‘The Big Lie’ and The Impact On Our Society

If you turn on the news it won’t be long before you will hear reference to ‘The Big Lie’.  ‘The Big Lie’, which has become so divisive in our nation, our communities, and even within our own families, alleges that the 2020 Presidential Election was ‘stolen’, an idea maintained by former President Donald Trump, his allies in the Republican Party, and his supporters. This inflamed rhetoric led to the insurrection of the Capitol on January 6th. It is a belief that denies reality, justifies violence, and sows the seeds of anger in society and hatred of the ‘other’, which is in this case, anyone who does not believe ‘The Big Lie.’ It is a conspiracy theory like no other and has furthered the divide in our society, pitting communities, neighbors, and even family members against each other who are on opposite sides of the argument. 

 

Statistics demonstrate this point. According to a CNN poll conducted in the summer of 2021, 36% of Americans did not believe that President Biden legitimately won the election, and among Republicans, that number jumped to 78%. Similar results were found in an NPR/PBS/Newshour/Marist Poll conducted in October 2021 where 75% of Republicans felt Trump was the legitimate winner. ‘The Big Lie’ has become so entrenched in our politics now that some state legislatures are attempting to ensure that mechanisms are put in place whereby they can overrule voters and substitute their own state of electors to choose the winner. This is a very serious threat to our democracy plain and simple. 

 

If we think about it, strip away the politics of the issue, and look at it through a different prism, how has one conspiracy theory become so prevalent in our politics and, more broadly, in our society?  How have we let it further deepen the divide and perpetuate an ‘us vs them’ environment? Fundamentally, and oversimplifying it for a moment, a difference in belief and opinions has been allowed to tear away at the very social fabric of our society to come between families, friends, communities, etc. On a very basic level, how can society and individuals deal with something like this, a belief or differing opinion which is given such importance in people’s lives? 

 

A loyal fanatic sports fan, whose team has a big local rival does not generally allow this to limit their friendships or interactions outside the arena of sports, so why is it so different in political ideology or political beliefs? Yes, many would attach more importance to political ideology or beliefs than sports or other areas of life, but do we define ourselves solely by political ideology? If I ask you ‘what defines you?’, what would you say? Would your answer simply be ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’? In the vast majority of cases, it is unlikely, so we can say there is more to a person and what defines them than political ideology. They may be a partner, a parent, a friend, a teacher, a librarian, a religious or spiritual person, a conservationist, a lover of the outdoors, or have many other defining characteristics, traits, or hobbies. We are more than just a political ideology or political affiliation; we have to be. 

 

We need to choose a less divisive path forward where people can have strong beliefs and convictions, yes, but their whole being is not defined by this, whether Republican or Democrat or the often forgotten ‘other’. No free-thinking person agrees with anyone, let alone any party or politician, 100% of the time, so why should they be 100% defined by a party or politician? They shouldn’t and we should challenge the belief that they should when we hear and see it. If there is a difficult divisive topic or significant issue at play it is bound to heighten tensions, stir up debate, and pit one side against another, that is the society and politics we currently have. So, what can we do? Yes, we can air opinions, forcefully debate the issue, defend a position and explain it, but let us not seek to attack those with opposing views and dehumanize them, let us not seek to use this issue as a reason to hate, let us be more respectful. There may be a significant issue at play, but it doesn’t mean that we individually, or collectively as a country, should be defined by it. Any issue should not have a disproportionate impact on everyone’s lives. 

 

We do not have to be defined by political beliefs, not individually or as a country. What is happening now in the United States is not normal – it doesn’t happen as a matter of course in western civilization. What is happening is the divide that has long been present is deepening. This division and polarization are a real and urgent concern and something that we need to tackle now to stop it from getting worse and to stop it from going past the point of no return. The current environment in which we are living is a clear and present danger for all of us. To move forward, to have a society that can come together, the divided nature of society in this country needs to be repaired. The political polarization and the dehumanization that started within the political arena have long since spilled over into society, past political parties, and into other areas of people’s lives, and communities. It is so widespread across the nation that we need to take action to heal the country, to heal that division, and bring us back to the center point where things like cooperation with those seen as the ‘other’ now do not seem completely off the table. 

 

One way to address this division is through a political forgiveness process, a process which can help transform our thinking where we can begin to understand one another at a deeper level, have empathy for the ‘other’ and which can help all of us change our mindsets to be more accepting of the ‘other’. A political forgiveness process focuses on all levels of society bringing everyone together in a healing capacity that can ultimately bring peace and stability to all of us individually, to our communities, and to our nation. We can no longer wait to engage in a healing process. We must start now.

A Changing Landscape: Historic Change in Colombia

In Bogota, there has been a change in mood with unprecedented changes taking place in Colombia. The recent election of Gustavo Pedro, the first leftist candidate in decades, and a black female Vice President, Francia Marquez, has marked a once unthinkable shift away from the elitist politicians and parties who have held power for generations. Colombia has traveled a long road to reach this point, through conflict, hardship and suffering. Colombia today is to be commended for its impressive progress toward building a culture of political forgiveness, that is not to say it has managed to get everything right or that the journey is over. 

From 2012 to 2016, the Colombian government and the militant groups FARC-EP held peace talks which eventually culminated in a final agreement that sought to end the long-standing conflict and begin to build a platform for peace in the nation. There are elements of a political forgiveness process taking place in Colombia and these are reflected in the final agreement commencing with the cessation of violence, the inclusion of all members of society, a strong victim focus, the uncovering of a more complete story, and a search for the truth through a truth commission. There was also a commitment to create structural changes which would support Colombia’s healing. The agreement was first reached and signed on August 24th, 2016. This agreement was put to a referendum which failed by a very narrow margin, 50.2% to 49.8% which led to revisions of the agreement. Following these revisions the new agreement was signed on November 24th, 2016 and this was submitted to Congress for approval. On November 29th, 2016, the Senate approved the deal 75-0 and the House of Representatives approved it the next day by 130-0. The agreement focused on specific issues pertaining to the conflict, which were negotiated as separate agreements and then all agreed upon as a whole.

