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Dr. Catherine Barnes [Podcast] - BCB #35
A veteran of international conflicts talks about applying peacebuilding lessons to the US.
The fifth episode of the Better Conflict Bulletin podcast, The Transformers, is a wide-ranging conversation with a pioneer in conflict transformation and peacebuilding, Dr. Catherine Barnes. She has worked with with activists, diplomats, politicians, and armed groups in more than 30 countries, and has now returned to the US to direct her attention here.
[There’s] this sense of people saying, wait a minute, we want to reactivate our public spaces as being for all the public. And it's small and it's not fully tested, but I do think it's possible and that reminds me of a lot of dialogues that I've done in war-torn societies.
Following is a partial transcript of her insights, edited for length and clarity. To hear the entire discussion, listen below or on your preferred podcast distributor.
Better Conflict Bulletin: Tell us about your background and how that has become part of your work in peacebuilding.
Lots of different chapters as, I guess, in many lives. I was raised as a Quaker, and as a Quaker, part of the core tenants is—it’s a peaceful church—nonviolence, but also very much focused on consensus and non-coercive methods.
And I worked much more as an activist early on and as a social worker as well. And then in the early nineties I was among the first to go into the field from an academic perspective and got my master's and then my Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University.
BCB: And do you prefer the phrase “peacebuilding” rather than “bridging” or ”conflict transformation”?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: I probably most identify as a peacebuilder. That's what I'd say would be the context that I've come from-- a dialogue facilitator with the goal a lot of times for conflict transformation.
BCB: How did you become involved in the Conciliation Resources and Minority Rights Group International?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: My Ph.D. was actually about genocide in the 20th century, a comparative study of that. This was very consistent with my interest in these kinds of totalizing inter-identity group conflicts.
The approach that Minority Rights Group tended to do was research and advocacy. And I think I always felt more drawn to what are the processes of bringing people together--including those who have taken up arms and organized armed violent conflict-- how to bring them together to find some way of shifting the conflict system that has led to so much violence and to find a way forward.
I found myself gradually moving more and more into a focus on peace processes, and what are all the conditions in which we can imagine peace processes. Not only about negotiating the spoils of war, but actually creating pathways towards conflict transformation and addressing the underlying grievances and injustice that give rise to war.
BCB: That's a little difficult for the American mind to understand. Where do you start in the peacebuilding process?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: A lot of times, it’s about the groups that have mobilized and organized themselves to wage conflict through violent means engaging them.
Very often when people do take up arms, it's because they do have some kind of change that they're wanting to bring about. How can they begin to conceive of other pathways for achieving goals? Through engaging with their enemies. And what would it mean to come together to figure that out, but not just those that have taken up arms.
I think often there are many other groups, including those who may identify on the same “side,” who actually have not chosen to take up arms or feel that a peaceful path is going to be the better way forward…
So a lot of my work was around helping people with thinking that through [and] also learning lessons from how people had done it elsewhere. [It’s also a matter of] skilling and enabling people to better negotiate and to engage in dialogue to more deeply understand what it was that's motivating each other.
BCB: When it seems that polarization is threatening to boil over, what's the best way to prevent violence from erupting?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: This is a complex challenge. We’re all trying to figure this out. I think there are many different strategies. In terms of preventing violence, that's one set of strategies that may be alongside approaches which are dealing with the underlying causes of polarization.
A lot of the work that I am doing now is addressing the social aspects of it-- the sense of anger and frustration and rupture in communities that feel that the other “side” is increasingly the problem…
The mobilization of grievance as a way of justifying armed conflict. I think that there are obviously fears in many parts of the country right now. And certainly, there's a lot of evidence in terms of shootings that people are turning [to] that path.
I think the majority of people don't want that to happen, though. And so the question is how to empower and enable people to come together to feel like we are one community. We are one society. We need to find respectful, peaceful, constructive ways of working together. And that's more and more where my work is now.
