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The Meek Are Getting Ready: Confronting the Myth of Separateness

Derek G. Evans[1]

Keynote Address for the Sea of Faith Conference
"Making War — Making Peace"
Taranaki, New Zealand, 26-28 September 2003

Last year I had a couple of significant experiences arising from special invitations. One was from a publisher friend asking me to reflect with some degree of theological intent on the September 11th events. That was a challenging thing because it is quite a number of years since I have abandoned any pretense at having an identity as a "theologian". But the publishers assured me that what they really want me to do was to reflect on the situation on the basis of my experience and my spiritual values. As someone who was raised as a Catholic in a family that is also part Protestant and part Jewish and who is married to a Quaker, and who has spent the bulk of his career labouring on the front lines of the struggle for human rights, I figured I had lots of experience and values – even if they don’t always arrange themselves in conveniently systematic or logical or even recognizable lists. That reflection resulted in the publication of a book, In the Aftermath, and the significant thing about it was that is has sparked a number of significant conversations with folks all over the place – about how we might approach the challenge of working for peace and justice in these times, and how to engage the urgent task of building reconciliation in particular. I think you’ve all received a copy of a chapter from that book[2].

The other significant invitation was to lead an international delegation to negotiate a part of the peace process in Sri Lanka, which contributed to the agreement of a process for concluding a durable settlement to the terrible war that has raged in that country for some 20 years. As one who has a sense of the extent of the terror and brutality that has been endured by people on all sides of that conflict, I think that anything that contributes to reducing or preventing suffering qualifies as significant in and of itself. But I also believe that, in the process of that work, we have learned some useful things about peace-making that may be applicable elsewhere.

In the meantime, all of us have witnessed the whole debacle in the United Nations, the continuing war in Iraq, and the heightening of conflict and crisis in a number of critical situations: Indonesia, Israel/Palestine, Congo, North Korea to name only few. Many of us have also seen parallel forms of deterioration – and often crisis and conflict – within our own communities as a result of social, economic and environmental challenges. I’d like to this invitation to speak with you as an opportunity to continue the process of sharing some reflections arising from my experiences, and look forward to engaging in discussion with you on the challenge of peace-making in this difficult time we live in.

"The Victimization Dynamic"

Doing that reflection on 9-11 proved to be a useful process, at least for me, in that it helped me to recognize some of the bases of my own sense of hopefulness, and the path I have followed in discovering and sustaining it. I hope some of you may have had a chance to read those reflections: essentially I was saying that my sense of hope is rooted in experiences I’ve had with people who have discovered, often in situations of great oppression and deep suffering:

  • the power that rests in our ability to care for each other;
  • the power we have to make certain fundamental choices in our lives and in our communities;
  • the power we have to create values through our actions and behaviours;
  • the power that is generated when we take responsibility for taking ourselves seriously, that is, as if who we are and what we do really matters.

In that chapter I told some stories and presented a few of the key learnings that have emerged from the experience of and research on torture and other forms of severe trauma during the past 50 years[3]. One finding is about the significance and power of what is often referred to as "the victimization dynamic". Individuals who have suffered extreme violence, such as torture, often have had so much of their human dignity stripped from them that they may come to believe that all they have left is their identity as a victim. They may begin to define their very identity by their relation to the perpetrator, and to shape all their behaviours on the basis of that core point of reference. Sometimes, even when new options become available to them, they cling desperately to this relationship in the fear that without it they will have, or be, nothing but their pain. In terms of rehabilitation and wider change, this presents a major challenge. Don Delillo, the American writer makes a powerful comment in his massive novel on death, Underworld: "It is not enough to hate your enemy. You have to understand how the two of you bring each other to a deep completion."

Another thing we have learned from research on violent trauma is that persons who have been tortured experience and express specific behavioural dysfunctions. If they are not effectively addressed, these behaviours come to be transferred and repeated within family and community systems for at least four generations – and probably many more. The people of the First Nations in the country where I live speak of seven generations being required for healing to take place, and of the need therefore to adopt a "seven generations" perspective when considering decisions or actions that may have a major effect on the future. They are probably correct; the scientific research base so far extends only to four generations, since the holocaust of World War II. This transfer of behaviours within families and communities occurs even in situations where there has been no direct contact between the ones who experienced the torture and the later generations. We have found, for example, that among the people of the Okanagan Nation (my neighbours) the impact of the systematic abuse experienced through the residential school policies in effect in Canada until the 1970s (essentially a program of forced removal of aboriginal children from their families and communities) continues to result in widespread dysfunctions in terms of both specific parenting functions and general educational achievement. In a world characterized by mass terrorism, whether perpetrated by governments or others, whether localized or international in scope, it is urgent that we learn how to break the cycle of perceived mutual victimization before it perpetuates itself, yet again.

