The Peace We Seek

What if we stopped believing that peace and conflict are mutually exclusive?

photo by momo on FLICKR

photo by momo on FLICKR






Shakespeare understood that we are, all of us, hypocrites – a series of contradictions. My newsfeed confirms that no amount of evidence can stand up against our ability to rationalize. We form most of our beliefs by working backwards – by first holding a belief and then fitting the facts to suit whatever our conviction might be.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance revolves around the idea that humans will seek to eliminate dissonance in their lives. This dissonance would be defined as any set of conflicting beliefs. He hypothesized that this dissonance creates distress that people will seek to reduce. While I believe this to be true, I would argue that we do not typically seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for us. 

Instead, in a modern world driven by polarizations, we more often reduce intellectual contradictions through acrobatic rationalization – by redefining our realities and shaving off the edges of the puzzle pieces to make them fit together. Known by many names, including “confirmation bias” and “selective perception,” this well-documented process of rationalization has been the subject of decades of study in psychology. 

And these days, it’s an epidemic.

A Rationalized World

Take, as an example, the American demonization of Mexican immigrants. Defying all logic, they are stereotyped and dehumanized as both ‘lazy’ (a burden on the American social welfare system) and ‘stealing jobs from Americans’ simultaneously. Even if one is willing to entertain such ridiculous generalizations, one should logically conclude those two traits are mutually exclusive. Clearly both are false, but it doesn’t matter. When it’s ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ the truth doesn’t matter at all. That’s the point. Logic doesn’t matter. As the saying goes, the first casualty of war is truth – and the same can be said not just in war, but in any construction of the ‘other’.

So let’s push this idea further. It isn’t just indicative of our disastrous ability to rationalize, but also of the way that rationalization effects how we relate to each other on every level. By always needing to frame disagreements and conflict through an us vs. them lens, there is no space for critical thought. Through that familiar frame, the goal in conflict is never to listen or learn – but only to win. And if the goal is only ever to win, then empathy, or worse – changing your mind – becomes the definition of defeat.

Defined this way, conflict was never about reason, never about dialogue, or our right to communicate our ideas – it was about power, about winning (and, of course, about the other guy losing). Because within the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, it is winning that makes you right. So then what need is there to listen or address the concerns of the ‘losers’? There is none, because the battle has been won. Only the “winner” in this could possibly believe that this system isn’t completely discordant to peace. And so here we are.

The Wrong Questions

Our ideas about what conflict is (and what winning means) are woven into everything we do. Through this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, conflict is bad and inherently threatening. It is something to be ‘won’ as opposed to understood or addressed. But creativity and art are both the product of conflict, as is progress. Resolution exists on the other side of conflict, and our insistence on this destructively oversimplified frame clouds our basic understanding of what conflict really is. And if our understanding of conflict is wrong, what hope is there for resolution?

Many of our attempts at defining peace incorporate an absence of conflict. But what if peace isn’t an absence of conflict? What if peace looks more like meaningful conflict? What if we need to understand conflict before we can understand what this elusive peace would look like? What if all this theorizing is useless when we run from or react violently to any actual conflict presented to us?

Stepping Back to Move Forward

Our current notions of peace are not peace at all – much in the same way that Orwell defined each ministry in 1984 by giving it a name opposite to it’s function. In many ways – from terrorism to COIN (counter-insurgency) – it seems our own governments have followed Orwell’s example. The things we do in the name of ‘peace’, much like ‘democracy’ and ‘liberation’, look remarkably unlike the ideals these words are suggestive of. Whose peace? Whose liberation? Our ability to rationalize appears limitless.

If we are ever going to overcome the hypocrisy built in to the narratives that surround us (and the narratives we tell ourselves), we need to realize that we have everything to learn from each other – that what we see as an ‘other’ is really just a ‘different us.’ We need to look at what conflict consists of, not simply what it’s outcomes are. We need to acknowledge that peace is neither silent nor passive. It’s active and authentic – just as anger and fear and discord are also authentic and part of the same system. Maybe somewhere in this radical reflection we’ll realize that peace and conflict are not separate things at all.

