Politics are among the most ancient, enduring, and consequential sources of conflict, as they determine how power will be distributed among people, including over life and death, wealth and poverty, independence and obedience. Conflicts concerning these issues have shaped the ways we have interacted as a species over the course of centuries. At their core, as Hannah Arendt wrote, is the conflict that, "from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics: the cause of freedom versus tyranny."
Freedom and tyranny are factors not only in conflicts between minorities and nation states, but in small, everyday conflicts between parents and teenagers, managers and employees, governments and citizens, and wherever power is distributed unequally. If we define political conflicts as those arising out of or challenging an uneven distribution of power, including relational, religious, and cultural power, it is clear that politics happens everywhere.
In this sense, “the personal is political,” yet the political is also personal, due to globalization, the reach and speed of communication, reduced travel barriers, and increasing environmental interdependency. We can even identify an ecology of conflict, in which rapidly evolving international conflicts have the ability to overwhelm safety and security everywhere. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Sudan, Brazil, and East Timor can no longer be ignored, as they touch our lives in increasingly significant ways.
We therefore require improved understanding, not only of the conflict in politics, but the politics in conflict. As our world shrinks and our problems can no longer be solved except internationally, we need ways of revealing, even in seemingly ordinary, interpersonal conflicts, the larger issues that connect us across boundaries, and methods for resolving political conflicts that are sweeping, strategic, interest-based, and transformational. A clear, unambiguous reason for doing so occurred on September 11, 2001.
The Response to September 11
As a nation, we need to re-examine how we responded to the conflicts that occurred, and are still occurring, as a result of that tragedy. In the aftermath, we began searching, as individuals, nations, and human beings, for some ritual of release, completion, and closure; some acknowledgement of the horror, grief, fear, and confusion we experienced. This search led many, unfortunately in my opinion, to seek release for their grief and anger through blind patriotism, constriction of civil liberties, and “preventative” unilateral war, directed not against those responsible for the tragedy, but a nation and people who had nothing to do with it. This response has led to increased suffering, including grief, fear, divisiveness, and confusion -- not only for us, but those whose lives we have similarly shattered by violence. While it is clear to me as a mediator that dozens of alternatives to war in Iraq were readily available, these were largely ignored. This failure to pursue peaceful alternatives contributed to the rise of aggressive, adversarial attitudes toward those who opposed the war, a refusal to listen or cooperate with other nations, a reduction in our personal freedoms, and a division in national and international consensus, sapping our spirits, closing our hearts, and dissipating the unity and desire for peace that spontaneously arose after September 11.
By responding to violence with violence, we not only lost a unique opportunity to unite people and governments around the world in opposition to terror, we helped strengthen a culture of war rather than peace, bullying rather than compassion, revenge rather than forgiveness, and isolation rather than collaboration. By our aggressive statements and unilateral actions, we have deprecated the importance and prestige of peace-making, conflict resolution, international partnership, and public dialogue, thereby contributing to future conflicts, making them more serious, and constricting opportunities for settlement and resolution.
To have acted differently would have required us to recognize and respond with compassion -- not only to the pain we experienced in the U.S., or in Israel, but no less equally to the pain Iraqis and Palestinians have experienced for decades. This would have required us to see ourselves as partners in a world community of nations and peoples, to cease using our superior military and economic power to coerce compliance, and to seek dialogue, negotiation, and mediation before reacting with violence, even against those we have defined as evil. Sometimes, as poet May Sarton wrote, “[o]ne must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” September 11 challenges us to take the lead in developing dispute resolution skills and applying them proactively, preventatively, and strategically to the full range of international disputes – not to augment our power, wealth, or status, but to create the conditions under which conflicts can be resolved without war or terror. September 11 challenges us to understand that we cannot separate peace from justice, but must link interest-based conflict resolution skills with an unwavering commitment to political, economic, and social justice, without which it will prove impossible to build a global community that can resolve its differences without terrorism and war. Good and Evil in Conflict
Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote, decades before September 11, that “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace in a continual state of alarm (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing them with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” While his description remains valid, our hobgoblins are no longer imaginary.
There are seemingly unending conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, Indians and Pakistani’s, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Turks and Kurds, Hutu’s and Tutsi’s. In addition to these, there are countless conflicts around the globe between rich and poor, despots and democrats, leftists and rightists, labor and management, natives and settlers, ethnic majorities and minorities, environmentalists and developers, each accusing the other of evil.
