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 (Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works)
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 9/11 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-List that 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 committed suicide after she was persecuted in the workplace at Cafe Vamp (2005). 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 jumped 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. 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 and the intensity of the conflict may reveal our moral dilemma.
Colonel Larry C. James was tasked with “fixing” up the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after the scandalous photos were published relating to abuse of Iraqi prisoners by eight American soldiers in 2003. One day on an army convoy trip from the compound at Abu Ghraib to Baghdad (around 30 kilometres) a group of 10 to 13-year old kids are throwing rocks at the vehicles. He poses himself a question, “Suppose that thirteen year old kid was throwing a hand grenade at your vehicle. Would you be able to shoot that child?. He realises that Colonel Larry C James could shoot the boy, but Dr Larry C James couldn’t. “If it actually ever happened, both the colonel and the doctor would be haunted by it for the rest of my life”. He knows that the doctor must prepare himself for the new battlefield. “Now in this new war, doctors will constantly walk the tightrope between being the soldier and the doctor. Kill or be killed, because it doesn’t matter to the enemy if I am a doctor or a tank driver”.
Such dilemmas are often impossible to resolve, but they strike at the heart of our humanity and the intensity of the dilemma reveals the intensity of our moral pangs without which we would lose a sense of self.
Contrastingly, 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 satire, Gulliver’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.
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.
Everyone has a breaking point. Or do they?
In his epoch-making experiments on the conditioned reflex, Ivan Pavlov concluded that every man like every dog has his breaking point. When subjected to prolonged stress, he believes that an animal’s or a person’s brain goes on strike. His research confirmed that during the two major world wars, soldiers developed a number of disabling psychophysical symptoms owing to prolonged stress. Nowhere is this more apparent, than during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March 2012, an American army staff sergeant civilians entered three Afghan family’s homes at 3am and began a vicious killing spree. He killed 9 children and 3 women. Relatives said he poured chemicals over their dead bodies and burned them. Evidently, this soldier snapped.
Often under stress, we betray people; we lie; we confess. Ordinarily, these actions might contradict our “true” behaviour or views and values. Galileo
Taking a stance?
In 2007, Christopher Hudson, a member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, was aggressively dragging his girlfriend, Kara Douglas, by the hair down Flinders Lane. Melbourne solicitor Brendan Keilar and 25 year old Dutch backpacker Paul de Waard attempted to assist Douglas. Hudson pulled out a gun and shot all three. Keilar was fatally wounded in the head. De Waard returned to the Netherlands and revealed in a television interview a year later that he was still undergoing extensive rehabilitation.
Likewise, Lynne Coleman suffered from a vicious knife attack for her act of kindness to Leno Yammouni. A mother of four, Coleman was physically and mentally scarred. She stopped her car in a Northcote street because she thought Yammouni had fallen from his motorbike and needed assistance. Crown prosecutor Kieran Gilligan said that ”this type of conduct tears at the fabric of society in that members of the community may be less willing to offer assistance to others in the future”.
The Anglo-English statesman, Edmund Burke said, that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Martin Niemoller, the prominent Protestant pastor emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler would agree.
First they came for the (Communists) Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist. …. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew/ Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me. Niemoller (1892-1984) spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.
As former South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, states, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This quote alludes to the fact that during situations of conflict even those who simply stand on the sidelines may be abetting the perpetrators and enabling persecution to flourish. However, according to Graham Greene (The Quiet American) there may be situations where it is preferable or necessary to remain neutral.
And what about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden? Did they take a stance because of their personal conflict and conscience pangs, or did they betray the national interest? Should they have remained “neutral”? Was their stance justified?
US Army private Bradley Manning hoped to ignite a public debate about the role of US diplomats and army troops abroad. He released 700,000 secret US records of US military incidents about the war in Afghanistan and 400,000 similar documents on Iraq. He wanted to expose the indiscriminate violence carried out by US army troops abroad. Typical leaks included that of an Apache helicopter killing 12 civilians in Baghdad in 2007 including two journalists.
