which has led many members, including that Imperial Wizard, to quit the Klan. Some have even given Davis their robes, which he keeps in his closet. Imagine that - self-identified white supremacists quitting the Klan not because Davis laid on a guilt trip, not because he debated them into submission, but because of his persistent friendly presence.

The mechanics of changing perspective

One theory of how we form expectations about the world is that we organize our experiences into meaningful clusters we then name. This is called a schema. When we select a schema or a composite of schemas to be the standard for evaluating similar schemas. This standard is called a prototype. Similar schemas orbit loosely around the prototype, creating a category with fuzzy boundaries. For example, if we use our experiences to form a schema of holiday, we might include "having family over" and "preparing a large meal". When we experience a holiday without a big meal, we might remark that is just didn't seem like a holiday, because we were using that schema as a prototype to evaluate new experiences.

We can also use the example of the category automobile, in which we use our experiences with cars to form the basis of a schema which is then promoted to the prototype of the automobile category. Hence we may call a truck or jeep a "car", even though there are differences between trucks, jeeps, and cars. Trucks and jeeps are orbiting the idea of car-ness, which may include elements like "large rubber tires", "carries multiple passengers", "runs on an engine", "has pedals and a steering wheel".

This theory can help make sense of the relationship between Daryl Davis, the Klan, and the members who quit. I am not suggesting this theory must be true in every case, but a theory isn't much good if it has no explanatory power, so we can at least see if it produces a workable explanation. People in the Klan tend to have a particular kind of schema they use as the prototype for black people, which we might expect to be very negative. They had a new experience - a black man who wasn't angry or judgmental towards them and who seemed like a really friendly and sincere guy. This didn't match the expectations of the prototype of a black man. In some cases, the continued exposure formed that basis of a new schema of black people that either challenged or replaced the previous prototype (which in this case would correlate to the term stereotype). This sparked a re-evaluation of membership in an organization premised on a particular view of minorities.

This can be condensed into "they changed their minds when they actually got to know a black man", but the process involved - how and why they were prejudiced and the components of changing one's mind - are important. If Davis had been angry or judgmental, this might have reinforced a schema which includes an image of black people as angry and judgmental towards whites. It also highlights how important external influences can be in shaping our attitudes about anything and everything we encounter in our lives.

The relevance to conflict prevention and resolution

Turning back to the Dalai Lama and Jerusalem, I don't presume the Dalai Lama made his suggestion based on the mechanics of a theory from the social and behavioral sciences of the West. Instead, his Buddhist training and the wisdom of a lifetime of exposure to conflict and prejudice showed him the basic pattern, however we might wish to frame it. It would be unfair to say that he thinks that a few picnics will end all of the violence, but I do think he is pointing towards generating shared positive experiences between opposing or distrustful groups in order to offer a basis for new and more positive appreciation of each other. With such a grassroots change in attitude, the existing political and economic structures generating inequality and conflict between the sides would lose much of their support. If enough of the people want peace, they will have it.

People don't live in the abstract - in the "national" or the "global" scene. They live in the every day of their individual lives. Whether attempted solutions to the largest problems in society will either succeed or fail turns on what individuals experience and do in the everyday.

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  1. pick nick for peace, man does that take me back to the old Central America days. ah he peace nicks. you can't run a decent movement for social change with them, can't run a decent movement for social change without them.

    they also throw great pick nicks.

  2. Speaking of problems with activism, one thing now is that to get "numbers", you often have to do coalitions among activists for your rallies. So if you are pro-life, you have to have a rally that includes speakers who are pro-gun, pro-creationism, pro-Bush, etc, and if you are pro-choice you have to have a similarly partisan groups. For example, at many of the anti-war rallies over the past several years you would also have people who call for the dismantling of Israel, or for gay marriage, or for an anarchist revolution. Which of course only serves to further alienate people. There is an attitude that if you don't support ALL the issues represented at a rally that you aren't ideologically pure and are not really welcome. Which is the opposite of the lesson taught by people like Daryl Davis and the Dalai Lama.

  3. Stories like that of Daryl Davis give me hope. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Yeah, it tends to get a great reaction from students. In the film, he says something like "I've got a closet full of clan robes - what have you got to show for your efforts?" The film was making the point, using Davis' story along with the work of a professor who teaches the importance of being actively anti-racist. The professor teaches her students that it isn't enough just to profess a non-racist attitude or belief, but to create concrete acts which are based on our convictions. That's a bigger challenge, to be actively promoting our values in a tangible way, but as you say, stories like those offer hope that it can be done.

  5. To get back to the picnic idea, let me defend it a little. A peaceful meeting of ordinary people is not only symbolic (and who would argue that symbols are wholly unimportant), but also serves as examples to the youth. There is always a tendency to dehumanize the enemy, and sitting down to share food or festivities is a clear and unambiguous way to show that this is wrong. The young people of today are the leaders of tomorrow. A long-term perspective would recognize the value of training kids, especially, to see their enemies as potential friends.

    This is certainly not a real solution to war, which requires treaties and diplomacy, but it is not intended as such. Instead, look at this as one way to promote a cultural shift that would make the diplomacy more successful.

  6. Yet as humans we think in fuzzy categories which are rooted in symbolic associations which form the texture and subtext of our experiences and memories. In such a system, collective examples from lived experience provide the soil for the roots of and the nourishment for most potent kinds of overt symbols.

    IMHO, treaties and diplomacy are not solutions to war. They are the outward manifestation and public acknowledgment of the desire and the decision to end conflict. Indeed, it is the cultural shift itself toward a desire for peace that is being represented by such externalities if those external forms are genuine.

    In other words, such cultural shifts are not simply permissive of or a boost to dialogue and negotiation, they are the substantive element of any such activity. If there is no real movement of the people toward peace, then negotiations are merely hollow political rhetoric and posturing, and treaties are impotent and fragile documents that are easily ignored.

    That is why I agree with you about the importance of youth. Culture is both an expression of the collective narratives of many individuals but an important shaper of each individual's narrative. So in that cycle, culture influences individuals, collective views of individuals infuence culture, culture influences individuals, etc, one key entry point is the socialization and enculturation of each generation.

    The question then returns to how to effect such a shift, especially the young and those with young minds and hearts. Generating and amplifying such openness of heart and mind and then using such openings to introduce positive new experiences is essential. And this must occur at the everyday level, the level of picnics, barbecues, and festivals if it is to lead to anything meaningful and lasting at the level of international conferences, accords, and debates.


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