A third finding is that this victimization dynamic is more than an individual experience, it operates and functions on a social and community level as well. In this chapter I asserted that we need to move beyond an approach to conflict that is primarily oriented toward the management or resolution of conflict, an approach that has come to reflect a kind of classic divorce model focused on agreeing terms of separation. Instead, I believe we must dedicate ourselves to learning to orient ourselves an approach that envisions conflict transformation, what I call the "way of reconciliation". I define "reconciliation" not as enemies coming to like each other, but as recognizing, whether we like it or not, we are in each other’s future. Practicing reconciliation requires that we find ways, and help each other to find ways, to build our relationship on a new foundation – one that is based on our authentic identities, instead of our mutually perceived roles as victim or perpetrator.

It means taking ourselves seriously, as if we really believe that who we are and what we do really matters. Along with taking ourselves seriously, I have come to believe strongly in the need to take others seriously – especially those who we recognize as our enemies. Along with treating ourselves with respect, I have come to believe strongly in the need to treat others with respect – especially those who are our enemies. One of the things that means, I think, is to practice the discipline of assuming (at least as a starting point) that they are doing what they are doing because they actually believe (perhaps misguidedly, perhaps even to the extent of pathological delusion) they are doing the right thing.

I have dealt directly with the people responsible for a number of the very nasty horrors of the latter part of the past century. This was my daily work for many years. The fact is that I have never met a torturer, dictator, terrorist leader, or head of state who did not actually believe in the merit of their cause. They usually held other more venal motives too – sadism, the mania for control, or simple greed – but they also sincerely thought they were doing the right thing. In a kind of perverse way, that is another source of hope for me – it means there is potentially a basis of dialogue, or at least engagement. And if I can engage the challenge of really taking seriously and understanding the situation and perspective of the other, the enemy, then I might be in a position to develop strategies to more effectively protect myself, or to help them to embrace change.

I think that is one of the major challenges we face in our situation of a globalized society dominated by a single, hegemonic super-power – what is sometimes described in French as a "hyper-power". We live in a radically different political environment than that in which most of us were born and in which our attitudes were shaped – and I think 9-11 marks the end of this transformation more than its beginning. The decade between the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001 has brought into effect a fundamental reorganization of power and of the experience of suffering. I think that many of us experience this situation as one in which we have come face to face with a deep sense of our own powerlessness. Many of our old concepts and methods no longer apply, and we struggle to discern a new place for ourselves – and our values.

How do we meaningfully and effectively act for justice in the new political environment?  I don’t pretend to know, but I'm committed to searching for an answer.  I think the lessons of the victimization research may offer us some clues in finding a way forward. But, as I say, it is challenging. It means, for example, taking seriously the need to understand the perspective of the hyper-power. Not necessarily to agree with it, or to accept it, but to seek deeply to understand it. In relation to the USA as the "hyper-power", that is a very difficult undertaking for me and for many of my neighbours. Canadians tend to prefer to enjoy our sense of moral superiority and to indulge the self-satisfying judgments that vantage allows. Prominent officials in the Canadian government have made themselves newsworthy by denouncing the American leadership as "morons or bastards". Be that as it may, such self-righteous judgments – though tempting – do not serve the serious cause that is before us: making peace and, as a first step, understanding the enemy’s instinct or need for making war. Understanding the enemy is not simply a moral imperative, it is primarily a strategic necessity. As the sole super-power, it is natural for America to see themselves as the centre of the world – indeed, even as the whole of the world.  It is not because they are bad or uniquely deficient; it is simply a natural function of the way imperial power affects human perspective – a kind of myopia.

This myopia has been exacerbated to the point of blindness by 9-11.  Not only is America the imperial hegemonic power – the "hegemon" – with the ability and assumed right to wield power and control, but they also see themselves as threatened victims. The development of this victim identity has certainly been fostered and fomented by political and media manipulations, but it also seems clear that it has found a deep resonance in American society.  We don’t need at this point to judge whether we regard that victim identity is fair, founded or legitimate; we need simply to recognize that it is experienced as real. Those who identify as "victims" are customarily also locked in a position of powerlessness, but in this case predominating power and the victim identity have come together – this is the most dangerous mixture.  As "hegemon", the USA naturally listens only to itself.  But since 911, the moment of acute victimization, there is virtually no space for or capacity to listen to "loyal opposition".  Those who should legitimately perform that role on an institutional level - the Democrats, the media - have abdicated.  There are voices of critique and dissent, some of them prestigious individuals, but even they speak with a note of despair in their voice, a recognition that they are prophets in the wilderness.  Without the "legitimate" expression of dissenting views from inside, as "victim" there is almost no capability for America to deal with critique from outside.  Even the counsel of friends can only be heard as criticism, rejection or threat. I think that developing a strategy for change means, among other things, finding ways to help the hyper-power to relinquish its attachment to the dangerous comforts of its victim identity.