Likewise, Edward Snowden a former technical assistant for the CIA and a former contractor for the National Security Agency, will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning. He is responsible for handing over material from one of the world’s most secretive organisations – the NSA. “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” Snowden believed that the primary lesson from this experience was that “you can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”
Snowden delivered the annual “Alternative Christmas Message” (2013) on Britain’s Channel 4. He said, “together, we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.”
When Syrian President, Bashar-al-Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people, President Obama declared that he had crossed the red line. Opposing rebel groups (particularly those aligned with the Free Syrian Army) believe that the US government let them down. A senior tribal leader asks: “How is it possible that the US watched for the last 3 1/2 years while more than 200,000 Syrians were murdered by Assad … and 5 to 6 million displaced and it is only now that they are acting, and not against Assad but against the Islamic state.”. “Assad used chemical weapons against his people, we were desperate for the West to help and they did nothing.” There is only change: “Now we are being bombed by both the Assad regime and the US.”
Everyone has to take a side during conflict
The rivalry between Fowler and Pyle reveals Greene’s complex and often contradictory response to America’s involvement and whether a country should seek to spread its influence, however well-intentioned that may be. On the one hand, Pyle becomes involved and takes sides, while Fowler, initially, maintains his impartiality.
Greene presents Pyle’s involvement as misguided and camouflaged by innocence. Similarly, York Harding’s “national democracy” is at work in the “war against terror” in Afghanistan and once again the signs are that such interference is misguided. Like Pyle, the western Allies seek to bring peace and democracy to Afghanistan and seek to rid the world of terror and evil. (Expectations have not been met.) However, the US Intelligence community says the war has led to a stalemate because of corruption, incompetence and the persistence of the Taliban fighters still operating on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They say that any withdrawal will lead to a collapse of the Karzai Government.
Coincidently, Bradley Manning was also described by his defence lawyer as “naïve” but “well-intentioned”. Auden Pyle clings to the hope of the Third Force as a means of providing the ideal solution for the Vietnamese who are embroiled in a devastating conflict that makes daily life a struggle. However, Graham Greene critiques such an attitude and constantly shows that the “well intentioned” Pyle completely underestimates the situation and his efforts to spread democracy are completely misguided. The fervent nature of his optimism blinds him and he remains “impregnably armoured”.
Likewise, commentators point to similar parallels between Nixon’s policy of Vietnamisation (1972) and the current democratisation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Abudullah Muhsin from the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions criticized the colonial powers and said: “This is not a failure of democracy per se. It is a failure of the way it was organised and the arrogance of the decision-makers who thought they could impose their will on the world.” Once again, Greene’s prescient comments regarding the implementation of “isms” at the expense of local initiatives show that such interference is doomed to fail. Commentators point out that Mullah Omar, the original Taliban leader, will no doubt come down from the mountains to “resume his old position so rudely interrupted through the war”. They predict that Afghanistan is again likely to face a civil war, just as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Abu Said (an activist from the Ahl al-Athar Brigade) also vindicates Greene’s view of conflict: that meddlesome outsiders can exacerbate the problem. Whilst the US-led army against IS in Syria and Iraq seeks to cut off their control of oil wells and related income, Abu Said said, this is creating impossibly difficult conditions for the local civilian population. “In many towns there is no fuel at all for cooking or for cars, in other places prices are so high it is almost unaffordable. Winter is coming and we are not sure how people will survive.”
Another tribal leader, believes that the US air strikes will enhance, not diminish, IS’s support among the population and harden support for the west. “They know IS are killers but they have also seen civilian casualties from the US air strikes and they are wondering which is worse.”
Also, once again miscalculations from the West disenfranchise the Muslim population. Rather than target ISIL, which purportedly kills prisoners, another hard-line Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra tried to differentiate from ISIL by releasing kidnapped peacekeepers and an American hostage. However, the US blundered, (according to Hassan Hassan, an analyst with Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi) into attacking Jabhat al-Nusra. This force, to many Syrians, was the one most effectively countering the Syrian regime.
