Dialogue with the devil

24.01.2020

Nenad Vukosavljević

We need more enemy inclusive projects and programs. We should avoid any collectivization of guilt.

Truth will never be complete, endured losses cannot be reversed or repaired, moral or material compensation is just too little and too late – not a just outcome one would desire. But without all of that, can a guarantee of non-recurrence be achieved? Some would argue against it but we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past – however difficult that may be, it is the task in front of our societies to manage. We may postpone, ignore, ridicule or constructively engage the task of preventing recurrence but the choices we make will determine our future. And if we engage constructively, it means that we will not have competitors or enemies to beat but only hearts of the not-likeminded ones to win. Unexpectedly, these hearts lay at hand on both sides of the, by – hostility determined – sides of the front, within our own garden and across the gap of divide. An ungrateful task?! Not at all.

It is my strong belief that the only guarantee of non-recurrence lays in the process of conflict transformation and change of dominant enmity and hostility fuelling narratives, towards a multiperspective, enemy-inclusive way.

There are no collectives (ethnic groups) that can be labelled as perpetrators or victims of a violent conflict – perpetrators and victims are roles not identities. A single person may be in both roles at different times and circumstances, think of war veteran invalids, or victims advocating hate, revenge and violence. It will be your own yard that fierce resistance to reconciliatory moves will be coming from, you will be labelled as traitor, foreign mercenary, ignorant and insulting the victims of your own group. The resistance across the divide will label you as relativiser of guilt, a threat, part of enemy conspiracy to weaken the victims’ outcry.

Conditions to reconciliation will be listed which will have one thing in common: these conditions may never be completely fulfilled. And partiality is unacceptable?!

My friend Adnan, a colleague of mine, who was a teenager when he was drafted to war and spent three and a half years in besieged Sarajevo, explained his search of dialogue partners among men, who belonged to the army that shelled him for years, by saying “I would rather speak to the devil himself, than let another war come down at us.”

Wanting to do some good in the aftermath of massive violence, it seems like a good advice to come down from the moral highgrounds, have a look at oneself and evaluate your own level of self-righteousness and its consequences. Does it match the level of those who instigate to violence, the chain of actions masqueraded as reactions to previous actions?

What is this dialogue about, where does it lead to when it is conducted in a room that displays a framed picture of convicted war-criminal on its wall? To tell you the truth, I guess you’d be surprised. I certainly was. The thing is: I speak of a dialogue which is not mere competition of arguments in a decent way, where one side takes the win. It is about listening, asking yourself and your counterpart, understanding your own thoughts and feelings and expressing them to the possible extent. It includes recognising imperfections and misconceptions, accepting them, talking about them, challenging them, but not judging people by them. It is about the process and it is the process.

Dialogue is not automatically leading to improvement, it is an effort. It is more than “Let's hear them out”, it is listening and reflecting.

Relativisation vs Generalisation

There are still many people, who decline even to encounter the “enemies”, those many people are intellectuals, artists, journalists, teachers, peasants, workers, rich and poor –there is no clear rule. 

What will be reproached is the readiness for unconditional dialogue and it is likely that you will be reproached for “relativisation of guilt”, for alleged disregard of the context and collective responsibilities. What they mean by this is: that there are (ethnic) collectives who share their ethnic identity and automatically also share their innocence and their victimhood, collective responsibility cannot be shared by the whole group unless it is the responsibility of the perpetrators collective, and that victims of the perpetrator collective cannot be treated equally as victims of the “proper” victim collective. Effectively, they advocate the hierarchy of the victims, they reject equal respect for human life and rank its value accordingly to the assessment of righteousness. The expectation towards others, to accept one’s own assessment of righteousness, is not only bound to be unfulfilled, it also causes injury, as it communicates that some victims are less important. Injury fosters mistrust and fear, ironically something that “righteous” will claim irrelevant when turned against them, because they are moral and nobody should be afraid of them, their well-intended deed is for the overall good of society...

Mistrust and fear come with hatred, maintain prejudice and set us back to the ceasefire we live in. Intended or not, that is the outcome.

On the other hand, I believe that treating all loss of human life equally, independent of the victim’s origin or circumstances, prevents the abuse of a loss of human lives being turned into a victimhood of collectives and creation of narratives of “good” and “bad” collectives. It also prevents the collectivisation of guilt by labelling whole collectives as perpetrators/offenders. When one condemns violence, shows respect and expresses remorse for a loss of human life of a soldier who belonged to a unit that committed crimes, this expression of empathy means no endorsement of the war banner, ideology or beliefs the fallen soldier has fought for. It means sorrow, that human life was tragically wasted, no more and no less than that.

Joint appearance of groups of former enemies at commemorations has proven a powerful way of mind disarmament, as they communicate: “we are not a threat, we come in peace, we regret the loss of human life”. We fear you not, we come in peace, fear us not.

To a lesser or greater extent, if you come from, or have lived in a country that was tormented by killings and injustice, you must have felt the belonging(s) imposed on you – by being identified to belong to either of the hostile groups. You know how it feels to be treated unjust based solely on the identity tag that someone external attached to you. And most of us have had at least moments of fear, anger and pain that it felt just to support or justify violence against the ones we saw as perpetrators of injustice. If you are prepared to find peace with yourself over that, you are certainly capable to reconcile with others. You do not need justice, truth, revenge, punishment or repair to stop hating others collectively, because hating the whole group of others, of enemies, is what justifies violence against them, makes wars possible. Coming out of this cycle and staying out of this cycle is the safeguard of non-recurrence, certainly something that needs maintenance, demands permanent vigilance and reflective action, seeks for structural changes and institutionalisation. But, it all starts with oneself and your own decision. Would you speak to your enemy? No? This is also okay, a right to exercise, all at the time... But, advocating hatred and revenge publicly is not your right, nor anyone’s.

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Author

Nenad Vukosavljević works for the Centre for Nonviolent Action (CNA).

Issue: Diversity/Dialogue

a. Peacebuilding requires the integration of conflicting narratives. To that end, these narratives must be transformed/made “fit for peace”. How can this be achieved?
b. How can diverse perspectives be made visible in social discourse – or in a museum? What is the connecting element in this diversity? How can relativism and arbitrariness be excluded?