A second element that may be important for us in developing a strategy for change is to become clear about the ways in which we ourselves carry, and even live out, the ideological perspective that troubles us, and often serves as the basis for – as the Quakers would say – "war and the feelings that give rise to war". Every age is guided by a dominant cultural ideology or social myth, though it is usually easier to recognize in retrospect. At the time that Matthew Arnold was writing his poem that inspired the naming of the "Sea of Faith", perhaps that social myth might have been something like: "every day in every way things are getting better and better". The dominant social myth when I was a young person might have been a progressive blend of "give peace a chance", "the global village" and "think globally act locally". We seem to have just passed from a time when the dominant social myth, at least in certain places, was reflected in phrases like "the me generation" and the ideal of "having it all". How would we name the dominant social myth in the world we share today? I haven’t yet discovered a catchy turn of phrase for it, but I believe that we are increasingly presented with and persuaded to adopt a view of the world as "a place of scarcity and threat". If that is indeed the predominant social myth that policy makers are addressing, expressing and generating – and that our children and grandchildren are facing – we need to find ways to understand it and confront it.

"The Myth of Separateness"

In reflecting on these issues, I’ve come to see the importance of addressing another dynamic that I think is operating powerfully in, and to some extent defining, our situation – a critical means by which dominant social myth supports and fosters war. I think we need to confront what I’d like to call the "Myth of Separateness".

We are all connected to each other. I believe that is a great spiritual truth. I call it that because I think it is real, and yet I am aware that so much is done to convince us otherwise. And even though I know it to be true, I am aware that I need constantly to be "converted" to it in the reality of my own life. Yes, there are lots of clichés about globalization and our "global village" but, in fact, more often than not they are part of a message intended to reinforce the notion that:

  • we are separate or different from others;
  • that we can or should try to protect ourselves from what is happening around us;
  • that we can avoid dealing with the realities around us; or
  • that we will be happier if we deny that we care about them.

We go to extraordinary lengths to sustain the myth of separateness. I suppose it is because the "global village" is in many ways, in fact, a very rough neighborhood. As I mentioned earlier, most of our models for dealing with difference or conflict, whether on a personal, inter-personal or political level, are built on the delusion of avoiding conflict, usually through separation. In the 1950s it was popularly held that the only human construction that would be visible from space would be the Great Wall of China. Actually, you don’t have to fly that high. In my own experience of more modest travel there is nothing so apparent as the ways we try to separate ourselves. In an airplane, during the day, you can always tell exactly where the border between Mexico and Guatemala is or, at night, the illuminated fence that marks the boundary of India and Pakistan for hundreds of kilometers. There are other boundaries that are only noticeable up close, but are no less impressive: the massive concrete trench that separates the two Koreas, or the fence that is making its inexorable way around Israel. It is ironic that since the fall of the Berlin Wall more and more such structures have been built all over the world; the difference being that they are no longer intended to keep people in but to keep others out. Even if this solution to conflict and difference was ever really possible, effective or desirable, this delusion is no longer viable.

There is a story that I love, also from China, that is a fairly recent example of this dynamic: the red haired mummies of Xinjiang. The oldest and best-preserved mummies in the world were found in the mid-1990s in the deserts of western China. You’d think this would have been triumphant news, a scientific achievement to be trumpeted; but no: the Chinese government – exercising the instinctive response of those who see power and authority as a matter of control and hegemony – saw it as a threat and attempted to suppress the facts. But, of course, the truth will out – that’s another thing I believe is a spiritual truth with a "capital T". Word began to seep out and finally, about two years ago, the government finally undertook to "release" the "news". The reason they tried to conceal the story is found in a carefully constructed sentence on the second page of the Xinghua press statement: "Archaeologists have theorized that the newly found mummies were Indo-European men, judging from the facial structure and size of the bodies[4]." In fact, they are so well preserved that some of them still have red hair! Some graves contained Caucasian and Han people buried together – apparently they lived together, apparently peaceably.