BCB: What brought you back to America?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: I'm from the States. I'm from rural Virginia and had a child later in life. My, husband is a Londoner. We had been living in East London and I missed the mountains. I'm a mountain girl. We both wanted our son to be able to have the opportunity to be in a smaller community. It's been a good move for us; my family's here.
It’s been interesting coming back to the US. Moved back in 2011 after almost 17 years out of the country, and things had changed a lot. In some respects, some things were very consistent with where things were before.
But I think I'd certainly noticed, especially in contrast to some of the other places that had been living, how few common institutions were left-- where all Americans could feel that there was a shared public space. And interestingly, right now I’m working with public schools, and I think in some ways, public schools have been one of the areas where that actually had continued. Although it's localized, it's not a national institution, but I do feel that the breakdowns in communication spaces have really enabled this polarization.
BCB: What does that mean for us now that in a lot of ways chose our own fragmentation through social media and the way we get our news?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: I think you're right, that social media and also the mainstream media spaces have gotten much more divided. When I left, Dan Rather was still the person who many people were listening to most nights. The network news was still very much of a feature of life.
And, as you say, as people have gone into their own information spaces, that has, I think, enabled a lot of misunderstandings to build up. The filter that comes from what's happening in social media spaces means that the perception of the other, however–whoever that other may be–is very flattened.
One of the things that dialogue enables is this dehumanization and a de-complexification of what it is people care about and are concerned about. So in our locality, in Virginia, public schools have become a major site of community-level conflict. Schools are what people really care about deeply. They love their children, they love their schools, they want the best for their children. They want the best for their schools, they want the best for the community, which is enabled by strong schools.
Often people seem to be really bewildered by why “the other” thinks and believes what they want. When they actually sit down and start talking together, they realize that, oh, actually, you know what? There's a lot that we share in common. There are some things that people really still disagree on, but they realize that there may be ways that schools, for example, can actually help to manage those dilemmas and those tensions between the different values that people have.
And there's a whole different way of engaging that begins to happen. And one of the things that I have seen, and I've seen this across political and ethnic identity spectrums, is the way in which people are yearning for [the ability] to have respectful conversations and the fear that people have. The kind of angry, hate-filled, and hateful public talk, whether it be virtually on social media or in public meetings–feeling like, “Wait a minute, what are we doing?”
People don't like it. My experience thus far has been that when people have a chance to sit down and talk in a normal human way, often, they feel hopeful and then they start feeling empowered–that actually we don't have to go down this road of tearing ourselves apart as a community. We can work together to figure this out. And all the things that we had feared about “the other,” some of that may be true and we can live with that, [but] we have misled ourselves into believing that the other is the demon that we imagined them to be.
And being in places where that's happening can feel incredibly resonant and hopeful, [There’s] this sense of people saying, wait a minute, we want to reactivate our public spaces as being for all the public. And it's small and it's not fully tested, but I do think it's possible and that reminds me of a lot of dialogues that I've done in war-torn societies as well.
You have to have strongly held space for those dialogues to happen. But when it does, people start taking responsibility for it themselves and start wanting more mixing and being heard.
Those who may seem beyond the pale, that those who are spewing hate speech, can, in the right conditions and with great care, when treated with dignity themselves, can begin to shift out of the space where they are.
BCB: So how then do you answer the criticism that some have that “This group over here is thinking and saying things that are hateful and destructive to society. That person should not be platformed. They should be cast out of polite society and from having any form of communication.”
Dr. Catherine Barnes: Who is beyond the pale? [laughs] I think that hate speech is deeply destructive. And this is one of the reasons why, in entering into dialogue space, [we should have] really clear communication agreements with that: “This is not going to be tolerated.”
You have to speak for yourself from your own experience, avoiding buzzwords, sharing your own story. Listening respectfully. All of these things are setting up different kinds of rules by which people need to agree–to engage within those spaces. And I have often experienced both in my recent work in the US, but also internationally, that… those who may seem beyond the pale, that those who are spewing hate speech, can, in the right conditions and with great care, when treated with dignity themselves, can begin to shift out of the space where they are.
