Responding Versus Reacting

pair-707509_1920

Within the realm of interpersonal communication and psychology an important distinction is often made between reacting and responding. Being in reaction allows only the most primitive part of our brains to be activated and therefore when we react, we are driven purely by emotion. It is predominately a defensive and instinctual approach where we mirror the behaviours we perceive to be directed at us. If someone raises their voice at us, we raise ours back; if we feel insulted or threatened, we insult or threaten in return.

By contrast, responding is a conscious act. It involves a higher level of cognitive reasoning, and as a result there is a slower and more deliberate quality to our words and actions. Whereas reacting is immediate (and very often done in the ‘heat of the moment’), when we respond we tend to suspend judgment and prior assumptions in order to better understand a situation, and to consider a wide-range of potential solutions before taking action. As such, responding enables us to act from a place of integrity, and to honour our core values as we seek to resolve conflicts constructively.

Although it would be ideal if we were able to respond more often than we react, it is the latter that appears to come most naturally to the majority of people, particularly in situations where we perceive ourselves to be under attack. However, whenever we do react, rarely does it serve us. Instead, it facilitates another round of fractured communication, deepens resentment and intensifies conflicts. While this is certainly true when it comes to our interpersonal relationships, I wonder whether it also applies on a larger scale – in situations where societies or nations feel under attack?

In recent years I’ve observed how often political leaders assume a reactive posture whenever their countries experience a terrorist attack. In the aftermath of recent terror attacks in France, for instance, President Hollande stated his intention to seek revenge. Subsequent to his remarks, the President authorised military action, which he promised to be ‘merciless’. His actions were immediate, defensive, singularly focused on retaliation, and thereby, very much in the spirit of reacting.

President Hollande is by no means alone in his approach; a reactive posture has been adopted by the majority of states involved in counter-terrorist operations. In accordance with this approach, the conditions under which military force may be deployed have been significantly reinterpreted. Instead of being a last resort, military measures have been utilised both as a first resort, but also pre-emptively (that is before an attack has actually occurred).

Just as this reactive posture does not serve us on an individual level, taking a reactive approach to countering terrorism has not diminished its occurrence whatsoever. To the contrary, many would argue that it has intensified the problem. Instead of dissuading and deterring, this retaliatory language has actually emboldened and empowered terrorists. The more we seek revenge, the more we incentivise opponents who also claim to act in the name of revenge. What we end up doing is perpetuating a never ending cycle of violence. Moreover, the rush to act – a key characteristic of reacting –  has led Western countries to abandon and violate their own core values in the name of defeating terrorism.

So what if we were to stop reacting to terrorism and to start responding instead? What might this look like? The first, and perhaps most crucial shift we’d observe is the absence of an immediate, knee-jerk action. By choosing to respond, we would abandon the need to act with urgency, which is often how ill-advised policies and plans take shape. In the space that we create, we would invite more innovative solutions to emerge – ones that may not only be more effective in countering terrorism, while aligned with our core values, but also ones driven with the intention to restore harmony in the aftermath of an attack, instead of seeking revenge. What a welcome change this would be.

Observing the News

hands-1167620_1920

In my last post, ‘How to Create the Opposite of Terror’ I discussed the feelings of powerlessness that arise whenever we hear the news of another terrorist attack in some part of the world. Although such feelings are perfectly natural, by dwelling in powerlessness and despair we overlook our capacity as individuals to create the opposite of terror in the world. So how can we begin to do this? How can we step into our power to create more unity, love and compassion on the planet? I would suggest that the first thing we can do is to develop a different approach to the news.

These days we have become so reliant on round-the-clock doses of news, whether it’s listening to hourly updates on the radio, watching live news broadcasts on television or the internet, reading newspapers online, or subscribing to news feeds on our smart phones. For most of us, however, this constant consumption of the news tends to be a rather mechanical process. We don’t usually challenge the content that is presented to us or give too much thought to how it is delivered. When we receive the news, we often do so as unconscious recipients.

