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ARTICLES > PEACE, NON-VIOLENCE & CONFLICT RESOLUTION > An approach to Conflict Resolution
An Approach To Conflict Resolution
By Ravindra Varma
All human beings do not think alike or feel alike. They have therefore no escape from having to encounter differences. Differences can lead to intolerance, intolerance can lead to confrontation, and hostile confrontation can, does often, lead to conflict. The objects that set one on the path of confrontation and conflict are therefore very important in understanding 'conflict'. So are the means―tactics and instruments that one uses to engage in conflict. Both these affect the individual as well as the group or society in which, or on behalf of which he or she wants to engage in conflict. They act and interact on the individual as well as the institutions that he fashions or lives under, and the "forces" that they generate and employ for bringing about change or resisting change. The problems that arise from these inter-relationships cannot be solved by saying that conflicts are inevitable in the life of the individual and society.
Science and technology have given us weapons that individuals or groups can use to cause mass destruction, wipe out vast populations and inflict death and suffering on generations that may survive or succeed nuclear holocausts. In fact it will be truer to say that we have used science and technology to invent such weapons to enforce our views and our will on those who differ, and expose the human species to the threat of extinction. We have done so because we have inherited the belief that disputes can be settled only by violence, war in the case of nations, and violent conflict or upheavals in the case of sub sovereign groups or individuals. But the world has now seen the magnitude and duration of the effects of the destruction that violence can cause, to the one who initiates as well as the one who responds, and to the vast mass of innocent people who are not responsible for these decisions, but live in areas controlled by the one who initiates or the one who responds.
The ordinary human being everywhere has therefore become far more conscious and concerned about the risks and the ruin that conflict brings in its train. He has therefore become aware of the stake that he has in avoiding and resolving conflict. He is no longer satisfied with the academic adage that conflicts are inevitable. He does not want conflicts because conflicts are prone to become violent, and competitive violence can lead to the destruction of all mankind including themselves. The demonstrations that one sees today from Turkey to Los Angeles bear testimony to the new awareness of the futility and dangers of violent conflict, and the revulsion to war as a weapon to settle disputes. Today we do not therefore want differences to precipitate into violent conflict or war. Conflicts in perceptions easily become prone to violent conflicts because of:
(1) the ferocity of feelings built up through intense and clever propaganda
(2) the easy availability of arms for combat
(3) the inherited belief in war or violence as the most efficient way of settling disputes
(4) the romantic appeal of secret societies and conspiratorial action and
(5) the appeal of martyrdom and eternal glory that is associated with it.
Conflict is not an instant occurrence―something that occurs without a warning, without building up― without gestation.
It is therefore necessary to take a deeper look at:
(a) how conflicts build up and precipitate into violent conflicts
(b) the areas in which or the issues on which conflicts are most likely to arise and
(c) the action that we can take to to resolve, defuse or control conflicts.
We have already observed that conflicts are not instant occurrences. They build up. From where then do they commence? We observe many conflicts around us, in the world of sentient beings as well as in the world beyond what we regard as sentient. But in this analysis we are confining ourselves only to conflicts that arise between human beings or institutions fashioned by human beings.
All these conflicts originate from differences in perceptions about likes or dislikes, truth or justice or rights or interests. These perceptions arise, or are formulated, in the mind; the desire or determination, to establish the ascendancy of, or to secure the acceptance of one's perception also arises in the mind. It is the mind that lights upon or chooses or fashions the means by which one decides to assert one's perception. It is for these reasons that we say conflicts originate in the minds of human beings. If it is in the minds that they originate, and it is the human mind that chooses and fashions the means that are employed in conflicts, it is in the human mind that one has to grapple with problems relating to the precipitation of conflicts.
It is the mind that reconciles with a different perception, decides that it is not worth a conflict, or necessary or profitable to engage in conflict to defend one's perception of another's mind.
Any study of conflicts therefore has to begin by observing that:
(1) conflicts are not instant occurrences
(2) that they commence from the perception of differences
(3) that there is a perceptible process of progression which leads one from the perception of difference to intolerance; to the desire to eliminate what one cannot tolerate, to engage in conflict to secure the elimination of what one cannot tolerate, to use any means―including violence―to achieve victory in the conflict, to create a psychosis that justifies conflict as inevitable and necessary for the defence or victory of something that one considers sacrosanct.
Thus, if conflict or violent conflict occurs as a result of conscious or unconscious escalation from differences that can be considered natural, it follows that events or changes in attitudes can intercede between one stage and another thus stalling or preventing escalation. It is this possibility which gives us the opportunity to prevent the precipitation of violent conflict, and the responsibility to discover effective methods of intercession.
