From the rules of engagement to passionless marriages
Reading this compilation aimed at practitioners and theorists in the field of conflict resolution is like being on the receiving end of one of their interventions. First, a number of mutually incompatible viewpoints are posited. Then, the inherent contradictions within these are studiously ignored and one is asked to focus on process rather than content. By the end, you become so bored and confused that you are desperate to get out, unsure as to what you really believed in the first place. Problem solved!
Conflict is a book for our post-political times. What it lacks in depth and conviction it makes up for in scope. Unfortunately, as the serious research gets covered in the same cursory manner as the trite, any wisdom is lost. Presumably, its authors and editors, all acolytes of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in the US, agreed to disagree. But believing in everything reduces the impact of their insights. These are brought to bear upon tensions ranging from playground spats and passionless marriages to civil wars and international bloodbaths.
The unstated thread throughout is the therapeutic presumption that conflict is inherently a bad thing rather than a necessary element of social problems. In this post-Clausewitzian universe, war is the continuation of psychology by other means. Conflict becomes pathologised, and trying to win an argument is the act of a bully. Thus emotions become the legitimate target for intervention. A simplistic “cycle of violence” is asserted to hold - note, no room for negotiation here. This assumes that those who have been abused and traumatised go on to abuse and traumatise others. As ideas go, it is on a par with the profundity of “monkey see, monkey do”.
We are introduced to the roles of the mediator, arbitrator, facilitator and peace negotiator. While appearing to focus on individuals and their feelings, these professionals’ real role is apparently to avoid contentious debate. This treats people as children and serves to temper and frustrate their real passions and ambitions. The logic is complete as we are told that “mediators must learn to understand their own emotions”.
Thus it appears essential to empathise with, or at least know of, the fall of Kosovo to the Ottoman Turks in 1389, to address concerns expressed six centuries later. What this approach misses entirely is the extent to which, by emphasising political, economic and social disintegration “over there”, western politicians sought to shape and form a badly missing sense of moral identity at home.
On the plus side, there are a few pearls hidden in the book’s pages. But you spend so long finding them that any sensible person begins to wonder why they should bother. By the end, the reader is left in little doubt that if 20 conflict resolution experts were placed together in a room, they would be at loggerheads in minutes. Still, as my five-year-old pointed out, the book does have a pretty cover.
First published by Times Higher Education Supplement, 28 November 2003