February 15, 2003

When philosophies wage war …

I was sent for a workshop on peaceful co-existence by work day before yesterday. I was sent not because I was involved in any project about peaceful co-existence but because my boss had been invited but had to leave early whereas they wanted the participants to be there till the end of the day – so I was the chosen one to provide cover for my boss when she left :p I think I did a pretty good job since I infused my own brand of philosophy in to the discussion and was so in their face, questioning their methods that they probably will specifically ask my boss not to send me there again in the future <vbg> Be that as may be, there were some interesting points of note to the whole experience.

They started the workshop by telling each one of us to write down four words that came to our mind when you said peaceful co-existence. Then they had us get into pairs and combine our two sets of four words and come up with a list of four words that we felt best described peaceful co-existence. The first person I was paired with was a girl who believed that non-threatened (her word) was a better choice than understanding (my word). We had a fairly long discussion on this and in the interests of peace, I agreed to combine non-threatened, understanding and another word which I can’t remember to come up with non-threatened. However, by this time it was dawning on me that this exercise was a better way to discourage peaceful co-existence than to foster it :p Everybody gets hung up on "their" words and it becomes contentious – at least, it was so with all the groups I was involved with … so maybe I was the negative link in all of these but I believed that I was trying to compromise as much as I could – so maybe it’s an aura around me or something :p

Anyway, they had the groups of two then combine into groups of four and again combine the words to come up with four again. This time, the other group had understanding and we were back to the impasse about understanding and non-threatened. Honestly, I felt that understanding describes peaceful co-existence better than non-threatened but to simply trample all over the other person even though there was now a majority of three speaking for understanding, didn’t seem right to me. So I proposed a compromise again where we kept both understanding and non-threatened. They then made up groups of eight to again come up with a list of four words. We were put with my boss’s group this time and she’d noticed that our group took a long time to deliberate over matters and she’d decided to show her leadership skills – or maybe she was just tired of all the arguing. So she just got very bossy, challenged people and basically bullied everybody into agreement quickly <g> But understanding still survived.

Now they combined the four words from three different groups of eight people each to come up with one final four word list. Understanding still was there (why do I keep on repeating that? Because to me understanding is very important for peaceful co-existence but that is something for another day again …) and then we had this huge argument for "tolerance". A lot of people seemed to think that tolerance was alright but I felt that tolerance implied some negativity – that you didn’t really agree with the other person but were willing to tolerate them for the sake of harmony – like I’d done with "non-threatened" <g> and that really is not healthy since you do have some (maybe a very minute amount but yet some) amount of resentment which can over time grow into a problem. We finally agreed to drop tolerance and came up with our list of words – which I now totally forget except for understanding and harmony.

Another exercise that they had us do provoked even stronger emotions from me. They had us divide into ethnic groups and come up with stereotypes for other ethnic groups as well as stereotypes that the other groups had for us. Now I was the only Muslim there and while the following might sound like a cop-out, it wasn’t – I basically did what I believed in :p I’ve always believed that our basic problem here in Sri Lanka is that we cling to our ethnic, racial, religious differences than to embrace the fact that we are all Sri Lankans. I wanted to represent the Sri Lankans and not the Muslims but since I also have this strong urge to follow rules (not the implied ones of society but rather the rules laid out in a classroom situation or basically any rule that is explicitly laid down I guess :p), I decided not to. However, one of the others at the workshop had joined the Muslim group – her name is Veronique and she changed my mind for me. She said that I should do what I was comfortable with and not what was forced upon me and I saw that this was right and so simply wrote down stereotypes about Sri Lankans. It was interesting to note the comments of some of the others at the stage when they didn’t know what I was doing but only saw this long list I had – they would say things like "you are a single person and yet you have such a long list about *our* group?" It was very much evident that group feelings were pretty much at the forefront and I was beginning to dislike this particular exercise very much because it seemed to engender hostilities rather than to foster peace.

I remarked on this later when we’d read out all our lists of stereotypes and was told that we had to see the differences before we can understand each other. While I subsided at that point, later reflection has shown me that this was wrong. We already *know* the differences, that’s why we have conflict. The point is to let us *understand* the differences and to learn that we are not really that different after all. I really don’t think that the workshop did anything towards that – it was so busy highlighting differences that they forgot that what they had to do was to let people reconcile these differences. In fact, when I spoke in support certain people in another group, I was told that I was to remain silent while that group sorted it out themselves. This to me sounds like segregation and demarcation and that’s basically what brought us to the present crisis! Ah well … even the teachers sometimes need teaching methinks …

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Posted by Fahim at 6:33 am  |  No Comments