The purpose of intervention must be to decelerate feelings and promote introspection on:
(1) how the difference affects oneself or one's interests or 'rights'
(2) whether escalation will bring a solution
(3) what the cost of escalation will be―to the two sides, and to society at large―in the short term and in the long term
(4) whether there is a position,―perhaps an intermediate position,―that safeguards the rights or interests or views of both
(5) whether one can explore and locate such a position―through dialogue―which reviews facts, and methods that have been used to arrive at conclusions
(6) whether such a position can be found through mediation or arbitration, (even with a provision to review the results of arbitration after a specific period has passed, to assess effects or changes in the preparedness of both sides to engage in or resume conflict)
(7) whether the nonviolent means of Satyagraha based on truth, love and awareness of the paradigms of interdependence can result in a peaceful resolution of the conflict or the creation of a new balance of forces that support different positions, accepting nonviolent methods for reconciliation of views or interests.
The agents of intercession can be:
(a) a concerned individual with credibility held in respect by both sides;
(b) a group or organization that wants to take the initiative to protect peace and justice and to promote reconciliation;
(c) a group of persons that represents a judicial initiative for intercession;
(d) a governmental or inter-governmental group or organisation, depending on the grounds, and the potential scales of conflicts. Any one who wants to intervene must have the requisite credibility.
Now let us examine the question whether all conflicts can be resolved or eliminated. In as much as conflicts arise from differences, and differences are natural, the potential for conflict can not be totally eliminated till all human beings have learnt to "digest" differences and abide by the modus vivendi that flows from the paradigms of interdependence, confining themselves to ends as well as means, including institutions and sanctions, that are consistent with interdependence. It may take quite some time before such a state of mind becomes universal. While the creation of such a state of mind and institutions and sanctions that go with it should undoubtedly be our long term objective, in the immediate future we should begin by:
(1) abjuring violence as an instrument of conflict;
(2) progressively de-escalating, and confining ourselves to methods of dialogue, mediation, arbitration, nonviolent means that can promote introspection and logical examination of issues, paralyzing the perpetrator of injustice through massive non-co-operation, etc.
There will certainly be no dearth of people who scoff at the plea for abjuring violence, especially when it comes to conflicts between nations. But with a little thought, one may see that the plea is not senseless. Firstly, it cannot be gainsaid that weapons of mass destruction have created the very real fear that war may result in the ruin, if not the extinction of the human species; that the destruction that a war might cause will not respect frontiers, will not discriminate between combatant and non-combatant, between the one who initiates and the one who responds. No one―no master of the science of warfare can predict the shape of things 'on the morning after', who survives, and whose interests or perceptions would be upheld by the corpses and ruins that will remain. Who in his senses will want to launch an enterprise― which will demand the highest price ever paid by humanity in lives and assets of all kinds―without being sure of what can be gained from the enterprise? The time has therefore come for us to look at what we can save by abjuring war, to see that we can save what we want to save only by abjuring war.
Secondly, changes in weaponry and delivery systems have radically changed the nature of wars. Enormous disparities in the quantum and quality of deployable destructive power available to contending forces have resulted in revolutionary changes in tactics and strategy. Old objectives for military action have given place to new. The defence of frontiers and territories have become less important. Aggression can take place without fighting at the frontiers. All frontiers have become porous for some kinds of aggression. Infiltration, terrorism, guerilla warfare, biological and chemical warfare from secret launching pads within the country and from distant launching pads, and assassination have become the characteristics of international hostilities and warfare. Chemical and biological weapons, even nuclear weapons have become accessible to many, and the mightiest of mighty nations are finding that there is no certain or satisfactory way of overcoming their vulnerability to such attacks. The USA has seen how difficult it is to assure the safety of its citizens and installations with the most powerful weapon systems it has at its command. If the objective of the armed forces is to ensure safety and security from external aggression, the post-September 11 scenario has exposed the near-ineffectiveness of old systems. New systems of defence will have to be evolved.
President Bush talked of the way the nature of war has changed after September the 11th.
Thirdly, no military system in the world today is in a position to offer a military answer or blue print to meet the demands of the new types of aggression that we are witnessing or experiencing. If the old system cannot offer an answer to the new menace or to what war has become, a new system must be found.
That new system cannot be based on the notion that annihilation of the body or the infliction of vicarious suffering on those who are not guilty will lead to transformation of the mind of those who differ or end conflicts that originate and linger in the mind.
The new way or system has to be able to deal with the mind itself, and that can only happen through dialogue and persuasion.