What if we actually did seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for all of us?  It would teach us that peace IS conflict – conflict entered into with coherency and empathy. They are part of the same broken process – and separating them from each other is actually what broke that process in the first place.

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Romancing Our Stones

Photo by Daniel Oines on FLICKR
Photo by Daniel Oines on FLICKR

We are a culture obsessed with facts. Or worse – with the truth we believe is hidden within them. We act like facts are a thing to be extracted – carefully framed and selected pieces of historical data, distilled and hardened into raw materials. They are the material we use to build our reality. We pile them up around ourselves.

They are also our weaponry. On every side of every conflict we cling to our facts like stones that we can hurl at each other to justify more violence. I’ve heard “get your facts straight” spit out across arguments and comment sections over and over again – as if the most complex wars could be remedied by correcting a flaw in someone’s quantitative data set.

If we have any stones left we stick them in our ears so we don’t have to listen. And through our soliloquies masquerading as debate, the only thing that becomes clear is that the more of these “facts” we think we have to throw around, the less we value the lives and experiences of others. I can savor my pride and my vengeance while believing you will choke on yours. But our fate will be the same. The Emperor’s new clothes were stitched with the threads of our finest facts.

We build our walls with whatever variety of stones we have at hand that can create the most distance and make us feel safe. With morals, with religion, with nationalism…anything that can divide us so we feel superior to the injustice we witness, as opposed to understanding our part in it. It’s much too terrifying to believe we are a part of it. We work very hard to distance ourselves from violence. We use words like “terrorist” because it means that those who commit violence against us are not like us. Not human. Not worthy of life. They do not have families. They are not someone’s children. They have no story. Nothing made them this way – certainly nothing we were a part of.

It also implies our right to “crush” them because, as the argument goes, the violence they choose gives us no choice. Their violence removes our obligation to understand them. We strip them of their humanity as if it were citizenship (as if we had such power). They are the monster under the bed and out in the darkness. Their destruction will make us safer. Our facts, on every side, confirm this for us.

The trouble is that the more I study, the more I travel, and the more I live – the fewer facts I seem to have piled around me. I thought I’d have more, but they are difficult to travel with. And every time I listen, my remaining stones turn to dust. Even the ones I thought were cemented into place by my own experience and education and pain have begun to crumble.

In their place, I have stories. It was stories that broke the stones. Stories of myself, and the stories of others. So many “others” who are not other at all. Those stories, and the ones I have yet to hear, are the real home of truth. In each of our stories, there is a piece of truth – in it’s authenticity and humanity. That truth is like a puzzle piece, and it is only when we put the pieces together that we begin to see the whole picture. Facts are only the seductive empty promise of a moral certainty that does not exist. Your facts, in the face of my story, are dust. And your story can do the same for me. Empathy is not weakness, it is a necessary wisdom that we’ve discarded at the request of our egos. And everyone’s story is necessary.

Everyone’s story is necessary. Easy to say and hard to hear.

It means there’s a young man in Boko Haram who has a story we need to hear if we ever want to untangle the mess that perpetuates that cycle of violence. A human story.  It means there’s a member of Hamas who has a story that a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force needs to hear. A human story. It means there’s a member of ISIS who has a story that Americans need to hear. A human story. This list is endless, and ties us all back to each other. It’s excruciatingly difficult, and requires that we entertain the idea that there are things we are wrong about, and things we don’t know. It also requires acknowledging that we are all capable of violence as opposed to somehow above or removed from it. Moral superiority is the death of peace.

We need to challenge ourselves to listen to the stories of the people we believe need to die to make us safer. Not their arguments – their stories: their struggle and their love. They are human – that title is not ours to revoke. We must challenge ourselves to put down our stones and listen. It might sound naive (there are facts to confirm it), but it’s an extremely powerful act. Because stories are even more dangerous than facts. They threaten to unite us.

And naive or not, experience shows us that there is nothing more naive than believing that our quest to “kill terrorists” will ever do anything but create more people (yes, people) who believe there is no alternative to turning our own violence back against us. And make no mistake that they will have their own arsenal of facts – bearing the same unmistakable sheen of self-righteousness as our own – to prove it.

