Everyday Peace: The extraordinary skills of so-called ‘ordinary’ people.

23 Feb

I had a piece in the main newspaper in Kosovo this week (kindly translated by Gezim Visoka). The link is here: http://www.koha.net/?page=1,9,136115 and the text (for those of us who don’t speak Albanian) is as below:

Everyday peace: The extraordinary skills of so-called ‘ordinary’ people
My parents were excellent diplomats. They did not attend an elite diplomatic training academy. Nor did they work in any embassy or diplomatic capital. Instead, they were ordinary parents making a living and bringing up children in Northern Ireland during its civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. Like hundreds of thousands of other people in deeply divided societies, they used common sense and tact to keep themselves and their family out of harm’s way.
Perhaps we pay too much attention to conflict resolution ‘experts’ and overlook the everyday diplomacy that individuals and groups engage in. Some internationally renowned conflict resolution gurus have acquired something of a cult following. Yet the day-to-day civility in streets and workplaces is often overlooked and it is certainly under-celebrated. When people use the phrase ‘ordinary people’, I often think, ‘No, people are extraordinary’. This extraordinary skill can be seen in the coping mechanisms that people use on a daily basis to stay safe in deeply-divided societies.
I don’t want to romanticize all things local and indigenous. Individuals and communities are capable of all sorts of violence and destruction. But they are also capable of tolerance and co-existence. They are capable of small acts of pragmatism that allow societies to grind along without tipping into all out war. Occasionally, of course, war does come along, but it is often the exception rather than the rule.
If we look at societies affected by religious or ethnic division, then war is often a once in a generation or longer phenomenon. A more likely scenario is for the society to grind along with tensions not far below the surface. This was certainly the case in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Yugoslavia and many other places for much of their history. These were often dysfunctional societies and contained much discrimination, but they also contained much co-existence and tolerance in inter-personal relations, and at the level of the village and the neighbourhood.
Neighbours and work colleagues used commonsense and tact to navigate their way through life. This required considerable skill. It required holding your tongue and looking the other way. It required a weak smile and a hard swallow. In Northern Ireland, people talk to strangers about the weather rather than risk contentious topics like politics. We have an expression: ‘whatever you say, say nothing’. In other words, talk as much as you want to strangers or people from the other community but do not talk about politics or the last violent outrage.
People in deeply divided societies engage in dissembling, or say one thing in the company of their co-religionists and then say another in mixed religion company. In a way, this can be seen as two-faced or dishonest. But if it is lying, then it is socially sanctioned lying because it is reciprocal. Everybody engages in this ‘theatre’ to keep the peace. And if we are all aware of the lie, is it really a lie?
In fact, I see this dissembling as a wonderful human skill. It is part of the glue that holds society together. We all engage in this everyday diplomacy to navigate our way through life. It shows how wonderfully flexible individuals and communities can be, especially at the level of inter-personal relations.
At times, of course, this human ingenuity this was not enough to hold societies together. The pressures for people to separate into their own ethnic groups can become too great. In fact, it can become dangerous or impossible to show civility to ‘the other side’.
Yet, for long periods in their history, people from different ethnic or religious groups in places like Cyprus, Georgia or Sri Lanka did manage to live side by side. This co-existence was far from perfect. But it did allow individuals and communities to prosper and get on with growing crops, sending kids to school and all of those everyday tasks that make up life. Many of these societies saw marriage across groups, the sharing of agricultural labour and equipment, and inter-group cultural activities. This was not some sort of fantasy peace involving doves and hippies. Instead, it was an everyday peace based on mutual tolerance. It was slow to develop, quick to dissolve, and highly-localised. It relied on reciprocity and the evidence of everyday experience rather than scientific studies or exhortations to ‘make nice’ from external conflict resolvers.
Many academic and policy studies have been too hasty to overlook evidence from past generations and how they managed to muddle through with just enough tolerance to allow co-existence. What kept the lid on things in Northern Ireland in the 1950s or Lebanon in the 1960s? What prevented these societies from tipping over into the abyss? While we cannot hope to recreate these societies as if in some laboratory, a useful research agenda would be to try to find out what helped keep the peace in earlier generations.
Much of this everyday peace is very localized, and probably works best in rural areas or in very small urban enclaves. It can be criticized for accepting co-existence and tolerance rather than a more meaningful peace. But sometimes this negative peace is all that circumstances allow. It can also be criticized for being selfish: people engage in everyday peace strategies for their own survival. But many of the activities are mutual and reciprocal and can extend across ethnic and religious boundaries. Preservation of one’s self and one’s own group can become mutual preservation.
Individuals and communities cannot bring peace without action from political leaders and institutions. Indeed, ethnic cleansing and high walls often mean that the opportunities for inter-group communication are slight – as is the case in Georgia or between Israelis and Palestinians. But everyday diplomacy can make life more comfortable. It can also be a first step on a more meaningful journey in which co-existence and tolerance can lead to something more significant and long-lasting. These skills are not learned in diplomatic academics. Instead, they are held by so-called ‘ordinary’ people.

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