I think there are a lot of caveats to this. Because this is often people who are acting as private citizens and who actually care deeply about the things that they are concerned by, but are not necessarily–how do you say, the politicians and people like that–who may have a number of other interests that are at work. I'm talking here mostly about ordinary people, even ordinary people who are leaders in their group. So I think that space is something a little bit different and a little bit special, out of which may grow a potential for a different kind of discourse.
And I do think we do have to separate that out from people who are engaging in hate speech. So in this sense, it's saying that people are redeemable, potentially if they act in a way that is respectful. And so [we should] not exclude people solely on the basis of their past behavior, if they are willing to reengage in a new way.
That being said, if there are people who have been traumatized by the hateful behavior of the past, I'm very careful about bringing them together. There has to be some level of acknowledgment and even atonement. That is also possible if you have it through a restorative justice framework.
I think we do have to be careful not to re-traumatize people who have already experienced severe harm. On the other hand, it is also true that I would not exclude people on the basis of hate speech in the past. It has to be in very carefully constructed conditions and with consent.
BCB: What can we do when we run into situations where peace and justice seem to pull in different directions?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: That is the biggest conundrum, isn't it? One of the biggest conundrums, and the thoughts around transformative justice are often about an awareness of the interdependence that we all have, one way or another, in this world that we share together. And so we can look at the lessons that have come from the wisdom of many in African cultures in Ubuntu– this awareness of interdependence.
And if we start from a foundation of recognizing we are interdependent in one way and another, then that means that somehow we would not be able to achieve justice only by strategies based on, say, locking up or punishing those who have committed injustice. At some point, if we're needing to transform that system, there have to be ways of figuring out together how to move forward.
And often that does mean that those who have been especially involved in hate and committing crimes, committing harm, need to also be able to acknowledge and atone for the harm that they have perpetrated. And it's amazing. We can think of countless examples of where that is possible.
I think the potential– and I don't want to be naive about this, because it is a potential that is not always achieved and it's a potential that often takes a long time to manifest– but the potential of these more dialogic processes that are based on relationship, are centered in relationship and centered in dignity and respect at their foundation, have a potential to create a pathway towards justice. That doesn't mean that there doesn't need to be structural change…
But I think the notion that we can just cut out those who are maybe seen as being the source of hatred and harm and just say, “Forget it! We're going to lock you up or defeat you” never gets to that point of having a fuller, more complete, and whole notion of justice.
BCB: It sounds as if even though there are a lot of commonalities in these situations, the person who has done the wrongdoing needs to acknowledge that, and perhaps there needs to be some restoration.
But it also (seems) there is a humiliation ritual that we have in American society: “You offended someone, you're banned from Twitter, you need to apologize and go away for a while,” and then you resurface a couple years later. We need a healthy balance between people acknowledging what they've done wrong and having this fall into a ritual. And it sounds like it is never a one fits all situation. (Your suggestion) is a more healthy way to look at it.
Dr. Catherine Barnes: I think you may be alluding to certain things, especially coming out of Me Too, and another context where there's almost a performance of apology without the transformation actually happening. And I think that's one of the things that we have to be really careful about.
Because where do people go, then, if they're banned? What else comes out of that time when they're in purgatory and are maybe mobilizing with others that share beliefs and come back stronger? And that seems to be what we so often find, and that's the dynamics of backlash that seemed to keep coming over and over again.
I was born in 1965 in Richmond, Virginia. I was a part of the very early generations of children entering very recently desegregated public schools. And what I know is that we never talked about it. … [We didn’t have] any framework for understanding the significance and nature of change that happened.
