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Concept file Dossier : Conflict Transformation

, Saint Martin d’Hères, May 2007

Conflict: a knot to be untangled

Typically, culture has a large impact on the way people perceive conflict and violence. While in Europe there is a taboo on violence, the capacity to defend one self violently is considered a virtue in Somali culture. In her autobiography Ayaan Hirschi Ali writes about dealing with this paradox while still working as interpreter and mediating between Somali parents and a Dutch school head. While some cultures like to face conflicts directly by confronting their adversary with their grievances like for example the Dutch, in other cultures the importance given to “face” and honour leads to different approaches to conflict.

Parable of conflict as a knot or entanglement.

In many cultures conflicts are explained as ‘tangles’ of contradictory claims that must be unravelled. In central America the phrase ‘we are all entangled’ or “enredado” (tangled) as in a fisherman’s net best describes the concept and the experience of conflict. At the root of conflict is a knot of problematic relationships, conflicting interests and differing world-views. Undoing this knot is a painstaking process. Success depends on how the knot has been tied the sequencing of untying.

Generally speaking though conflict is all around us and is a process where conflicting parties come into dispute over differences or perceived differences regarding their interests, values and needs. Conflict parties may have different goals, or the same goal but different perceptions of how to achieve that goal. Conflict is not necessarily negative. Sometimes on the contrary overt conflict is necessary to make visible structural injustice.

Challenging apartheid laws in South Africa and segregation laws in Southern United States in the 1950’s would have been impossible without conflict. If no one would have challenged bus passenger segregation like Rosa Parks did, what would the Southern states of America look like now? On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery USA, she refused a bus driver’s demand to give up her seat to a white man, resulting in her arrest and a massive bus boycott. On 5 December, ninety percent of Montgomery’s black citizens chose to travel by foot or by sharing cars. They continued their campaign throughout 1956, until the federal district court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional on 4 June 1956 as a result of the mounting pressure to address the conflict. Being part of a conflict implies sacrifices from those that are playing a part in it. And some, like Gandhi indicate that suffering is the key to conflict transformation.