The aspect of the agreement that reflected a political forgiveness process in particular was in respect of the victims of the conflict. The agreement created the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparations and Non-recurrence. It is composed of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Recurrence Commission, the National Center for Historical Memory, which also serves as the Special Unit for the Search for Persons Deemed as Missing in the context of and due to the armed conflict, and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the court of transitional justice that will function for fifteen years, this term can be extended for another five if required. The truth commission is the culmination of a painstaking process of searching for, and producing, truth on the national level. What makes this part of the agreement unique is its focus on the victims and the healing aspects which can set the stage for political forgiveness to take place. As a result of real determination and immense pressure from victims’ groups, the parties to the negotiation eventually agreed to address the victims’ claims as a central element of the terms of the agreement. 

The truth commission finalized its work in 2021 and the final report which was released recently, in July 2022, seeking to dignify the victims and shed light on the barbarity of the armed actors. As evidenced in the report, there has been a real concerted effort made, more so than in any other similar process in any country to date, which focused on the whole of society. This is reflected in the report which includes a gender chapter that focuses on violence against women and the LGBTQ+ population, an ethnic chapter that describes patterns of violence against indigenous and afro-descendant populations, and a chapter dedicated to those people in exile giving voice and addressing the invisible experience of Colombians who had to leave the country because of the war. This real effort by the truth commission to include all should be commended and it should be a feature of any similar processes from the outset moving forward.

 

And What About Political Forgiveness?

The core of the Final Agreement to End Armed Conflict is a healing component focusing on the victims of the conflict. It addresses the healing of pain and suffering, changing mindsets, implementing changes in a restorative way, and changing structures unique to Colombia, especially with regard to the victims of the conflict. When examining all these programs together, it is clear that a foundation is being constructed for a political forgiveness culture to be built upon. To date, Colombia is unique in its approach to building this foundation. When you review what has taken place in South Africa and other countries, Colombia has taken the next steps down this trajectory and its process can serve as a model for other countries. It is not perfect, there have been many setbacks along the way, and there will probably continue to be setbacks. Healing the divides of a country takes time and everyone has to be willing to do their part, it is not easy or quick work. As time goes on more learning will take place. Colombia has taken an important step in the process of political forgiveness and hopefully the work done in this country can serve as a model for others to build upon as the global community continues its journey, attempting to make this a more peaceful place.  

Father Leonel Narváez, the founder of Fundación Para La Reconciliación in Bogota has worked closely with Colombia’s truth commission and in the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC. When asked what he personally thought about the progress and changes in Colombia he said he felt that after 20 years of his work in political forgiveness there is now a resurgence of people thinking about forgiveness, and there is a more receptive appetite for forgiveness among the Colombian people. The future looks bright to Narváez who views the changes taking place as positive and hopeful. Narváez and others who contributed to this difficult work and process have a lot to be proud of. There is an air of optimism throughout the country and many are excited and supportive of the new leftist government. Gustavo Pedro, the incoming President, has received a great deal of support from other parties, including those on the extreme right. He is taking the recommendations of the truth commission report very seriously which should hopefully have a very beneficial impact on the Colombian people. For Narváez with all the positive changes taking place in Colombia anything is possible moving forward but the determination and hard work only begins in earnest now.

Conscious Movement Towards Collective Action: The Impact of a Political Forgiveness Process

The unprovoked and barbaric war brought within the borders of Ukraine, and Europe, by a Russian dictator has succeeded in uniting the world in an unprecedented way. We all look on in horror at Russia’s aggression as it has unleashed massive human suffering, death, and wholesale destruction on Ukraine and its people. The barbaric actions of Russia should trouble us all and deserves to be a focus of international attention, front and center in all our minds. It is important that the media, politicians, and all people rally together to help support the Ukrainian people. What we are seeing in reaction to the horrific aggression is international collective cohesion that hasn’t been seen in a very long time, the challenge is sustaining this cohesion and using it as a template for action moving forward. 

There is a danger of short memories, have we forgotten Putin’s attack in Syria which unleashed great pain and resulted in a surge of refugees fleeing for their lives? There are other conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the world which are no less legitimate and deserve attention as well. The war in Yemen, conflict across Africa, the barbaric actions of a military junta in Myanmar. A similar collective response and action is required to address these situations and relieve human suffering. Ukraine is at the forefront of minds right now, it is receiving the necessary coverage in media, parliaments and in general discourse across the world, other situations are not getting the necessary coverage. This partly reflects an unconscious bias at play which it is important to gain an understanding of. 

What are unconscious biases and why do we have them? Unconscious biases are social stereotypes and beliefs that we hold about situations and groups of people that are formed outside individuals own conscious awareness. Everyone has unconscious beliefs about various situations, social and identity groups which are triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments. They are influenced by our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes, and cultural context. Ukraine is a country the western world can identify with and a country which wants to belong to the Western Bloc of nations and the European Union. It is an independent democratic state, based on a set of ideals and people may feel they can relate to the way of life and how society works as it is like their own. Other countries with different ideals and political systems, such as Yemen for example, and countries in Africa or Asia dealing with humanitarian crises may be seen as not as relatable. People may not see enough of themselves in these situations and this can affect how people react to these situations. 