But this story did not fit the official, orthodox story or official social myth of the state – of China as a Han-dominated society, of the separate development of the Middle Kingdom. Most societies, many families, even many individuals strive to sustain some version of the myth of separateness. In my view, confronting that myth, asserting our relatedness – speaking truth to power – is the beginning of resolving conflict and creating peace. You may be happy to know that the Chinese authorities have now made peace with the mummies and have turned them into a major tourist attraction. My favourite definition of conflict is one that draws from this dynamic of the myth of separateness and recognizes the need to move from our view of conflict as something to be managed to conflict as an indicator of a situation that needs to be transformed. That definition: "Conflict is a crisis that forces us to recognize explicitly that we live with multiple realities and must negotiate a common reality; that we bring to each situation differing – frequently contrasting – stories and must create together a single shared story with a role for each and for both[5]."

But the myth of separateness is powerful because it is about more than the control, conceits and machinations of governments – it is powerful because it is operating within all of us, in our imaginations and our behaviours. And it is powerful because it touches not so much our links to the victim identity as it forces is to recognize our link to the perpetrator role. The fact that these dynamics are operating in all of us is, for me, the seedbed of both the difficulty and the hope. Let me share with you some other research findings that I think are important and instructive in coming to terms with the myth of separateness[6].

"The Evil Neighbour: Doing a Bad Job Well"

Many of you will be familiar with the first piece of research – the report done by Hannah Arendt on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for running the Nazi extermination camps who was hunted down and captured in South America and brought to trial in Jerusalem. She called her study "A Report on the Banality of Evil".

Hannah Arendt was one of the most prominent philosopher of her time, as well as being a German Jew who had survived the Nazi horrors. Because of these credentials she was commissioned by the fashionable intellectual New Yorker magazine to observe the trial that was intended not only to condemn Eichmann but also to expose the apparatus of anti-Semitism in all its viciousness. Today we have grown accustomed to her observation of "the banality of evil", but Arendt’s report generated a great deal of controversy and even denunciation in 1963. It clearly and systematically described the intentional and barbaric nature of the death camp operations, but at the same time it confronted the strongly held belief that those who perpetrated the Holocaust were monsters or evil beings, that they must have been fundamentally different from the rest of us. Yet, in Eichmann this sophisticated analyst, herself a victim with unquestionable authority, saw simply an efficient bureaucrat, a relatively ordinary man dedicated to doing a bad job well, little more than a man who might be a neighbour. We want the evil one, or the enemy, to be separate from our own life and nature; unfortunately, they are not. Or, perhaps, that is a fortunate thing – another basis for hope.

"But Surely You and I Are Different – in a Good Way"

A second piece of research that I believe is important to confronting the myth of separateness is the experimental study carried out in the years following Arendt’s study by Stanley Milgram at Yale University – eventually published as "Obedience to Authority". In the wake of the cultural and ethical dilemma posed by the various holocausts and gulags, Milgram was one of those social scientists trying to answer the question – how could these things happen in the midst of modern, European, supposedly advanced, civilized, even Christian societies? And, wouldn’t we now behave differently? Milgram designed an experiment to test, in effect, the power of what Arendt had described as the "banality".

The experiment was simple. Students responded to an offer of payment ($4.50) for participation in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. The student was accompanied by a man in a white lab coat carrying a clip-board to a control room with a panel with a number of buttons labeled with increasing electrical voltages in front of a window. On the other side of the glass was another student facing them, attached to various electrodes – that student was in fact an actor and part of the experimental set-up. The man in the lab coat would ask questions of the actor, and at each incorrect answer would instruct the student to push one of the buttons to deliver an electric shock as a punishment. Of course, there was no real electric shock, but the actor on the other side of the glass would react in pain. With each wrong answer the "voltage" was increased, and the actor proceeded through a series of increasingly severe distress, begging for the procedure to stop and eventually, at about stage seven, apparently losing consciousness.

The student administering what they believed to be shocks would go through a series of stages as well – expressing concern, asking for the experiment to stop, declaring they would not accept responsibility, etc. As part of the experiment, a lecture hall filled with an inter-disciplinary panel of experts, and university students, had the experiment described to them and were asked to predicted what proportion of the participants would cooperate beyond the initial stages of the ostensible shock treatment. The professors predicted that about 4% of the participants would continue past the point where the actor begged for the experiment to stop; and the students predicted that only 0.1% would continue to cooperate to the highest level of shock – when the actor would supposedly be unconscious. In fact, the outcome of the experiment was that some 60% of the participants continued to obey instructions to deliver electric shocks after the actor was ostensibly lying unconscious. At first it was thought that the findings reflected the weird values of highly competitive, white, male graduate students in an expensive Ivy League university. But the Milgram experiment has been replicated many times, and the findings have essentially held consistent – about 60% plus or minus 5% – across all cultures, ages, classes, and occupations. There has been some minor variation, of course: as it turns out, people in the helping professions – social workers, counselors, clergy – tend to score higher than almost any other group. Sorry about that!

