on performances, real life, silencing and voice (or: what are we here for?)

This discussion piece is inspired by a number of conversations, observations, reflections and readings that have raised important questions for me. What spaces are we trying to create in the study of peace and conflict? What kinds of learning? How do we understand and frame ourselves and others within these spaces, and with what consequences? Who is here, who isn’t, what is expressed and what is silenced? Is this as diverse a space as we like to believe?

One of the observations that stayed with me from last week’s class was about how what might be an intellectual game for some can mean the denial of the lived experience and dignity of others – others who are part of the same space and/or others who are not and perhaps will never be. I know that this is an experience that some of our students have had – sometimes in classes, sometimes in organised activities outside the formal curriculum, and sometimes in informal interactions. I have heard students speak about feeling unable to share ideas, experiences and emotions that matter, about feeling othered, silenced, unheard and unseen, about feeling that academic work does not allow them to speak in their own voice or express what they actually think, about the difficulties of expressing and exploring disagreement, about their discomfort at how real people and experiences who are outside ‘our’ spaces are talked about, framed or invisibilised.

Some of these experiences are to do with the reality that some of us bring genuinely difficult knowledge to these spaces: Lived knowledge of what it means to experience violence as a victim and/or as a perpetrator, of what it is like to live with trauma, of how it feels to be disrespected, discriminated against or marginalised, of how these experiences affect mental and physical health, the capacity to speak and the likelihood that you will be heard. Lived knowledge, too, of the complex implications of choosing speech or silence in particular spaces and moments.

These are difficult things to express and explore, both in classrooms settings and in less formal spaces. Sometimes, it is easier to ‘perform wellness’ – to pretend everything is ok, to avoid rocking the boat. Performances of wellness can protect both those who engage in them and their audiences. Many of us feel nervous about engaging with the sadness, anger, trauma of others (and with our own too). Perhaps classrooms are not the right places for exploring these experiences. They’re certainly not easy places in which to do it – too public, too risky, potentially triggering for people in ways that can’t be predicted. It is difficult to improvise in this kind of setting when things come up that you didn’t expect and haven’t prepared for, and that might resonate with your own vulnerabilities in complicated ways.

There are many strategies we engage in to avoid engagement: Sticking to professional boundaries (often for good reasons), referring people who are struggling to specialists (also often for good reasons), hiding behind academic arguments (because it’s easier or because that’s what we’ve been told to do), keeping too much seriousness at bay by resorting to humour or framing learning activities as fun or as ‘just games’ (for what reasons?).

But good reasons or not, avoiding these difficult knowledges and emotions also entails losses, particularly for students and staff who do want to share and make sense of them. The loss of voice in classes in which these experiences are relevant – and perhaps a feeling of being talked about rather than talked with. The loss of opportunities to learn from each other, to make personal connections, to practice listening, sharing and mutual support. The loss of a chance to experience and reflect on difficult and complicated emotions, on deep disagreements, on the things that make us vulnerable. The loss, perhaps, of honesty.

In a recent class, we opened up some important questions: What is at the root of our ideas about what it is and is not acceptable to say or feel or express? About who deserves to be listened to? About whether we can acknowledge discomfort, disagreement, pain and disconnection in ourselves and others? About who and what we can and can’t connect with? How might we transform these ideas and the cultures, structures and behaviours they are entangled with? Is this something we can start to do within this space of studying peace and conflict in an academic setting? Do we want to try? What might this demand of us?

A few years ago, in a class designed to encourage dialogue among a group of students about things they might disagree on, a student commented that he thought the point of academic study was not to have dialogue amongst ourselves, but to understand why other people find these conversations difficult. His suggestion was that a simulation would have been more helpful. Yes, we do need to understand why some things are difficult for others, and how that might be very different from our own experiences. We need to remember and remind ourselves who and what is not represented in ‘our’ spaces. We need to remember the ways in which these spaces are narrower and less diverse than we think.

In order to get closer to understanding the experiences of others, though, I think we need to actually engage with them in real life, as ourselves – whether in person or via testimonies, writings, films etc. And I think, too, that while there are many experiences and many people that are outside the space of a University setting, what happens within this setting can enhance or diminish our capacities to engage beyond it. I would suggest that these capacities diminish when we frame ourselves and others in ways that erode the possibility of mutual respect, of the claiming and recognition of dignity. When we see ourselves and others as us and them, saviours and people to be saved, leaders and led, managers and people to be managed, internationals and locals. When we forget that our academic work is about real people or fail to own our arguments as ours; when we pretend instead that they express a neutral perspective. These capacities are enhanced, I believe, when we recognise ourselves and each other as work in progress, as people who have got some but not all of the answers, as embodied in ways that make us both vulnerable and resilient, as capable of agency, as actual or potential participants in shared conversations.

‘There is a sense’, John Paul Lederach (2005: 169) suggests, ‘in which the whole of peacebuilding could be summed up as finding and building voice’. As he also suggests, ‘we cannot listen and provide support to others as they find their voices if we ourselves see this only as a technique or the management of a process’. More than techniques, ‘it requires a willingness to risk and great vulnerability’ – including in ourselves. ‘In conflict resolution and peacebuilding’, Lederach (2005: 165) observes,

we expend a lot of energy teaching people how to listen. The focus is on how to listen to others. I have often been struck with how little energy we invest in listening to our own  voices. Yet the two are intimately connected. I am increasingly of the view that people who listen the best and the deepest to others are those who have found a way to be in touch with their own voices.

I think that the ‘disciplines’ Lederach describes as key to developing the moral imagination provide helpful pointers to how we might develop our capacities to listen to both our own voices and those of others: The recognition that ‘who we have been, are, and will be emerges and shapes itself in a context of relational interdependency’ (Lederach 2005: 35), the practice of paradoxical curiosity, creativity and imagination, and the willingness to take some risks.

The process of cultivating these qualities needs real involvement and practice, commitment and courage. Trying to practice them is challenging. And at the same time, it is a process that helps to humanise ourselves and others, to explore the other not just outside but also within ourselves, to feel less alienated and perhaps, for some of us, to heal. Perhaps even, as William E. Connolly (1999: 177) puts it, to expand ‘little spaces of joy and generosity’. As we do so, we may discover, too, that in some ways, the spaces we are in here and now – including the spaces within ourselves – might be more diverse and more complex than we had realised.

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