We live in an era of polarization. It has become increasingly difficult to find the middle ground. The blue/red divide in the U.S. also exists globally where it often focuses on differences between secular and religious perspectives. The airwaves and blogosphere are crowded with self-proclaimed experts providing unfiltered and unconditional commentaries on fixing our global and national woes. Today, it is easy to find an "authority" who agrees with us and this, in turn, hardens our views without our ideas being subjected to testing, challenged for sensibleness and possibly modified and adapted. We increasingly are not interested in considering whether our views could undermine reasonableness or exploring ways to create consensus to advance the greater good. We are always right.
In such an environment, we can fail to find things that connect us as Americans and as residents of the same troubled planet. In this failure, we risk putting our self-righteousness above finding solutions to challenges that will allow us to listen to each other, and through this, discover opportunities that can demonstrate to future generations our ability to put the common good first.
I consult with communities and colleges across the U.S., some based in urban areas, but many found in rural America. Based near Washington, D.C., to some I represent the big government deep blue culture that is the antithesis of much of rural America. My work, which focuses on promoting conflict resolution and employing peacebuilding strategies, is viewed as unsettling to some of my audiences. Merely using the word "peace" can arouse suspicion from those who might view it in a subversive way.
History and social movements have framed our views of peace. Peace conjures up images of activists during the Vietnam Era, those participating in the Occupy movement objecting to Wall Street excesses, or today, those protesting the actions of police in Ferguson, Mo. To some these acts appear as anti-American, destabilizing the free market, and most recently with Ferguson, vilifying the work of law enforcement professionals.
In these contexts, peace is viewed as ends that either align with or undermine our values. Peace is something that we see, and we either support it or are unnerved by it. This view of peace, though, neglects considering peace as a means to finding commonality and, in turn, promoting policies, strategies and goals that advance the collective will.
Recently, I was invited to Independence, Kan. by the local community college to support an effort to develop an academic program focusing on conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Independence is located in rural southeastern Kansas, and has a population of about 9,200. It is situated in an area experiencing a population exodus and businesses closing. Shortly before my visit, Amazon shuttered a redistribution center that had employed 500: a major hit for the area.
Often, we are do not immediately recognize what we share including historical curiosities. Though we are all part of the same country, the daily routine of folks in Kansas might be very different than those in my home state of Maryland. It was then reassuring, though arguably trivial, that I realized that we both shared something in common: Major General Richard Montgomery. A military leader during the American Revolution, he was an Irish émigré who died leading American forces to capture Quebec City in 1775. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland. Independence is in Montgomery County, Kan. Both are named for the same patriot, who today is viewed as an obscure general with no connection to either county. I shared this in our meetings, and though my audience was not visibly moved by the revelation, I sensed that this bit of symbolism illustrated how notwithstanding our potential political and social differences, there are things that unite us.
The process of finding commonality is a peaceful means to working together. Peace as means rather than peace as ends can help those of difference understand each other, and thereby foster solutions to challenges that can benefit all sides. Mahatma Gandhi believed that above all things, peaceful means were critical to peaceful ends: "They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end." Means that use dialogue and discussion, share perspectives and narratives, elicit empathy and compassion, will in the end result in futures that can serve us all.
In talking with education leaders, business owners, faith community members and college students and faculty in Independence, I shared how peace as a means to engagement transcends the red/blue divide. Dialogue is not a "left" or "right" strategy. Having a conversation with someone with a differing view can lead to understanding, rather than a combative debate. Through the use of peaceful means we learn about the challenges, suffering, and dreams that we all experience. In this way, we discover that we share more than the namesake of our counties, but similar visions for our communities, hopes for our children, and a future that promotes economic prosperity, equality of treatment for all, secure communities, and by this, peaceful means leading to peaceful ends.
Reference: Mohandas K. Gandhi, Young India, July 17, 1924