It is a natural human reaction to pay more attention to people who seem more like us even if we are not aware of it. This is unconscious bias at play. The media coverage of the war in Ukraine has showcased the huge disparity in how certain conflicts or humanitarian disasters are reported, often showing conscious rather than unconscious bias. As a French news personality recently said, “We are not talking about Syrians fleeing bombs of the Syrian regime backed by Putin; we are talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives”. This is not unconscious bias; this is very conscious bias and it is shameful. If we examine this statement, he is saying that Syrians fleeing death and devastation don’t matter as much as people who look like Western populations fleeing death and devastation. Coverage framed by this sort of conscious bias has a role to play in creating unconscious bias in viewers. 

The BBC reported a former Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine commenting, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed every day”. Biases have not only been seen in the media, politicians’ comments too reflected unconscious biases. The Bulgarian Prime Minister said Ukrainian refugees are “intelligent, they are educated . . . not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, they could have been terrorists”. These sorts of comments show that some believe human suffering and devastation is a more serious issue when white Europeans suffer than when people from different backgrounds and locations suffer whether that be Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, or Yeminis.  This is something which is repugnant and should be called out as such. Human suffering is human suffering and all people are equal no matter where they originate. Look at all the conflicts that are not getting the responsiveness they warrant. The actions taken in Ukraine can be applied to many of these conflicts. What we can take from this situation is an unprecedented cohesive collective response from the international community. What we have learned is that a collective response is far more effective than isolated responses by individual nations. It shows how powerful that response can be. It is a template to bring forward and one which should be applied to all human suffering and disasters around the world whether it be the result of conflict or natural disaster. We are stronger united, we can do more good untied and we can create a better world united.

Russia is a case in point, especially when one considers the military might and significant resources of Russia being thwarted by the response of the international community in relation to sanctions, military and humanitarian aid, and the bravery and will of the Ukrainian people. This collective cohesive action has shown that just because a superpower decides to invade another country, they will not necessarily get their way. The result of this collective action has crippled Russia and its economy, led to some withdrawal from Ukraine and will ultimately lead to defeat in their objectives. 

Applying these lessons of collective, cohesive action in Ukraine and using what was learned in other conflicts can show the United Nations a way forward. It can show the United Nations what it can be doing and what it was designed to do – to be that collective solution. The response to Ukraine has highlighted that. Although there are elements in the United Nations which have no interest in a collective response, other countries have shown that if you consider collective action and apply it to other conflict-ridden countries progress can be achieved. This is what the world needs today. 

When we speak about a broad coalition coming together for Ukraine, we can begin to apply a political forgiveness framework. Political forgiveness is an inclusive process bringing all groups affected by a conflict together from the community to the political level.  It needs to have that broad approach whereby it is bringing in as wide a community and coalition as possible to support any action taking place and to enable a range of views to be heard, considered, and then responded to. That is its strength. The process does not marginalize or exclude people, for it to be effective it needs to take in the experiences of everyone in a considered way. This is a template for how we should approach things as we assess these conflicts, and how to make progress in achieving a sustainable solution to them, even if it means taking small steps forward. If we proceed in a way which does not include everyone, we will not achieve a sustainable solution or sustainable progress. 

As people begin to work with one another, especially those who never have had relationships before, and begin to learn about one another, they can begin to see each other differently, dispelling stereotypes and becoming more aware of the implicit or hidden biases. Working together provides an opportunity to build trust and a greater understanding which is key to moving forward whether it be in a political forgiveness process or in a collective, cohesive approach taken by the international community in trying to solve these intractable conflicts. Building trust and understanding provides the foundation for constructive partnerships to develop where both sides can agree on the best interests of all people and develop a bespoke solution and way forward. 

What we have learned from political forgiveness is that unified action, inclusion, and the collective is extremely powerful. Any action taken on the international stage to relieve human suffering or address conflicts should seek to include a broad spectrum of partners where different opinions and ideas can be put forward, debated, and considered. This would support a cohesive approach in moving forward in a way that can sustain peace and help countries progress in a direction to avoid falling back into a cycle of violence or repeating the mistakes of the past. This is the importance of taking collective action and of a political forgiveness process which can have great impact and be effective especially in the healing of nations. Let us use the response to Ukraine as a roadmap for the future. More can be achieved together than separately so to do the most good and the most for humanity let us move forward as a collective.

 

The Passing of a True Icon

“Do your little bit of good where you are, it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

On December 26th 2021, the world lost a truly remarkable man. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, lovingly known to many as the “Arch” passed away after a long and difficult battle with prostate cancer. For many of us who hold an interest in, and indeed those of us working in, the peacebuilding field, working towards restorative justice and reconciliation, his death was one which caused an outpouring of emotion. People across his native South Africa, and many across the world, feel a deep sadness at his loss.

Desmond Tutu was born on the 7th of October, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a small mining town in South Africa before his family moved to Johannesburg. His father was an elementary school teacher and his mother worked at a school for the blind which may have been what influenced Tutu in his early years to be a teacher. Tutu was born at a time when apartheid had an iron grip on society and where there was established racial segregation. This was reflected in the Bantu Education Act of 1952 which lowered the standard of education for black South Africans, limiting the possibility of receiving good quality higher education. While teaching Tutu tried to provide his students with a high level education but grew frustrated because of the Act which promoted inequality and a corrupt educational system. As a result of these frustrations and the political situation at the time, especially concerning the oppression of black South Africans, Tutu left teaching to join the clergy at the Anglican Church and quickly rose through the ranks.

There was a lengthy period of significant unrest in South Africa and this culminated in June of 1976 with an uprising in the black township of Soweto which boiled over into riots and sparked international outcry. The protests were led by black students and were triggered by policies of the apartheid government including the Bantu Education Act of 1953. While the government claimed that just 23 students were killed in the uprising, estimates on the numbers of people who died range anywhere from 176 to 700 people, and over 1,000 people were injured over the course of the protest. The uprising spread country-wide leading to a significant change in the socio-political landscape.