The deepest and most serious of these conflicts are no longer confined to the boundaries of nation states, but affect everyone everywhere. Even outwardly minor disputes between competing communities can rapidly escalate into world crises, triggering the slaughter of innocents, rape, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, the ruin of eco-systems, and hatreds that cannot be dissipated, even in generations. Each of these acts directly affects the quality of our lives, no matter how far away we feel from the actual fighting.
Following these disasters come those who pick up the pieces and start over again. While it is always helpful to offer aid in food, clothing and shelter, the victims of these catastrophes also need to develop skills in resolution, recovery, reconciliation, and regeneration of community. Recovery requires acknowledgement of grief and amelioration of loss. Resolution requires the dismantling of systemic sources of conflict within groups and cultures that actively promoted violence.
Reconciliation requires the ability to engage in public dialogue, and speak from the heart. Regeneration of community requires the creation of a new culture based on collaboration, compassion, and respect for differences. Together, these require an understanding of how assumptions of evil, even in petty, interpersonal disputes, lead to war and terrorism.
In political conflicts, it is common for each side to label the other evil. Yet what is evil to one is often good to another, revealing that evil is present in miniature in every conflict. Evil sometimes originates in the attribution of blame to someone other than ourselves for harm that has befallen us, or the assumption that our pain was caused by our opponent’s pernicious intentions. Blaming others for our suffering allows us to externalize our fears, vent our outrage, and punish our enemies, or coerce them into doing what we want against their wishes. It allows us to take what belongs to them, place our interests over, against, and above theirs, and ignore their allegations of our wrong-doing.
Evil is not initially a grand thing, but begins innocuously with a constriction of empathy and compassion, leading ultimately to an inability to find the other within the self. It proceeds by replacing empathy with antipathy, love with hate, trust with suspicion, and confidence with fear. Finally, it exalts these negative attitudes as virtues, allows them to emerge from hiding, punishes those who oppose them, and causes others to respond in ways that justify their use. A potential for evil is thus created every time we draw a line that separates self from other within ourselves. This line expands when fear and hatred are directed against others and we remain silent or do nothing to prevent it; when dissenters are described as traitorous or evil and we allow them to be silenced, isolated, discriminated against, or punished; when negative values are exalted and collaboration, dialogue, and conflict resolution are abandoned and we do not object. At a more subtle level, identifying others as evil is simply a justification and catalyst for our own pernicious actions. By defining “them” as bad, we implicitly define ourselves as good and give ourselves permission to act against them in ways that would appear evil to outside observers who were not aware of their prior evil acts. In this way, their evil mirrors our diminished capacity for empathy and compassion, and telegraphs our plans for their eventual punishment. The worse we plan to do to them, the worse we need them to appear, so as to avoid the impression that we are the aggressor. The ultimate purpose of every accusation of evil is thus to create the self-permission, win the approval of outsiders, and establish the moral logic required to justify committing evil oneself.
Allegations of evil are therefore directly connected with the unequal distribution and adversarial exercise of power. The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote that perceptions of good and evil originated historically in social relationships of domination and dependency between unequal economic classes:
[T]he judgment good does not originate with those to whom the good has been done. Rather, it was the “good” themselves, that is to say the noble, mighty, highly placed, and high-minded who decreed themselves and their actions to be good, i.e., belonging to the highest rank, in contradistinction to all that was base, low-minded and plebian…. [Thus, the] origin of the opposites good and bad is to be found in the pathos of nobility and distance, representing the dominant temper of a higher, ruling class in relation to a lower, dependent one. In contemporary terms, if we, as individuals or nations, believe ourselves to be good and possess more power than others, we will naturally seek to justify our use of unequal power by indicating our intention to use it for the benefit of those with fewer resources who are less good. But without empathy, compassion, and power-sharing, this will inevitably evolve into a belief that whatever benefits us must benefit them also. This will lead us to regard their criticism of our self-interested benevolence as ill-mannered and ungrateful, and their opposition to our power as support for evil. We will then interpret their desire for self-determination as rebellion and perhaps, as in Vietnam, seek to “kill them for their own good.”
In order to exercise our power without experiencing injury or guilt, we are increasingly driven to dismantle our empathy and compassion until we are no longer able to recognize our opponents as similar to ourselves. We can then feel justified in wielding power selfishly and attacking them, or anyone who tries to curb our power or equalize its distribution. It is at this point that simple, natural, innocent, self-interest begins its descent into evil. At every step, it is aided by anger, fear, jealousy, pain, guilt, grief, and shame, and the suppression of empathy and compassion.
