Encountering Conflict

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Encountering Conflict

Posted on February 12, 2014 by jey — No Comments ↓

Why and how conflict arises;  think about the ways society is affected by conflict; how people react to it;  how they respond to it,  how they cope with it;   what people say about it;  how we resolve conflict.

Causes of conflict

Some of the most significant disagreements in society occur between neighbours often over something as trivial as a 50-year-old gum tree dropping leaves and dead branches onto another’s property or the need to replace a dilapidated fence.  If he is a tree-hugging greenie, and you are a paranoid pragmatist who lives in fear of Cyclone Tracey, the problem of an aging gum tree will quickly spiral into an argument about views, values and quality of life.  It will invariably lead to entrenched differences and anger, unless of course the neighbours are able to find some middle-ground or an underground trench.

Ditto, the conflict between MacDonald’s and the community in Tecoma over the establishment of a fast-food restaurant opposite a primary school. Or the erection of the boat laguna on the coastline of New South Wales. Many of these conflicts exacerbate entrenched differences relating to views and values; hostility simmers. Sometimes there’s a winner; other times there are only losers.

Many divisions in society arise over a difference in principle – a fight for justice, for equality and for respect. These are often linked with morality and involve proper behaviour and conduct. However, conflict can become complicated where these principles are corrupted and become an excuse to vent personal grievances, dislikes and animosity. Often the ingredients of conflict overlap, and morph. What might start out as a moral fight for rights, can easily degenerate into a grab for land and power.

Conflict arises in all aspects of life: it’s personal and interpersonal. It involves families, friends and community groups. It may have its origins in social, racial or cultural differences. There’s plenty of opportunity in our lives for conflict on a personal, community  or international level.

Is survival everything during times of conflict?

Some would maintain that survival is paramount and that during times of stress, horror and tragedy, it is important to stay alive. Of course, much depends upon the type of conflict and the people involved. Sometimes staying alive is a purely physical operation; other times, staying alive means with one’s dignity in tact.

Several Australian soldiers who have returned from the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq claimed that the need for survival tends to overwhelm the individual in war-like situations. As one soldier, Trooper Tom Williams says, ”I went from gung-ho to scared shitless to back to normal in three days, but it changed things,” he says. His attitude shifted. ”The fight for survival takes over everything. The compassion starts to slip. Trust between you and the people you’re supposed to help fades away.”

As anthropologists remind us, fear causes a variety of responses and reactions that can give us an unpredictable insight into who we are.  The primordial “flight-fight response” is an ancient mind-body reaction. Faced with threats, people tend to “flee the sabre toothed tiger”. The instinct to protect ourselves in the best possible way is a fundamental biological human response.

In Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, the hero is on a boat taking 800 Muslim pilgrims to Arabia. The boat sinks and Jim saves his skin, an act of cowardice for which he pays for the rest of his life.  Likewise, the captain of Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, instinctively abandoned the cruise ship as soon as it struck the fatal rocks off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio in January 2012. Whether or not he panicked, is not clear but he seemed to place his own life above that of others contrary to the seamanship code of conduct.

However, the fight for survival may also involve fear and concern for others. Trooper Williams’ sentiments are reinforced by Officer Kyle Tyrrell, but for him survival also involved care and concern for the survival of his troops. Tyrrell said, ”You read stuff about the armed forces and love and brotherhood and … It’s just true. At a base level, it’s probably the most beautiful thing that you can get – you are helping another person stay alive.”

Other times during times of stress, tragedy, war or disaster individuals jeopardise their own safety to ensure the survival of their mates, or their loved ones.  In 2009, Trooper Mark Donaldson became the first Australian soldier for 40 years to receive the Victoria Cross medal. Braving an onslaught of enemy firepower, he dangerously exposed himself to enemy fire, enabling back up forces to recover the wounded soldiers.   Under pressure, Donaldson had the courage of his convictions and showed amazing resilience. He emerged a true defender of our Australian democratic values.   Closer to home, during Black Saturday in 2010, Rhys Sund endangered his own life to rescue his sisters who were trapped by the fire. He kept protesting, “I’m just an ordinary person. I did what anyone would do if they had sisters stuck behind a fire wall.”