Though all minds do not think and feel alike, the best way to understand another man's mind is through observing one's own mind. When one watches one's mind, one sees that the emotions that arise in one's mind are not permanent. They do not always have the same intensity. Sometimes, we can be in the grip of an emotion, and at the same time see how the emotion has gripped our mind and is twirling our mind around as a storm twirls a tree around. We can also see how the storm passes, and the mind or the tree slowly―sometimes quickly―settles down and experiences the calm that follows the storm. We thus see that emotions arise in our mind, but are not part of our mind. If they were part of our mind, there would have been no variations in the intensity of our emotions, no changes, no arising and no disappearance. We should learn from this that the intolerance, anger and aggressiveness that we encounter from other minds are also capable of waxing and waning, arising and disappearing. The collective mind of groups of human beings also shares the same nature; it can be roused to a high pitch of fury, but it can also respond with equal intensity to pity or love or compassion or loyalty or devotion to ideals or to God. It may be argued that the psyche of the individual and the psyche of the collective do not always react in an identical fashion. But it is also true and we have many instances that show how they both react and can react similarly. The Indian struggle for independence under Mahatma Gandhi is replete with instances that show how similar emotions arose and worked in the mind of individuals and groups, the readiness to overcome hatred, the readiness to sacrifice one's possessions or happiness, the readiness to suffer for a cause, etc. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate the similarity of responses to similar stimuli or to the same appeal. It is therefore possible to believe that similar stimuli and appeals may help to decelerate the momentum of negative and divisive emotions and bring it below the level of the threshold of active confrontation or conflict.
One of the major reasons why Gandhi was able to do this was Gandhi's success in making people distinguish between evil and the evil doer, or the mind that holds wrong views and the views themselves, which as we have seen, are not an inherent and irremovable part of the mind. If this is a valid and verifiable distinction, we can also see the consequences of holding the two as one. Firstly, if they are the same, there is hardly any way of changing or transforming views or emotions. The problems that arise from differences can only be resolved by the physical isolation or annihilation of the other person. Given the fact that human beings think and feel differently, this would have led to a perpetual desire or effort to eliminate or contain the other. Such an attitude of mind would be inconsistent with the gregariousness or interdependence that characterize the human species. It is therefore clear that the mind of the human being, as it has evolved in the species, has to be treated and approached as distinct from the views and emotions that arise, transit, and disappear, and the distinction has to be used to deal with problems that arise from differences in views and emotions. If this is a necessity to bring about changes or compromises in the short term, it is also a necessity to preserve the integrity of human society and to protect it from the violent and destructive effects of frequent fission. Secondly, if views are unalterable and there is no way of achieving (eliciting) consent or acquiescence through persuasion and consent, social changes can be brought about, and social systems can be sustained only through 'force', and not reason. Dictatorship then will be the natural way of governance, and suppression will be the natural way of dealing with a mind that dares to think for itself. Democracy education, bases itself on the belief that the human mind can be transformed, that views can be transformed, if not to the point of wholesale acceptance of other views and the abandonment of one's earlier views, at least to the point of acquiescence and tolerance.
The next question we have to address is why is it that we insist that our views be accepted, and why do we resist the views of others? One of the most powerful factors that influences the views that we hold is our ego or the ego aspect (?) of our mind. In fact, it is very difficult to disentangle our thoughts and views from our ego. The difficulty is all the greater, and hard to overcome because the ego is subtle, and knows how to conceal itself or defend itself when challenged. It hardly ever comes into the open, and yet it can manipulate our attitudes and views effectively. Considerations of prestige, self-interest, acquisitiveness, greed, the desire to possess, possessiveness, aggrandizement, the desire to be different, etc. are all intertwined with the ego. Yet, the ego has to learn to reconcile with the egos of others if it is to be at peace with itself and others. One of the fundamental requisites of peace and harmony, therefore, is the balance between the egos and the self-perceived interests of egos in a society.
How then do we explore this field and work for such a balance? Very little of the ego is accessible to empirical observation and analysis. One cannot detect the ego―the workings of the ego without looking inward. It is here that the science that enquires into the inner world―religion or spiritual disciplines have helped us most and can help us. Perhaps that is why all religions have posited peace as the paramount goal of the human being and society, and talked of the relation between peace and the conquest or taming of the ego or the discovery that there is no inherent existence for the ego. That is why they have formulated ways of overcoming the distortions in the comprehension of reality that the ego manages to create.