After hearing about the student protest, Tutu mobilized and spent time engaging with students and parents about the wide-scale rebellion against forced Afrikaans school language instruction and inferior education. It was out of this engagement with Tutu that the Soweto Parents Crises Committee was formed in the aftermath of the unrest and killings. In the years that followed, Tutu rose to the position of Archbishop of Cape Town and gained international recognition as one of the anti-apartheid movements strongest advocates. His fight for South Africa eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

Tutu’s desire for forgiveness and reconciliation was born out of the Ubuntu philosophy which believes “I am human because you are human. My humanity is caught up in yours. And if you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized” (PBS News Hour 12/27/21). Tutu understood that anger and revenge were detrimental to the greater good. His commitment to reconciliation and his belief in Ubuntu is why Tutu was a strong proponent of restorative justice rather than retributive justice.

In 1996, Tutu stepped down from his duties becoming Archbishop emeritus but continue to reach out to those beyond the borders of South Africa. He also spoke out on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, liking some of the Israeli governments actions to apartheid and had a few words of criticism towards the post 9/11 U.S. led war in Iraq. For all that Tutu represented President Obama award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. On Tutu’s 79th birthday, his gift to himself was to end his public life and to spend more time with his family and deepen his contemplative life. As Tutu once said: “I really want to engage in the contemplative life, because, you know often, when people are in love, they just want to sit and be together. And I want to try to be a bit more of that with God, but to also have some quality time with the mother of my children” (PBS Hour 12/27/21).

Tutu was the moral conscience of South Africa. He had a strong moral compass which guided his words and actions. He was outspoken not only concerning the injustices taking place in South Africa, but also concerned with international human rights issues such as those in Tibet, Palestine, and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Tutu fostered true forgiveness and reconciliation. He strongly believed that forgiving our enemies, no matter the wrongs that had been committed, was the only way to true peace. His thinking was reflected in the changes which took place in South Africa. He believed in building a culture of forgiveness and to seek not only justice, but justice with love, what he called restorative justice. It was this approach which transformed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which Tutu lead as Chair of the Commission having been appointed to the role by then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

Desmond Tutu was a truly transformative figure and is recognised as such Internationally, but what does his legacy mean for the United States and the world? Tutu’s legacy was to teach us about forgiveness and reconciliation, something which was, and is, in very short supply. The message of forgiveness and the idea that we can come back together may seem completely unattainable, particularly in today’s world of profound divisions and polarization taking place within the United States. The ending of apartheid in 1993 also seemed unattainable, but attained it was. If learning how to forgive wasn’t hard enough, Tutu also spoke of the importance of reconciliation, the revolutionary idea that you must not only forgive those who wronged you, but you also must have the courage to reconcile and to find the common ground so people and communities can live more peacefully together and break the destructive cycles of the past. It is that kind of change in mindset that we need to strive for, and it is that which is so challenging in the United States today.

What does forgiveness and reconciliation truly mean? Those whom we have the most resentment towards, those we fear the most and those we say we hate are precisely the people we need to understand more deeply and bring closer to us. We must try harder to understand why and how they choose to see the world so differently and find commonalities and ways to heal the divide which is so painfully experienced in our society today. It is Tutu’s thinking which provides an answer that can guide those of us in the United States, and around the world. In his own words Tutu leaves us this message.

Forgiveness is never cheap, never easy, but that it is possible, and that ultimately real reconciliation can happen only on the basis of truth. In reality, there can be no future without forgiveness, for revenge merely begs further violence, causing an inexorable spiral of reprisal, provoking counter reprisals ad infinitum”.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu will truly be missed. He was a bright beacon of light giving hope to this world. He was a true leader, transformative in his approach and strong in his convictions. This kind of leadership is sorely lacking today. As Tutu showed throughout his life and work, nothing is unattainable. Let us find his wisdom comforting and guide us in the days to come so that all of us can live in a better world and strive to achieve that progress which is deemed ‘unattainable’.

 

Ad Campaign’s, Guerrilla Fighters and Colombia: It Must Be Christmas?

It is that time of year again. The decorations are out of storage, the tree is going up and excitement is in the air for the children in our communities. The spirit of Christmas is upon us. It is a time we often associate with peace, love, and joy. It is a time for friends, family, neighbors and communities to get together with loved ones spreading good cheer, but we must also remember, this can also be a hard time of year for some. Some people can feel lonely during the holiday season, missing loved ones or not having people to celebrate it and it is those who most need the seasonal community goodwill, and for others to extend the hand of friendship at this time of year. It is a time of not just joy and happiness, but one of forgiveness and putting conflicts to one side and there have been many examples of this in the past. One such powerful example was the series of unofficial truces observed along the Western Front during World War I around Christmas in 1914. Soldiers from opposing sides entered ‘no man’s land’ and spoke, exchanging gifts, and even playing a game of soccer. The is a powerful example of the spirit of Christmas.

There is something about Christmas and the holiday season that is unexplainable and for one person, Jose Miguel Sokoloff, a creative advertising executive from Colombia, anything is possible at Christmas. Colombia has only recently emerged from a 52-year war between the rebel group FARC and the government. During the later years of the war options were considered on how to end the conflict and bring society back together. The Deputy Minister of Defense had an idea to essentially start an advertising campaign to end the conflict. He wanted to change mindsets and felt that if advertising can be used to buy products, why can’t there be a campaign to stop the guerrillas from fighting.  In 2006, Colombia’s Deputy Minister of Defense contacted Sokoloff hoping that Sokoloff’s talent could provide a unique way of ending the long-standing civil war.

