Differences

By: Óscar Cejudo Corbalán

“I think differences are one of the major drivers of violence” – Eugenia Manwelyan

We are all surrounded by them, at all levels, in all spheres of tangible and intangible realities. At the people level: we all have experienced different lives, we all think differently, we are all different. (I am not going to write about subjectivity again, although it might as well be the case.) And, as Eugenia Manwelyan stated during her session, differences are one of the major drivers for violence, and more broadly for conflict. Therefore, as a conflict intervener, how do we deal with these differences?

It was really interesting for me when Eugenia Manwelyan pointed out how language (this is at the very least applicable to the languages I know) is constructed based on differences. When we analyze a simple sentence such as “I love eating cheese with crackers” it comes clear that all the components of the sentence are differentiating: “I” instead of “we” or any other subject, “eating” instead of many other actions, and so on. Even the fact that we differentiate among different components of the sentence is a reflection of how much differences are part of our language.

Language is especially significant since we all know that it is the main tool we use to elaborate, register and share understanding (or knowledge.) Therefore it would be fair to assume that our processes of understanding (abstract or concrete) reality are based on seeing and studying differences. I would argue that this is not bad or good in itself. It served an evolutionary purposed to distinguish between food and non-food, dangerous and non-dangerous, dead or alive, etc., and it has evolved until today’s way of communicating.

When does it get tricky then? Why all these differences that we register and reproduce unconsciously become an obstacle to peace and a driver for conflict? I am sure there are many reasons, but I am going to highlight two key ones for me here: the search for simplicity, and the ultimate difference.

If we reduce the purpose of language to understand (and be understood), then the first of these two factors seems to me pretty obvious. In order to understand such a vastly complex reality filled with differences we need to simplify. So as much as we are conditioned by a differentiating manner of understanding reality we struggle so hard in making things simple (to facilitate understanding.)

We are obsessed with organizing and categorizing. So we want to find commonalities among differences and put them in big (or small) clusters that we can differentiate from each other. An example of these clusters will be what we understand as “cultures” (in the words of Kevin Avruch, culture is precisely a way of organizing the differences).

Cultures usually facilitate understanding within them, but also could result in misunderstanding among different ones. In the exercise of making things simpler we tend to erase nuances (that I consider vital for our field) and we tend to generalize, which gets us closer to prejudices and conflict. I think it is our role as conflict interveners to run away from simplicity and look into all these nuances in order to understand better and to be able to work better with people.

Adding to the need to study as many differences as possible, special focus will be put to the ultimate difference: the power asymmetry. I like to think about it as the ultimate one because it is the one that makes the other differences matter. Under the effect of power unbalances all the other differences become beneficial or harmful for the people, there is no space for neutrality.

There should be no difference if you are born transgender or cisgender, white or brown, black or asian, in Spain or in Senegal, disabled or able-bodied, woman or non-binary, etc., but the fact is that it is not the same. There is a social hierarchy where certain types of people (and also certain types of cultures) are in the center, and the more differences you have from that center, the less power you will have. Depending on the scale and the context the center is defined with different features, but there is always a power imbalance that makes differences one of the major drivers for conflict.

So, as a conflict intervener, how do we deal with differences? I would say let’s try to escape from simplicity and let’s always have in mind the ultimate difference to try to break the power imbalance and transform society into a decentralized one, where differences do not benefit or disadvantage people. Not to forget either that we are not exempt from this reality, so knowing our place in the social hierarchy is fundamental to be fully aware of the reasoning behind and potential consequences of our interventions.

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.