Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

A and B, but not enough C: Galtung on the state of American Conflict Resolution

In Reviews on April 26, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Well you missed another session of bracing conversation with Johan Galtung last night–that is unless you were among the roughly twenty people who turned out to fifth and K to see the great peace scholar do his thing at Busboys and Poets. The evening was well worth the effort to turn out. Not only is the space really a pleasant venue for an intellectual evening, but Professor Galtung’s lecture provided just what one would come to expect from one of the twentieth century’s great radical social scientists.  Perched in the corner of the room like some cross between Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds and Spaulding Gray on his way to Cambodia, he offered his evaluation of the War on Terror and the so-called American Empire. If you are American or Israeli, you almost have to root against him, because his views are so pessimistic, but love him or hate him, he offers a take on world affairs all his own.

If I could highlight one special moment of the evening (apart from the fact that my four year old daughter listened dutifully to the entirety of the lecture without disruption), I would point to Galtung’s evaluation of the Conflict Resolution field in the United States. After sharing an anecdote about Prime Minister Zapatero of Spain and how he handled the terrorist attack there with an accommodating civilizational posture, he suggested that Spain had the leading intellectual peace community in the world. He imagined that this might surprise the audience, and in his avuncular way averred that we are doing alright here in the U.S., but are unable to produce good scholarship due to our Anglo-American fascination for factual verification at the expense of theory, combined with our unfortunate problem of being trapped in the U.S. media bubble. Surely he is right about the latter problem; there has never been a time that I have left the country without having the sense of flying back into a discursive haze on my return. On the point about evidence based scholarship, I demur, but I accept that we could allow our imaginations to wander a bit more. When Galtung claims that every Arab school child knows more about what caused 9/11 than the combined conventional wisdom of American terrorism scholarship, he has something of a point. Perhaps all the talk of freedom puts us into something of an ideological stupor.

Galtung’s evaluation of the U.S. Conflict Resolution field was kindest with respect to Eastern Mennonite. You readers from ICAR West can rest easy to know that he sees your work as worth emulating, presumably for you willingness to embrace a transformative approach to resolution practice that is largely purified of the self righteous flavor of the American creed that Galtung can barely resist denigrating in every sentence he shares on the subject. There is little question that the one thing that Johan cannot abide is the legitimations that the powerful offer in support of their abuses. His outrage is expressed in his characterization of those who fight for hearts and minds, but have no heart and can’t use their minds. It may be his experience with Nazi occupation that developed this aversion in him, but he can’t help but shower it on those who he even vaguely suspects are fouled by it. It is this that makes it so challenging, if exhilarating at times in a masochistic way, as a child of the thought bubble to listen to his scolds–Galtung’s favorite targets are fellow academics who he described last night as lazy, boring, unhelpful and looking forward only to sabbatical (as I said you have to head into his talks with a certain kind of thick skin).

So why does one spend the time with Johan Galtung again and again? Is it a secret self loathing that can only find expression in a public shaming? No, I suppose one goes back to experience this suspicious mind because one expects to find something there that is true, however one wishes it were not. Galtung is a reliable source of critical insight into the world’s seemingly intractable problems that can help the thoughtful student of conflict to triangulate her way to a reasonable perspective. There is nothing of the gentle brilliance in him that one finds in John Paul Lederach, and his Nordic diatribes veer close to cruel abstraction at times, but one realizes that there are few others like this modern Paul who would come to the heart of the Rome of our times to share his peculiar secular gospel of transcendence. It is clear to those willing to see that he is so harsh by virtue of the fact that he loves the world so much.

The night’s lesson for those of us who would pursue a science of conflict in America, was that we should recognize that our particular blend has the right amount of A and B, but not enough C. This is real inside baseball, but it refers to his ABC model of conflict mapping: A is for attitudes, B is for Behaviors and C is for Contradictions. He claims that our naive dialogical and participatory approach addresses people’s attitudes and personal narratives and looks to the kinds of actions and behaviors though which violence expresses itself, but we have little imagination for Contradiction. Our straight-line Anglo brains (he claims that we English speakers have the only language in which the word for a leader and that for a straight line are the same word-ruler) look to work the contradictions out of the problem (he claims that even for his friend Chris Mitchell, C stands only for context). He would have us confront these contradictions as courageous analysts and not simply as therapists. As a social physician, Galtung demands that we bring diagnosis and prognosis into our work, rather than relying entirely on a method or therapy. In short, we Americans feel too much and know too little.

All this talk of contradiction got me thinking of one in his own approach. Galtung speaks of basic human needs in material terms, much as a development economist might do. He recognizes that rich countries are in a position to share their abundance with others in terms of food clothing and shelter, but if you ransack the Transcend method that he offers as a practice, one finds little there in the way of Maslovian physiological needs. Instead, Galtung is a visionary of political culture, an analyst of actualization. His knack is to dream up new quasi-polities that would allow communities to transcend their parochial experiences in non-coercive ways. Galtung is an architect of feeling who sees in societies the things of the spirit that might unite them, not a political economist who sees the mix of rights that might enrich them.

While sharing transformative goals with a figure like Amartya Sen, it is this tension between the material and symbolic worlds in which we move that makes for Galtung’s contribution. He has shown us with his concept that we live in a world of brutal structural violence, but teaches that our salvation lies in the realm of politico-cultural transcendence. He warned us academics in the crowd not to “etiquette him”, that it had the opposite effect on him than intended, but my Midwestern upbringing forces my hand. I like the man and I like to listen to him. For me, an evening with Johan Galtung is always a moment of profound self interrogation of the kind that proves to me that he is on to something, even as I know in my own heart and mind that he is seriously off kilter.  How’s that for Contradiction?

  1. […] have heard from various readers that I gave Johan a rough go after his talk in DC the other day. Not at all. I treated him as he demands that we treat him–as the kind of violent angel […]

  2. Konrad, this is great to have linked here. Johan is a unique character who is unafraid to say exactly what he means.

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