Yet all these dynamics occur on a small scale in countless petty personal conflicts every day, and are used to justify our mistreatment of others, including children, parents, spouses, siblings, neighbors, employees, even strangers on the street. Every dominant individual, organization, class, culture, and nation manufactures stories and allegations of evil to justify withholding compassion, using power selfishly, and violating their own ethical or moral principles in response to perceived enemies. Worse, these small scale justifications can be organized and manipulated on a national scale to secure permission for war and genocide, just as war and genocide give permission to individuals to act aggressively and resist reconciliation in their personal conflicts.
For these reasons, we need to carefully consider how, as individuals and nations, we define our enemies, disarm our empathy and compassion, organize our hatreds, and rationalize our destructive acts through conflict. For example, we frequently combine the following elements to create circular definitions of “the enemy”:
- Assumption of Injurious Intentions (they intended to cause the harm we experienced)
- Distrust (every idea or statement made by them is wrong or proposed for dishonest reasons)
- Externalization of Guilt (everything bad or wrong is their fault)
- Attribution of Evil (they want to destroy us and what we value most, and must therefore be destroyed)
- Zero-Sum Expectation (everything that benefits them harms us, and vice versa)
- Paranoia and Preoccupation with Disloyalty (any criticism of us or praise of them is disloyal and treasonous)
- Prejudgment (everyone in the enemy group is an enemy)
- Suppression of Empathy (we have nothing in common and considering them human is dangerous)
- Isolation and Impasse (blanket rejection of dialogue, negotiation, cooperation, and conflict resolution)
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (their evil makes it permissible for us to be an enemy to them) [Based partly on work by Kurt R. and Kati Spillman] We can deconstruct and transform each of these elements, for example, by differentiating intention from effect, rebuilding trust through small agreements, accepting responsibility for problems, identifying shared values, adopting interest-based processes, being self-critical and acknowledging, distinguishing individuals within groups, extending empathy, engaging in dialogue and negotiation, and refusing to behave in evil ways ourselves. To begin, we need to recognize how evil is reflected in the language we use to describe our conflicts, enemies, issues, and ourselves.
The Language of Conflict
In every country, there are not only national languages and local dialects, but thousands of micro-languages, ranging from professional terminology to ethnic phraseology, popular slang, bureaucratic technicality, family vernacular, and generational jargon. There are, for example, distinct languages for organizational management, political candidacy, ethnic minorities, social classes, economic cycles, and criminal pursuits. Each of these languages serves a unique purpose and produces unique results in the attitudes and behaviors of those who use them.
There is also a distinct language of conflict. There is the conscious use of exaggerated statements to disguise requests for reassurance, as in stock phrases such as “you always,” and “you never.” These words are not intended as statements of fact, but mean “You do too much or too little of X for me” and “I would appreciate it if you would do X less or more.” Yet the mere use of these phrases indicates the presence of deeper emotional problems, impelling us to:
- Camouflage our requests as statements of fact
- Exaggerate the truth
- Stereotype others as unreasonable
- Not take responsibility for communicating our needs
- Fail to accurately describe what we really want from others
- Miss opportunities to become vulnerable and invite others into more intimate conversation
- Ignore others needs, explanations, or reasons for acting in their self-interest
- Miss openings to collaboratively negotiate for satisfaction of mutual needs
When we are uncomfortable with intense emotions, or want to camouflage a hidden agenda, it becomes difficult to describe our feelings accurately. When asked how we feel, we use words implying that we are being coerced by others, instead of words accepting responsibility for how we feel about what others have done. Our words contain judgments – not merely about what others did, but of who they are. We say, for example, “He is infuriating,” or “He made me mad,” instead of “I am angry.” Or, "She is a blabbermouth," instead of “I feel betrayed.” Or "He is out to get me," instead of “I am afraid he is going to fire me."
By translating or reframing these statements, we convert a language of powerlessness into a language of empowerment, just as do by turning “you” statements into “I” statements, being precise about what we are feeling, transforming conflict stories, and recognizing that beneath accusations lie confessions and requests, either of which serves our interests better. These are all valuable interventions, but they do not address the underlying problem. A more careful examination of the language used in political conflicts reveals a deep set of issues.