Likewise, Chris Braman is faced with a dilemma. She races out of the World Trade Centre on that fateful 7/11 day. However, she stops and thinks for a moment. Does she simply walk away, and spare her life, thinking about her friends and her family – her two doe-eyed beautiful girls. Or does she, with the screams rebounding in her ears, race back into the building knowing that her friends were possibly trapped on the second floor.  Often the decisions a person makes during times of intense pressure or possible tragedy determine who they are as individuals. Such life-defining moments can be a catalyst for character development and insights; they may make or break us as individuals.

In this case, Ms Braman heroically rescued her work colleagues from the building and was awarded the medal for bravery.   Like Mark Donaldson, our brave Victoria Cross medal winner, individuals often prove the strength of their humanity during times of disasters. Their responses contrast with the typical, instinctive flight-fight response.

Conflict becomes a test of character

In this regard, whether we flee to protect ourselves or fight to save our loved ones, conflict often tests our mettle. Ideally, it will strengthen our resolve and reveal our determination and dignity. For example, the Dalai Lama has been exiled from Tibet for more than forty years and subjected to alienation, injustice and violence. As a refugee, he has consistently adhered to his doctrine of non-violence, and stands by his mantra, “our enemy is our guru”.

IN other words, conflict fulfils an instructive purpose and serves to strengthen our resolve. Novelist Fiona Scott-Norman states in her book Don’t Peak at High School: From Bullied to A-Listthat people who are bullied and experience conflict at school are often forced to rely on their own resources. Many people who have been threatened often develop formidable life skills and a fierce determination to succeed.

Although it would be ideal and beneficial if people always have a positive attitude to conflict and try to learn from it, sadly this is not always the case. Often, people are destroyed by or transformed by conflict – often suppressing finer qualities in order to survive.   Evidently, not all individuals have the resources to withstand bullying. Young adults are particularly vulnerable to bullying. For example, Brodie Panlock suicided after she was persecuted in the workplace at Cafe Vamp. She said she felt an ”unbearable level of humiliation”. At her inquest, it was reported that the workers delighted in mocking her. For several months, Brodie resorted to self-harm and then finally suicided by jumping from the top level of a multi-storied car park in Hawthorn.

Other times it is the stress, the unbearable nature of failure, that can fuel regeneration.  Australia’s Major General John Cantwell, who was on track to become the Chief of Army in the Defence Department, found himself in a psychiatric ward instead of rising to the top of his field because of his inability to cope with the insurmountable grief, horror and guilt arising from his war experiences, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Major Cantwell fought in Iraq in 1991 and in 2006. In 2010 he commanded the Australian troops in Afghanistan.  He states that he feels a sense of betrayal towards the men for whose lives he was responsible and who ended up maimed or killed. Walking down the street in Melbourne, signs of war trigger his trauma. For example, a plastic garbage bag rustling in the wind recalls an improvised explosive device (IED). “I freeze, then force myself to calm down”.  Whenever he uses antiseptic chemicals at home, he recalls dead bodies in the mortuary.  “I try hard not to dwell on the troubled past, but it invades my consciousness without prompting.  “The real me – the person who has led soldiers in battle – watches aghast at the blubbering fool I have become”.  Ever since his return, he is on a cocktail of drugs for depression, anxiety and pain that he believes have left him “dull-witted”.

In such cases, conflict, ambivalently or contradictorily, reveals a “true” picture.  Once we reach the breaking point, anything can happen. Perhaps this says more about the nature and context of the conflict, than about the people involved.

Protecting the common good

Conflict may reinforce our values; it may also challenge our beliefs. Whilst Fowler  (The Quiet American) is no Dalai  Lama or Nelson Mandela, he rises to the challenge when confronted with the carnage in Place de Garnier.  Formerly indifferent and convinced that foreign powers should not meddle in the politics of another country, he chooses to betray his friend in order to protect the Vietnamese citizens from further indiscriminate bombings.   He comes to understanding the wisdom of General Heng, “to be human one has to take a stance”.

However, Greene ambiguously conceals (and reveals) the aspect of self-interest; Fowler was after all, able to conveniently eliminate his love rival. The victor is desperate to apologise but knows that he never will and is doomed to live with a sense of shame and disappointment. These actions may distance us from rather than helps us reach the “truth”.