The original focus of this experiment was on the issue of obedience, and emphasized the importance of the presence of an external authority figure – the man in the lab-coat with the clip-board. The primary conclusion was that we have a powerful ability to disassociate our sense of personal responsibility from our actions. So long as there is someone else "in charge" we have a tendency and a willingness to carry out acts that we oppose so long as we are able to transfer responsibility to them. This is an important and valid finding, but in more recent considerations of this research base the focus has turned to include the issue of separateness and the relationship between the student and the victim. I suspect that the more powerful factor in this experiment is not the lab-coat, but the piece of glass. I believe the more significant conclusion is that we have a powerful ability to create and sustain a sense of separation between ourselves and others, especially those who suffer, "the victim". It is a more intimate demonstration than the great walls we see from airplanes of the delusion of "self-preservation". So long as there is something separating us, even it is only glass, we can feel separate and safe. We have a tendency and willingness to identify and cooperate with the one on our "side" of the glass, even if this runs counter to what should be our "natural" alliance (after all, the two students should have naturally identified with each other). Even though it is completely tenuous, we try to do what we can to convince ourselves that we are separate.

"Learning, Again, Not to Kill"

The third piece of research I think is important to confronting the myth of separateness is drawn from a huge body of work developed to address a problem known in certain circles as "the major non-participatory trend in warfare". What that means in wider circles is that it has been found that there is a powerful and natural human resistance to killing other people.

You may ask: why is that considered a problem? Well, problems are in the eye of the beholder, and in the eyes of the military "non-participation" among soldiers is a major problem. Numerous studies undertaken throughout the world during the past 150 years – essentially since the American Civil War, but replicated in all wars and on all sides – have shown that the firing rate of infantry soldiers in war is typically between 15 and 20%. That is, right up to and including the Second World War, only 15 to 20% of soldiers on either side actually fired their weapons in hostility – even when faced with a direct personal threat. This finding is startling, but was not given a great deal of publicity out of respect for veterans. However, following World War II it was the focus of a lot of applied research in the military. Perhaps the best analysis of this work is presented by Col. Dave Grossman, who taught psychology at West Point, the US military academy. The research has determined that there are four major factors that, to the extent they are increased, make killing by the military more possible and more efficient:

  1. an awareness of the absolution of the group applying the findings of (in effect, applying the findings of Arendt by strengthening the sense of internal group identity within military units);
  2. the visible demands of authority (in effect, applying the findings of Milgram by increasing the presence of officers in front-line leadership roles);
  3. the emotional distance or sense of social, moral, and cultural separation from the victim or target;
  4. the physical distance from the victim or target, ideally to the extent that they no longer exist as a recognizable identity.

These four factors define a systematic methodology for teaching and applying the myth of separateness. These findings led to heavy investments after World War II in technological developments to increasingly allow troops to engage the enemy without actual contact, and increased emphasis on training focused on strong group identity and dehumanization of the enemy – the ‘boot camp’ model of military training we know through so many brutal films. The proof of the validity and effectiveness of this research is in the pudding: the firing rate in US forces rose to 55% in the Korean War and to almost 90% in Vietnam.

I find it interesting that only one of these factors is about physical separation; the others three are about the psychological or attitudinal elements necessary to establish separateness. The research has consistently demonstrated that, among members of the military (which I believe is essentially a reflection of society generally – let’s not indulge the myth!), only about 2% of individuals have what is referred to as a "basic predisposition to killing". That is how the military analysts see human nature and understand the challenge of their work: that 98% of people are not disposed to killing other people and that the consequent "non-participatory trend" is a problem that needs to be overcome by training and technology. There is some indication that this basic 2% rate in the population may be rising in our culture, as the training in separateness or emotional distancing is increasingly transmitted more generally outside the military through violence in the media. The reason I find this research a source of hope is that the whole thing proceeds from an understanding that we as a species are hard-wired NOT to kill, that we need deliberately to learn to overcome this natural tendency, that the myth of separateness is powerful but essentially a fiction that we must be taught. Deep though it is society, we can choose to unlearn this myth, and to develop strategies and practices that build on our natural, god-given connectedness.

"Sri Lanka: Creating New Futures"

I closed my contribution to the "Making a Difference" chapter I sent you with a story about an experience I had in Sri Lanka about ten years ago, about the courage and caring of a group of families whose children had been taken from them. The story, for me, is about the power of love to overcome fear, and how we can overcome separateness by building bridges of peace and justice. I would like to close these reflections by sharing with you a story about an experience I had in Sri Lanka last year, and which I think bears a lot of potential for learning about "making a difference" in our new reality. And because I think it is one of the hopeful ‘good news’ stories in a time when these often seem in short supply.