Psychologist Renana Brooks describes the ways language is used to reinforce abuse and domination in power relationships. She cites, for example, broad statements that are so abstract and meaningless they cannot be opposed; excessive personalization of issues so they can only be addressed individually; negative frameworks that reinforce pessimistic images of the world; and inculcation of a “learned helplessness” that assumes change is impossible. Mexican novelist Octavio Paz describes how this deterioration of language reflects a broader social and political decay:
When a society decays, it is language that is first to become gangrenous... and alongside oratory, with its plastic flowers, there is the barbarous syntax in many of our newspapers, the foolishness of language on loudspeakers and the radio, the loathsome vulgarities of advertising -- all that asphyxiating rhetoric. A similar asphyxiation occurs in the rhetoric of conflict as a result of distortions produced by adversarial assumptions in speaking and listening, the strangled expression of intense emotion, the coexistence of fear and rage, the weight and weightlessness of the issues, the craving for revenge and forgiveness, and the simultaneous exhibition of power and powerlessness, arrogance and humility, domination and dependency.
Language in organizations can also become an instrument of domination and control, reinforcing assumptions of hierarchy, bureaucracy and autocracy. Even seemingly innocuous corporate expressions such as “upper management,” “direct reports,” “bottom line,” “alignment,” “getting people on board,” “raising the bar,” “lean and mean,” “accountability,” “pushing the envelope,” and similar expressions reveal myths and assumptions that distort communications. In similar ways, the language of law is replete with terminology conveying arrogance, incomprehension, and hostility directed toward emotionality, vulnerability, artistic thinking, human error, collective responsibility, compassion, frivolity, redemption, play, and forgiveness.
Language and Fascism
Perhaps the best example of the deterioration of language and its use to reinforce power, arrogance, and domination in political conflicts is the rise of fascism in Germany. As Victor Klemperer brilliantly revealed in The Language of the Third Reich, the Nazis deliberately manipulated language in order to change the way people thought about politics and daily life. By using repetitive stereotyping, emotional superlatives, and romantic adjectives; hijacking or poisoning formerly positive terms such as “collective,” “followers,” and “faith;” transforming formerly negative words into positives, such as “domination,” “fanatical,” and “obedient;” militarizing and brutalizing common speech; discounting reason and elevating feelings; using “big lies” and doublespeak; and generally debasing and “dumbing down” ordinary language, the Nazis fundamentally altered the way people thought and behaved.
This led Italian novelist and semiologist Umberto Eco to brilliantly define fascism as “the simplification of language to the point that complex thought becomes impossible.” This simplification is revealed not only in the crude sloganeering and stereotyping of fascist rhetoric, but in the minor ways ordinary speech is transformed into sermons, prepared scripts, and propaganda, as can be seen, for example, in media coverage following the deaths of political leaders. In Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, Franz Neumann analyzed the Nazi’s transformation of ordinary speech into fascist propaganda. He began by profoundly defining propaganda as “violence committed against the soul,” writing: Propaganda is not a substitute for violence, but one of its aspects. The two have identical purposes of making men amenable to control from above. Terror and its display in propaganda go hand in hand…. The superiority of National Socialist [Nazi] propaganda lies in the complete transformation of culture into a saleable commodity.
In Neumann’s view, democratic arguments could never compete with Nazi propaganda, not only because the latter was simpler and appealed to more primitive instincts, but because the Nazi’s were willing to use any contrivance, including deliberate lies, in order to succeed. As Adolph Hitler made clear in Mein Kampf: Propaganda must not serve the truth.... All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those toward whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it…. The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of a nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad.
It is precisely this transformation of confession into accusation, analysis into propaganda, and fact into lie and doublespeak; this use of language as a mere means that does not count, and can therefore be distorted with impunity; this huckstering salesman’s approach to truth, that allows it to hide and justify all manner of political and personal crimes. As George Orwell wrote, in “Politics and the English Language,”
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombed from the air, the inhabitants are driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
The simplification, distortion, and abuse of language by turning it into propaganda is not restricted to fascist or Stalinist states, but is responsive to a far deeper problem, which is the forced, impossible effort to suppress half of a paradox or polarity, deny part of a contradiction, and obstruct inevitable changes. Alex Cary, for example, attributes the widespread use of propaganda to increasing conflict between democracy and corporate power:
The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.
Yet the same distortion of language into propaganda can be heard in statements made by US political leaders prior to the war in Iraq, falsely collapsing Iraq into Saddam Hussein, accusing him of hiding weapons of mass destruction that could threaten US cities, linking September 11 to the Iraqi government, stereotyping Arabs as terrorists, demonizing international opposition to the war, and making “preventive war” seem necessary and inevitable.
