Posted On August 2, 2023
Conflict is often defined by not only difference in opinions and ways of seeing things, but also by the intensity of the participants and combatants in how they conflict and interact with each other. For example, often loud, vocal protestors are met by people in opposition who respond with a loud, vocal response. Often a violent action is met with an equally violent response.
The irony of this is the such a response usually just confirms the protestors’ beliefs about the people they are protesting against – that those people are violent, rude, disrespectful, dehumanizing, etc. It gives them reason to be louder and more vocal, or even violent, in response. The same then is true of the people in opposition to those protestors. We are often looking for confirmation bias about others and what we have already concluded about them. All of this ends up being expected and predictable.
I’m using protestor and opposition here in a general sense to express the idea of two opposing sides. They could be called any number of names though – incumbent and newcomer, out of power and in power, status quo and change, etc.
What is often not expected is when one side of a conflict are met by people who remain calm in the face of opposition that tries to entice them to raise their voice or respond physically. What does someone do when they are itching for, or expecting, a fight (verbal or otherwise), and the other person instead asks questions for clarification and to understand? This response throws people off. Often, those that are expecting a fight will push a bit more against their opponent hoping to rattle them or force them into the expected response. We know how to handle something that we expect. But when someone doesn’t respond the way we expect them to, then what? We are in uncharted territory. And we have to rationalize why this person we are facing, who is acting in unexpected ways, is an exception. We certainly don’t want to have to reconsider what we think about the group they represent.
Empires of any sort expect and love it when their opposition respond in violence to whatever the empire is doing. Empires know how to deal with violence, and it gives them an excuse to be violent in return. And you know what – you can’t out violence an empire. They have practically unlimited resources that can be devoted to violence.
You don’t defeat an empire (or replace it) by taking on the tactics of an empire. You bring an empire down by doing the unexpected, by confusing it, by moving it to ground it isn’t familiar with. When we don’t respond with violence, we aren’t supplying the empire with justification and excuses to act violently. We confuse an empire. We rattle it. It doesn’t know what to do.
Let me be clear – non-violent action isn’t passive approval. It certainly isn’t weak in response. It is clear, it is bold. It is stating things in a matter of fact way, but not with verbal violence against even the cause of violence. It is forcing the issue to be dealt with. Non-violence can be confrontational, but without the confrontation turning violent.
All of this also applies to our personal interactions as well. When I met up with a protestor at a Pride festival, he was using a bull horn and speaking loudly to the people present with words of condemnation. He would point his finger at people. He attempted to provoke a physical confrontation so he could be the victim.
I stood nearby and listened to him, asking him questions calmly. When he approached me and had his finger come inches from my face, I stood still with my hand down in front of me. When he asked rhetorical questions, I responded with alternatives to his questions that still answered his question.
And because he didn’t rattle me, he walked away in search of someone who would fulfill his expectation, which he soon found. He needed to find someone who could offer him justification for continuing his rhetoric and speaking into a bull horn with condemnation.
Whether we are talking about other people who are in opposition to us, empires, or anyone who we are in conflict with, the question becomes this – is this other person an enemy? The easy answer, the expected answer, is yes. That’s probably how this protestor saw me and others at the festival. That’s how empires see people in opposition to an empire. Enemies are evil. And enemies need to be fought against and defeated, and maybe destroyed.
But when we don’t play the expectations of the role of enemy and instead act with curiosity, giving space, and with intent to have conversation, it throws the whole idea of us/them, friend/foe, into confusion. You become something that empires, those in conflict, and those that oppose us don’t know how to handle – something undefined, and therefore out of their control. You insert complexity into a simplistic worldview. And someone who operates in the simplicity and clarity of us/them, for/against, doesn’t know what do. They are no longer in control. Their facade of control is shattered.
And the beauty of that is now they are vulnerable. The question for us then is this – what do we do? We can use that vulnerability against them, which would just reset the interaction. You would become an enemy again. Or you can meet that vulnerability with your own. That’s how we see the humanity in others – by also seeing it in our selves. By being vulnerable. By interrupting expectations. By doing something unexpected and unpredictable.