Similarly, an opportunistic streak in many individuals arises during times of conflict, especially when political or social dissension may provide an opportunity for self-serving individuals. For example, Abu Hakam, now a refugee in Turkey, states that he considered changing allegiances from the Free Syrian Army to ISIL because of the shameful actions of a general. Abu Hakam found himself on the run from the Syrian-led Assad regime (President Bashar al-Assad), because he refused to do compulsory national service. An idealistic 25-year old youth, he commanded a small group of men and fought with the Free Syrian Army. However, he became disaffected after he found out that a general of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took more than $1 million to renovate his house and bribe his way to safety with ISIL. The funds had been donated to buy weapons and equipment for the FSA brigades.  (The Age, 7/10/14)

Conflict with enemies and differences

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends with them.  His comments allude to the (perhaps idealistic) ability of an individual or groups to disarm their enemies or opponents through peaceful means and through reconciliation. Indeed such a method ideally defines individuals in terms of their humanity and strength.

Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress (ANC), was renowned for his tolerant approach to his enemies. As many social critics point out, he freed both guard and prisoner because of his magnanimous spirit and breadth of vision.  As ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser notes, he was a man who emerged from a 27-year jail sentence “with no sense of bitterness, no sense of sourness, who made friends with his jailers, recognized the other fellow’s point of view, realized you can’t come to a solution unless the point of view of the person to whom you’re sometimes very strongly opposed is also taken into account.”  Showing, as many commentators would say, “in harming others, we are harmed”. Ideally, it is preferable to resolve conflict in harmonious and beneficial ways and act in ways that do not benefit “us alone”. If we destroy our neighbours and ignore their interests then we all suffer.

Much of course depends upon the context. Mahathma Gandhi developed a creed of non-violent resistance known as satyagraha (steadfastness in truth) to withstand British colonial rule. He believed that the opponent must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy.  From 1914, Gandhi began to train people in civil disobedience tactics and undertook 30 hunger strikes himself in resistance to the oppressive tactics of the British.

Alternatively, many seek to destroy their enemies in a spirit of revenge and resentment which perhaps diminishes those who practice such soul-destroying brutality.  Resentment smoulders and often rebounds on the perpetrator.  At the heart of Muslim sectarian resistant lies the controversial concept of jihad, holy war, which, for many radical Muslims means resistance through violence. Bloody confrontations occur as the various groups seek to shed what they see as a modern day manifestation of colonial power – the US invasion.

Dealing with conflict

It is important when solving conflict to take a broad-minded approach and see the conflict from all angles – especially that of the opponent or rival.

This was the point to Barack Obama’s beer summit, which he held in 2009 to reconcile differences between the (white) policeman who arrested an African American professor “breaking” into his own home window. Obama stated, “I believe that what brings us together is more important than what sets us apart”;  British Pakistani activist, Tariq Ali states, “I don’t believe that there’s any group in the world which is waging a fight that cannot be negotiated with”.

Similarly, in Jonathon Swift’s political satireGulliver’s Travels, Gulliver meets a doctor in Balnibarbi whose solutions to disagreement are comically astute. He believes that each politician should swap half his brain with his opponent, so that the “two halves of the brain” could argue and then come to a ‘reasonable agreement”. In other words, this would give each the opportunity to broaden their minds and see the issue from each other’s perspective.  Presciently, the doctor also believes that all important positions in government should be decided by a lottery so as to minimise vested interests.

Resolving conflict: negotiating differences

Indra Gandhi figuratively stated, “you cannot shake hands with a clenched fist”. In other words, when faced with irreconcilable differences one must try to seek negotiation and make compromises in order to seek a lasting resolution.  Queen Elizabeth’s literal handshake with Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein member of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government  and former chief of staff of the IRA, shows that it is important to reconcile our differences.  The meeting between the two in 2011 was hailed as an “historic act of reconciliation”  and was seen as a milestone in resolving the 30 years of “Troubles”.

During his recent visit (May 2014) to the Middle East,  Pope Francis appealed to Israeli President, Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas at the end of a two-hour evening service to relaunch the Middle East peace processs. Focusing on peacemaking as a mature, sophisticated and compassionate response to conflict, he said,  “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities.”