Similar distortions can also be recognized in ordinary conflict stories, which routinely demonize and stereotype our opponents, link them with events beyond their control, make them seem more powerful than they actually are, ignore the systemic sources of our suffering, personalize our problems, and trigger the fear and anger that make our stories successful. For this reason, it is important to recognize that evil is not something “out there,” inside someone else, beyond our reach, or in poorer nations, but also something “in here,” inside ourselves, within our reach, and happening every day in wealthier nations, including the US.
There have been countless conflicts in the history of the world in which accusations of evil have been used to justify the commission of atrocities. A painful example today is the Middle East, where there is so much raw, unresolved grief and insensible hatred that antagonisms feel more like civil wars than wars between opposing states. Entire nations vie, not only in their capacity for revenge, but in their stubborn refusal to accept the necessity of learning how to live together and accept joint responsibility for their slaughter of innocents. As former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir painfully noted: “We can forgive the Palestinians for murdering our children, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to murder theirs.”
When we examine these chronic revengeful conflicts, we cannot exclude Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Koreas, Southern Africa, and examples of internecine warfare and national vendetta, from which no region is immune. By doing so, we can identify seven features that routinely block resolution and invite assumptions of evil. These include:
1. Continuous, intimate, non-consensual relationships between closely related yet diverse parties
2. Gross inequalities in the allocation and distribution of scarce resources, power, wealth, and status
3. Disrespectful, unfair, oppressive, and exploitative attitudes and behaviors by those with more power against those with less
4. Contemptuous, hostile, jealous, and resentful attitudes and behaviors by those with less power against those with more
5. Use of “legitimate” forms of power to coerce or manipulate outcomes favoring the powerful and disfavoring the powerless
6. Use of “illegitimate” forms of power by the powerless to block or provide wider access to legitimate forms of power controlled by the powerful
7. Sufficient accumulation of unresolved grief, loss, fear, and pain on both sides to fuel allegations of evil, suppress compassion, amplify rage, encourage revenge, and obstruct closure
These features can also be found in a wide range of personal, familial, organizational, social, economic, and political conflicts. On every level and scale, we become stuck in conflicts and justify our negative behaviors based on genuine experiences of pain and anger that bolster our assumptions of evil. At a simple level, it feels logical: “If I am good and have been hurt by you, it can only be because you are the kind of person who hurts people for no reason.” In the process, we successfully disregard the injuries and insensitivities we caused, stereotype our opponent, and justify our refusal to listen to their explanations or pain because ours have not been heard or ameliorated.
At a deeper level, everyone always and everywhere seeks power or control over their environment, and few seek to share it or are willing to be on the unequal side of its distribution. Yet power is fluid by nature and cannot be fixed. This causes those who possess it to hoard it and distrust anyone who does not, and those who lack it to act in ways that justify its use and intensify their desire to seize it. Since neither side knows how to collaborate without appearing to betray their family, nation, culture, or cause, their conflict slips into a descending cycle of accusation and denunciation, rebellion and repression, terror and war.
The coexistence of intimacy with inequality and exploitation inevitably leads the powerful to hold the powerless in a subordinate, dependent position, triggering a polarization of attitudes and cascade of aggressive behaviors that lead to accusations of evil on both sides. A subconscious awareness of the unfairness of inequality and exploitation in the minds of the powerful lead them to fear the loss of their unequal status and the retributive violence of the powerless. This causes them to become further entrenched, protect their gains, and resist liberalization, democratization, collaboration, and conflict resolution, which require power sharing.
The powerful increasingly come to believe they have only two alternatives: either agree to the demands of the powerless and lose power for themselves, their families, friends, and what they see as their civilizing mission; or use “legitimate” forms of power to crush the powerless, thereby reinforcing the opposition of those they have oppressed, strengthening their resistance, and encouraging them to use violence or terror to achieve what they see as justice. These dynamics lead to stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization of the powerless, including genocide and ethnic cleansing, on the assumption that the powerless as a group are innately evil.
In response, the powerless increasingly come to believe they also have only two alternatives: either accept a temporary, tactical surrender, thereby permitting inequality and exploitation to continue unabated; or use what the powerful define as “illegitimate” forms of power to break their monopoly and end their exclusive control over power and resources, thereby reinforcing the fears of the powerful, strengthening their resistance, and encouraging continued destruction on both sides. Each side behaves toward the other in ways that justify their worst fears, causing the engine of violence to turn in a self-destructive circle.