But have you ever noticed that any time a terrorist attack occurs the media reports on the incident as though it is the only thing happening in the world? News of the attack is conveyed in the most dramatic manner, through eye-catching headlines, alarmist language and a sense of utmost urgency. The same images flash across our television and computer screens repeatedly and for that moment in time, all unrelated news stories seem to fall by the wayside. Such dramatized reporting helps justify the singular emphasis on an event or attack to the exclusion of any other news. Not only does this style of reporting put us into fear mode, it facilitates misperceptions of our world and grossly exaggerates the threat of terrorism.

Yet, we continue to rely on the news as an independent and impartial source of information, but how reliable is it? Far from reporting the truth, some of the reports we’ve seen in regards to the phenomena of terrorism have been inconsistent, sloppy and downright irresponsible – inconsistent in emphasising attacks in Western countries with less air time devoted to other parts of the world; sloppy in terms of grouping multiple attacks together under a single banner, despite how disparate and unconnected they might by (as seen with the series of recent attacks in Germany); irresponsible in the language that is used to describe such attacks (when will the media learn that the term’ Islamic terrorism’ is as meaningless as it is offensive? Such language only serves to create further divisions). In all these ways, it is clear that the media has become part of the problem.

In terms of the incidents themselves, there is no denying that they are troubling, but by continuing to rehearse the horror and details of each attack, we deliberately overlook other aspects that are of equal, if not greater importance. For example, there is one factor that all terrorist attacks have in common, and that is the overwhelming outpouring of love and empathy that arises in their immediate aftermath. Across each and every situation, we have witnessed a coming together of people and expressions of compassion among complete strangers, irrespective of race, religion and distance. These attacks may be fuelled by ignorance and hate, but they also generate love and bring people together. This was evident in the hundreds of Muslims who attended Catholic Mass in Rouen, and other parts of France, in a show of solidarity following the murder of Father Jacques Hamel. This story did not receive as much attention in the media as the initial attack. But why should we treat this show of solidarity as little more than a post-script, when it shows a much more authentic reflection of the human spirit than the attack itself?

If we want to create the opposite of terror in the world, we need to shift from being passive recipients of the news to conscious observers. This will require us to approach the news with a greater degree of discernment, to limit our exposure to alarmist reporting, and to seek a more authentic account of the world. On this latter point, it is worth highlighting that in addition to all of the attacks we’ve recently heard about, there have been many positive and uplifting developments that have transpired over the past month. Those who are interested in learning more about this are invited to explore the Inspired News Network (INN).

If we are able to become conscious observers of the news, we can begin to create some much-needed distance between ourselves and the events that occur in our world. From that space, we are better placed to respond (rather than react) to incidents of terrorism. I will pick up on the theme of responding versus reacting to terrorism in my next post, so please stay tuned.

How to Create the Opposite of Terror

nice-1518487_1280

It seems as though every week that goes by brings news of another attack against innocent lives in some part of the world. Over the past few weeks alone, there have been attacks in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Nice. In each situation, we hear the same kinds of questions being asked: Why did this happen? What can be done to stop this? Where and when will the next attack take place? Each incident has also brought up a similar range of painful emotions, from rage and sorrow to confusion and fear. Beneath all of this is an underlying sense of powerlessness.

Of all these emotions, powerlessness is perhaps the most harmful to us. Not only is it the feeling that such random attacks are designed to provoke, feeling powerless also severely distorts our perspective of the world and leads us to respond in ways that actually serve to fuel and perpetuate acts of terror in the long run.

When we look back at all of the attacks that have taken place in recent weeks, what we see in each situation are the actions of specific individuals leading to a tragic loss of innocent life. It is frightening to think that a few individuals can cause so much harm and pain. But why is it that we can acknowledge and even accept the power of one individual to harm, maim and create terror in the world, yet we struggle to acknowledge the flip side of this: our own power as individuals to create the opposite of terror in the world – unity, compassion and healing? We all have that power.