They hired Sokoloff to convince thousands of fighters to give up their guns and come back home to their communities and to accept them back without firing a shot. How would Sokoloff do it? Well, simply, with soccer balls, lights, and Christmas trees, all of which are highly valued in Colombian culture. The series of campaigns took years of planning and coordination across the military and with communities.

In December 2010, the campaign launched “Operation Christmas”. At great risk, military helicopters carried two of Sokoloff’s colleagues into rebel territory (60 Minutes, 2016). They found nine, 75-foot trees near guerilla strongholds and decorated them with Christmas lights. Each tree was rigged with a motion detector that lit up the tree and a banner when the guerilla fighters walked by at night. It read: “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.” What was the purpose of this? Sokoloff wanted to make coming back home for Christmas something important, something everyone valued. He knew that if they put up these Christmas trees with that sign up there, it may touch the hearts of the guerrilla fighters – and for some, it did. Roughly five percent of the rebel force at the time demobilized: they came out of the jungle and gave up (60 Minutes, 2016).

Another campaign, “Operation Bethlehem”, aimed to show guerrilla fighters the way out of the jungle, guiding them home to their families and communities. The military dropped lights to show them the way through the jungle and people made banners which glowed in the dark that said follow the lights. For those who wanted to leave but did not know how, or where to go did leave.

How do you reach your target audience when they are hiding in 150,00 square miles of jungle? That is not an easy question to answer. What Sokoloff discovered was that the rivers are the highways of the jungle and that is an area where some attention should be placed. So, Sokoloff launched a new Christmas campaign called “Operation Rivers of Light.” They asked people in nearby villages to send messages and gifts to the guerilla fighters which were placed inside capsules that glowed in the dark, then floated down the river. This was symbolic in showing that communities cared and that they would welcome back their former neighbors, friends, and family if they walked away from the conflict. The river became a beautiful sight of about 7,000 lights floating down the river (60 Minutes, 2016).

Sokoloff and his military partners never let up. They created dozens of campaigns each uniquely designed to show the guerilla fighters the way out with beams of light, stickers on trees and voices of ex-guerilla fighter leaders booming across the jungle but no voice was more powerful than their mothers. In 2013, Sokoloff found 27 mothers of guerilla fighters. They gave his agency pictures of their sons and daughters as young children that only they could recognize. During Christmas, flyers with those photos were dropped all over the jungle. The message was before you were a guerrilla fighter, you were my child, so come home because I will always be waiting for you at Christmas time. Because of this campaign 218 guerrillas gave up their weapons and did return home.

Over an eight-year period, 18,000 guerillas put down their weapons and came home, in large part because of Sokoloff’s campaigns. The advertising campaigns helped bring the FARC to the negotiating table in 2012. Sokoloff was publicly recognized by Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, with its highest honor, that’s rarely awarded to civilians, for his creative advertising campaigns to help end the war. The work he did in reaching out to those FARC guerilla fighters, who many believed to be too far gone, brought families and communities back together. He got people home for Christmas.

Christmas and the holiday season is a time of peace and, as you can see illustrated in this story in Colombia, it is also a time of hope. It is a time to think of others, a time of forgiveness and of becoming better versions of ourselves. With all these wonderful qualities that this season brings out in us, let us recognize how powerful these qualities can be and what good it can bring to others. If guerrilla fighters can lay down their weapons and come home because of the love shown to them, we truly can do anything in our lives throughout the year with love, joy, and forgiveness.

The Courageous Women of Afghanistan

Listening to the news of what is happening in Afghanistan the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of heartbreaking. Heartbreaking for the country. Heartbreaking for women. Heartbreaking for children. I wanted to see Afghanistan move forward, flourish and succeed like many others who have been to the country and worked with some amazing people who call it home. In 2019, I travelled to Kabul as part of a ‘Thunderbird for Good’ project under the auspices of USAID as part of an initiative under ‘Promote’ called Musharikat. The ‘Promote’ project was a partnership between the Afghanistan government and USAID to secure gains made by Afghan women over the past decade while providing a new generation of Afghan women with the leadership skills to make vital contributions to Afghanistan’s development in governance, civil society, and the economy. It was a bold effort with the aim of empowering 75,000 women. The Musharikat project was designed to build a cadre of more than 5,000 activists and 300 civil society organizations from all 34 provinces to advocate more effectively for, and to advance, women’s equality and empowerment in Afghanistan.  

The women of Afghanistan are incredible, I saw this first hand. They are warm, courageous women who deeply shared their plight in Afghanistan. It was a pleasure to speak with them, work with them and get to know them. I vividly remember as they told me of the sacrifices they made to work in areas such as human rights and humanitarian causes. Some had family members murdered right before their eyes because of their work and others feared for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. Afghan women are courageous and resilient and have been so committed to changing their society for the better. When I think of them now, following the events this past month, I become tearful. I remember their infectious enthusiasm and commitment to improving their lives and the lives of their children. Their desire to have their voices heard, both for themselves and for other women. They were so alive and had so much energy in whatever area they were working in, no matter what the cost. We can never completely know the sacrifices or the pain and suffering the Afghan women had to endure because none of us ever have lived under the difficult conditions they had to live through on a daily basis.

Today, women and children are in such a perilous situation. Any woman with a connection with the United States, or other western allies, is destroying any hint of an association and shredding any documents written in English. Many are even burying cell phones. Even contacting American or International organizations for help is a risk most Afghan women are not prepared to take. The situation that Afghan women find themselves in, having worked so hard to achieve progress, is utterly dismaying. The scenes we have all witnessed from Kabul International Airport over recent weeks show the sheer desperation of people to avoid having to live under oppressive and brutal Taliban rule yet again. 

