Author suggests transforming conflict from inside out

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 26, 2006

As I took my seat at Coffee Traders with the visiting author, it had been a week since festering Middle East tensions erupted into violence once more when Palestinian militants crossed from Gaza into southern Israel and abducted an Israeli soldier. In less than two weeks two more Israeli soldiers would be abducted, this time by Hezbollah terrorists invading Israel from Lebanon and plunging the world into the humanitarian crisis that has cried out from every newscast since.

Where was the moral and spiritual recrudescence for which U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur pleaded at the end of the Second World War? Where was the change in human hearts that was to open a new era of reconciliation and peace?

My new coffee companion had ideas worth considering.

B.C. writer and globe-trotting conflict resolution specialist Jessie Sutherland had taken time out from a conference at the University of Calgary to come to Cochrane and tell me about her just-published book, Worldview Skills: Transforming Conflict from the Inside Out (available locally at Westlands Bookstore, or at

At first glance, I thought her book was primarily about improving relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. And it certainly is all of that, according to a glowing Foreword by Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwa wa enuk First Nation.

It soon became clear, however, that Jessie has given all of us everywhere a framework for "getting it right" in our relationships together. And that includes traditional Middle East adversaries.

That framework consists of "four guiding touchstones for meaningful reconciliation: drawing on the worldview of the parties themselves; transcending the victim-offender cycle; engaging in large-scale social change; and assessing timing and tactics."

Now, I'm no expert on conflict resolution, but we have several folks in our community who are. One of them is Cochrane town councillor Ken Hynes. I really wanted to get his informed opinion on Jessie's book in the light of the current Middle East situation, so a few days later I passed my copy on to him for comment.

Ken is a retired senior officer in the Canadian Armed Forces with 30 years experience. This included distinguished peace-keeping service in Cyprus and the Middle East. In 2004 he received his Master of Arts degree in conflict analysis and management from Royal Roads University, Victoria. I take his opinions very seriously.

Here, in part, is Ken's response to Jessie's book:

"While the Western world is focused primarily on the symptoms of 'culture clashes,' the most destructive of them being terrorism, Jessie thoughtfully presents a convincing argument that resolution of intractable, deep-rooted conflicts requires some recognition that getting to 'the heart of reconciliation is a parallel process of personal and political transformation from systems of domination to relationships of mutuality.'

"What I enjoyed most about Jessie's book is her discussion about 'transcending the victim-offender paradigm.' Jessie has successfully explored and skillfully explained the importance of qualities such as 'self-responsibility, openness, and power based on personal integrity rather than coercive force.'. . . What would it take to create a common understanding or a set of common principles that would help to shift the focus of parties in Israel and their Muslim neighbours from that of mutual self-destruction to that of mutual co-existence and respect?

"It is imperative to see parties to a conflict as human beings, with natural human wants, needs, desires and so on. At the end of the day, people are more alike than they care to admit and all are desirous of the freedom to live their lives in relative peace and harmony."

However, before any process of reconciliation can even begin, Ken said, there must be "a cessation of the violence and the creation of a 'safe environment'" for "getting people to the table to explore their differences in a healthy way . . . that the parties will respond to."

Reading Ken's comments about "getting people to the table," Jessie responded in an email:

"Perhaps a 'table' is not what is needed. The table approach to conflict resolution is a very rational, Western approach," she said. Based on the success elsewhere of using music, storytelling and connection to "reverse brain chemistry making it easier to live up to our highest values and respond creatively to difficulty," she wondered what might lie in both Lebanese and Israeli traditions that could be drawn on to transform relationships from inside out.

Which brings me back to a quotation from Dostoevsky that has been a guiding light for this column: "The world will be saved by beauty."

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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