Knowing Where to Stand

By Sarah Inskeep

“You must know your values in this work, and you must know when to say enough is enough.”

One of my favorite sessions from our first week was about conflict sensitivity and systems mapping. We talked about how, before stepping into a system, it’s important to understand how it works as it is. We cannot simply implement a ‘solution’ and expect it to turn out as we’d like if we have not developed that solution in concert with a thorough grasp on how the system functions already. 

This idea is not new to me, but thinking on it together with some of our other sessions did lead me to consider how it might apply to our work as peacebuilders on structures of violence. How long do we spend waiting to understand things as they are, when things as they are costs lives? It’s tricky. If we act quickly in an effort to help, we may temporarily make things better. We may also, however, end up contributing to further frustrations between conflicting groups that cause more problems later. 

Though primarily applied in the context of work with different cultures, one of the ways I’ve been thinking about this idea is in the context of the global economic structure. Looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, at reports from the IPCC and IPBES, there’s little room to deny that our current economic structure will have to change if we are to have a chance at averting further, and more serious, climate-induced crises. Present trends of fast-fashion and products with a short lifespan are not compatible with a finite amount of resources, or with goals of ensuring better standards of living for those who work in manufacturing industries. Knowing, then, that change is necessary, to what extent do we work in the system as opposed to on the system? Though economists often view conflicts through a very specific lens–one which omits many of the complexities of human needs, values, and interests–is it necessary, in some ways, to understand those views in order to understand how we can change?

On such a big scale, it’s difficult for me to know exactly how far to go to understand why something is the way it is. On a smaller scale, however, I think of the times I’ve been able to talk with someone about a sensitive topic, or about views we do not agree on. Inevitably, the conversation is made possible by a willingness to listen and a lack of judgement. I do not mean a lack of judgement in the sense of condoning things which are contrary to my own values, but in the sense of realizing that people, most often, are capable of change if they are given the space to do so. While on the big scale with structures there is no single person to work with who can change the entire system, I do think we need to be careful of what we condemn. If we condemn an entire government, organization, or field of study, then there is no need for its members to listen or consider alternatives to their current practices. Condemning actions, behaviors, or words is one thing, but condemning a whole only makes it more difficult to see another way. 

As I write this, I know it is vastly simplified. We cannot always wait sweetly and patiently for perpetrators of violence to change their minds. In reality, there are times in which we must take a stand. I think, though, the important thing is that whether we are listening and seeking to understand, or stepping forward to oppose something more directly, we do so with our core values intact, and that the means we choose are in alignment with the end we seek.

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