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Chemical Weapons

I remember

I didn’t take pictures
But I remember
Moving through that human smoke
That reeked of melted steel and burning flesh

I remember working
So hard and so long and so dirty
That I don’t know how my legs or lungs kept moving
But I couldn’t stop
I didn’t know how
All I knew was that I was moving forward
And forward was the only way
that I could stand to go

The world was broken
The sky had fallen
Everything was upside down and smelled like steely flesh
And all I could do was move
To carry boots or water bottles
Or anything that I could carry
To help
To feed that parasitic sense of purpose
That promised me I mattered
In the face of that hateful crater
That told me
I didn’t

All of that
Is here with me now
And I wonder
I wonder often how far we have fallen since then
In the name of justice
Or revenge
Or security
So many flavors
For this poison

Remember when they told us
That if we couldn’t go on
Then the terrorists had won
You must remember
Such big words
But maybe
Maybe not big enough

Because now here I sit
12 years later with those days
And those old ghosts still banging in my head
That unbearable smell still in my nose
That texture of someone’s ashes on my clothes
And against everything I believed back then
Before I hit rock bottom falling off my high horse
And things turned into something that felt much more
Like pain and shame and rage

Here I sit

And I can’t help but think that maybe
Maybe they won after all

So much death
Years and years of death
Firing into the darkness
The terrible no good darkness
Where all of our enemies must live

And maybe
Maybe they won after all

Because our walls got higher
And our laws got tighter
And we set the goddamn world on fire
But nothing got safer
And everything’s colder
And God knows none of us got closure

This blood lust can’t be satisfied
Hot on my tongue the taste of pride
I swallow each time that we lie
That we feel something when they die
So many
So different
They must be different
And the ease with which we hate
Takes me back 12 years to that fucking day
When something much worse than all that death escaped

Because I know now
That Ground Zero
Is not just that place
Not fences, guards or wire gates
Plastered with faces of missing
Though we knew they weren’t missing at all

Ground Zero’s the symptom of a larger disease
That we caught in the ashes of 3000 dreams
And we spread it like pox as if that makes us free
While we rot from this weapon
that we still don’t see.

Now our Congress debates a new Syrian Ground Zero
We repackage this lie
As the world’s superhero
But there’s just this one memory
I’d like to get clear
Didn’t you say Al Qaeda brought Ground Zero here

And now we send them guns
And we’re helping them kill
If that doesn’t terrify us
Then what will

How can we not see it
Our own hell
After 12 years of fear
We’ve become what we hated

This cannot continue
This sickness of state
For every new bomb a Ground Zero awaits
And each new Ground Zero more death and more hate
And each new Ground Zero points back to that date
To the morning my beautiful city was raped
And something much worse than all that death escaped

~ HM

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Organize, Strategize, Act – Repeat

Anger is a vital place to begin.  But we cannot simply point our fingers and aim our profanity-laced Facebook messages at a ‘system’ that has failed us.  We cannot blame ‘the racists’ or ‘the media’ either. If you know what the words ‘by the people, for the people’ are referring to, then you know it’s we-the-people who have failed Trayvon, and we have failed each other.  We can argue about government and corporate power (both merit serious discussion and reform), but it’s our system, we agree to live by it, and for a very long time we have allowed it to exist and deteriorate this way.

For a very long time we have rested on the victories of generations that have come before us. We could believe (or at least rationalize) that the hard work was done.  That racism, if not defeated, retreated to a few dark corners of the South while the rest of us – so enlightened and equal-ish – carried on.  Reality, of course, did not bear out that idea at all, but somehow we agreed to continue to pretend.  We were busy.  And so now, jolted from what remained of our willful blindness by a verdict on a gunshot that tore through our denial and our hearts…here we are.