Last year about this time I had the honour and privilege of being invited to be involved in a peace building process in Sri Lanka. I was asked to be involved in this work because of my previous experience as Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International, and because I have had some extensive involvement in Sri Lanka, and because of some of the work we are doing at Naramata Centre that we call "experiments in reconciliation". For those who may be geographically challenged, Sri Lanka is that island shaped like a tear just off the southern tip of India. In colonial days it used to be known as Ceylon, and in antiquity it was called "serendib" – from which we derive "serendipity" – because it was so perfect. It has a population of about 25 million; about 75% are Sinhalese and Buddhist, and about 25% are Tamil and mostly Hindu. Both communities believe deeply that they are threatened minorities, and that shapes their behaviour, their attitudes, and their very sense of identity.

A brutal civil war has been going on for most of the past 20 years, marked by mass terrorism practiced by both sides. It is here that tactics such as suicide bombing, ethnic cleansing, mass disappearances, and even the practice of flying planes into office towers was pioneered. The scale of suffering is hard to measure. AI has usually estimated that the number of disappearances during the period 1988-92 was somewhere between 60,000 and 90,000, the vast majority high school and college students – like the ones in the story about Embellipitya. By comparison, what we refer to as the "dirty war" of the generals in Argentina in the 1970s involved about 7,000 disappearances in a country with twice the population. The best way I can think of to describe the scale of the trauma is to say that there is probably no family in the country that has not suffered directly. Even the President herself has lost both her father and her husband, and even one of her own eyes. It would be good to think that this shared suffering, and the awareness that no one can pretend to be secure, led to the decision to look for peace. However, it is probably more likely the case that both sides realized that neither could win militarily.

In any case, a cease-fire was agreed in February 2002, and an invitation made to the international community to monitor the truce and to assist the two sides in moving forward to a durable peace agreement. As a part of the agreement, Amnesty was asked to send a team to work with both sides to put in place the kind of commitments that would be necessary to ensure that whatever new political arrangements emerged would be based on the promotion and protection of human rights. That work took place in June 2002, and we undertook a very intimate and, I believe, somewhat innovative approach to fostering peace[7]. Instead of focusing on issues of high principle, we sought to proceed from an acceptance of the fact that, whether either side liked it or not, they are in each other’s future and are faced with the concrete task of figuring out practical ways to relate to each other. Instead of seeking grounds for compromise – what I referred to earlier as peacemaking as agreeing the terms of separation – we sought to contribute to building a practical framework for collaboration.

We did not presume that either side sought reconciliation; we saw this more as a potential outcome than as a goal[8]. Rather, we simply tried to ensure that the discussions were rooted and focused on reality – the real consequences of their actions for ordinary people in the community. We saw our role as trying to help "transform" the conflict rather than simply "managing" it; we understood that this meant an effort at overcoming the myth of separateness by confronting, and learning from, three common but dangerous temptations.

  1. The temptation to treat peace negotiations as an alternative form of the struggle for power and control.

    We urged the parties to approach the process in extremely practical terms. Rather than addressing each difficult issue from the outset as matters of principle, we urged them to develop a negotiating framework based on things that matter immediately for ordinary people in their daily lives. Instead of beginning with an argument over who should have control over a particular area or issue, we urged the two sides to develop a process that focused on defining the standards that would need to be implemented and the mechanisms for monitoring compliance with them, irrespective of who might be "in charge". Our belief was that if the parties were able to have the experience of coming to agreement with each other, there would be a basis for defining common ground, for inviting third parties in to assist, and even to begin to build a basis for trust – both between the two sides but, especially, among the people.

  2. The temptation to seek to treat peace negotiations as an opportunity to avoid dealing with the enemy.

    For almost everyone, the establishment of a cease-fire itself makes for an enormous improvement in living conditions and human rights. Some even argue that it is sufficient – it is good enough simply not to be shot at – and that anything that might jeopardize or challenge the truce should be avoided. Avoidance (or compromise) can be an effective way of dealing with conflict in certain circumstances, but it is never a viable strategy if the conflict is about anything that really matters – like a relationship or a civil war – it is only a temporary solution[9]. The separation of military forces is essentially an arrangement that serves shifting political interests, and one that is too fragile to be sustainable over the longer term. We urged the two sides to focus on preparing and developing the permanent systems and structures that would be necessary to provide security and human rights for the people, and to see the role of third parties less as keeping them apart and more as helping them to deal with the political risks they would need to face in relation to their own people.