Many of us, however, do not seize upon our power to create a more loving and peaceful planet because we don’t perceive ourselves as powerful. Instead we feel small and insignificant in the world, and with each attack that occurs, we continue to feel smaller and more powerless.

When it comes to responding to an attack – on both an individual and a societal level – a response based on feelings of powerlessness will severely limit and constrain our choices. For it is when we feel most powerless that we respond with anger, fear and hatred, which is ironically an exact match to that which motivates terrorism itself. The outcome is that it generates more of the same, and so the cycle of violence continues.

What would it look like to respond to terrorism from an alternative vantage point – one that was consciously directed towards generating more peace and harmony on the planet? In my next few posts I will explore how we can begin to step into our power to create the opposite of terror in the world.

Lessons from the Iraq War

‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ Martin Luther King

Last week Sir John Chilcot, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry, released his much anticipated report investigating the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. The purpose of the Inquiry was to examine both the causes and consequences of the conflict with a view to identifying lessons for going forward. In the 6000-page report, Chilcot highlighted crucial areas of failure in the run-up to the war through to the post-war occupation, including oversights in the gathering and use of intelligence, an exaggeration of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and a ‘wholly inadequate’ level of post-war planning.

war-472611_1280

The revelations in the report are particularly damning when reflecting on the countless civilian lives that were needlessly lost as a consequence of the conflict, not to mention the fact that Iraq is less stable today than it was in 2003. Chilcot’s report has also provoked considerable anger from the families of military personnel, whose loved ones were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in a war now widely seen as ill-advised, unnecessary and illegal. As the public continues to process the findings of the report, it will be crucial to draw lessons from this experience in order to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated. The extent to which the mistakes of the Iraq war can be avoided in the future will, however, depend on developing a better understanding of how this conflict arose in the first place.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq did not occur in a vacuum; it was very much a product of – and heavily influenced by – the context of 9/11 and its aftermath. Although it has been 15 years since the tragic events of 9/11, it is worth recalling just how momentous this attack was. Nearly everyone remembers where they were on that day and how they came to learn about what had transpired. It was, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic spectacles of violence ever witnessed in human history.

Amid the destruction and despair of that September morning, something quite remarkable occurred. Something which many of us seem to have lost sight of since. This attack didn’t just happen to Americans – it was an attack on the entire world. Even those who didn’t lose loved ones that day were profoundly moved and deeply affected. This became evident in the tremendous outpouring of love that emerged in the initial hours and days following the attack. From the ashes of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, an overwhelming and unprecedented sense of unity, heartfelt compassion and love arose across the planet. It felt as though someone had pushed the pause button, and for the briefest of moments the earth stopped spinning as we awoke to the truth that we are all connected.

ground-zero-63035_1920

Sadly, the sense of love that arose from the ashes of 9/11 soon dissipated and gave way to an opposing paradigm of fear. Fear that a similar attack would occur and a desperation to use any and all means imaginable to prevent it. From that point onward, fear began to take hold of our hearts and became the basis of nearly every misguided policy decision that came thereafter. It was in this context that the invasion of Iraq was conceived and ultimately executed.

Through the lens of fear, decision-makers exaggerated the threat of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), drew non-existent connections between Saddam Hussein’s regime and terrorist groups, and rushed into war without exhausting peaceful measures first or adequately preparing for what would come next. It was also in this spiralling climate of fear that some of the most terrible atrocities were committed against Iraqis, as witnessed by the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison and the tragic death of Baha Mousa.

Perhaps the greatest of irony of traversing the path of fear is that it has actually created what our political leaders had hoped to avoid when they set out to invade Iraq. While there was no significant terrorist threat emanating from Iraq in 2003, there certainly is now. ISIS – a much more pervasive and menacing force than Al Qaida – grew directly out of the conflict in Iraq. What is more, many counter-terrorist strategies have actually emboldened and empowered extremists, as the number of attacks, both in the region and around the world, have grown steadily.

