Paris: Shifting the Heart of the Collective

The origins of the refugee and terrorist crises are in the massive direct and structural violence in the Middle East -- at which point the circle loops back to the Western countries and their continued complicity in these issues.
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The terror attacks in Paris are a stab to our collective heart. The choice of the location for the terror attacks aims at the three core values of Western civilization: liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Since Nov 14, France's President Hollande has used the word "war" to describe the relationship between his country and the terrorists of the Islamic State (IS) or ISIS and has intensified military strikes in Syria. Although the wisdom of that decision and that word can be questioned, there is definitely a warlike situation in Paris now. But what kind of war is it--between whom and what? We know that framing this as a religious conflict against Islam would not only be wrong (consider that in Iraq alone more than 10,000 people -- many of them Muslim -- are killed through mostly IS led acts of terror per year), it would also serve as the perfect recruitment tool for the IS worldwide.

But how much better (and accurate) is it to frame it as a war against the Islamic State? Attempting to destroy ISIS by bombing them in retaliation is both militarily challenging and politically foolhardy because, again, doing so would attract a never-ending stream of ISIS volunteers from the West.

Confronting the Root Cause

Instead of fueling the vicious cycle of violence, why not try to confront the root cause of the conflict? That root cause is not only the catastrophic conditions that the people of Syria and Iraq are suffering, and the personal frustrations and grievances of young Muslims around the world who, like the Paris attackers, are volunteering for ISIS in ever-higher numbers; but also the quality of thought, the mindset, that is being used to address these problems from all sides.

Since September 11, 2001, we have experienced, with increasing frequency, many types of disruption: financial meltdowns, climate destabilization, and terrorist attacks. We can no longer control this stream of disruptions. They will continue over the coming decade and beyond. It is only a question of time before the next financial meltdown, the next natural disaster, or the next terrorist attack occurs.

So what then can we control? We can control our response to these disruptions. In struggling to respond to disruptive change and systemic breakdowns, countries and leaders around the world engage in a public discourse of essentially three frames or points of view:

1.Muddling through--basically same old, same old. More meetings. More declarations. More empty words. Examples include most of the climate talks and, to name just one example, the position of Britain's Prime Minister Cameron on the international refugee crisis. Eloquent talk, high-flying rhetoric, but nothing of substance (from a country that played a key role in the Iraq war that laid the groundwork for the rise of the IS). A similar point could me made re the US response: since 2011, the US has accepted little more than 2000 Syrian refugees--less than come to Germany these days on a single morning.

2.Moving apart--Let's build a huge wall that separates "us" from the "them." Let's practice the values of freedom, equality, and solidarity inside these walls, and let's do the opposite outside of them. In so many words, those are the positions of Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and, to a varying degree, most of the other Republican U.S. presidential candidates and Europe's right-wing politicians.

3.Moving together-- Acknowledge our own role in generating the problem, and therefore our responsibility to co-create a solution. Bring the walls down, collapse the separations, and apply our solidarity universally to all human beings, wherever they are. So say Angela Merkel of Germany, Stefan Löfven of Sweden, as well as many citizens and NGOs across Europe and around the world that keep rising to the occasion.

Reality cries out for the third view. The first view tries to deny that the system is broken. The second view says OK, the system is broken, but it has nothing to do with us. "THEY" are the problem, not "us," so let's put a wall between us and them. Only the third view offers a viable way forward.

The more you dig into the substantive issues of the refugee situation, climate destabilization, and the terrorist attacks, the more you realize that there is NOTHING any country can do alone, and that the real solutions must include the entire global eco-system of players in collaborative and co-creative ways.

There will not be any solution to the climate crisis without a massive transfer of resources and technologies from industrial to developing countries. There will not be any solution to the refugee crisis in Europe without a massive financial transfer and aid from the EU to Turkey to help the 2 million refugees currently living there. The origins of the refugee and terrorist crises are in the massive direct and structural violence in the Middle East--at which point the circle loops back to the Western countries and their continued complicity in these issues (for example, by buying oil from and selling weapons to state entities such as Saudi Arabia who, through their religious industrial complex, spread the fundamentalist teachings of Wahhabism which then ISIS turns into action through acts of terrorism).

