Envisioning a Future (Almost) Everyone Will Want to Live In



Newsletter #184— December 13, 2023

From the Directors Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

This is an updated version of an essay we wrote several years ago, with reference primarily to the United States and other struggling democracies. The ideas we present are, however, much more widely applicable and include things we learned from the former South African Ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool and John Paul Lederach, who developed his notion of "the meeting place of reconciliation" in Nicaragua. So these ideas can be applied in deeply divided societies everywhere — even, we will note, in the context of Israel and the Palestinians, although how they might be applied in that context will have to be a discussion saved for a later time.


I (Heidi) used to teach a course on reconciliation at the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution. I often told my students that "you can't get to where you want to go if you don't know where (or what) your destination is." In the context of the course, that meant that you can't design an effective reconciliation process if you don't know what your final goal is, what "reconciliation" would look like and how it would work in a particular setting. In terms of hyper-polarization, this means that healing our deep divisions in the U.S. (or anywhere else) requires a clear and very widely supported image of what a society without deep, destructive divisions would look like and how it would work — something that we do not now have. 

Drawing on Kenneth Boulding's "peak and mesa" theory, I also suggested that people look for the "mesa top," not "the peak,"  Boulding pointed out that the goal of a peacemaking process (and I would say a reconciliation process also) should not be perfection (the peak), when everything is worked out perfectly to all sides' total satisfaction (because, for a start, that would be impossible). Rather, the goal should be an agreement and implementation of that agreement or a design of a reconciled society or a community that is "good enough" (the mesa top) to avoid the cliffs or the catastrophes.  Anywhere on the mesa top is fine.  You don't have to climb to the very summit. What is important is that you don't fall off the cliff at the side.

An extension of this idea is that, if you can't decide on a particular substantive outcome, it works to decide on the process to continue to pursue a collaborative outcome sometime in the future, rather than pursuing a damaging, us-versus-them struggle that will lead one side to win most or all of what it wants, while the other side loses most everything.  Or, more likely, it would result in some kind of dysfunctional (and, quite possibly, violent) war for social dominance that would be deeply damaging for all concerned. These are the "cliffs" that need to be avoided if peace or reconciliation is to be achieved. 

To help students develop such an image, I asked them do a visioning exercise originally created by Elise Boulding, a longtime peace activist and one of the founders of the field of Peace and Conflict Studies (and wife of Kenneth Boulding, mentioned above). As she wrote in an article describing the exercise, she "began to realize that we peace activists, working to bring about a nonviolent world without war, really had no idea how a world in which armies had disappeared would function. How could we work to bring about something we could not even see in our imaginations?" So she designed a workshop to help people imagine such a world:

A workshop on imagining a nonviolent world takes people 30 years into the future – to a world at peace. The format allows time for imaginative exploration of ‘how things worked’ in that future, followed by a remembering, looking back from this future to the present to imagine how all this peaceableness had come about. The workshop closes with time for personal commitments to action in the present to help bring about the future participants had pictured. This type of workshop empowers people in their peace activism.

I asked my students to replace the words  "peace" and "nonviolence" with "reconciliation" and "reconciled" for the purposes of the reconciliation course.  Any of those words—or others (de-polarized, de-escalated, constructive, cooperative, etc.) can be used, depending on your context. The key idea is that we need an image of the end state we are working towards, if we are going to be able to figure out what to do to get there. And I point out that the image of the future cannot be one that one side would favor, but the other side would oppose because, simply, that isn't "reconciliation." It is one side winning, the other side losing. 

This may seem obvious when we are looking at other countries, but it may not be as obvious when we look at our own. In the past, when I assigned the visioning exercise, most of the submissions reflected the generally progressive view of many Carter School students, particularly when the students focused on the U.S. political conflict.  Reconciliation was described as everything progressives ever wanted — vigorous efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; equality of income and wealth; universal, government-funded health care;, free college education for all;, and more recently appearing, the Green New Deal. That sounds great to progressives — and they assume it would sound great to conservatives too.  What right thinking person could possibly be against free health care? Free college? Equality? Inclusion?

This way of framing things leaves a lot of critical questions unanswered, however. For example: who, exactly, pays for all of this free stuff? What happens to all the people who lose their jobs from the energy transition called for in the Green New Deal?  Conservatives, not surprisingly, tend to think that they will wind up on the losing end when the costs and benefits of such programs are finally tabulated. They are also likely to feel that such programs will wind up subsidizing, with their money, people who are not willing to take responsibility for doing their fair share to help either themselves or the society at large.  Similar things can be said about other programs like the Green New Deal or the various "culture war" issues (abortion, racism, trans issues, etc.).  So implementing those policies would not lead to a future that (almost) everyone would want to live in, or even accept.  Rather, it would lead to continued struggle, as those whose values were suppressed or ignored would fight back in an effort to gain enough power to impose their values and resultant policies on the other side.  That's not reconciliation, peace, nonviolence, de-polarization, de-escalation, or anything of the sort.  And it is definitely NOT a recipe for constructive conflict.

So, what is?