Using interest-based conflict resolution methods, it is possible to identify a third choice for both sides, which is to share their problems, acknowledge that they are brothers, recognize that the true evil is not who they are, but their readiness to regard each other as evil, and that they cannot brutalize each other without brutalizing themselves. It is to understand that nothing can be gained through other methods that is worth the cost; that their mutual slaughter has been a gigantic, tragic, comic, pointless waste; and that they can reach out at any time to their opponents without glossing over their differences. It is to recognize that there are no differences they cannot solve through dialogue, negotiation, and conflict resolution, or that are worth the damage created by their assumptions of evil. It is to engage in open, honest, collaborative, on-going negotiations over issues of justice and equality; strengthen political, economic, and social democracy; develop interest-based conflict resolution skills; and elicit heartfelt communications that invite truth and reconciliation.
How Should We Respond to Evil?
None of this is intended to imply that there is no such thing as evil, or that it is justifiable, but rather that there is a genesis and logic to its development which, when ignored, call forth adjunct evils in response. Evil is like a cancer that replicates itself by demanding its own destruction, but only through evil means. As the Greek playwright Sophocles wrote, "With evil all around me/There is nothing I can do that is not evil."
Evil has been attributed to everything from the external intervention of Satan to the natural, internal operations of the Id. The French Philosopher Blaise Pascal thought it came from “being unable to sit still in a room,” while Novelist Jeanette Winterson wrote that “to change something you do not understand is the true nature of evil.” Evil is simply the opposite of good, or rather, the good of one that undermines or counteracts the good of another, as what benefits a parasite destroys its host. Yet if good and evil are opposites, it is impossible to end one without also ending the other.
From a conflict resolution perspective, evil is sometimes just a story describing what our opponents did to harm us, while leaving out what we did to harm them. Sometimes it is a failure to separate the act that caused harm from the people who engaged in it, or an inability due to previous conflicts to experience empathy or compassion for others. Sometimes it is negligence, accident, or false assumptions. Sometimes it is deep disappointment, the outpourings of a culture of defeat, or a desire to blame others for our own false expectations. Sometimes it is a way of depriving others of the happiness we lost, or subconsciously trying to recreate in others the conditions that caused us pain. As Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote: "No man consciously chooses evil because it is evil, he only mistakes it for the happiness that he seeks."
Yet there are people who take pleasure in the suffering of others, and it is little consolation to know they had an unhappy childhood or are merely mistaken in seeking their happiness when we suffer as a result of their actions. While there is good in the worst of us and evil in the best of us, there are hierarchies of evil, and some, like those who engineered the holocaust, belong to a different order. What, then, do we do in the face of such evil?
While there may be people, times, and places when it is impossible not to answer violence with violence and evil with evil, it is difficult to distinguish these moments from those that occur everyday in ordinary interpersonal conflicts, except by subjective measurements of their proximity and impact on us. The greater and closer the harm feels to us, the easier it is to justify committing evil in response. Do minor evils then justify minor evils in response? If so, where does it end? And who decides which evil is worse, or whose suffering is greater and more deserving of retribution?
Many people view truth, forgiveness, and reconciliation as laudable, yet impractical in the face of evil and terror, and believe the only effective response is to crush them wherever they exist with whatever power is available. Yet evil has always been a response to prior evil acts that are used to justify the commission of equal or greater evils in return. In this way, “eye for an eye” responses add to the total sum of blindness, while assumptions of evil turn suffering in a circle. While there may be times, as Bertold Brecht wrote, when it is necessary to “embrace the butcher” to end an evil that will not desist until forced to do so, these cases cannot be contained or defined. How do we know we are not simply transferring our pain to someone else? When and how do we stop? What do we do in response to subtler forms of terror, and commonplace evils? Who do we become as a result? At what price? As Dwight Eisenhower told the London Guardian, “Every gun that is made, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
Ultimately, there are three consistent responses to evil that do not end up replicating it. The first is to use whatever means may be required to isolate, disarm, and contain it, while at the same time addressing the underlying injustices that brought it into existence. The second is to shift the way we react from power- to rights- to interest-based approaches that do not invite evil responses. The third is to systematically strengthen our skills and abilities in heart-based communications, including forgiveness and reconciliation, which disable evil at its source in the tormented hearts and minds of those who feel powerless to end or grieve their suffering.
