Although I don’t remember very much from the years I spent in high school, something I will never forget is learning about the Holocaust. I was fifteen years old at the time and recall being brought to tears during a history lesson as I learned about the slaughter of six million Jews during World War II.
I felt so deeply connected to the events that unfolded in Europe between the years of 1939 and 1945. It was almost as though I was living through this period while simultaneously learning about it for the first time. And even though I knew how things had turned out, I still continued to hope for a different ending to this gruesome chapter in human history. It was a strange sensation. A desperation to stop something that had already happened. Nothing before or since that time has ever haunted me in quite the same way. The thing that distressed me most about the genocide was how the world just stood by and did nothing to stop it. How on earth could people let this happen?
My classmates didn’t appear to be moved as I was and neither was my teacher. For them the Holocaust was a historical fact. But this was much more than a historical fact. It was the gravest display of humanity’s inhumanity, and it would be repeated the year after my history lesson in the small sub-Saharan country of Rwanda.
While the reality that this was still going on in my lifetime troubled me deeply, it also inspired me to do something about it. I knew I couldn’t change the past, but I was determined to find a way to prevent conflicts and atrocities in the future. Three years later I started university and decided to major in International Relations with a focus on diplomacy, security and peace studies. I then went on to obtain a doctorate in International Relations.
Over two decades have passed and the world looks as it did when I first started out on this path. Armed conflicts have persisted around the world and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in countless countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Central African Republic and the Congo, to name just a few.
Although the world has not changed, the fact is that I’ve changed, to the point that my fifteen-year-old self would hardly recognise the person I’ve become. This reality became painfully evident to me quite recently when one of my students asked me what my views were on the current situation in Syria. In response to this student, I heard myself giving a purely academic account of how the conflict developed, the factors that made it difficult to resolve, followed by a grim prognosis on the unlikelihood of achieving peace.
What stands out in my response was the complete lack of emotion. There was no sense of indignation and most of all, no glimmer of hope towards changing the situation or positively impacting the conflict in any way. The passion of my younger self had been dimmed to the point of resignation about this situation. When reflecting on this conversation I wondered, what happened to me? Where did my fifteen-year-old self go? And what had happened to my enthusiasm and drive to create change in the world?
Some would say that the shift I’ve observed in myself over the years is completely normal. It could be a result of getting older and becoming more cynical about the state of the world and how difficult it is to foster change. But I sense there is more to it than this and it may have something to do with the way my education and training has shaped my understanding of the world.
Within the discipline of International Relations (IR), the dominant theory is known as Realism. This approach is based on the assumption that states operate in a self-help system with the sole objective of maximizing their power interests. According to Realists, competition and conflict between states is inevitable, and cooperation is viewed as an aberration. Realism continues to remain the most influential discourse within IR and it is no wonder: how can anyone meaningfully counter a perspective that purports to provide a ‘realistic’ account of the world?
One doesn’t need to be a student of International Relations to be influenced by the assumptions of Realism. Most people learn about global events through the filter of 24-hour news networks. The fact that most networks seem to dedicate 99% of their content to broadcasting, not just news, but bad news, paints a particular perception of the world, one which is by no means accurate. Those who make a point of watching the news subject themselves to a daily dose of fear – which is the predominant emotion of most broadcasts. Add to this the fact that, despite how negative the story might be, broadcasters deliver the news in an eerily calm and detached manner. The message to the viewer is clear: this is the way the world is. Accept it.
It seems apparent to me that on a global level, the ethos of Realism has locked us into a state of contrast, perpetuating that which we do not want. What we focus on and give our attention to continues to grow. So the more we dwell on the seeming intractability of conflict, violence, and terrorism, the more it persists.
It’s time to recall and reconnect with a fundamental truth that I seem to have temporarily lost sight of along my path, and that truth is our community humanity. It was this truth that inspired me to study International Relations in the first place and after years of study, I can continue to see evidence of it. How else can we explain soldiers from opposing sides in the trenches of World War I, coming together on Christmas day to celebrate with one another, or the fact that British civilians who experienced the horrors of strategic bombing during the Second World War were the strongest opponents of taking retaliatory measures against German civilians?
Even in the gravest situations, I can see proof of this fundamental truth. It is, for instance, no accident that the commission of mass atrocities is almost always preceded by efforts to deny our common humanity, such that perpetrators will consciously disassociate from victims through processes of ‘dehumanization’ and ‘othering.’ These practices have been a consistent feature of every genocide in human history. Why would such processes be so essential for carrying out atrocities unless there is truth to the proposition that we are deeply connected?
Rather than dwelling on and finding explanations for the prevalence of conflict in the world, which is what my education and training has taught me to do, what if we, instead, found ways to collectively shift our focus towards our common humanity? This doesn’t mean denying or glossing over troubling events in the world – indignation can serve us well as long as we don’t reside in it for too long. The key is to allow the indignation to inspire us to move towards greater clarity. And not to simply look for clarity, but to actively cultivate it, even in the darkest of moments and in the most unlikely places.
I am convinced that if more of us were willing to do this, we could consciously manifest change in the world and truly know, for the first time, what it means to be at peace.