Our answer to this question fundamentally changed after we heard a talk in 2020, given by Ebrahim Rasool, the Black former South African ambassador to the United States. Rasool was part of a panel entitled  "Making Peace in a Polarized Nation.at the Alliance for Peacebuilding's PeaceCon2020.

Rasool started out by giving a very brief overview of the racial struggle in South Africa, which has been going on, he pointed out, for over 300 years. It dates back to colonialism, segregation, and, in 1950, apartheid.  It "had features," he said, "of a genocide, of frontier wars of dispossession, and slavery."  So South African history shares a number of similarities with U.S. history, at least in terms of race relations. Apartheid in South Africa was "in its very fabric, designed for polarization and disempowerment," just as was, he implied but didn't say, slavery and then racial segregation in the United States.

He went on to explain that South African Blacks overcame apartheid by using "militant nonviolence." To him, militant nonviolence wasn't "namby-pamby opposition," rather, it was based on "moral authority" and a deep understanding of the oppressors. While the Whites were busy dehumanizing the Blacks, the ANC (African National Congress) issued a "Freedom Charter" that said that "South Africa belonged to the South African people—Black and White."  In that way, Rasool said, "the Blacks were offering to redeem [White] humanity."

"The process of struggle," he continued, needs "to incorporate the solution. ... You cannot call for the end of racism and mobilize [on the basis of] race.  You cannot want a peaceful society and be wantonly violent in your conduct towards it.  You cannot speak of unity and polarize society in the conduct of your struggle."

The South Africans also needed to "grapple with what was in the heart and minds of [their] oppressors." The oppressors' behavior, he asserted, was borne of fear and ignorance. The fear wasn't just fear of the other, it was also fear that the people they had stolen from would rise up and demand their land and freedom back.  So Whites were the victims of fear that they created themselves. 

"Fear," he said, "can be forgiven, but not ignorance.  People can go to school.  They can read.  They can educate themselves in other ways." So he (and by implication Black South Africans more broadly) were willing to forgive the White's fear (even if it was self-created), but not White ignorance.

Looking back further, he said, the "parents of fear and ignorance" were prejudice and discrimination.  "We all pre-judge people and situations before we know them. We form little mind images of people so we can understand [them].  But the moment we form these little mind images we have pre-judged them." This prejudgment grows from an idea in your head, "to something on your tongue, to something in your hand, to something you write in the law."   These prejudgments, he asserted, grow into lots of "-isms, phobias, and -antis: racism, sexism, conservativism, anti-semitism, homophobia, Islamaphobia."  One has to understand these origins in order to be able to tackle systemic racism or any of these other -isms, phobias, and antis.

He then presented seven ideas, arising from his knowledge of South African resistance, that he said Americans need to add to their anti-polarization and racism "toolkit." 

  1. First, he said, we have to understand that "the other is here to stay." And, you, in the United States, have to understand, "your [American] racism, your polarization, your discrimination, is sustainable only as long as you believe the other will disappear or go away." But they will not.  Most have no where to go.  Nor do they want to go anywhere.  This is their home too. In South Africa, he said, the Blacks came to realize that "if we were going to have freedom, we were going to have to be neighbors [with Whites].  We were going to have to co-exist.  And that is mind-shifting!" It makes you realize that you have to come up with a plan to live together in peace.
  2. Second, he advised us to do what the ANC did in 1955: They "started with the end"—defining their ultimate vision for South African Society. "The ANC vision was that South Africa belongs to everyone who lives there, Black and White. That not only [was] a statement of vision, it [was] an extension of friendship.  It [was] an act of generosity." Even as Whites continued to dis-empower (and often kill) Blacks in South Africa, the Blacks had the "supreme humanity to say that South Africa still belong[ed] to [the White oppressors] as well as to the Black oppressed. That disrupt[ed] the little pictures [the Whites had] constructed in [their] minds" and allowed people to open themselves up to new ideas. 
  3. Rasool's third item for the toolbox was the idea that was preached by Nelson Mandela, "you don't destroy what you want to inherit." ... "You begin to take responsibility for the country. You can go forth and fight it out to the death, or you can seek to preserve it as much as possible."
  4. The fourth idea is that in your (American) struggle (and there must be struggle, he asserted, because polarization never ends without struggle), you "isolate the extremes, but you unite the middle ground. That's redeeming the humanity of the other.  Even if "the other" is your oppressor, you take responsibility" for finding the human commonalities with them. Whenever they point out differences, you point out similarities—show how you are both human. Show how you share many interests and aspirations.  "You must always do battle with the extremes, because they will never reform until they are mentally defeated or politically defeated.  But the middle ground mustn’t be confused for all of them. You have to redeem them with a sense of humanity."  
  5. That led to the fifth idea that the struggle is waged through politics and ideology, but the ideology should always have a "human lens," that humanizes the other.  "That was the strength of Nelson Mandela. He waged a model struggle where [he didn't] try to out populist the populists.  There’s a fundamental difference between Mandela’s popularity and Trump’s populism. Because populism feeds the fears and the ignorance and the instincts of people. Mandela appealed to people’s better angels."
  6. Rasool's six item for the toolbox was the idea that there is "no easy redemption. You have to confront the truth." This is where, he said, truth commissions come into play.  Some people, he said, think that "truth must be sacrificed in order to build unity," in order to reach some kind of reconciliation.  He called that kind of reconciliation "rainbow-ism."  But rainbow-ism isn't real reconciliation.  The truth will continue to fester, to cause hatred and fear.  Truth has to come out. 

