Conflicts are terrible, not just for the bloody trail they leave behind but also because, ironically, they spell the death of any meaningful debate to understand the nature of the conflict and to work towards ending it. The reason is simple: conflict begets entrenched positions grounded in deeply partisan worldviews.
This poses a fundamental problem. Human situations generally defy linearity. Dealing with the complex ones, what Rittel and Webber described as a ‘wicked problem’, is even more problematic. It is a fact of history that while a particular incident might provide the trigger for starting a conflict, it is never the sole cause. If one cares to look closely, one is likely to find multiple causes, gestating over a long time, waiting for that one moment that will unleash the dogs of war.
And when it begins, partisan positions and narratives take over, each, or every, side developing its own truth, filtering out information that conflicts with one’s narrative and retaining only that which supports it. Subtleties are lost; the life of the mind is suppressed in favour of emotions, loyalties, and, very often, the pressure of the circumstances.
To this we might add another fact. The bulk of human beings are not leaders; they look for one. And conflict (also, difficult) situations like the charismatic ones, a Churchill more than an Attlee, in a manner of speaking. Leaders develop narratives; the led lap them up, creating an echo chamber effect.
Nothing strange about this. Humans like to create their comfort zones. In a conflict situation, when life may be nasty, brutish and short, one will always seek the comfort of his own. Walking alone does not remain an option any more. Conflicts are tribal and they require sticking together; divided you fall. Group loyalty is not about right and wrong. It is about survival.
I am reminded of Rose in Pinter’s “The Room”. While the room is warm and cosy, the basement is damp and dark, just like the world outside. The dialogue is irrational, with Rose and Mr Kidd, the landlord, speaking of different things, never listening to what the other is saying. News from outside the room is mysterious and brings trouble. Riley, the black man waiting in the basement, must never come to the room and when he does, trouble reaches its crescendo.
The metaphor of the room (womb) is powerful and works for all of us in varying degrees.
In 2007, as I waited in the front lawns of the Lahore High Court, along with hundreds of others, for the ‘deposed’ Chief Justice of Pakistan to make his appearance, speaker after speaker thundered and charged the already charged-up crowd. Then, at some point, another speaker came. He was soft-spoken. He spoke of nuances, the paradoxes, the requirement of fighting for institutional integrity while remaining within the bounds of law and the Constitution because what was the struggle all about if not to uphold the law?
He was suited for a calm class on law and institutions. He was very smart. No one was interested in him. His voice drowned, despite the microphone, in the din of the slogans raised by the protesting audience. He stepped down in favour of another, who pulled the crowd back in by throwing nuances aside and voicing his intention to break the law, if need be, to restore it, his version of Kipling’s “savage wars of peace”, though it is hard to fathom, given his qualities of head, if he had any acquaintance with Kipling or could figure out the subtlety of his own paradox.
Such is the world we live in now, at home and also in many other parts of the world. States are threatening to implode and the paradox reigns supreme. Globalisation has brought people together; but it’s not just about easy travelling, real-time communication and economic integration. It is also about fragmentation and conflicts travelling the same way and impacting different parts of the world in ways that were unheard of.
States, even the democratic ones, are becoming more authoritarian. And yet, they are also steadily losing space to non-state actors, benign as well as malignant. Even as programmers and software engineers create new applications, the states are either forced, for security reasons, to ban them or, like the US government, legislate for backdoor access to any and everything.
It’s a troubled and troubling world. But the biggest problem is that just when we need more intellectual rigour from greater numbers, the conflicts threaten to reduce the numbers of those who can, and should, take that route, looking at the world with sophistication and appreciating its multiple paradoxes.
The trajectory the conflicts are taking and the way technology is vertically and laterally spreading, means that states will be hard pressed to control the resources and establish their writs. Just the different levels at which wars will be fought, and battles lost and won, will make the task of the states terribly hard. Non-state actors fighting states and other non-state actors; states fighting states and non-state actors, individuals and groups, not just on the battlefields but also in ether; biological weapons, not just used for mass deaths but through designer viruses for assassinations, et cetera are some of the impending trajectories.
There’s a lot of concern about these developments but while the developed states are employing legal and technical means to respond to impending threats, there’s not much strategic thinking available. States can win all the battles and yet be made to lose the war as the late military genius General Giap showed with such determination and elan.
The need is to look into the causes of these conflicts, the resentment that forces peoples to fight despite all the suffering it entails. Tactical approaches to a problem requiring strategic thought are not going to work.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2013.
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