My point is simple: the third view is not only a moral one, but also an economic and political imperative. And: addressing the root cause (rather than the symptoms) of terrorism means to address its spiritual dimension: the underlying mindset of fundamentalism.

Clashing Forces

The figure below shows two clashing mindsets that each give rise to a different dynamic and social field: presencing--that is, the capacity of co-sensing and co-shaping the future by enacting a social architecture of connection; and the field of absencing--that is, the field of "building up walls", by enacting a social architecture of separation.

2015-11-18-1447861180-9737778-Slide1.jpgTwo Cycles, two Social Fields: Absencing and Presencing (Source: Theory U) The real battle of our time is not between religions, and also not between ISIS and Western countries. The real battle of our time is between the forces of "absencing" (economies of fear and destruction), and the forces of "presencing" (economies of courage and creation). It's a battle that takes place across all levels of systems.

The Bush Administration response to 9/11 was firmly grounded in the cycle of absencing and destruction. Bomb them to hell. The results were nothing short of catastrophic, including the rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis in Europe today.

Even though some military force may be required, at the end of the day ISIS cannot be fought and beaten with strategies of absencing. That's the exact strategy that created the monster in the first place. The only way to slay the monster is to use strategies that originate with the cycle of presencing and creation. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the civil rights movement that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall showed us how it's done.

Resistance of the Heart

It has been often said that in the face of the most destructive forces--such as Hitler and Nazi Germany--it's not good enough to keep focusing on Gandhian types of nonviolent strategies of conflict transformation. But that is exactly what hundreds of unarmed German women did for a week in February 1943, at the height of the Nazi power in Europe. In Berlin's Rosenstrasse, they stood toe to toe with machine-gun-wielding Gestapo agents, demanding the release of their imprisoned husbands.

Charlotte Israel, who was among them, recalled,

Without warning, the guards began setting up machine guns. Then they directed them at the crowd and shouted: 'If you don't go now, we'll shoot.' The movement surged backward. But then, for the first time, we really hollered. Now we couldn't care less.... Now they're going to shoot in any case, so now we'll yell too, we thought. We yelled, 'Murderer, murderer, murderer, murderer.'

(Nathan Stoltzfus, Resistance of the Heart, Rutgers University Press, 2001)

The protest by the women from the Rosenstrasse was successful, says the historian Nathan Stoltzfus in his book about the event, because women such as Charlotte Israel were so deeply motivated that they risked their lives. In the end the women's courage and passion prevailed; the 1,700 Jews who had been locked in at the Rosenstrasse were set free.

It's that openhearted courage that will transform ISIS and the fundamentalist mindset it represents. That spirit activates the cycle of presencing. Resorting instead to violence and bombing communities in Syria can only lead to amplifying the cycle of absencing - destroying others, and in the process, destroying who we are.

Even though ISIS dominates our headlines and thus our minds, we should not forget the other events in Europe from recent weeks that, a hundred years from now, may be more historically significant. I'm talking about the rise of citizens, the rise of countless self-organizing groups and communities, the rise of many local politicians, who keep providing help for refugees on a massive scale.

That outpouring of openhearted compassion, seen as people welcomed refugees at the Main Station in Munich, sparked a spirit that since has shifted the collective German response to the issue. It's an incredible force that, in spite of all the noise from the right wing populist that argue for "moving apart", is still going strong--not only in Germany but in countless communities and cities all across Europe. That is the miracle that deserves our attention today. And that is the spirit that eventually will transform ISIS and the mindset of absencing (aka fundamentalism) that gave rise to it. Quoting Hölderlin:

But where danger is, the saving power also grows.

So, what are the conditions that determine whether a community activates the field of absencing or presencing? Whether we collectively enact a social architecture of separation or connection, whether, for example, the people from Munich and Berlin give rise to a monster like Hitler or whether from the very same places, less than 100 years later, to compassionate help in the face of human vulnerability? In essence, the difference is about a shift of the heart on the level of the individual and the collective. The Paris attacks wounded us collectively, and therefore call on us to rise and catalyze the one shift that now matters most--the shift of the heart.

For a more detailed exploration of presencing and absencing: watch this video from our recent edX course U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self. Thanks to Adam Yukelson for his helpful comments.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate-change issues and the conference itself. To view the entire series, visit here.

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