Under Taliban rule, and Sharia Law, women have no rights to education, work, or freedom of movement. Despite Taliban leadership trying to project a new, more tolerant and progressive image to the world, these are just empty words. They have no intention of changing, and any limited rights they will allow women will be a significant reversal of course for all Afghan women and children from the progress they had fought long and hard for. Those women brave enough to have been politically active or who worked as a journalist, human rights activist, military personnel, or defenders of democracy in any way are likely have targets on their backs, very fearful that the Taliban will go after them. When previously in power over two decades ago, the Taliban would frequently patrol neighbourhoods and beat women indiscriminately. It was enforced law that women had to be completely covered, required to wear burqas. They were very limited as to where they could go and usually needed to be escorted by men. Women could not work and girls were prevented from going to school. It is a very real fear that this is now what women are facing in Afghanistan, that this is what they will be going back to.

On August 10th 2021, Ayda Pourasad reported a story for NPR about a doctor who, while working at her clinic in a northern Afghan city, got a very frightening telephone call. It was from a member of the Taliban who had been threatening her for months because she had given a 13-year-old bride a birth control shot. The caller said that they were entering her city soon and were coming to get her.

The medical doctor’s troubles began 8 months earlier when the 13-year-old first came to the clinic. The doctor learned that this girl was married to an older man, as his second wife, and he wanted her to become pregnant. This young girl was begging for help and did not want to become pregnant. The doctor, understanding the medical risks, gave her a contraceptive injection that would last three months. Soon after the doctor was on the receiving end of furious calls from the husband every day. Later, the doctor found out that this man was a leader of a Taliban group active outside her city. The stronger the Taliban grew, the stronger his fury grew. He later told the doctoe that since she belonged to the ethnic Hazara group, which is basically Shii’te and the Taliban Sunni, she was an infidel and therefore against Islam. The implication was that “we know what to do with you”.

On August 8th 2021, the doctor went straight to the airport with only the clothes on her back. She managed to get a flight out, shocked to see that the plane was almost entirely filled with women. She is now in a neighboring country staying with a friend and having only $400 to her name. She is mourning the loss of everything she had to leave behind, including her family and her career which took a decade to build. The angry husband is still calling her relatives demanding to know where the doctor is. The doctor will never be able to return to her home and to what she loves most, helping other women, especially those in trouble. 

Despite Taliban leaders promising not to enforce the harsh restrictions seen two decades ago and saying that they would still allow women to be involved in government and to be able to work in sectors such as education and health care, the women of Afghanistan know that these are likely nothing more than token words. I struggle for words when I think of the women of Afghanistan, I can never describe the feelings they must have as they watch their country being destroyed, knowing the terrible fate they are probably facing as so many of us watch helplessly. The United States, and our allies, must back up their words of support for the women of Afghanistan with actions. This is not a partisan issue. We have all seen the horrible scenes across all media in recent weeks and we must not be found wanting now. We must evacuate those who are at high risk and support all who we can. There needs to be a political will to do so. The world is watching.

Changing Mindsets: The Internal Struggle

In a country which has become more polarized, where legislators vote along party lines and rarely cross the aisle, and where political polarization is becoming personal too, how can ordinary citizens find anything in common, let alone create a shared vision for the future? Every day that passes, our communities are becoming more divided. Is there anything that can be done to help people think beyond their own needs and begin to focus on the needs of the country? How can we build a society with competing narratives and come together to feel connected to one another through the bond of citizenship? What role do leaders play in helping to change mindsets currently based on fear to move past that with empathy and understanding? What does it take to think differently, to move away from our narrow mindsets and for leaders to value focusing on national interests instead of their own so that our nation can once again move forward in a more peaceful and productive way?

In an address to a joint session of the United States Congress in 1990, former President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, said that “without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, a more humane society will not emerge.” In order to stop the cycles of anger, hatred, and fear which fuel so much suffering, requires a radical change in our thinking. Without this change we are destined to remain stuck in the quagmire of violence and aggression, passing down to each generation the legacy of violence and guilt which will only perpetuate these cycles. If, on the other hand, we have an honest commitment to transform consciousness, then we will recognize that true leaders are those individuals who are not afraid to look within, to change the way they think, and heal the pain of those around them. An evolution in consciousness is necessary to step out of the psychological dynamics which keep us stuck in a cycle of dehumanizing one another and creating divisions amongst ourselves. Changing our consciousness will enable us to change our mindsets and see this world differently. With a change in mindset, we can create a more peaceful and accepting world. Developing empathy can be the first step leading to change.

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in the shoes of someone else and to understand the psychological landscape from which they came. When we are empathetic, we can connect with the emotion that others are experiencing. It allows us to show compassion for another human beings, even though we do not have the same experiences. Neuroscience is teaching us that empathy can be learned by perspective taking. This is the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally so you can understand what others might want or need. It is the ability to take a perspective in order to gain information by adopting another person’s point of view. When people can take the perspective of someone from an opposing group, one’s ability to empathize can become greater. This is because when we make conscious attempts to understand another’s point of view, we can reshape interactions with other people.

This approach can also support the forgiveness processes. To be able to forgive entails being able to understand someone’s psychological landscape and emotionally feel what they have been feeling. If we can reshape interactions in a more empathetic way perhaps this can also help us to be more forgiving.

Everything around us shapes our beliefs and the way we think. If we recognize the importance of shifting our thinking pragmatically, this can lead to a greater fundamental change, something much deeper and more personal. Taking responsibility for one’s thinking is critical to creating a paradigm shift and to successful processes of political forgiveness. It is a shift which requires an inner conviction. Most importantly you must feel it, and not merely intellectualize about it. If you are not committed to doing that then a lasting change will be elusive. This mindset shift does not happen overnight and is a fundamental process involving emotion more than the intellect.