    He compared the process of truth-telling to peeling an onion: "[You peel] an onion, layer by layer. The tears are rolling, it’s painful, but it has to be done to get to the core of what went wrong.  And you must have a sense of accountability.

  7. The last tool was the necessity of finding the intersection between justice and peace.  Just as you have to balance truth and peace, justice and peace are also, to some extent, in conflict. "Too perfect a struggle for justice means perpetual struggle, and too easy a reach for peace means sweeping justice into the coffin. That intersection, that proportionality, is absolutely crucial.  You need sufficient justice and sufficient peace in order to mold that kind of reconciliation that has both of those elements in it. 

These observations, particularly numbers 6 and 7, lead directly into an idea popularized a long time ago by John Paul Lederach, who defined "reconciliation" as being "the meeting place" of truth, peace, justice, and mercy.  As he wrote in Chapter 3 of his seminal work Building Peace,

Reconciliation, in essence, represents a place, the point of encounter where concerns about both the past and the future can meet. Reconciliation-as-encounter suggests that space for the acknowledging of the past and envisioning of the future is the necessary ingredient for reframing the present. For this to happen, people must find ways to encounter themselves and their enemies, their hopes and their fears. ...

He went on to explain this idea in more detail, describing how he had long ago worked under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee to run workshops on conflict resolution in Nicaragua, during the Nicaraguan civil war. He ended up working with a "conciliation team" that was mediating negotiations between the Sandinista government and the Yatama, an indigenous resistance movement.  He described how that experience transformed his understanding of reconciliation:

Given the context of war and the deep-rooted animosities that persisted, these were highly charged meetings. At the opening of each village meeting, the Nicaraguan conciliators would read Psalm 85. The psalmist refers to the return of people to their land and the opportunity for peace. In two short lines at the heart of the text (85:10), the Spanish version reads (in translation), "Truth and mercy have met together; peace and justice have kissed." Hearing these powerful images time and again in the context of a deeply divided society, I became curious as to how the conciliators understood the text and the concepts that form a pair of intriguing paradoxes.

He created an exercise that he used then, and has used many times since (as have many other people, including us). He asked the workshop participants to discuss each concept (truth, justice, peace, and mercy) as if it were a person, "describing the images it brought to mind, and what each would have to say about conflict."  

As a conclusion we put the four concepts on paper on the wall, as depicted in figure 1. When I asked the participants what we should call the place where Truth and Mercy, Justice and Peace meet, one of them immediately said, "That place is reconciliation." What was so striking about this conceptualization was the idea that reconciliation represents a social space. Reconciliation is a locus, a place where people and things come together.  

In later iterations with people who weren't really parties to an intense conflict (but were attending conferences or classes, for instance), he put people in one of the four groups and asked them to discuss among themselves what they needed to be fulfilled, who they need it from, how they knew when they had it, who could help them get it, and which of these other "people" they were most afraid. He then asked each group to choose one representative to come to the front of the room, and he mediated between them.  Going around, he queried them about their answers to these questions, and then helped them reconcile what were inevitably contrasting and conflicting answers. What might "justice" give up, to allow "mercy" to meet its fundamental needs?  What might "mercy" give up to allow "truth" and "justice" to meet their needs? And so on.  When, through expert mediation, the four representatives agree on a package of actions that would get each of them enough of what they had originally wanted to agree to it, Lederach pointed out that they had reached "the meeting place" — the place of reconciliation.

If we are to create a future in which almost everyone will want to live, we have to create a future in which peace, justice, truth, and mercy are all balanced.  We cannot, as we said before, impose one side's views on the others.  That will not be acceptable to justice, nor will it long be acceptable to peace.  At the same time, we cannot ignore what happened in the past, failing to find truth. But we also cannot use truth as a bludgeon, wiping out mercy and peace. We have to find a balance of all four of these elements. 

There is no recipe for doing this.  It will be different in every case.  But it will always involve a delicate balance. Just as, in the U.S. political conflict, we can't agree on a future United States in which we would all like to live if either the progressives or the Trump supporters insist on getting everything their way. We also can't reach reconciliation if advocates for justice don't make allowances for mercy or peace. The same is true for the other three factors: none can be completely satisfied — they need to "leave room for" the other three.  We will discuss what this means in future essays, where we will discuss each of these four elements separately (but still taking into account the others).

Once again, there is a lot of complexity here, and many issues to balance.  But I keep on coming back to Rasool's one line in my head, time and again.  How much could we change if we could just accept the fact that "America belongs to all who live here" and we set about the task, as South Africans did, to figure out how we could make that work for everyone?

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