BCB: Your perspective is very much needed because it can be difficult for American audiences to understand different cultures and how conflicts might be passed down, and they might be ground into a culture. And so what do Americans need to understand about these long-term international conflicts that we are not a part of?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: If you turn the dial back far enough, you'll often find that the US does have some level of involvement. Sometimes I think we would be better off if we did more fully acknowledge and understand the role of what is being done in our name. You're exactly right that in most places, people's memories are long and stories get passed down from one generation to the next.
And that can be in the effect of direct traumatogenic experiences, but also of narratives of suspicion of hatred or “We are better than, we are less than.” And honestly, I think we have that in this country as well. We can understand that very well.
And I think particularly if you are someone who's coming from an indigenous American or an African American perspective, your sense of history and how long things go back and how deeply rooted they are can be quite different than people who are white-identified in this country. And I think it's much the same in other societies as well.
What I think many societies are looking towards is a kind of rule of law in institutions that are strong enough to be able to manage those tensions, and to make sure that you do have everybody having more equitable access to the institutions of the state and of society. For other countries, but I think also for our own country, that there is so much about our history that we never address.
I can speak for myself. I was born in 1965 in Richmond, Virginia. I was a part of the very early generations of children entering very recently desegregated public schools. And what I know is that we never talked about it. We never talked about what had happened, and it's entirely possible to grow up in my generation of white Americans, never having known even that four years earlier, the same building that I was in was a segregated school.
[We didn’t have] any framework for understanding the significance and nature of change that happened. [It was] unspoken in not necessarily my household, but in my broader community, you can be sure people knew what was happening. The adults knew, older students knew, and this knowledge was also internalized within communities and has continued to come out and be a source of ongoing conflict.
Right now in the state where I am, there is a huge conflict around teaching our history around what is history. How does it get taught? And I think this notion of “What are the narratives we have about the past?” and keeping them very simple in a way doesn't serve us well in terms of our ability to really know each other's lives or to make a better world together. And this is true in other countries as well.
BCB: Why do you think anyone didn’t want to talk about that?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: First of all, I think that a lot of people didn't know how. I'm a white-identifying Virginian, and I think that there are a lot of folks in the white community…felt defeated because desegregation was seen as imposed from outside. And I think a lot of adults just did not know how to talk about it, and there wasn't the vision around having spaces or curriculums or ways to enable people to talk about it.
And then of course, if you were an African American student, let's say, who was entering into those spaces for the first time, I'm sure a tremendous feeling of vulnerability. And unless there was a safe way in which you could express yourself, I'm sure that there were a lot of things like bullying in the end– disrespect and possibly worse that was happening. I know that now, but as a child, I could be insulated from it. It really varied how the adults dealt with it at the time.
And then by the time we were coming to, say, the 1980s, I think that there was… a kind of desire to just move on forward and see that all as some past that was no longer… [But] it continues to haunt us. It continues to haunt us and continues to manifest in different forms today.
BCB: Do you feel that guilt plays a part in a situation like that, and how does that act with its ability to be corrosive?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: Yeah, I think it does. I think it does. And I think one of the things that I understand now as being a concern of a lot of mostly white-identifying parents and families is that they're fearful that their children will be made to feel like they're bad people on the basis of their race, racial identity, their racialized identity, and don't want their kids to feel that. Nobody would want their kid to feel that way. I wouldn't want my child to feel that way, so [we better] not to talk about it.
And I'm sure everybody has a complex mix of feelings. I know I, certainly, even if I wouldn't say that “Okay, I am responsible for everything that happened,” I'm very well aware that I'm a beneficiary and I have felt guilty and that's a really uncomfortable feeling. And yet to not address it is to leave this wound that is an open wound that I think exists in the collective psyche of our country.
And to me it's like anything when we've been in conflict or have had difficult things, we can clear it, and then we can get into a healthy place where we can move forward together. This works best when it's done with love and acknowledgment and respect for the dignity of every human being. And if we can create spaces and processes for doing that, then I think everybody feels safer for moving forward with the really difficult things that we have to deal with.
