Individualist vs. Collectivist Peacemaking

Individualist vs. Collectivist Peacemaking

By Scott C. Van Soye

“Blessed are the peacemakers.”

We value peacemakers. We may even aspire to be among them. But often we have no firm conception of what it means to “make peace.” Does it mean to cause the cessation of conflict, by whatever means? Or does it refer only to non-violent efforts to mediate disputes, or to bring non-military pressures to bear? And what does it mean to succeed? Is it enough that the conflict stops? Or is it necessary to repair the damage done? As it turns out, what we think of as the “right” answers to these questions depends in part on our cultural assumptions regarding the basic role of the individual in society – the distinction between an individualistic society and a collectivist one. These differing approaches have implications in both large and small disputes.

An Individualist Culture—

Individualistic (usually Western) societies value personal responsibility, personal freedom, and self-determination. “Looking out for number one” is a core lesson in such cultures, and defining a conflict or its solution is up to those involved. In such cultures dispute resolution, including negotiation or mediation, is a face to face process driven by individual needs and desires. It is often confidential, so as to protect “personal privacy,” and litigation is simply another step in defending one’s individual rights. The usual focus in individualistic societies is on “resolving the problem.” – a narrow inquiry into how the immediate conflict can be ended with some immediate benefit to one or more of those involved.

Those from individualistic cultures typically use aggressive problem-solving tactics. In the international peacemaking context, this can lead to the paradoxical result of waging war to make peace. The concept of “coercive peace” or “peace enforcement” refers to forcing belligerents to stop fighting by the application or threat of superior force. It is familiar, because of the recent deployment of almost 6,000 UN soldiers in newly sovereign South Sudan in July of 2011, and because of the recent actions of the United States and other nations in support of the Libyan opposition. There are historical examples, too — in Kosovo, or even 60 years past, on the Korean Peninsula.

The Collectivist Culture—

The counterpart to the individualistic culture is the collectivist one, predominant in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The individual in this culture is considered secondary to the group, which gives its members their identity. Inter-group relationships are close. Often, group members share spiritual beliefs as well.

Collectivist peacemaking styles are markedly different from individualistic ones. A typical example is Japan. There, disputes are usually resolved without litigation. Rather than being face-to-face, negotiations usually takes place between intermediaries. When disagreements do land in court, the trial judge will try to settle them throughout the process, rather than resorting to adjudication. Going to trial is considered a failure.

The Navajo Culture as a Case Study

Traditional Navajo culture is also a collectivist culture. According to the tribal court website, Navajo peacemaking practices go back to the beginning of time, and are part of the tribe’s creation story. Peacemaking focuses not on punishment and blame, but on restoration of harmony, balance and “right” behavior in the community. As pointed out by Judge Robert Yazzie, former Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, the paramount value is good relations between community members:

“A great deal of American law is based on corrective justice–using punishment to control (or attempt to control) bad behavior. Navajo law, in contrast, is concerned with good relationships. A dispute in Navajo thinking is a situation where people are not in good relations with each other. Obviously, this is what causes disputes in the first place. Navajo justice methods utilize relationships, talking things out, teaching, and consensus to adjust the interaction of parties.”

Chief Justice Yazzie notes that straightforward reparations are not awarded in peacemaking. Instead of focusing on what was lost, the goal is to provide what is needed to make the claimant happy. Active and supportive involvement of community members in helping to resolve disputes is common in collective society. In addition to this active support, community pressure and shaming are used to enforce compliance with norms. Such group pressure to conform is very powerful in collective societies because one’s identity is based not on the Western idea of “I,” but on membership in the group. For an individualist, what determines self-image is internal. For a collectivist, what others think is most important.

Although some non-Navajo have tried to adopt restorative justice aspects of Navajo peacemaking, part of its success depends on shared spiritual values, which makes the transfer to non-Navajo systems difficult. The Peacemaker is often a spiritual leader, reminding participants of their shared values and calling them to account. Prayer is part of the session and is recognized as such.

One central Navajo idea is hozho. Though it lacks an exact English counterpart, it has often been translated “harmony.” More broadly, it is a state of balance, peace, blessing, bounty and wholeness in which all is right with the world because proper rules are being followed: “Hozho reflects the intellectual concept of order, the emotional state of happiness, the moral notions of good and fairness, the biological condition of health and well-being, and the artistic characteristics of balance, harmony, and beauty.” Restoring hozho to the parties and their community is the primary goal of the Peacemaker.

Making Peace in a Diverse World—

In his book “Making Peace in the Global Village,” Professor Robert McAfee Brown describes the collectivist Hebrew concept of shalom in a way that is similar to hozho in its breadth and its idea that all is in order. This word, translated simply “peace,” means wholeness, health, security, prosperity, physical and political well-being. Shalom also refers to God’s covenant with the Hebrew people, and the blessings that flow from it. Like hozho, shalom has a spiritual component.

The concept of Ubuntu, used in collectivist African cultures, translates roughly “I am who I am because of others.” Members of a community are intertwined. This concept of universal linkage means that we should share what we have, be compassionate, friendly, caring and hospitable. A wrong done to one member affects all members, including the wrongdoers. Resolution takes place before the members of community, any of whom can question disputants, or make suggestions. Forgiveness and reconciliation are vital, so that the disputants can retake their place in the community, and the group as a whole can heal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu promoted the idea of Ubuntu as a way to call for forgiveness and begin healing the deep wounds of apartheid.

It is fascinating that two of the three collectivist concepts discussed above (without any conscious choice by the author) have no precise translation in English. And the English translation of “shalom” as “peace” hardly captures the all-encompassing welfare described by Professor Brown. It is as if individualists don’t – or can’t – understand the collectivist worldview.

All of this has serious implications for peacemakers, whether they are mediators involved in small-scale disputes or diplomats aiming to resolve ancient rifts. The contrasts suggest an early inquiry into several areas:

What does success look like to each of the disputants?

Is the goal merely the cessation of the dispute, by any means? Is it reparation for what was lost? Is it what disputants need “to be happy?” Or is it restoration of relationships, communal harmony, and spiritual balance? Differing goals may mean conflict and confusion within the process. The peacemaker certainly needs to be aware of them from the outset.

Who are the appropriate parties? To an individualist, only those directly injured by the dispute need to be present. To the collectivist, the group has been injured, and also is expected to contribute to support during the conflict, and advice about settlement. This may mean that family members, friends, neighbors and community leaders become part of the process. In a collective culture with a strong spiritual component, a religious leader may be an appropriate participant. All may be expected to consent. The presence of “outsiders,” and the delays associated with communal decision-making could shock and dismay individualistic parties.

Who gets to hear about the results? As noted above, individualists like to keep “their business” private. The concept is alien to collectivists, who see themselves as interconnected parts of a whole community. Too much emphasis on confidentiality could cause anger and suspicion.

What process is used? Because collectivists place so much emphasis on relationships, the resolution process most comfortable for them is a “conversation,” or “talking out,” exemplified by the Navajo peacemaking process. Everyone is at the table, and whoever might help is invited to contribute. In the mediation context, this corresponds with a more facilitative, no-caucus style. Individualists may be more at ease with a traditional Western, confidential caucus model. The cultural differences discussed could cause friction during the peacemaking process. They should be dealt with as early as possible, preferably during the convening stage. This article isn’t intended to provide all the answers – clearly other issues will arise as a result of the clash between individualist and collectivist views. But perhaps exposure to these concepts will give food for thought to those practicing peace, about what it means, and how to achieve it.

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