Those who want to prevent the precipitation of differences into conflicts, and
those who want to intercede to find ways of reconciliation have therefore
much to learn from what religions and spiritual exercises have taught us, of how
to tame the mind and make it an abode of peace, and orient it towards peace and
Buddha Dharma talks of wisdom and loving compassion. Gandhi talks of Truth, Love and Compassion.
The very first sermon that the Buddha delivered after his Enlightenment was on suffering: the fact of suffering: the cause of suffering: the way to end suffering by ending the cause of suffering. Conflict is suffering. It is caused by suffering. It is engaged in with the hope or objective of ending suffering. The Buddha saw that the wrong understanding of reality was the cause of suffering. He therefore wanted sentient beings (human beings) to work for the correct understanding of reality. In the profoundest and subtlest sense this meant the understanding of Shunyata; that all phenomena including the self are void of inherent existence; that they exist only by imputation, and originate and appear only in dependence on other phenomena (Pratityasamutpada). In the field of action, he therefore wanted us to base ourselves on a clear understanding of the law of cause and effect, or Karma. As positive aids that could help in eliminating negativities that stood in the way, he recommended the Four Immeasurables or the Brahma Vihara, Maitri, Karuna, Mudita and Upeksha. As the means or methods for giving battle to negativities, he recommended antidotes. Akkodhena jine kodham, asadhum sadhuna jine, jine kadariyam danena, sachenālikavadinam. (Let a man overcome anger by non-anger (gentleness), let him overcome evil by good, let him overcome the liar by truth) (Dhammapada-kodhavaggo) He underlined the principle that one finds in the physical universe, and pointed out that negativities could be combated and eliminated only by antidotes and not by further or more refined doses of the (same) negativity that one was wanting to eliminate.
To Gandhi Truth is reality; is the core of reality; the Law that governs the Universe and gives it its form: Dharma or the force of cohesion that sustains an entity. Love is a reflection of this force of cohesion among the sentient, as the law of gravitation is its reflection in the realm of the inanimate. He therefore looked upon Truth and Love as two sides of the same coin, and declared that as a votary of Truth or Satyagraha, it was his duty and his Sadhana to serve all creation. "All creation" includes not only the sentient but also the non-sentient; and the sentient as Gandhi explained includes the "creepy-crawlies" or the "meanest" of creations. To Gandhi, therefore, the purpose of individual and social life was the pursuit of Dharma (Dharmamaya) through means consistent with Dharma or the force of cohesion, viz. Love.
Gandhi too believed that Truth manifested in itself, and was accessible only, through the 'inexorable law of cause and effect'. A cause could create only the effect that was inherent in it. Conversely, a desired effect could be brought about only by creating the cause that could produce the effect (that contained the seeds of the effect). Means and ends therefore become almost indistinguishably interwoven. An evil effect or negativity can be removed only by the power of its antithesis or antidote. So to him too, love or cohesion was the only force that could overcome hatred and conflict.
Gandhi pointed out that since conflict took birth in the mind, it could be resolved only through a mental process or mental force, not through the deployment of physical force. He saw Satyagraha as a mental, moral or spiritual force that the mind used to work on other minds and to correct attitudes and acts that were inconsistent with Truth, justice or the principle of cohesion that is the essence of Dharma.
Both the Buddha and Gandhi were men of action. The Buddha is a remote figure in history and the interventions he made to preempt or resolve social conflicts or ensure justice to sentient beings are not remembered or recounted. But Gandhi lived in the recent past, and his interventions and struggles are still remembered and studied.
Gandhi has explained why he became a man of "direct action". He had found that human beings were sometimes (often) impervious to the appeal of reason when their interests or views were involved, and only direct action could shock them out of selfishness or intransigence, into introspection and self-correction. He answered the charge that such direct action could become divisive and cause confrontation or conflict in society, and said that men of peace, persons of undoubted spiritual eminence like the Buddha and Jesus were men of direct action.
According to Gandhi, "Never has anything been done on this earth without direct action. I reject the word 'passive resistance', because of its insufficiency and its being interpreted as a way of the weak."
What was the larger symbiosis that Buddha and Jesus preached? Gentleness and love. Buddha fearlessly carried war into the enemy's camp, and brought down on its knees an arrogant priesthood. Christ drove out the money chargers from the temple of Jerusalem and drew down curses from heaven upon the hypocrites and the Pharisees. Both were for intensely direct action. "But even as Buddha and Jesus chastised, they showed immeasurable love and gentleness behind every act of theirs." (Young India 12.05.1920)
Thus Gandhi's recipe for the resolution of conflicts was Satyagraha, the desire to discover Truth, to insist on Truth, and abandon all that dilutes Truth or deviated ever so slightly from Truth. This could be achieved through joint review of facts and issues; mediation or arbitration; introspection; direct action that promoted introspection and reminded one of the need for reconciliation in a society that comes into being, survives and prospers through interdependence; and tolerance for the residual differences that might remain on peripheral matters.