As we come to terms with the conclusions of the Iraq Inquiry, one of the most important lessons we can take away is the utter futility of trying to defeat acts of terror and violence from a fear-based stance. As Martin Luther King once said: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ So if we truly want to undermine acts of violence and terror that offend every precept of our common humanity, we must find a way to restore, and then build upon, the unity, compassion and love we saw and felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. However short-lived it may have been, it was a much truer reflection of our nature than the disastrous and fear-inspired conflict that followed thereafter.

The Choice is Ours

An Open Letter to All Fellow Britons

europe-1456246_1280

Dear Fellow Britons,

I am a recently naturalised British citizen who has lived and worked in the UK for over 13 years. Among the many factors that motivated me to obtain British citizenship was the possibility of being part of a country that is so intertwined and deeply connected to the outside world, especially Europe. The opportunity to live and work in 27 other countries on Britain’s doorstep was an exhilarating prospect for me. After last week’s referendum, it is highly unlikely that I will continue to have that right, but what is far worse from my perspective is that the country I have come to call my home for over a decade, the country where I have cultivated deep bonds of love and friendship, seems to be imploding before my eyes.

Since the referendum last week, there has been a worrying spike in racist speech and hate crimes. People are angry, confused, shocked and scared. Political parties are disintegrating and even those who campaigned for a withdrawal from the European Union (EU) have no plans for what comes next. With renewed calls for Scottish independence, many predict that the outcome of the referendum will precipitate a break-up of the United Kingdom. I never imagined that I would bear witness to such events in my adopted home. It breaks my heart and fills me with dread.

Over the weekend, I’ve heard countless stories from Britons who feel they have been robbed of their opportunities and will be stuck facing the uncertain consequences of a situation they did not choose. There has been a great deal of blaming and finger-pointing, as well as heated exchanges across all sides of the political spectrum. It is also evident that many have taken the referendum results quite personally and have reported no longer feeling welcome in this country. As a recently naturalised Briton, I have also contemplated whether I will still be welcome here.

Needless to say, I understand and sympathise with the intense frustration, anger and sadness that has been expressed in recent days. I feel it too. I can also appreciate the temptation to dwell in this disappointment. But now I want to make an appeal to all fellow Britons, irrespective of whether you voted to leave or remain in the EU last week. At this moment in time we face another crucial choice that will come to define us even more than the outcome of the referendum, and that is how we choose to respond to the situation we are currently in. Almost every commentator has alluded to an indefinite period of uncertainty on our horizon, but the one thing we can be certain of is that anger, blame and regret will not move us forward or help us to heal the deep divisions that have been brought to light by this referendum.

If we look beneath the rhetoric of polarisation, divisiveness and fear, we actually have much more in common than we think. On both sides of the referendum debate, our political leaders have let us down immensely and it has become evident that they did not have our best interests at heart at any point in this campaign. Instead of turning against each other, let us work together to not only demand, but also expect, better leadership going forward.

A second factor uniting us is the high degree of public engagement this referendum has generated, as witnessed by the unusually high voter turnout. Rarely have so many people from all walks of life been so engaged and cared so much about politics. This is an exciting and significant development. The passions that have been stoked by recent political events are unprecedented, so let us view this as an opportunity to channel that passion into much needed positive change.

Finally, we need to understand that everyone who cast a ballot had their reasons for voting the way they did. We can agree or disagree with how our family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers, and fellow constituents voted, but we also have to respect that they had a right to do so.

We keep hearing that the outcome of this referendum will be the biggest factor shaping Britain’s future, but I firmly believe it is our response to that outcome that will determine where we go from here. After all, it was not only our European friends and allies on the continent that were closely monitoring the results of last week’s referendum; the eyes of the entire world were on us and they are continuing to watch us now.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, we must decide within our own hearts: Is it worth staying in blame and disappointment, and turning against one another in the process OR can we consciously accept where we are and begin to build on what unite us?

The choice is ours.

Our Common Humanity

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?

Auschwitz–Birkenau

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.

Peace vs. War

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.

Globe Hand

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.