We can’t all get along because resource competition, prejudice, racism, bigotry, and insecurity are very real. Someone who is running for their life in Darfur cannot afford to pretend that by hugging the Janjaweed then everyone will be able to live happily ever after. We can’t ‘just all get along’ because conflict is inherent to the human experience.
Conflict is the result of a very real divergence of interests and values. We are in a world constrained by scarcity. Not everyone can have as much water, land, food as they want. As a society we are forced to interact with people who are potential competitors. We must decide whether to negotiate with them or compel them to accept our will.
We resolve these conflicts through politics – the process of discussing, negotiating, managing and neutralizing conflict over interests, values, power and identity. We set up institutions and systems (such as markets, courts, elections) that simplify the distribution of resources and the arbitration of disagreements.
When institutions are created we put some people in power and disempower others.We give certain people authority to make decisions for others. This means that resolving conflict involves very real struggles over power.
It frustrates me that there are people in the peace and social justice movement who get scared when we ‘get too political.’ This fear of politics seems to run deep, particularly among people who have enough power and privilege to hide their head in the sand and avoid directly conflicting with people. Peace is political because conflict is political.
Peace sometimes requires a clear disempowerment of certain people (such as when a political leader is voted out of office or a militia leader is jailed) and elevates others. For example, the process of ending apartheid in South Africa reduced the amount of power held by whites and elevated Nelson Mandela from a prison cell to a head of state.
Peace agreements are the result of extensive wrangling, horse-trading and arm-twisting. Rebuilding infrastructure requires deciding which people should get a new road first, determining which neighborhoods should receive a school and hiring contractors who might funnel their profits to warring factions.
Helping refugees to return requires standing up to people who might have driven them out of the country in the first place. Trying war crimes suspects requires hunting them down and dealing with the possibility that their supporters might riot or take up arms. Reconciliation may require the revealing of secrets that some would rather keep concealed.
As a result, peace will not come as a result of ‘random acts of kindness’, hugging or sitting around singing ‘Kum-by-Yah.’ Creating peace requires being clear-eyed about the reality of conflict, engaging in the political arena and being involved in struggles over power.
-By Matthew Bolton