Constructing and Deconstructing Conflict: Lessons from Theory and Practice

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By far, the most compelling theory I’ve learned in the Conflict Resolution MA at Tel Aviv University is one that supports violent war as a means of conflict resolution. The author claims that war may often lead to peace, that it is a necessary confrontation that may lead to a greater good. Both sides need to get the aggression out before they can move past the conflict.

But critics of this theory bring focus back to current citizens and soldiers affected by the war. Essentially, the theory presents a trade-off between our current and future societies. Which world deserves the attention of the greater good? Who decides?

As a field, it might sound like a zero-sum game. A tiresome study of an unreachable conclusion. In reality, conflicts always happen and always will happen. This is how the world works.

Even though I’ve easily subscribed to these commonly believable notions, I’m learning that this is just the way things seem now, the way our collective minds have been trained to cope with our conflicted world. But that’s all it is. A coping mechanism. This is how groups adjust to conflict, according to social psychology. We rework and rationalize the story in a way that lets us sleep at night.

Studying conflict resolution and Mediation in a region home to one of the most difficult conflicts to resolve, the Middle East has become my ultimate case study. Not only does the Israeli-Palestinian dispute present endless dynamics which allow me to apply theories learned in the classroom, but many of the theories were developed as direct products of this conflicted part of the world.

One over-arching lesson we’ve learned through this program is that both sides in the conflict have been accused of editing their own versions of their stories, and every part of the world has its own copy. The international students entered this program each with a different sense of the story, learned through different languages. And, after studying the same subject for just a few months, we’re starting to speak the same language.

We’re presented with a new line of thinking. One to which a group of people from varying lives around the world can all somehow relate.

Because of our time spent in the Middle East – and the knowledge we’ve gained both of the conflict and the theory – we’re already being treated as spokespeople, back in our respective home countries, of the complexities of the Arab-Israeli dispute. The questions we receive are varied, differing in knowledge base and preconceived notions of stories heard about this region. People want to know what is the true reality here.

The common theme underlying the answer to all of these questions is this: There is no one reality.

There is no true narrative, because every group of actors in this conflict is speaking its own truth, its own story. Living on both Israeli land and Palestinian land is the religious experience, the cultural experience, interpreted differently across race, gender, and age. Endless identities have grown to feel the heightening of differences between them with international eyes intensely watching.

How can someone be expected to cope with a life built on created differences that inspire misunderstanding, violence, and aggression? Who can determine who is right or wrong?

Beyond the conflict in the Middle East, what real differences do people have besides these constructed ideologies, while all are living in the same socially constructed world?

In simpler times, we lived as tribes protecting our own, trying to survive. Today’s humans aren’t so different, we just have more complex identities to protect. The instincts are still there, but we’ve constructed a world that has become very difficult to live in, a world that is very prone to conflicting ideas and viewpoints. All we know are our own realities within that landscape.

Conflict resolution is teaching me a new frame of mind. It’s been a struggle accepting realities that aren’t my own; but it’s become easier with the right tools. Because there’s no other way. I cope by accepting, by engulfing new ideas that I don’t feel like struggling with anymore. I take them under my wing and carry them with me because it’s easier than fighting them off.

In learning how to resolve different types of conflicts, I’m learning that I’m not in battle with other realities existing around me.

However, in conflict, we do often feel like we’re in battle. We’re scared to love and to laugh with the adversary, because we’re afraid it’ll break down walls that were built to protect ourselves and our tribes. But what if we built bridges instead of walls? What if we communicated and even laughed together?

I’ve encountered mixed reactions to this type of communicative peace-building effort in the Middle East. Certain social movements have been bringing together opposing sides, trying to teach them how to bridge their seemingly incompatible narratives. Their methods range, for example, from the publicizing of “mixed” couples and families on social media, to organized soccer games for Israeli and Palestinian children, to intensive communication workshops.

Some say this approach is idealistic, that it’s not as substantial as international pressure or domestic political leverage, for instance. But others just see it as optimistic. And when there seems to be no viable alternative, isn’t optimism just another coping mechanism?

Some say it’s unrealistic, but do realism and optimism have to be in conflict with each other? By opening the conversation about this conflict of ideas, we can see that they represent two differing realities. Both exist and both have the power to help the people who can’t help themselves.

Whether resolve results from grassroots initiatives, legal enforcement, bilateral agreements, or mediation, communication is always the first step. Words can help begin the process of merging realities. They can help each side see clearly the positions and interests of the other, rather than assuming them, and to realize that they’re not in battle with each other’s disposition, but maybe instead with a bigger situation.

Conflict resolution teaches us how to frame the communication, how to theorize the causes of conflict, and how to apply mechanisms in attempted resolve. The theories we learn are applied across demographics; they cross social boundaries. In essence, they strip people of their differences. I’ve been stringing together the theories and experiences I’ve encountered, and the final result is being solidified: we’re all just people.

These are the bridges we should be building instead of walls. From my experiences, they add love, laughter, and color to a world that used to be seen in rigid black and white.