Changing mindsets is a spiritual pursuit involving politics. Any real change must come from within ourselves and we must embody the change if we want to see it reflected in the world. As Confucius once said, “Virtue begins in the heart, and it ripples outward to transform the family, community, nation and the world.” Great leaders such as Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela are examples of this. They demonstrated a high degree of empathy, a connection to others, a quest for truth and action to foster justice. Instead of letting fear dictate their behavior they recognized that there is more to being human and what gives our lives meaning is the ability to care for one another, not hating or judging one another. Caring for one another, having compassion for one another, this helps us to connect with one another.

Spirituality and politics may seem like strange bedfellows, but they are a very necessary partnership for the healing of humanity. We are living in a world with much division, dehumanization and polarization which cuts us off from each other. We have forgotten our humanity, how to love, how to care for one another. Yet we do live in this world together, we are human beings wanting to live good lives which are joyful and meaningful, and it is together that we will decide how much pain we will put each other through or how much joy we will experience in our lives. To create division is to create pain. To be motivated by fear is to create pain to those we are fearful of. To be motivated by power over someone is to create even more pain. Is this the kind of world we want to create, being motivated by a certain kind of power and fear which hurts others so we can protect ourselves?

We can do better than that. We must do better than that. We have lost our moral compass which takes us to our true north. And our true north is what gives us our greatest happiness. It is what guides us to joining with others, caring about others, and being compassionate towards one another. It is about being human and letting that humanity shine through.

 

The Importance of Leadership in Ending the Cycle of Violence

The Middle East is no stranger to conflict and the flare up in recent weeks was another reminder that just because the conflict does not fill our TV screens every evening, it has far from gone away. Tensions have been mounting recently following difficulty accessing various religious sites, especially during Ramadan, while a number of Palestinian families were facing potential evictions from their homes as a result of some Israeli settlers making claims to their property.

It was against this backdrop that the Hamas terrorist organization proceeded to fire thousands of rockets at Israel who responded with air strikes on Gaza. The back and forth of rockets and missiles during 11 days of conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 256 Palestinians (including 66 children) and 13 Israelis (including 2 children) with many more injured and displaced. The cycle of violence which has taken place from generation to generation continues and nothing has been resolved or accomplished with no real end in sight. How do we deescalate this situation and finally have meaningful dialogue which works towards a solution? What is needed to achieve this?

Leadership. The cycle of violence, the continuous death and destruction must end and for that to happen real leadership is required. Strong and courageous leadership which seeks to actually resolve the conflict and not just calm it for now only to have it flare up months later. There have been some breakthroughs in the past, but these breakthroughs were initiated by the kinds of leaders we are missing today. These were leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat. Shimon Peres and even Yasser Arafat were committed to coming together to build peace. Unfortunately, today the current Israeli Prime Minister is driven by his political survival while Hamas has exploited the very people they claim to fight for. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has no real control over Palestinians in and is seen as an illegitimate leader by the Palestinian people.

On the global stage there has been a complete lack of real leadership and an inability to bring both sides of the conflict together to discuss all the issues and to offer a viable long-term solution. This should not be seen as something that can be a short term fix and a ‘political win’ that only lasts six months followed by more violence and more missiles being fired. There needs to be a real concerted international effort to bring about an enduring peace to the region.

What is needed from the leaders of today is a genuine political will, and a change of mindset. Most people are in support of a two-state solution as the way forward, it is the only viable solution. There needs to be a change in mindset as to how this will be approached, how it is achieved and what that process looks like.

What would this leadership look like? In an article How Biden Can Be a Leader in an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict That Has None written by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller for Politico steps are outlined which can begin a process to end violence between the Palestinians and Israelis. The argument is made that there is a role for American diplomacy that could make meaningful changes on the ground in the Middle East. It does not involve a major initiative to resolve issues such as Jerusalem, borders or refugees, but it does increase the odds of stopping the current and future violence. They outline practical steps which can be seen as a beginning of a political forgiveness process – to stop violence and engage leaders in dialogue including:

  • Nominating a U.S. ambassador to Israel and appointing a senior representative to work the issue full time and to coordinate with the International Quartet (representatives from the U.N., EU and Russia, and the Arab Quartet (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).
  • Start an honest dialogue with Israel on the steps Israel must take even as the current Gaza escalation winds down including stopping the demolition of houses and stop expanding settlements in Jerusalem to preserve the idea of two capitals for two future states.
  • Reopen a consulate general in Jerusalem and appoint a consul general to intensify direct dialogue with the Palestinian Authority.
  • Pressure the Palestinian Authority to stop its authoritarian practices and human rights violations. Urge them to hold elections recently canceled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and to stop incentivizing and inciting violence.

There are important steps which need to be taken to set the stage for the necessary dialogues to begin. These steps begin with the importance of building trust. Leaders need to be able to step back and acknowledge their roles and their responsibility in the continuation of the conflict. They need to admit that there has been a wrong committed, that the current situation is not tenable causing more hurt on each side as the situation continues. Leaders need to talk to one another honestly and openly. They need to gain a better understanding of one another, listen to each other and together develop a framework to help resolve this conflict. There also needs to be an acknowledgment from both sides that things need to change to move to an agreed solution.  Leaders who are strong and courageous enough to do this are the real leaders.

We need visionary leadership that recognizes if occupation continues and voices of violent extremist are not marginalized, the violence will not stop. What has happened in the past must be dealt with head-on as a means of focusing all parties on the process and to put violence behind them. Leaders must honor the agreement of stopping violence at all costs and commit themselves to finding new ways of relating to one another. The reason there has never been success with this conflict is that both sides have shirked responsibility, have not admitted to the failings of the past processes, and did not approach this in good faith with an open mind. Instead, they have been approaching the conflict from their own points of interest and from a very narrow perspective, not appreciating that there is another side to this conflict and that a solution needs to work for both sides.

