cultural violence

Politicizing the holidays. Maouloud in Côte d’Ivoire.

Today in Côte d’Ivoire there is public holiday; at least for some. Others will take the holiday tomorrow.

Sadly, the holiday to commemorate the birth of the Prophet (peace be upon him), known as Maouloud/Mawlid (and numerous other spellings), is now being used as a political weapon between Gbagbo and Ouattara’s camps. On Monday, Imam Idriss Kudu Kone, chairman of the National Islamic Council (CNI), declared Tuesday the paid holiday, which was supported by the Gbagbo government. However, Sheikh Fofana Boikary, Chairman of the Higher Council of Imams in Côte d’Ivoire (COSIMA) announced that Wednesday would be the paid holiday, the date backed by Ouattara’s government.

The date of the holiday typically fluctuates within the Gregorian calendar, as it is traditionally set according to the lunar Arabic calendar that doesn’t run its months in the same fashion. Sunni Muslims typically celebrate 5 days earlier than Shi’as. There are also commonly other date variations depending on the country and cultural beliefs of the person. Burkina Faso, for example, celebrate their public holiday this year on Wednesday (the same date as COSIMA), but in several other Arabic countries, such as Mali, and Lebanon the holiday this year falls today, Tuesday (the same date as the CNI). Saudi Arabia does not have a public holiday at all, and some sects also abstain from celebration altogether.

The altering dates however, have caused some stir among the local population. Managers and owners of industry and business must give their employees one day off with pay, but both Presidents are stating that their date is the “proper” date that must be legally followed and many employees are angered that they are forced to work on their day of rest. The result has been divisive. One’s sympathies become much more apparent publicly, as they must chose when to work or not to work, when to worship or not worship. It’s a hot topic of conversation at the moment and I’ve listened as numerous verbal conflicts have ensued around me.

And of course, the local papers are awash with the same slanted political rhetoric I’ve come to dread; one side alleging that the CNI Imam is working to divide the Muslim community while sitting in Gbagbo’s pocket, the other is filled with rumours that Burkina’s President collaborated with Ouattara to create a controversy. Conspiracies and rumours run wild. This was supposed to be a holiday, a day of rest. Now it is another wedge in the community. Another block between people.

I’ve heard countless stories lately of families breaking up over politics in this country. The economic effects are crippling on many families, as food and goods prices have all skyrocketed. Exports are slowed, imports are slowed. Banks are closing. I’ve also heard now from those in some of the neighbouring countries who say they are also feeling the economic effects.

Moves like this continually force politics into the public sphere, manufacturing cultural violence that only eventually fuel violent structural policies that are exclusive or insensitive to some parts of the population, in turn only creating more incidences of direct violence as people become incensed at the inequalities. Frankly, I’m disappointed to not see more attempts at lessening the cultural violence within the country. So far, I’ve read tons of suggestions and strategies aimed at economically hurting Gbagbo, using military invasion, using mediation between the leaders to lessen the crisis; but where are the strategies aimed at healing the divisions being created within society? Where is the funding and aid being directed to peacebuilding projects? There are a few organizations like the Search for Common Ground (SCG) in the country trying to do just this, and they have been having relative success. SCG’s balanced radio program is currently a voice of reason in a sea of escalating propaganda and their conflict resolution strategies for land conflicts have shown to be quite effective.

Lately, I fear this country may just end up split in two. Getting Gbagbo out of power will not instantly heal this country, as land conflicts, majorly corrupt justice systems, disenfranchisement of certain populations in certain areas, slanted media that marginalizes moderate voices and numerous other cultural, economic and sociological factors are at play here, working to divide the population. It makes me wonder why the focus for de-escalating conflict within the international community seems always directed at the political and economic sphere. There always seems to be a focus on the macro, to the detriment of the micro. Leaders come and go (and sometimes stay longer than we’d like), but the lingering effects of the cultural and structural conflicts that are manufactured remain for many years to come.