These responses require us to encourage dialogue, joint problem solving, and conflict resolution, while simultaneously acting to discourage vengeance, retaliation, and unilateralism. They require us to negotiate, especially with our enemies, while simultaneously minimizing their ability to create harm. They require us to accept responsibility, for example, for the rise of fascism, as a result of our imposition of a vindictive Treaty at Versailles, unwillingness to confront anti-Semitism, support for brutal Tsarist regimes that inspired the Russian Revolution, lack of financial aid for the struggling Weimar Republic, failure to assist the Spanish Republic, and similar acts. Finally, they require us to recognize that can be no peace without justice there.
No Justice, No Peace
In order to discourage assumptions, allegations, and acts of evil and sustain warring parties in dialogue and negotiation, we need to recognize that the true evil is injustice, and as long as it continues, peace will be fleeting, fragile, and a disappointing reminder of all we have suffered and lost. Under such conditions it is easy to agree with Socrates’ adversary Thrasymachus that “justice is the interest of the stronger,” or Franz Kafka that it is “a fugitive from the winning camp.” Genuine, lasting peace is impossible in the absence of justice. Where injustice prevails, peace becomes merely a way of masking and compounding prior crimes, impeding necessary changes, and rationalizing injustices. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton presciently observed: To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob others without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and leisure.... [T]heir idea of peace was only another form of war.
When millions lack the essentials of life, peace becomes a sanction for continued suffering, and compromise a front for capitulation, passivity, and acceptance of injustice. This led anthropologist Laura Nader to criticize mediation for its willingness to “trade justice for harmony.” True peace requires justice and a dedication to satisfying basic human needs, otherwise it is merely the self-interest of the satisfied, the ruling clique, the oppressors, the victors in search of further spoils.
For peace to be achieved in the Middle East or elsewhere, it is essential that we neither trivialize conflict nor become stuck in the language of good and evil, but work collaboratively and compassionately to redress the underlying injustices and pain each side caused the other. Ultimately, this means sharing power and resources, advantages and disadvantages, successes and failures, and satisfying everyone’s legitimate interests. It means collaborating and making decisions together. It means giving up being right and assuming others are wrong. It means taking the time to work through our differences, and making our opponents interests our own.
In helping to make these shifts and move from Apartheid to integration, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that for people to reach forgiveness, they needed to exchange personal stories of anger, fear, pain, jealousy, guilt, grief, and shame; to empathize, recognize, and acknowledge each other’s interests; to engage in open, honest dialogue; to reorient themselves to the future; to participate in rituals of collective grief that released their pain and loss; and to mourn those who died because neither side had the wisdom or courage to apologize for their assumptions of evil, or the evil they caused their opponents and themselves.
At the same time, they also needed to improve the daily lives of those who suffered and were treated unjustly under apartheid. Where shantytowns coexist with country clubs, peace cannot be lasting or secure. Where some go hungry while others are well-fed, terror and violence are nourished. In the end, it comes down to a question of sharing wealth and power, realizing that we are all one family, and that an injury to one is genuinely an injury to all.
Making justice an integral part of conflict resolution and the search for peaceful solutions means not merely settling conflicts, but resolving, transforming, and transcending them by turning them into levers of social dialogue and learning, catalysts of community and collaboration, and commitments to political, economic, and social change. By failing to take these additional remedial steps, we make justice secondary to peace, undermine both, guarantee the continuation of our conflicts, and prepare the way for more to come.
From Power and Rights to Interests
Political conflicts can only support justice and serve as engines of constructive political, economic, and social development if the means and methods by which they are resolved promote just, collaborative ends. The principal means we have used to resolve political conflicts for thousands of years have been oriented toward power, including war, genocide, terror, domination, and suppression of those seeking change.
Over the last several centuries, we have developed less destructive methods of resolving conflicts based on rights, including adjudication, adversarial negotiations, bureaucratic procedures, coercion, and isolation of those seeking change. What we now require are interest-based methods for resolving political, economic, and social conflicts that integrate peace with justice and undermine resort to evil, including informal problem solving, collaborative negotiation, team and community building, consensus decision making, public dialogue, mediation, and actively rewarding those seeking change.
The problem with most efforts to suppress evil or redress injustices is that they adopt power- or rights-based approaches which result in deeper polarization, resistance, and win/lose outcomes that simply trade one form of evil or injustice for another. One side then becomes frightened of going too far, tired of fighting, willing to tolerate continuing injustices, and settles or compromises their conflicts rather than resolving, transforming, or transcending them.