  3. The temptation to regard peace and justice or peace and human rights as competing agendas.

    Almost everyone urged us not to ‘upset the apple cart’ by introducing concerns which were feared to be too contentious or delicate – such as the issue of accountability for past abuses. I believe peace is built on recognition of and respect for human rights, and a peace process will be effective only in so far as it is directly linked to the reality of what people have experienced and suffered, and the practical needs arising from that. While we were not prescriptive about what form it should take, we insisted that some form of truth and accountability process was an essential element in the peace framework. We suggested that it may be appropriate to design a truth process that would place greater emphasis on its reconciliation role in comparison with its punitive function, and urged that it should be addressed directly within the negotiations[10]. We believed that we create the things we care about – our values – through our actual behaviours; thus, the outcomes of the process should be reflected in the process itself. If accountability was a desired outcome, then it was important to find ways to link the leaders to reality of the consequences of their actions and decisions for others – the suffering and well-being of the ordinary people – such as by constructing ways to speak the truth and to tell the truth.

Outcomes? That mission and the overall process has turned out to be quite successful – so far. Of course, the whole thing can fall apart in a moment, tomorrow. And if it does, the situation will become truly horrific. And there certainly are elements on both sides who seem to be holding on to the delusions or temptations that there may be some alternative to real peace. But, at this point, and for over a year and a half now, the two sides have not been not shooting at each other, which is good. And both sides appear to have embraced the understanding that, welcome as that may be, that is not good enough. Both sides have made certain agreements and the schedule of peace talks are taking place and progressing.

After the first formal session in Bangkok in September a year ago, the LTTE announced that they no longer required an independent state to be a condition of the talks or a necessary outcome of the process. This is unbelievably huge, since that ostensibly had been the whole basis of the war! They suggested that the process has allowed them to develop sufficient confidence to set aside this fundamental issue, and in turn the government announced that it was able to approach the constitutional issues with greater flexibility. Of course, again, the whole thing can fall apart in a moment, tomorrow. But the talks are continuing, and people in Sri Lanka are beginning to believe – for the first time in a long time – that there is the possibility of a new future. This is a profound journey, especially when you consider that the majority of the population has lived the whole of their lives in a condition of war. For an entire generation, a new definition of "normal" is being born.

"The Meek … Are Getting Ready"

I guess the question before us is: what is the new future that is possible for us? Earlier I referred to my work with dictators and heads of state and such, and how all of them really believed on some level they were doing the right thing. Another common characteristic that always astonished me was that at some point in our negotiation, inevitably at a moment when things became particularly intense or heated, the leader would go to their desk or a closet and pull out a bunch of appeal letters from Amnesty members around the world and throw them angrily on the table. It was clear that they had read them, and that they invested some emotional power in them. I was always puzzled by that. When I first joined Amnesty I frankly thought the letter-writing thing was kind of naïve or perhaps a gimmick, something to keep the membership involved and busy. I figured that if I was a heinous dictator I would totally ignore the letters and put them straight into the recycling file. But, in fact, that is not what the real professionals do. They read them, they keep them, and on some level they seem to care about them. The only explanation I’ve been able to come up with is that it is because those letters bear the simple, straight-forward power of real people expressing genuine care and concern – claiming and asserting connectedness both with the victims and with the dictators themselves. "Speaking truth to power", as the Quakers say. Those letters carry the ring of Truth – with a capital ‘T’ – and because of that they have power that is compelling.

I led a retreat for community and peace activists in Canada a few months ago. Someone there gave me this button; it says: "The meek … are getting ready." Some people have suggested that in our unipolar situation with a single hyper-power, the only potential for an alternative is if the "people" find ways to emerge as our own super-power. If we take up that challenge, and exercise the discipline to truly understand our situation and learn from our own experience, and engage the practice of overcoming the myth of separateness, then I believe that together we can find that way and perhaps create some new futures for ourselves as well.

Thank you very much for inviting me to be with you this weekend, and for you kindness and patience in allowing me to share these thoughts. I look forward to our conversations.


1. Derek Evans lives in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada, where he is Executive Director of the Naramata Centre (www.naramatacentre.net) . During the 1990s he served as Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org).