It can be said that up to now we have been talking primarily of the mind and attitudes of the individual, and not about the psychology and motivations of groups that engage in conflict or about the specific issues that become the epicenters of conflict. Yet, we have talked of (some) similarities in the attitudes and responses of the psyches of individuals and groups. We have also made some reference to the internal conflicts that one experiences and the projections and manifestation of these or similar conflicts in the external world―perhaps sufficient to show the similarity and relationship between conflicts in the mind, micro conflicts and macro conflicts, internal conflicts and external conflicts, attitudinal conflicts and institutional conflicts.
Groups and institutions too have their own egos; and all the problems that arise from ways in which egos intervene and distort the comprehension of truth or the formulation of views. Where the group is one into which one is born, one is brainwashed, subtly and overtly, right from one's birth. This applies not only to taboos and rituals, but also to the "ego" of the group, ethnic, racial, religious, territorial etc; the identity of the group; its superiority or purity; its heritage, its interests; what it needs to preserve its uniqueness or heritage and so on. As in the case of the individual, one talks of the self-interest of the group, the legitimacy of the use of force to protect it, the sovereignty or sub-sovereign autonomy of the group and so on. One creates fierce loyalty to the group and wants to sustain it through exclusivism. One not only renders loyalty (and feels guilty when one is accused of lack of loyalty) but concedes to the group the right to demand unquestioning loyalty and to enforce severe penalties―including the death penalty in the case of the state. All these become causes of conflict within the group and between groups. How can we deal with these conflicts or potential conflicts if we look upon groups as watertight entities with sovereign or near-sovereign rights? The individual has learnt that he is not sovereign―cannot be sovereign in an interdependent society. Groups cannot have unlimited and sovereign powers in an interdependent world where science, technology and historical movements of populations have brought different communities and groups together, often living and working together. Walls seem to have become anachronisms. Yet we have not cultivated the courage or skill necessary to live together to encounter difference with tolerance or understanding, and to produce the warmth of love to melt frigidity, suspicion or intolerance on the other side. When walls have collapsed we have to learn the ethics and dynamics of an open society. Neither the ethics nor the dynamics of an open society can countenance conflict. They can only prescribe coexistence and transparency, transparency of motivation, and transparency in the means or methods we employ to pursue transparent motives.
Humanity sets up institutions to protect interests or to prescribe procedures for ensuring justice. But when institutions do not provide equal protection to the rights of all or procedures become channels of manipulation, conflicts arise. They take the form of conflicts between vested interests and those who seek to grapple with 'structural violence' that can be as cruel and as lethal as gross or covert violence. This is an area with a wide precipitation of conflicts. They are frequent and often fierce, because the status quo is entrenched, and has the support of the coercive apparatus of the State behind it, whereas those who are compelled to fight for justice are weak, vulnerable, mostly unarmed and often unorganised. It often seems impossible to secure redress without recourse to militancy and conflict. Those who want to intercede in such situations must have the vision to see the conflict as a quest for justice and not as a challenge to law and order. They should have the ability to trigger introspection on the issues of social justice that have precipitated situations, and on the social consequences of the means that those who seek justice are employing. In this analysis, up to now, I have not made any reference to means and measures that are employed to limit or contain the damage from war, to forgo or abjure the use of weapons of mass destruction, to bring about a limited or prolonged and unlimited ceasefire, to supervise ceasefires, disarmament, demilitarized zones etc; to recruit and deploy peace keeping forces, and international armed forces, to use unarmed and neutral forces to keep peace, to augment the powers and jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, to expand its powers to entertain disputes from international non-governmental organisations and groups, to make the verdicts or arbitration of the Court legally binding on all parties to disputes, to form and deploy non-governmental or UN unarmed forces for preventive action and deceleration of tension, for intercession at every stage of escalation etc. I have not done so since these are all measures or steps that are designed to prevent armed conflict, not necessarily to seek reconciliation or resolution of the causes of conflict.
I believe that all these are very important, and are steps that we have to take in our progress towards a peaceful or nonviolent society. They are immediate and preliminary steps that we have to take to change our attitude to conflicts and acquire the tolerance that interdependence demands, to find the fundamental requisites that are essential for the control, sanitization and transformation of the causes of conflict.