Last week, I had the pleasure of giving a talk at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. There’s already a liveblog of it courtesy of Rodrigo Davies, so this is more of a personal reflection. I’m yet to find a theoretical framework that makes sense of the uses to which we put technology in the peacebuilding field. Speaking with the folks at the Media Lab helped sketch out some thoughts that I’d like to explore further.
It started when I listened to Ethan Zuckerman’s keynote at the Digital Media Learning conference in Chicago. Ethan put forth two ideas that I found compelling. First, he makes a difference between two types of civic participation: thick and thin. Thin engagement is where you’re asked to show up and do as the organizer tells you. Thick engagement is where space is made for people to come up with their own creative ways to act on an issue. Ethan goes on to say that if we if we want civic participation that is thick, impactful and scalable, then we have to focus on agency.
And with this in mind, there is one way of creating agency for peace activism that I am particularly interested in: changing the discourse of peace. A possible initial reaction is to ask whether we really need to work on a discourse of peace. Isn’t everyone already for peace? Thing is, everyone says they’re for peace, but then everyone shows up for war. When it comes down to it, everyone has a well-articulated, personal reason to go to war. In many ways, peacebuilding is about addressing the individual stories that we tell ourselves about war. I’ve written before about how Foucault’s understanding of the “game of truth” in society sheds light on the importance of discourse-building for peacebuilding. To recap, I think there is a key moment in many peace efforts when two people in the group realise that they are pawns in a game of conflict, they see the game, and therefore they skip out of the game. They step out of their subjectivity and become witnesses. Perhaps they see the truth of their sameness, the truth that beyond this game there is something in which they recognise each other. And from that moment on it’s possible to invent a new game – it is possible build peace.
I’ve seen these moments unfold before me, I remember them clearly in Sudan and Cyprus. It’s about two women climbing up a mountain together to look at their villages, and realizing both have the same thatch-roof houses and face similar daily challenges. It’s about a group of activists recounting a historic event and sharing what was happening in their family life at the time. My sense is that what enabled those new stories, new discourses to emerge was that communications were set up to be flatter, more participatory, more creative and entertaining. Together these conditions offered up the space for thick engagement in changing the discourse of peace. (Which is not to say they are a sufficient condition for this change to happen! Just a strategy that in some cases will deliver changes in the discourse.)
This theory appeals to me because I see it reflected in two projects I am working on: a community communications system in Sudan and a platform for peace activists in Cyprus. Both projects are trying to affect the discourse in the hope that people will change the ‘game of truth’ they are stuck on. They are both taking a risk: we don’t know what people will do with this information, with a changed discourse. We don’t even really know how the discourse will change. It was great to hear Ethan, in the same keynote to the Digital Media Learning conference, say that we need to understand that thick participation at scale means devolving control.
Ethan also says that he believes we should enable people to deepen the foundations of their understanding of an issue while they climb the ladder of engagement. That’s what I think is different about these two projects – that’s also where I think we are going with these attempts to change the discourse. Both projects are providing an opportunity for people to deepen the foundations of understanding and climb the ladder of engagement. They are providing the space for that to happen. The Sudan project is very different to typical top-down early warning systems (which are all about thin engagement). It puts the onus of response on the same people who are warning. The Cyprus platform aims to make both peace activists and non-activists more reflective about their contribution to peacebuilding in the island. In its story-telling function, the platform makes everyone responsible for the story of peace in Cyprus. Both are ways to encourage people to surmount the sense of inevitability, which so often is present in conflict.
John Paul Lederac talks about this sense of inevitability. He says what peacebuilders fundamentally need to do is to provide spaces for the moral imagination to emerge. Moral imagination is the ability to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. Perhaps that’s another way to think about thick, impactful and scalable civic participation – in the context of peacebuilding.