Gone now are the days when we can rationalize, however thinly, that the laws that currently govern us, however cold or complicated or corrupted, could produce some semblance of justice. Further diminished, with each such verdict and unpunished hate crime, is the political illusion that we are equal under the law. We are not.  Worse, we are clearly not yet equal to each other in our own eyes, and most of us are not doing anything about it. We don’t get involved, and we don’t do anything to hold others accountable.  Let’s not start pulling our punches now that we’re in the fight. Trayvon is dead because we did not raise our voices against our own system that is clearly and undeniably not equal.  We allow each other to pass judgement based on racial prejudice because having the conversations that can bring change is uncomfortable. We lash out into the abyss of social media and then, in real life, we do nothing. Or perhaps more hopefully, we did nothing.

Right now is an extraordinary moment to be alive.  Not because of how lucky we are, how much stuff we have, or even how screwed up the world is – but because of the potential we have at this moment to shift the course of our future. We’re standing on the edge of that moment. You. You are standing on the edge of that moment.  As the ones who are still alive, we have a chance to make this right.

We log on to our computers (because who the hell still watches news on TV) and we are bombarded with images of yet another protest in another part of the world – from the people who are there. Every day the world is smaller. And it’s as if, all at once, we have remembered that we have voices – that those voices have power – and that our continued silence gives power to someone else.  We don’t want that ‘someone else’ to have our power anymore. They have abused and wasted it.

More every minute, people are realizing that their voice is (and should be) equal in worth to others. That laws that diminish that fact are not laws we should allow ourselves to be governed by.  And that our voices – standing together – create something stronger and more powerful than the laws of any establishment.  It is that awareness that creates the space for extraordinary change.  The time for that change has arrived.

In the wake of this raise-your-voice protest culture, the Trayvon Martin verdict has sent people pouring into the streets.  Rightfully outraged.  But once in the streets – what’s next? How do we get from here to the change we seek?

The framework – the treasure map of change – that can answer that question exists in our own history – but the answer itself is up to you, and to all of us.

Here is your map: Organize, strategize, act – and repeat. Repeat until you cannot be ignored. Repeat until you win.

These protests – this visible outrage – is important. This shared sense of anger and purpose is a vital beginning. But protest is not organizing. Organizing is also not a list of email addresses. It’s not a Facebook group.  It’s work.  Organizing is knocking on your neighbours door. Sitting down at their kitchen table. Telling your stories. Arguing. Listening. And finding the common ground you need to stand together.

And then doing that again. And again. And again. Organizing is kitchen tables.

Strategy is understanding what obstacles need to be overcome to achieve the change you seek and then relentlessly pursuing creative ways to overcome them.  Protesting is not a strategy. It’s a tactic that, in order to be successful, should be tied to a larger strategy.  Know what you want, and design a way to get there – step by step, action by action.  Then, tomorrow, when things change, re-design it. Again and again until you win.

Meaningful action is rarely – if ever – spontaneous.  Action is organized, strategic and disciplined. It’s focused, creative, and resourceful.  And the best part is that with these tools, violence is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Real change happens without it.

If you believe the civil rights movement we so often turn to as a reference point for greatness was nothing more than a series of protests, there is a world of undiscovered truth and possibility that awaits you. In rediscovering our past, there is a wealth of knowledge, resources, and strategy that can help us carve out a future without any more Trayvon Martins.

At this very moment, we have a choice, and this choice will determine how many more Trayvon Martins there will be. This choice is yours to make.

Organize. Strategize. Act. Repeat.

Knock knock.

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A Vigil for the Children of Syria

This gallery contains 7 photos.

On Friday evening a group of Montrealers braved the cold at Square Victoria to hold a small vigil for the children of Syria.  They gathered with their families to light candles, draw pictures, and to stand for peace. Those in … Continue reading

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A New Year’s Toast to You – Whoever and Wherever You are…

Another year winds down, and I raise my glass and offer you this toast – wherever in the world you may be…

Here’s to new friends and old ghosts,
reluctant ends and making most.

To strangers with things yet to teach
And patience for the ones who preach.

To tears from which insight is born,
And laughter that can mend what’s worn.

To love of every kind that’s true
And minor chords that cure what’s blue.

To once great pain that now seems small,
And standing up more than you fall.

To good drinks, worthwhile fights,
And courage in your darkest nights.

May you live what you are meant to do
And may this new year be good to you.



