How can we make good more violent than evil? A question posed by Rev. Canon Charles P. Gibbs, founding member of the United Religions Initiative, to the one hundred young people who were in attendance. More violent, Rev. Gibbs explained, in the sense that goodness begins to roar much louder than the bad news which is intruding our homes daily. A sentiment shared by all who were present at last month’s international forum for the official launching of “A Common Word Among the Youth” ACWAY fellowship in Rabat, Morocco.
We live in a world where terrible acts of violence are getting more and more sensationalized and threatening to overshadow the many acts of kindness we need to build upon. Therefore, we have no choice but to become peace-warriors if we are to create a world where the good dominates.
2015 ended on a very high note for me. I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the 100 young leaders of the ACWAY initiative, out of close to 4000 applicants from all over the globe who shared the program’s vision of building peaceful coexistence through promoting intercultural and interfaith harmony. There were so many notable moments worth sharing in the journey we began, from meeting as mere strangers to becoming a global family. But for now, let me focus on one segment of our training which challenged us to challenge ourselves; and I am here to in turn challenge you, to do the same.
On the first day of the training, we attended a very thought provoking lecture by Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer of American University, School of International Service, which set the tone for the rest of our stay. During an inspiring lecture which creatively navigated the cultural and religious boundaries we had put up, Professor Abu-Nimer decided to ask us to reveal to each other in small groups, a moment where we were ever stereotyped, prejudiced or discriminated against and how that felt. It wasn’t long before passionate discussions and emotional stories filled the quiet training halls of ISESCO. We even took a couple of seconds to pick out just which of the many incidents hurt the most and shared our frustrations in an attempt to find relief. Statements like, “I felt angry, betrayed, afraid and suspicious” were common in our reflections.
Then came the second question which took all of us by surprise. “Be honest with yourself and think of a moment where you, yourself ever stereotyped, prejudiced or discriminated against a group of people or an individual. Think of how it makes you feel at this moment then share it within your small groups.” Well that discussion was a stark contrast to the first. There was a lot of hesitation, trying to remember if there was even a moment like that at all, and being reluctant to share when we finally did remember. The feelings expressed were of being surprised at oneself, disappointed, even ashamed and feeling slightly guilty. The professor’s point was that we all do it to each other and if we can’t accept that, we would all just end up pointing fingers at one another and will not come close to finding a solution. It was the quickest way for us to grasp the concept of empathy and start inspecting our values more critically. To put it all in context and give us some initial directions, the professor also gave us a quick insight into conflict.
Conflict is created by incompatible goals between different groups or individuals. It has a reward and punishment dynamic with respect to getting hold of a certain resource wanted by both parties and it can quickly escalate. So how do we fit into this? The human brain tends to categorize information. We essentially have templates of how we understand the world around us and how we describe it, to facilitate retaining the most useful information. The leap from categorization to stereotyping happens when we hold a generalized assumption about a group. We begin to prejudice when we categorically develop a negative attitude against a collective. From ethnicity to gender, to age or religion, once we associate a negative label against a group we have crossed over to prejudice. So when can we say we are discriminating against? It is important to note that not every prejudice becomes discrimination. Discrimination happens when we deprive a group or an individual off opportunities based on our prejudice.
Professor Abu-Nimer also cautioned us against operating on the assumption that what could be a personal behavior is cultural, even when the behavior is not necessarily bad. Sometimes we also hold on to our prejudice by dismissing information we don’t approve of, and selectively listening and seeking out observation which reinforces our beliefs. So if we have to make a big difference, we have to start small and begin with ourselves.
Some of the conversations we had amongst ourselves following that lecture were also incredibly insightful. A few spoke of a structural bias in organizations working for youth but which nonetheless, set impossible experience standards in number of years or otherwise for young people to even contend for the job. Some shared that sometimes that manifested even in instances where the young person did meet the requirements and excelled in exams, but is unofficially informed “youth are harder to deal with and can’t be relied on” and dropped during subjective evaluations. Another interesting discussion was regarding hesitation in the hiring of a pregnant woman even superbly qualified; a move some companies regarded as “creating a liability” because of maternal leave and child-rearing related responsibilities. It is always important to remember that we, as individuals, hold power in the everyday decisions we make, and one person is enough to be the catalyst for change. We can all contribute within our context to create a more fair and harmonized world.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war” and as the ACWAY 100, we hope to do just that. Let me finish this post the way I started, by sharing an excerpt from a poem by one of my very favorite poets, Lemn Sissay which inspired the title.
Let there be peace
So frowns fly away like albatross
And skeletons foxtrot from cupboards,
So war correspondents become travel show presenters
And magpies bring back lost property,
Children, engagement rings, broken things.
Let There Be Peace