2. Derek Evans, “Making a Difference”. From In the Aftermath (Toronto, 2002).

3. For those interested in exploring this field more deeply, the following may be considered fundamental texts: Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford, 1985); Metin Basoglu, ed., Torture and its Consequences: Current treatment Approaches (Cambridge, 1992); RJ Ursano et al, eds., Individual and Community Responses to Trauma and Disaster: the Structure of Human Chaos (Cambridge, 1995). A very useful and accessible resource base on more recent research is David Baldwin’s Trauma Information Pages: www.trauma-pages.com

4. Xinhua News Service, “Dozens of Well-Preserved Mummies Found in Xinjiang”: www.xinhuanet.com 2001.02.26.

5. David Augsburger, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns (Louisville, 1992). See also Augsburger’s Helping People Forgive (Louisville, 1996).

6. The three research sources referred to are: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, 1963); Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (New York, 1974); Dave Grossman, On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (New York, 1995).

7. “Sri Lanka: Amnesty International proposes new approach to peace process” AI Index: ASA 37/012/2002 - News Service No: 110, 29 June 2002. www.amnesty.org

8. The use of the terms “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” often contribute to confusion and other difficulties in the context of work for peace and justice. Too frequently our understanding of these concepts are shaped by sentimentalism, and tend to function in a manner that conveys a burden of moral obligation. Both reconciliation and forgiveness are possible, and desirable, outcomes of a peace process, but the nature of these realities is that neither can be prescribed or planned.

Reconciliation can best be understood as a description of relationship, can be, to some extent, be provided for and facilitated in the design of a peace process

The issue of “forgiveness” is usually focused on the perpetrator as recipient. I believe that “forgiveness” is fundamentally a spiritual reality, and one that should be viewed solely from the perspective of the victim and their needs. Forgiveness is a condition that some victims may eventually embrace, and is perhaps best understood as the achievement of a state in which no longer live in primary relation with the perpetrator, internal presencebut one that Forgiveness is something that a victim expresses primarily to themselves, and exercises primarily for their own healing, health and benefit. If a victim offers forgiveness to another, it can be seen only and purely as a gift. In my experience, it is never appropriate or legitimate for a perpetrator to demand or appeal for forgiveness, or for a process to convey this even as a tacit expectation - the emphasis on forgiveness as a response is a means of placing yet another burden or oppression on the victim. A perpetrator who sincerely wishes to make amends should simply take appropriate actions to do so, and without any ulterior expectations of receiving something - including forgiveness - from the victim.

9. A basic and useful framework for understanding approaches to conflict is presented in the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Indicator (TKI) - T Kilman, Title (Place, date). This model suggests five general options that are available to us in response to a conflict situation (competition, compromise, accommodation, avoidance, collaboration), based on the relative extent to which we either seek to assert our own interests or seek to meet the interests or needs of the other. It assumes that each of the modes may or may not be appropriate in a particular circumstance and that, though most of us have the ability to act in any of the five modes, we usually tend as individuals or as a society to respond to conflict in a preferred or default mode, whether or not this is appropriate and effective in the situation.

I believe that our general practice in negotiating and resolving conflict has tended to operate out of a preference for compromise, reflecting a societal value that idealizes compromise. In my experience, however, I have found that compromise is a very limited means in relation to building peace, or for dealing effectively with a conflict on an issue of high value that really matters to us - such as an intimate relationship or a civil war. In such matters, an approach focused on compromise tends to reinforce “power struggle” as the nature of relations between the parties, and any resolution can be seen as temporary - a holding position until some new advantage arises. In building peace, our efforts are usually better focused on creating conditions for the conflicting parties to engage in collaboration, creating a new situation that both sides can enter into based on defining the terms of their relations rather than the terms of their separation.

10. This is a point of some controversy. In my view, some clear form of public sanction or punishment is an important ingredient in the justice process in dealing with those responsible for human rights violations and crimes against humanity. In my experience, however, the issue of punishment tends to be treated as a higher priority concern, or even the primary focus, for persons or agencies outside of the immediate context of abuse. Survivors or families of victims tend to give priority to different starting points in the process of truth and reconciliation. The survivors of situation of mass or severe violations then to express five basic needs in order to experience a sense of justice:

  1. The facts of what happened must be made known publicly;
  2. Those responsible for the abuse must be publicly identified;
  3. The abuse experienced by the victims/survivors must be publicly declared, by persons authorized to speak on behalf of the state and society, as having been wrong (ie. not “unfortunate”, or a “mistake”, or “understandable”, or in any other way “deserved”);
  4. Public resources must be made available to provide for some form of restitution and support for the rehabilitation of victims and survivors;
  5. Those in authority must make a public commitment to ensure that such abuse will never occur again, and indicate some of the specific measures that will be taken to guarantee prevention.
While I personally believe that a punitive dimension is important additional requirement for justice, I also think that it is more a need of society and international community more generally, and that the justice process should be directed by primarily by the needs of victim and survivors.