BCB: Your work with the Conciliation Resources and Minority Rights Group International (occasionally reflects) a conflict like this. So what can we learn from it?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: I haven't worked there for quite some time, certainly with Minority Rights Group International. What it was doing was saying they are international treaties and conventions and standards that all of the countries, including the United States, have signed up to for the rights of religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic minorities as well as for indigenous persons.
And those standards are things that we should be living as well. I know a lot of times a lot of Americans don't think– I don’t know– we can kind of form with American exceptionalism that these standards, (or they) somehow don't apply here, but they do.
I think that can provide a framework for, for example, in language rights. We navigate all the linguistic diversity that we have in this country, and the status of, say, Spanish as a language…in the country. There are international standards that address those questions with conciliation resources and a kind of a peacebuilding approach. I think also that a lot of times… there's this notion that we have to engage with the societal dimensions of conflict and create conditions in the societal dimensions well as dealing with the political aspects of conflict.
And I think right now in the States, a lot of the focus is on the political. And that is right, but I think we perhaps focus insufficiently on our social and community context, which is in a way what sometimes fuels some of the more extreme vitriol in our politics. I think that's another principle that's quite important, that unless you also are supporting healthy, constructive engagement within our communities. Written large, we will lose our resilience as a society to deal with the challenges we face.
So part of the transformation, I believe, is beginning to recognize how we are reliant on coercion– how many of our institutions are relying on coercion. And one of the things that often happens is this disregarding of the intrinsic value and dignity of others, and a kind of unilateralism of, “I'm gonna do what I need to do to get what I need done,” disregarding the value and need of others.
BCB: How do you define coercion?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: Sometimes people confuse competition with coercion. I think competition can be really healthy and good. My son's an athlete, and I see how being in a competition with a team or as an individual runner really pushes him to do his best, and that pushes others to do their best as well. Competition can be healthy; cooperation can be great.
We have so much more to gain if we work together, and if we have the trust to enable that cooperation in a way is something different. Coercion is this notion of this belief that “I can't get what I want if you get what you want. And because I want what I want, I'm going to do whatever I need to do in order to get it.”
And I'm going to force myself (in), whether through political, economic, emotional, or sheer physical coercion to get my way… There is coercion that exists in our schools. There's coercion that exists in our police force. (It) t exists in our military and in our legal system. Our notion of dealing with justice a lot of times is very unilateral. The state will decide, often with very little interest in the victims themselves being a part of the process…
And the more that things don't seem to be going the way we want, the more intense become the efforts of coercion. So part of the transformation, I believe, is beginning to recognize how we are reliant on coercion– how many of our institutions are relying on coercion. And one of the things that often happens is this disregarding of the intrinsic value and dignity of others, and a kind of unilateralism of, “I'm gonna do what I need to do to get what I need done,” disregarding the value and need of others.
If we see that as a consistent approach in our responses and how we react to things, we can begin to start saying, “Wait a minute. Are there some other ways that we can begin to shift out of that model?” I mentioned the justice system, and I think that the approaches of restorative justice that are increasingly in some communities, more and more, starting to be woven into a very different way of conceiving how we respond to harm.
I think that if we start to think more about if we recognize our interdependencies with each other, if we recognize each other's dignity, we can sit and we can work out a cooperative mutual gains type of approach or transformation of the relationships in which harm has occurred. The behavior that we find so egregious, we have to figure out some other approach of engagement. This is not to say we don't need the police; I am not saying that. I think that it can be necessary, but is relying on sheer coercion in the first instance always the most efficacious way? I think almost everybody would agree that no, it isn't.
