What is my role?

By: Óscar Cejudo Corbalán

Neutrality is a myth.

Neutrality is a myth, it is impossible to achieve. Objectivity is an unattainable ideal since we are never free of our experiences, biases, backgrounds, aspirations, and all the factors that condition our understanding.

This has a very strong influence in me, especially when thinking about it in the field of peacebuilding. Since I started studying the field (quite recently), subjectivity has been probably my greatest struggle: How can I as third parties transform a conflict without my biases constantly intervening and potentially imposing our worldview? Should I try to change certain structures (that we consider oppressive) despite being traditional customs of the people we are working with? Or should I respect them for the sake of being sensitive and avoid imposing my view of fairness? How do I deal with the fact that sometimes expanding the pie is not a possibility and there will be people who are negatively affected?

These are just some first thoughts that come to my mind, but there are many dilemmas in the field. As Kevin Avruch explained in the session he and Pushpa Iyer shared, the best we can do is to choose the least bad option among all the bad choices. This practice, called dilemma thinking, could be in itself problematic, since we could question “the least bad option” for whom? So even the definition of dilemma thinking brings us a dilemma based on subjectivity! But let’s not get caught up with this and let’s get to the point.

Among all the dilemmas and struggles that are linked to the paradox of neutrality and the ubiquity of subjectivism, there is one question that I go back in circles over and over again: Who do I represent as a third party? I could ask this question differently: what do I understand as a third party, and what do I want to achieve by being a third party? Why do I want to do this?

A simple answer would be “well, I want conflicts to be resolved!” But that is definitely not my deepest objective, so an answer that will get closer to my intentions would be “well, I want societies to be transformed.” Which is completely true, but I could specify a little bit more and answer with just two words: social justice.

That is the main reason I am in this field. But what is social justice? Any definition for such a broad concept will be completely biased (or course!), so what is social justice for me? It is definitely linked to Galtung’s positive peace – the absence of structural violence; to equity – all differences are acknowledged and respected and no one is benefited or harmed by them, and to a decentralized system – where basic aspects such as knowledge or socialization do not have a standard or “center.”

Then if social justice is my hidden (not any more) agenda for being in this field, and I define it as an opposite to the oppressive systems that we have in place (which uses structural violence to benefit a certain “center” who are, not surprisingly, the ones who establish the norms), it seems intuitive that my main effort should be either supporting an empowering process of oppressed people or a disempowering process for oppressors. No matter how I put it, I have to make a distinction between “sides” (as if it were that easy), and (again) there is no neutral election.

Therefore, if we go back to the dilemma question, the answer would be that I want to represent the oppressed people as a third party. But that brings a lot of other issues! First, how can I guarantee impartiality if my intentions are so clearly in favor to one side of the table? Second, how can I achieve a meaningful transformation of the structures if I do not include the oppressors in the deal considering them to be in the same plane? (otherwise, why would they sit and listen?) Third, to what extent am I going to be able to represent the oppressed people if their customs might perpetuate systems of oppression (e.g. patriarchy)?

How to navigate all this nuances and complexities? I think there should be no external and unique answer to this, and that our place and answers must be found through self-reflection and study. However, I found highly illuminating (and helpful) the couple of insights from James Laue that Kevin Avruch shared with us.

First, I can completely empathize with the three core values to which Laue says we should pay more attention to rather than the perception of “neutrality”: the empowerment of the weaker party, striving to achieve social justice, and striving to enhance  freedom (defining this would give us for a whole new blog.) But secondly (and most importantly), Laue makes a distinction between the different roles that a third party may have and this is where I might find my way out of this apparently (but not actually) contradiction of being a third party and the subjectivity that comes with the human condition. Laue distinguishes different roles such as activist, mediator, researcher, enforcer or advocate. Like I was talking in my previous blog about the different roles of law enforcement, I also have to think about these roles of the third party and know which one is mine.

I am clearly inclined to take the advocate role, but this is not a made decision, it is something that I will keep reflecting on and going in circles over and over again. It is a deeper level of understanding of me and my relationship with this field. I started my first blog by asking myself what my place is in peacebuilding. Now I know that I have to add to that question: and what is my role?

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