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No Heroes in Montreal – Why Endless Protest Does Not a Movement Make

Even in this quiet moment between protests and political rhetoric, there remains a good deal of hostility toward “the protesters” in Montreal.  Perhaps by looking back over the last few months we can identify how our city ended up so divided, and how to move forward toward a more inclusive political climate.

Because I believe in the right of a people to protest, I’ve been wary in the past few months of criticizing the Montreal protests too strongly.  But it’s not just “protest” in general that I support – and what’s happening here doesn’t make sense to me. So I’m discarding the foolish idea that not supporting the protesters means I’m supporting the government’s actions – because I’m not doing that either.  What I DO believe is that intelligent, well orchestrated tactics of nonviolence (including but not limited to protest) can effect greater and more lasting change than violence. I believe, too, in a peoples right to challenge their government when they feel it does not represent them. But somehow, no matter what you’ve taken to the streets to oppose – no matter how just your cause – your message gets lost when you don’t engage the community, you don’t exercise discipline, or you just start acting like assholes.  In a nutshell, those are my three big issues with this protest-in-progress.

Over the past few months, I’ve been pouring through live feeds, mainstream and independent media coverage and the propaganda from both sides. Talking to as many people as I can here in Montreal.  Even with all that information, the whole thing has left me with a feeling of frustration – a discomfort with both sides –  that’s been difficult to articulate. And I know I’m not alone. It feels like we’re all too anxious to make this a black and white issue – good guys and bad guys, right and wrong.  That would certainly make it easier to judge, easier to support or oppose, to fix or to dismiss. But it’s not that easy. There are some elements of the protests that truly demonstrate the powerful beauty (and creativity) of a people united – specifically the pots and pans protests against Law 78. But to date, the actions of both the protesters and of the government have polarized the city. The protesters have made choices that have ultimately helped create the environment of public criticism that allowed the government to pass an indefensibly oppressive law. And the government, in turn, with a patronizing and short-sighted handling of the protesters (made all the more obvious by the incredibly creepy public service announcements about how fair they are being), has in turn given the protesters an international legitimacy they would otherwise not have earned. As if the issue wasn’t complicated enough, the protesters have been emboldened by that international support (mostly against Law 78) in spite of a lack of local solidarity. And forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but if we’re talking democracy here, LOCAL is where solidarity matters most. At the very least, it’s where solidarity needs to start.

In it’s most basic form, a protest that wishes to hold up the tenets of democracy (or to protest the lack of that democracy in it’s own government) must seek to unite – to find a common ground on which to stand against the action it wishes to oppose. A movement that does not seek the support of the people cannot succeed, and worse, risks becoming as tyrannical as the ruling power it opposes.  The protesting students, while united with each other in large groups and powerful student unions, has still not reached outside the student community. It appears that from the beginning, they operated on the assumption that the rest of us were simply part of the problem, and needed to be treated as such.  Their tactics, including blocking bridges and subways during rush hours, and tolerating the destruction of personal property during marches and protests, turned much of the city against them. Real people lost money. Local business owners suffered greatly as insurance companies refused to cover the repeated damage done to stores and restaurants along regular protest routes. They immediately alienated the very people whose support they should have been actively soliciting, and the backlash of that arrogance created the hostile environment that continues to work against them.

It bothers me when I see spokespeople for the protesters speaking about how they’re fighting for everyone – for me, for future generations. While I can identify with their sense of purpose, I just don’t buy it. Because when you haven’t actually spoken to the people you claim to represent (or claim to be fighting for) that’s a pretty arrogant thing to say.  Good intentions aside, there is no – I repeat, NO – substitute for actual human conversation; person to person interaction. Not online petitions. Not websites. Not social media. We all remember what our parents told us about what happens when you assume. And when you skip the legwork – the real life interaction with the people you should be engaging – you don’t get to assume you know what we want.  Again, despite what might be the best and most noble of intentions, if you don’t do the work, don’t expect the rewards.  Authentic democracy does not have shortcuts.  That’s arguably how we got here in the first place. Don’t presume to fight for me, take the time to fight with me.