BCB: That's a very interesting, transformational way of thinking about this, because, for example, if you grew up in America, you're used to (the justice system, and you think) “That's just how it is.” But how does addiction become part of this cycle and part of this stigma?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: Yeah, because sometimes it feels addictive. How many “wars on” do we have? The war on drugs–we see how effective that's been–the war on crime, the war on… and this notion of war and that if we just mobilize more– more coercion, stronger coercion– we will be victorious. If you have a chemical addiction, it's like you're starting to feel the pain of withdrawal or depression, angst, or whatever it is that is motivating you.
(Addicts) say, ”Okay, I just need more of this chemical to try to numb that back out again.” And yet the more numbed out you are, the more problems you end up having. I think sometimes that is also the case with our addiction to coercion–we think that we just need to mobilize more resources around strengthening our ability to coerce others
BCB: What's next for you professionally? How do you plan to further apply everything that you've learned to world systems and American systems? How can you help us out of this?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: (Laughs) Oh, I must admit, I tend to very rarely have a grand plan for these kinds of things. I often respond to the opportunities that present themselves. I've worked with a number of different communities (and) organizations. I'll probably keep doing more of the same.
BCB: But, it sounds like that might be the best way to start. You've been around the world and you're bringing what you've learned right back to Virginia.
Dr. Catherine Barnes: Correct, correct. And what amazes me is how much–when I look at the dynamics that are playing out in this particular part of the county–how they are the fractal microcosm of what's going on in the nation as a whole. And through learning about this, I feel like I'm learning so much as well because of course it's my society as well. I have my own perspectives and when I get to listen to people who have very different orientations and why they care about what they care about.
I'm like, oh, “I get it. I understand. I can respect why you care about that.” And so for me, even though I'm acting in this facilitator-advisor kind of role, it still feels I am a part of the society that I care about deeply. …
Hopefully, that wisdom that I've been gaining through people's experiences are something we can share with others who are facing similar conditions.
I think that [there’s] the notion that we can just sign an online petition or donate a check or make a comment on Facebook, and feel like that is having the quality of engagement. I think we need to be more ambitious than that. I think we need to take the risk of engaging with others in a very human way.
BCB: We started the conversation very broadly–globally, and we've now brought it back down to a person's own community, their own family. How can someone who wants to work on this within their lives, their relationships, their school systems, and their families? How can they contribute to a more peaceful resolution?
Dr. Catherine Barnes: That's a wonderful question. I think it takes a lot of bravery and imagination of figuring out where are the places where you are located.
Who are the people that you can engage with across whatever divide it is that is coming up? Are there ways that you can invite other people into conversations? I think that the doors are far more open than we might imagine, because so many people have gotten so shut down, especially through the pandemic.
[It] begins to empower a different kind of hopefulness. This is not to say that you shouldn't also be participating in whatever movements you're affiliated with, and organizations, but I think that [there’s] the notion that we can just sign an online petition or donate a check or make a comment on Facebook, and feel like that is having the quality of engagement. I think we need to be more ambitious than that. I think we need to take the risk of engaging with others in a very human way. …
That gives a different kind of quality to how we go about living our lives together. And this may be in the workplace, it may be in the family, it may be around the dinner table. But I think if we start with the notion of honoring and affirming the dignity of others and then saying, “Hey, how do we move out of this place of hurt that we have found ourselves in?” and do so with a degree of humility and love–I realize that's not gonna be possible in all cases, and in some places, it would not be safe and healthy–but in those spaces where it might be, everybody's got people in their lives or places in their lives where they can activate that.
I encourage people to take that risk– prepare themselves first, feel emotionally healthy, and then go for it, taking the risk to engage.
BCB: What an excellent starting point. Catherine Barnes, thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Catherine Barnes: Thank you for the invitation. I really appreciate it.
Meet Dr. Barnes and read more about her on her website.
Dr. Barnes is affiliated with this peacebuilding organization. Here’s her bio page, along with some of her writing.
Earlier in her career, Dr. Barnes worked with MRGI to help secure the rights of minorities, indigenous people, and the poor.
Dr. Barnes is an Affiliate Associate Professor with this program at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrionsonburg, VA.