Approaching evil and injustice from an interest-based perspective means listening to the deeper truths that gave rise to them, extending compassion even to those who were responsible for evils or injustices, and seeking not merely to replace one evil or injustice with another, but to reduce their attractiveness by designing outcomes, processes, and relationships that encourage adversaries to work collaboratively to satisfy their interests. Evil and injustice can therefore be considered byproducts of reliance on power or rights, and failures or refusals to learn and evolve. All political systems generate chronic conflicts that reveal their internal weaknesses, external pressures, and demands for evolutionary change. Power- and rights-based systems are adversarial and unstable, and therefore avoid, deny, resist, and defend themselves against change. As a result, they suppress conflicts or treat them as purely interpersonal, leaving insiders less informed and able to adapt, and outsiders feeling they were treated unjustly and contemplating evil in response.
As pressures to change increase, these systems must either adapt, or turn reactionary and take a punitive, retaliatory attitude toward those seeking to promote change, delaying their own evolution. Only interest-based systems are fully able to seek out their weaknesses, proactively evolve, transform conflicts into sources of learning, and celebrate those who brought them to their attention.
Conflict and Political Change
Conflict is the principal means by which significant social and political changes have taken place throughout history. Wars and revolutions can be understood as efforts to resolve deep-seated political, economic, and social conflicts for which no other means of resolution was understood or acceptable to either or both sides, blocking evolutionary change. When conflicts and pressure to change accumulate, even trivial interpersonal disputes can stimulate far-reaching systemic transformations. In any fragile system, be it familial, organizational, social, or political, resolving conflict can therefore become a dangerous, even revolutionary activity, because it encourages people to redress their injustices, collaborate on solutions, and evolve in ways that could fundamentally transform the system. Indeed, it is possible to regard every collaborative, interest-based effort to resolve systemic conflict as a small but significant resolution, transformation, and transcendence of the system that gave rise to it.
Collaborative, interest-based processes can “socialize,” or broaden our conflicts, allowing us to address their systemic sources through group dialogue and discussion, analysis of systemic issues, and recommendations for preventative, system-wide, strategic improvement without political intrigue and infighting. Responsibility for resolving conflicts can then be extended beyond a small circle of primary antagonists to include allies, secret partners, neutral bystanders, and others whose relationship to the participants or issues could make complete solutions possible.
Interest-based conflict resolution techniques offer political systems democratic, socially engaging methods for learning and evolving through conflict. They free us to address political disputes based on equality, respect for diversity, recognition of interests, principled dialogue, collaborative negotiation, and consensus, rather than a desire to retain power or rights. In these ways, peace merges with justice, encouraging learning and evolution.
Yet we can go further and develop preventative, strategic, scale-free approaches to conflict resolution that use storytelling techniques, for example, to promote understanding between hostile social groups; public dialogue techniques to stimulate understanding between representatives of opposing points of view; public policy and environmental mediation techniques to locate complex solutions to intractable political problems; prejudice reduction and bias awareness techniques to increase cross-cultural understanding; and heart-based techniques such as truth and reconciliation commissions to promote reconciliation.
Whether our conflicts are intensely personal and between private individuals, or intensely political and between nations and cultures, three critical areas require on-going improvement and transformation. These are: our personal capacity for introspection, integrity, and spiritual growth; our interpersonal capacity for egalitarian, collaborative, heartfelt communication and relationships; and our social, economic, and political capacity for designing preventative, systemic, strategic approaches to conflict resolution, community, and change.
By creatively combining conflict resolution systems design principles with strategic planning, team building, meditation and spiritual practices, community organizing, and heart-based conflict resolution techniques, we can significantly improve our ability to resolve international political and cross-cultural disputes before they become needlessly destructive. Yet conflict resolution carries a price in the form of our willingness to listen to ideas we dislike and share power and control over outcomes with people different from ourselves.
Ultimately, transcending conflict means giving up unjust, unequal power- and rights-based systems, and seeking instead to satisfy interests, which is why we seek power and rights in the first place. This means surrendering our power to take from others what does not belong to us, and right to coerce them into giving what they are otherwise unwilling to give. Accepting this price allows us to achieve a higher value and right, merge peace with justice, and immensely improve our personal and political lives. To understand how this might be done, consider the following case study.