out of our hands?

In a module I teach at the University – Creative Conflict Transformation – one of our recent classes explored metaphors of conflict, structures, violence and the ways in which they are reflected in our various languages, in our speaking and thinking. We did this in a space set up to encourage hands-on exploration of objects, and of the processes involved in crafting, building, repair and deconstruction.

objects which get us thinking about things (1)

What I would like to reflect on here is concerned both with metaphors and with the actual practices from which many of them arise. I suspect that there is something in these practices that many of us don’t know enough of, and that this might be eroding our capacities to engage with the world with creativity and wisdom, and to do so in ways that do not perpetuate conflict, violence and injustice.

Looking back on my own education, I feel that it was too narrowly academic. If you were good at working with words, numbers, theoretical concepts, the assumption seemed to be that you didn’t need to also work with physical tools or do much with your hands except write. I’m still not very good at handling most tools, understanding what you can and can’t do with different materials, designing physical structures or fixing things. 

Why does this matter – both generally and in relation to creative conflict transformation? 

#1 I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of our metaphors – even those that describe intellectual work – are based on experiences of working with our hands: Hands-on, handling, in touch or out of reach, grasping, getting a handle or a hold of… Nearly every time I have had a go at a new craft, I have come to realise how many expressions have their origins in hands-on work: from scratch, mulling, grafting, stakes, threads, working with or against the grain, weeding, growing, balancing, cutting back, whittling… When words and their meanings become disconnected, what of the richness and nuance of language might be getting lost? How might this affect our capacity to experiment with different approaches to thinking about and working with the realities we encounter?

#2 For small children, learning and exploring the world is very much a hands-on activity: You feel and taste shapes and textures. You do something and watch what happens. The material world has a life of its own, independent of how you might want it to be. There is some resistance. Some experiments work, some don’t. When put to the test, not all hypotheses are equally valid. For people who go on to work with their hands, with tools, in the material world, this remains true, of course. It’s true too in working with people, in taking embodiment seriously, in paying attention to emotions. For some of us, though, there are risks of getting out of touch, of getting lost in debates that are increasingly abstract and self-referential, of designing solutions that turn out to be unworkable, of mistaking our maps for the territory. Developing actual physical skills, among other things, can be a lesson in humility, patience, care, intelligence and sensitivity and the recognition of the importance of practice. In German, the word ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’ – ‘the sensitivity at the tip of your fingers’ – is used too to describe a sense of knowing how to ‘handle’ difficult human situations wisely. Is this just a random metaphor or could more hands-on approaches, more teaching and learning of crafts, also be a way of refining our approaches to ‘building’ peace, ‘cultivating’ personal qualities, ‘planting seeds of change’, ‘crafting’ intelligent solutions?

#3 Something I realised in playing with the physical materials in our class and listening to our conversations is that there is a real difference between the speed and force of destructive processes and the time, patience and care needed for constructive, restorative and healing processes. It’s much easier and faster, and it requires less skill, to knock down a spiral built from wooden bricks or a balanced stone sculpture, to cut a piece of cloth or a thread than to create or mend such things. The kind of energy involved in destruction also came across in how we described experiences of conflict, violence and trauma. Healing from these experiences involves a very different kind of work – see #4 below.

Why, then, do many of us also use metaphors based on fast, destructive types of energy in describing work for peace, development and social change: fighting, combating, battles for and against, impact, force, beating, deadlines (or the latest management jargon of ‘killdates’)? It is not that these metaphors are never appropriate, but it is worth thinking about what ways of seeing, being and working they encourage, and which ones they marginalise. How might shifting some of these metaphors encourage ways of working that have more affinity with peace than with violence? In relation to conflict transformation, what happens when we think, speak and write more along the lines of terminology like web-building, critical yeast, voice and harmony and resonance, poetry, or the art and soul of building peace?

#4 One of my favourite things about our hands-on, metaphor-exploring class was the experience of a student struggling with trauma that, even in the limited time and space of the class, building beautiful structures with wooden bricks can be therapeutic. The value of hands-on and crafts-based therapies is very well established, of course, and takes many different forms, from gardening to needlework, music to painting. Like other restorative work, the work of healing from violence and trauma is often slow, patient, careful and creative and hands-on. And this makes sense because these are embodied experiences. Why, then, is so much of our teaching and learning about peacebuilding so abstract, intellectualised and disembodied?

#5 As James Thompson observes in his essay ‘towards an aesthetics of care’, the physical qualities of therapeutic and creative work – how such work is embodied, how it feels and what it looks/sounds/smells/tastes like – really matter. In this context, it is interesting to notice how the designation ‘handmade’ is, for many of us, associated with quality, beauty, skills, creativity and uniqueness – a valued antidote to machinised mass production. As Wendell Berry points out, material work – good or bad – also shapes our connections to the places in which we live and the places in which others live. ‘Good work’, he suggests, ‘honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing’. (And as he also points out, many of our material connections to the world today are better characterised as ‘bad work’.)

What might it mean to bring similar sensibilities and qualities to peace and conflict transformation work? To education? To academic work? What kinds of practices would this require and engender?

#6 And yet, and as so often, these things are more messy and complicated than the above might suggest. Another interesting thing I remember from our class is another student’s comment about the rejection of certain kinds of physical activity – needlework, for example – by the women in her family. It is important to notice the ways in which many forms of manual work have been and often still are gendered, racialised, and/or associated with class and status. Against this backdrop, the current revival of high-end crafts and therapeutic pursuits by disillusioned middle-class professionals and intellectuals is only a small part of the answer, and perhaps a problematic one. For many people, there have been good reasons to escape types and conditions of physical work that were never chosen, and that have engendered their own traumatic experiences and legacies. Given these complex histories, reclaiming the possibility of dignified hands-on work – for all of us, and not just for some – is both necessary and difficult. Taken seriously, it implies very significant structural transformations.

In the aftermath of physical destruction, the skills that are needed most are those of fixing, lifting, recycling, rebuilding, cleaning, cooking. In the days and weeks after the Calder Valley floods, for example, there were very clear and valued roles for electricians, plumbers, builders, plasterers, and anyone willing to get their hands dirty, while a sociology lecturer found her most useful contribution was making tea. In Cuba’s ‘special period’ – when oil supplies from the Soviet Union dried up – intellectuals started cultivating soil and growing food. In more ‘normal’ times, what and whose skills do we value? Whose work and what energies do we rely on to subsidise intellectual pursuits? Who meets our physical needs, if we don’t do it ourselves? What injustices, what hierarchies and which forms of exploitation do we uphold in the process? What possibilities of self-reliance and which skills are we neglecting? Can we claim to be building peace while relying on the work of others in these ways? 

Some of these questions are about metaphors. Some are about actual material processes and physical activities. What might happen if we looked more closely at the connections between intellectual and manual work, at where peacebuilding and conflict transformation might fit in, and at what that could imply for the kinds of skills we try to develop in ourselves and others, in Peace Studies and more widely?

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