There are those who cultivate an intransigent (fixed) view of conflict whereby they seek to perpetuate their own self-serving interests. Often this attitude that seeks to entrench differences leads to calamity. It often exacerbates rather than solves the conflict. As social commentator Waleed Aly points out this tendency to see conflict in terms of conquest and subjugation – or according to Gaddafi in terms of “kill or be killed” — has dangerous repercussions. In response to the world trade centre bombings, George Bush maintained that the public was “with us or with the terrorists”. His stand is echoed in Danforth’s comments (The Crucible) that one is either “with the girls or must be counted against.”
Rather than seeking to negotiate with one’s enemies, the stakeholders end up exacerbating the conflict and often the violence spirals out of control. Each party to the conflict then becomes intent on entrenching their views which becomes a “fight to the death” in a war that each claim they did not start.
Megan Stack, Los Angeles Times war correspondent, documents the consequences of factional and sectarian differences when both sides fight to the death. Currently, in Egypt, the Egyptian military dictatorship continues to consolidate its rule by isolating all opposition, particularly that of the “democratically” elected government of Mohammed Mursi who was deposed in September 2013. Three secular leaders (Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma) were jailed in December 2013 under Egypt’s new anti-protest laws. The Government is restricting freedom of assembly and is systematically arresting opposition figures, human rights activists and peaceful demonstrators as it pursues its so-called “road map” to democracy’. (The Iraq presenter paid with her life for her view that one could transcend difference.)
The only certain outcome in this context Arthur Miller would suggest is a contagious conflagration.
If Miller drew inspiration for his play, the Crucible, from the McCarthy trials in the 1960s to which he was summoned on many occasions, critics also claim that the US committee investigating radical Muslims is another such contagious vendetta. During the 1960s McCarthy accused people of being communist sympathisers. Up to 320 artists were blacklisted which for many meant the end of their careers – this brought about a great deal of professional and personal anguish. There were many trials often based on unsubstantiated accusations. This historical aberration did not bother New York Republican Peter King, who chairs the House committee on homeland security. In 2011, he was intent on pushing ahead with the hearings on the radicalisation of Muslims – those suspected of participating in radical terrorist activities in countries such as Yemen or Somalia. Many said it was another McCarthy-style probe but he was willing to wear this accusation as a “badge of honour”.
In October 2013, the Republicans proclaimed that the fiscal deadlock and the shutdown of the US government for 16 days was just. Republican Steve King stated: “Because we’re right. Simply because we’re right”. They waged an ideological power struggle with President Obama and refused to approve of raising the fiscal debt ceiling and sanctioning funds for “Obamacare” or the universal healthcare scheme. This attitude was rigid, inflexible and unjust. The fact is, as Washington Post author Anne Applebaum stated, “Obamacare is the law as confirmed by the executive, legislative and the judicial branches of our political system.”
The case clearly proves as the commentators would suggest, that one should not follow, stubbornly, a course that is unjust and unlawful. Just like Bob Ewell (To Kill a Mockingbird) who believed in the assumption that negroes are inferior and are automatically capable of committing a crime. As Mr Heck Tate states, “Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella opened her mouth and screamed”.
Megan Stack also deftly analyses in her accounts of the Middle East wars, that the hypocritical self-serving agendas pursued by Western governments frequently inflames rather than solves the conflict. Likewise many political commentators also point out that the West hypocritically overlooks the barbaric actions of the Saudi Arabian government whilst bombing the Islamic State for the same time of barbarity. Both groups are guilty of killing homosexuals, stoning adulterers, and chopping of the hand or foot of a thief. Just take the case of the Burmese woman, Laila bint Abdul Muttalib Basim was dragged through the streets and held down by four policemen, while it took three blows from the executioner’s sword to sever her head. As he hacked away, she used her last breath to scream: “I didn’t kill. I didn’t kill”.