The human element of this conflict must also be addressed including the emotional undertow underlying the political situation which fuels the cycles of revenge. Leaders need to provide a mechanism to work through these emotions in a more productive way as it relates to the historical content of the situation. This requires leaders to respond to situations in a compassionate inclusive way that unites people instead of divides people. This needs to become a political mindset, a guidepost from which leaders act.

The human element is what will bring either success or failure to this process. You can put forth the best peace agreement which is all inclusive but this does not necessarily mean there will be any progress unless there is a change in mentality which transforms thinking so that compassion, inclusiveness, and respect outweigh the need for political gain, revenge, and divisiveness. There needs to be a change in an approach from all sides who are party to this conflict to start de-escalating the conflict and start moving towards a peaceful solution.

This will require international leadership, led by the US, Egypt and the International Quartert, and a transparent and accountable process. Leaders have the capacity to make choices based on greater wisdom and values which can help people rise to their best potential and to achieve shared ideals for a better existence. This is what we can strive for and what it will take if we want to end this conflict and finally break the cycles of violence. This is the work of political forgiveness.

 

 

The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Movement: A Political Forgiveness Process in Action

There is a movement afoot. It is called the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement where like-minded people have come together from all walks of life to address the historical and contemporary effects of racism. Not only is this movement concerned with the effects of racism found in social, economic and government policies, it is also concerned with the deeply held and often unconscious beliefs created by racism and in particular the belief of a “hierarchy of human value.” It is this belief which has fueled racism and conscious and unconscious bias throughout American culture. Therefor the purpose of this movement is to engage people, and to encourage discourse in this country that will bring people together as opposed to allowing the continuation of segregation and racism that tears us apart.

The TRHT framework was first developed in 2016 under the guidance of Dr. Gail Christopher at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 176 community and civic leaders, scholars and practitioners informed a year-long design process. An important part of the framework was to challenge the belief in a hierarchy of human value based on race by developing transformative approaches to community-based healing. It has been implemented in a wide variety of communities, including on university campuses.

To support this movement Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey recently announced the reintroduction of their legislation calling for the establishment of the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). The commission will examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how our history impacts laws and policies today. As Senator Booker said, “to realize our nation’s promise of being a place for liberty and justice for all, we must acknowledge and address the systemic racism and white supremacy that have been with us since our country’s founding and continue to persist in our laws, our policies and our lives to this day.” This legislation goes hand in hand with what the goals of the movement are and as Booker also commented, “this is the necessary first step in beginning to root our systemic racism in our institutions and for addressing and repairing past harm and building a more just nation for every American.”

The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement is a wonderful example of a political forgiveness process which focuses on all levels of society. It begins with people coming together in a healing capacity and engaging in conversation within a given community. People share their stories and lay bare the awful truths of what has happened in their lives breaking the denial which has held a strong grip on our society. These stories help us get in touch with our humanity and help as get to know each other as truly human beings. When we can peel away the layers of fear, guilt and anger which is part of a forgiveness process we can get in touch with our humanity and begin to relate to each other differently and in a more compassionate way. We also need to learn how to walk in the shoes of the other. By dealing with what has happened, walking in someone else’s shoes, and by healing our own emotions which blocks us from feeling someone else’s pain we can change the narrative and how we behave. It is about our humanity, to see ourselves in one another, to genuinely care for one another to have empathy that goes beyond who we identify with. That is the work which needs to be done. And if we can help heal the suffering and hurt of ourselves as well as others, we are on the road to heal society and to build a stronger foundation for a more inclusive and just society.

For more information on political forgiveness please visit www.drborris.com.

 

The Beginning of a New Way Forward

As Charles Dickens once wrote in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worse of times.” Could this be true for us? We are coping with a pandemic and dealing with deep divisions and issues of racial injustice which are profound. Parallels have been drawn between what is happening now and during the Civil War. So where are “the best of times?”

Crisis brings opportunities. Out of our pain can come healing. We know healing begins with truth telling and accountability and fortunately we have models from around the world which we can learn from. The most notable comes from the work of Nelson Mandel and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although this commission had many flaws it is also a model which can teach us many things. Other models are emerging such as the work being done in Colombia with their truth commission. One of the most interesting aspects of this work is how it views different forms of the truth and works with the differing perceptions. Closer to home is the work done in Canada and their truth and reconciliation commission which provided those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences.

A new way forward is about transformation. It takes time and a critical mass to get there. Unfortunately, our culture has de-valued many of its citizens and so our work begins with remembering our humanity, our inner-connectedness and what it means to be a human being. It means zero tolerance for any kind of violence. In this country what we must grapple with is the ideology of racism and violence and the denial of humanity for different groups of people. The work must be comprehensive and work on all levels of society. People need to change mind sets, communities must come together and heal, and there needs to be resources and commitment on the governmental level to change structures in society so what we are now experiencing can never happen again.

Can the worse of times become the best of times? Can we embrace this moment of crisis in a healing capacity as a country so we can go forward with a new vision of who we must be as a nation and have the capacity to demonstrate empathy and care for one another, showing that we value one another? Can we transform our structures to be inclusive instead of exclusive? What I have just described is the work of political forgiveness. In practicing forgiveness politically, we can grow in compassion and empathy and out of that can develop a new culture based on our humanness. This IS our way forward and gives us an opportunity to make profound changes in our society.

For those interested in learning more about political forgiveness please go to my website www.drborris.com. Feel free to sign up for the monthly newsletter which shares information and stories on political forgiveness when you go to the website.