We remember the prescient words of the Nobel committee when it awarded the United Nations High Commission for Refugees a Nobel peace price (2010). Its work teaches us “to understand that sympathy with other human beings, even if they are separated from us by national frontiers, is the foundation upon which a lasting peace must be built”.

Richard Nixon was the first US President to negotiate with the Communist regime in China. Before he got to Beijing in February 1972 he took a pad of paper and jotted on it: “what do they want, what do we want, what do we both want?” He based his diplomatic efforts on the answers to the last question. Negotiating shared interests is evidently the basis for a lasting agreement.

The victims of conflict

Conflict occurs in society often as a result of the class struggle between people with different interests and occupying different economic and political positions of power and status. Often those who are in a powerful position enjoy priority over resources, views and values. Many take advantage of this power and use it to exploit the less fortunate in society.

As the prominent Australian barrister Julian Burnside QC says “ the way society treats its disadvantaged and its victims is mark of a just society.”

In this regard, it is the victims of conflict who draw attention to injustice and inequality – who show us what is truly important.

During his Freedom Ride in 1965, a group of student activists, including Charles Perkins toured Australian country towns to expose racism. At that time it was not uncommon for indigenous Australians to be banned from public areas. When Perkins swam with Aboriginal children in a public pool in Moree, he gained headline news as the locals angrily defended the race-based ban.Likewise, Perkins frequented the Oasis Hotel in Walgett to protest against its colour ban.  This Ride was the beginning of a relentless lifelong campaign undertaken by Charles Perkins to draw attention to the unjust apartheid-style conditions endured by aborigines in Australia.

Likewise, in 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight protesting against the overwhelming nature of Tunisia’s bureaucracy. His death was seen as the catalyst for the Tunisian overthrow and the beginning of the “Arab spring”. He appeared to make the ultimate sacrifice against injustice. He inspired 60 similar cases of self-immolation, including five in Egypt. Likewise in Egypt, Khaled Said was killed for his trouble in exposing police corruption via social networking sites.

“Khaled Said was beaten to death by police officers on June 6, 2010. Mr Said was arrested in Alexandria in an internet cafe after he posted online a video of local police officers sharing the spoils from a drug bust. Like many in Egypt, he was tired of the open corruption and greed of government employees and saw the potential to expose the hypocrisy via social media. He was killed for his trouble. Pictures of the 28-year-old’s corpse went viral. His face had been reduced to pulp, his nose and jaw clearly broken, his skull fractured.”

The means through which one deals with conflict reflects one’s personal values, and degree of integrity. It may also reflect one’s strength of character or level of despair. Much depends upon the circumstances.

According to, by Peruvian economist Mr Hernando de Soto, “It’s capitalism, not democracy the Arab world craves most.”  The excessive bureaucracy and red tape mean that for many it is impossible to run even a legitimate market stall.  There are similarities here with Fowler, (The Quiet American) who believes that the Vietnamese just wanted to be able to eat rice and make a living. They wanted shelter and food.

Making themselves heard: the victims gain a sense of power

Just as Charles Perkins gained political power, becoming Australia’s first indigenous senator, so too do many “victims” gain a voice as they expose injustice. In this regard, such “victims” join the powerful majority because of their ability to inspire and make themselves heard. Malalai Yousufzai (joint winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize) turned her position of powerlessness to her advantage. The fact that she was almost killed for her desire to pursue an education testifies to her lack of power in the Taliban-dominated Swat valley area in Pakistan. However, owing to publicity surrounding her plight and Western assistance, she was able to develop a very powerful voice that is frequently heard in the corridors of power from the White House (meetings with President Obama) to political addresses at the United Nations.

Likewise, journalist Tawakkol Karman (the first Arab woman and the previous youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace prize in 2011) continues to play a vital role in Yemeni political culture, despite enduring arrests, imprisonment and vilification. She came to prominence during the revolution against Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in 2012 after three decades in power. She fiercely opposes child marriage and champions women’s rights.

More recently (February 2015), 31-year-old Raif Badawi, a blogger championing freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia, was sentenced to 1000 lashes, 10 years in jail and a fine of more than $260,000. His crime?  He supports a separation between church and state as well as a debate about the use and abuse of the Muslim religion.

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