As Paul McGeough asks (22/1/15), “How strange it is then, that we’re at war with IS, but the Saudis are our allies . . . Where is the crusading Tony Abbott when he’s needed?”
And of course, how can one legitimately and decisively solve conflict with such lopsided and selective principles? As Megan Stack points out, it is impossible.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi echoes her views. He has been locked up without trial in Guantanamo Prison for more than 13 years. As he states, depriving prisoners of due process, humane treatment and fair trials only deepens their conviction and that of their countrymen that Western claims to global leadership in human rights and the rule of law are false and hypocritical.
Working for a just cause and a just outcome
It takes courage and foresight, tolerance and dedication to withstand intimidation and brutality and to seek to transcend differences. Often, those who tried during the Iraqi civil war were inevitably shot. Whilst reporting on the civil war which claimed her life, Atwar Bahjat, a journalist at Al-Jazeera, openly espoused the belief that it was possible to overcome sectarian differences and achieve unity for the common good. Her gold “famous” pendant swinging on her “warm chest” symbolised the dream and possibility of unity; it symbolised her refusal to split people into categories and typecast them according to sect; she believed that, as a journalist, it was immoral and discriminatory, to identify people as Sunni or Shiite because it perpetuated the differences between them that stimulated hatred. As Megan Stack writes, Atwar was a “theological half-breed” who “didn’t fit anywhere” and “told people she didn’t believe in sect. Her country kept on breaking down and Atwar kept on refusing to acknowledge it.”
Sometimes fixed or intransigent views are honourable and necessary. Sometimes, people must follow their principles and stick to the truth. They believe that to compromise their values is to compromise their dignity and self worth. Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Wes (Montana) are honourably intransigent because they refuse to compromise their principles. Atticus knows that he must remain firm in his belief that Tom Robinson should be granted a fair trial to prove his innocence. Likewise, once Wes gains incontrovertible evidence regarding his brother’s, Frank’s, crimes, he cannot release his brother from the cellar.
For Ideological conflicts: See Galileo and Every Man in this Village is a Liar
Following the dictates of our heart: human rights
Following the dictates of our heart is an act of brotherhood according to Pope Francis. He said the search for peace was “an act of supreme responsibility before our consciences and before our peoples” and noted that millions around the world of all faiths were praying for peace. “We have heard a summons and we must respond. It is the summons to break the spiral of hatred and violence, and to break it by one word alone: the word ‘brother’.
Perhaps one could say that “brotherhood” was behind Peter Norman’s intuitive defence of human rights. In 1986 it was Mexico City’s turn to stage the Olympic Games, and Peter Norman represented Australia. It is often forgotten, however that Norman won the silver medal in the 200m; he was blacklisted by the Olympic Committee because of his outspoken support for fellow (African American) medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Peter Norman stood on the pedestal bearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, whilst Smith and Carlos raised their fists in symbolism of Black Power for racial equality. Whether we feel compelled to take a stand or remain impartial, ordinary people have the potential to defy the odds and act in extraordinary ways that can restore our faith in humanity.
During his Freedom Ride in 1965, a group of student activists, including Charles Perkins toured Australian country towns to expose racism. 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 Perkins to draw attention to the unjust apartheid-style conditions endured by aborigines in Australia.
One only hopes that these words continue to inspire and that the truth shines clearly. The minute it gets murky, there’s trouble around the corner.
Perhaps the best way to solve conflict is to “stand in the shoes of another” or to “wriggle around in their skin”.
Dr Jennifer Minter, Encountering Conflict, www.englishworks.com.au
See also our VCE workbook for students: The Language of Persuasion: an essay-writing guide.
Please click here to download a PDF version of the Exercises in the Language of Persuasion: an essay writing guide for immediate use. By using these exercises, you will be able to follow our support material on each exercise (See “turn to exercise”). Each “turn to exercise” includes key strategies, suggested responses, students’ samples and assessors’ marks and comments.