Using Theatre to Overcome Oppression

Many of the peace strategies used in current conflict zones focus on reducing the direct violence or the structural violence within the government systems while neglecting to truly address the cultural violence that lingers within the society.  Cultural violence, a term made famous by peace scholar Johan Galtung, is described as “any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form”, which can include comments, conversations, writing, art, or ideologies. Cultural violence is the most difficult type of violence to address, as it is thoroughly engrained into everyday practices and gradually built up over a lifetime. Peacekeeping, without strong simultaneous attempts at reducing cultural violence, is like putting a bucket under a leaky faucet and expecting it to stop the leak. The bucket will not stop the cause of the leak or prevent it from continuing and may even contribute to larger problems. Dialogue is incredibly important in conflict zones, but it is often difficult to get a conversation going when hostilities are still broiling. Can we discuss and bring about change when oppression is deeply embedded in a culture? Can we encourage people to speak out against situations of oppression and change their personal behaviours?

Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed is an approach to social change that allows for protected dialogue into an issue behind a veil of theatrics. Spectators, who become active participants in the production, are able to analyze and transform their own reality through the safe dialogue of the theatre. Actors simulate common oppressive behavior and then provide the audience with a chance to suggest actions for the actors to carry out in the scene in an attempt to change the outcome, overcoming the oppression. The hope is that the modeled behavior will help spectators become empowered to act and change their thinking towards oppression in their own lives, giving them the experience of starting a dialogue against oppression. The theatre is a mix of improvisation and scripting, showing repeated oppressive scenes. The audience enacts suggested changes in each condensed round in an attempt to overcome the oppression in new ways or to recreate new forms of oppression for the actors to overcome.

Invisible Theatre extends this format using the pedagogy of overcoming oppression by injecting the activist theatrics into everyday public street life. A scripted core is utilized to demonstrate an instance of social injustice, such as racism or sexism, without the watching public’s knowledge that theatre is being performed in front of them. Actors perform the parts of the oppressors and oppressed, as well as opinionated by-standers that encourage the public to react. They demonstrate how oppression can be resolved or overcome by an average person and encourage the watching public to act in a similar manner in their own lives.

Change begins with ideas. It is not enough to simply separate warring parties. For peacekeeping to be truly effective, we must first stop the cultural flame that stimulates the conflict.

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The depths of violence.

Violence is more than just physical injuries, killings, beatings and inflictions of pain. It is more than the verbal and emotional abuse as well. This type of violence is referred to as direct violence in peace, conflict and transformation studies. These are clear subject-action-object type of relationships that result in the observation or experience of hurt in individuals or groups, usually happening quickly and dramatically; with possibly life-lasting traumatic effects.

The other types of violence are sometimes much more subtle; and possibly not even considered as violence outside the sphere of peace academics or activists. These types of violence create the conditions for direct violence to occur. The direct violence is most often merely the manifestations of the other forms of violence; the pent up anger, resentment, mindsets and reasons people rage into direct violence. Structural and cultural violence experienced by humans, only reinforces or condones more violent behaviour. If the system can do it, so can I.

Structural violence is the poverty, the hunger, the repression, the social alienation, the denial of educational opportunities, the causing of human misery, and the established patterns of organized society that result in systematic harm to millions of people each year. Structural violence is institionalized. It is rationalized and sanctioned by the state, making it the violence of the status quo. It extends to the systems and practices that allows violence to occur in the supply of products and services that are used by people who are unaware or are disconnected from the damage they cause around the world in their production.

Cultural violence has been referred to as the source of other types of violence because it produces hatred, fear and suspicion that leads to violence or violent policies and practices. Cultural violence engrains itself within us, and is the hardest to contain. It is found in comments, conversations, writing, art, ideologies, even empirical science and religious symbology. It is everywhere. It is propaganda, lies, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings that lead people to violent thoughts or behaviours; to hate other individuals or groups. This is the hardest type of violence to stop, as it is so thoroughly engrained into our cultures. It builds up over time. You can hear a comment here, and see a picture here and after enough “evidence”, you begin to see things in a new way. When spouted or displayed by those in positions of power or respect, cultural violence is its most damaging, because it then becomes “fact”. It is then passed on to many, and over time becomes the new cultural norm.