When speaking about the violence and property damage caused during the marches and protests, I’ve heard it argued (and have argued myself) that it’s only a small group of idiots causing damage, and that despite the media’s obsession with focusing on those few, we should not judge the protesters based on that violence.  On the one hand, it’s a valid argument. There has been little focus on the thousands of peaceful protesters because there are broken windows to point cameras at. However, I do not accept the idea that that the protesters as a whole should not take responsibility for preventing that violence and destruction.  As an example, I point to a recent protest in Mexico as part of the YoSoy132 Movement.  The organizers of YoSoy132 are facing a far more overtly oppressive government, and seem to understand that organization and discipline are instrumental to building the support and credibility of their movement.  They seek unity – not spectacle. I refer you here, to the guidelines and rules they set out for those who wish to join them (read the full article here on

“All who attend the march pledge to:

• Attend on Sunday, June 10, 2012 in the Zocalo without any partisan political displays. The recommendation is to dress in black.

• Not engage in any prosletism in favor of any candidate or party. This means not wearing the colors associated with political parties, images that allude to the candidates, cheers for any of their names, etcetera.

• March PEACEFULLY and on the indicated route.

• Remain in only one lane of traffic so as to not impede the travel of vehicles.

• Respect all who attend the march, pedestrians and vehicles along its path, irregardless of their political inclinations. There will be some guides during the march solely to indicate what that means, but we trust in your civility and if we act according to these guidelines everything should happen exactly as it is planned.

• Do not respond to any provocations by infiltrating groups nor occur in acts of vandalism or violence, such as taking down, damaging or destroying campaign signs. We must not damage any public services.

• Do not bring your voter ID of the Federal Elections Institute nor expensive objects of value that could be robbed or a target of provocations.

• Expose vandals and people who occur in acts of violence. If this occurs we suggest stopping the march and sitting down with arms crossed around the violent person, filming and taking photographs. This is how we will expose the aggressor.

• Deliver any person who conducts acts of vandalism or violence to the authorities.

• Inform the people of the truth about candidate Enrique Peña Nieto: his errors, goof-ups, evil governing, inexperience, ignorance, etcetera.

• Inform about the dishonest news by media companies bought by the PRI party (like Televisa) that have edited or ommitted relevant information that would expose the true face of Peña Nieto.

• In the event that any of these cited agreements are violated, retreat from the march.


The Organizers”

Specifically, I point to this:

“• Deliver any person who conducts acts of vandalism or violence to the authorities.

You cannot protest a government with chaos. Governments – and authority in general – know very well how to deal with chaos.  You must approach them – challenge them – with more powerful weapons, namely organization, unity and discipline.  In essence, a protest that wishes to gain the critical support of the greater public must be self-governing. And a protest cannot boast the will of the people without that critical support.  Without that support, your actions are not holding your government accountable – you’re simply holding your city hostage. Just imagine, for a moment, what a powerful statement it would have been if the peaceful protesters had turned the rock throwers and vandals over to the authorities themselves. What sort of statement would that have been about the true focus and priorities of their message?

The single most important thing that our Quebec protesters seem to misunderstand about protest – about the effective practice of nonviolence in general – is that it is not spontaneous cooperation. Or impromptu anger that reaches some tipping point and simply spills out into the streets. It is not disorganized. It is not repeating the same tactic over and over again expecting something different to happen. Lack of strategy and disorganization weaken the purpose of their protest, and the true practice of nonviolence is not weakness. Like the warfare that includes weapons and casualties, nonviolence is strategy, organization, discipline and unity of purpose. It is not simply taking to the streets. It is understanding what one wishes to change, the obstacles to that change, and the strategy required to remove or overcome those obstacles in order to effect that change. Above all else, it’s working (yes, working) to unite people behind your cause. It’s all about the people. The very premise of nonviolent struggle is that the real power ultimately lies with the people. So if you want the power, you need the people.

For now, there really are no heroes in Montreal. Everyone is angry and everyone is behaving badly. But it isn’t the government or the police that have the most potential to learn from their mistakes and move forward toward finding more positive, inclusive solutions. It’s the protesters. Truth be told, I want to support them. Many of us do. But for that to happen, they need to demonstrate the discipline and strategy necessary to engage and include the rest of the city.

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