Stemming violence completely is a lofty goal, but limiting the structural and cultural violent norms is something we can definitely strive for. Doing this will also reduce the incidences of direct violence that occur in society. As the structures become more peaceful and equitable, so does the population living within it.

If peace were truly a goal of the governments in charge, they would take extensive efforts to reduce the cultural and structural violence that precipates the direct violence that occurs. They would restructure their policies and norms that are inequitable and violent. They would limit the amount of structural violence in the systems to create a more viable social trust. They would limit the propaganda allowed in the media and make more stringent policies to discourage violent business practices. The would create a culture of peace, and not a culture of war.

Peace is possibly attainable, despite what most realists will tell you. It is far off from our current reality, but it is possible. Human behaviour and cultural norms have been known to change. In our society, it starts with our systems. If our systems are corrupt and inequitable, our societies will remain violent. If our systems become systems to trust, systems that reward and promote peace, our societies will become more peaceful.

We have focused our energies towards war and profit for so long, it is hard to envison a different society. Peace studies has only recently become an academic discipline. Conflict transformation studies and strategies are still only developing and are given only minimal funding and attention. When put into practice, many conflict transformation strategies have proven somewhat successful. Some have been incredibly successful. The more money, time and energy we spend towards these strategies, the closer we will come to peace.

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Until you have lived it, it’s hard to really understand the full complexities of this war (or any war for that matter). People read or are told all kinds of untruths about this war and seem keen on spreading them further, with such anger and hate in their voices. There are MANY guilty parties in this war, who have committed tremendous wrongs against other human beings. It is no longer a matter of who started what. Deciding blame is no longer an option. This war needs to stop and some sort of peace must begin to be built. The major human rights abuses need to stop.

What I find so frustrating about the whole situation is the veil of propaganda that surrounds this war, and the way cultural violence is like gasoline on the fire to an extent that atrocities are spinned to be some sort of a positive.

The civilians living in this area, whether Palestinian or Israeli (and others), should not have to live in fear. They should not have to endure bombings or terror attacks or the denying of any human right. These atrocities need to stop.

I feel that I have to say that I was very nervous printing our first Middle East Issue of A Peace of Conflict. It’s not that I don’t really know about the conflict. I have read extensively on the subject for many years now and visited the region, and know some of the destruction that is capable with my own eyes. As a Canadian, it shocked me beyong belief to see the bullet holes and bombed out bulidings on my first arrival. In Canada, I had always lived a peaceful existence, and war was this distant thing I had only really read about or watched on tv. So I asked Heather, my co-editor if she would write the Israel-Palestine briefing for the issue, because I was sure that in the 200 words alloted that I would have trouble staying neutral, which is something we try to do in the country briefings. And I was also very afraid.

I was afraid to write a piece about the conflict directly, because where do you begin? And how do you avoid the angry backlash that always seems to follow any words about this conflict? How do you avoid spreading propaganda, and how do you keep from hurting others with your statements?

I felt it’s necessary to discuss the fear that I feel in writing about the issue, because that’s part of the cultural violence. It stems dialogue. It stops relationships. It closes minds. It needs to stop.

Cultural violence surrounds the people living in this region. It is ensuring the conflict continues. The people face it in the media, at home, at work, at school, on the streets. It propagates and angers and creates hate. Many Israeli and Palestinians are trying to demand more peaceful solutions to this conflict, and their voices must be heard. Our government must listen to their needs and assist them in developing a peacebuilding solution that can be lasting. Transformation processes must be done to simmer the conflict that rages on between the Israeli state and Hamas.

Peace in the Middle East!

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