Maglana: Dividers, connectors, and the yearend holidays

IN A series of trainings on conflict sensitivity and peace promotion the past weeks, one of the learning points that trainor-facilitator Carmela Ariza and I tried to put across was that any context in which we operate could be characterized by the presence of ‘dividers’ and ‘connectors.’

Dividers and connectors could be factors, issues, events, and elements in a social setting. They are differentiated in that the former promotes divisions and tensions, while the latter brings about unities and cohesion. They are foundational to the “Do No Harm” or DNH approach developed by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects based on the results of a worldwide study.

A key idea not readily appreciated at first glance is that people in and by themselves are neither inherently dividers nor connectors. The defining point is what people do. But because personality-oriented cultures like ours put a premium on personages, we are inclined to think that so-and-so is a connector, or this person is a divider.

Human behavior is complex and dynamic. We are capable of change no matter how slow or seemingly little. The trick then is to focus on what people are doing rather than what they are saying.  In the most divided communities, the day-to-day activities of people point to efforts to be neighborly and to recognize, even in the most mundane of ways, the inherent dignity that we each possess.

That being said, training participants invariably struggle with finding connectors and tend to focus on dividers, which is probably also the case in our public lives.

It is easy enough to appreciate the connector effect of Filipinos coming together to aid victims of disasters. It is more challenging to recognize as a connector Spokesperson Harry Roque’s message to bloggers who strongly identify as supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte about respecting the role of critical journalists. Those dissatisfied by the communication track record of Malacañang under the current administration did not feel it was a strong enough message, while those critical of established mass media thought Roque was talking down to the President’s supporters.

To avoid being beleaguered by relativism that ultimately paralyzes, i.e., what is a connector for you might be a divider for me so there is nothing we can do, or get reduced to ineffectual niceties, the identification of dividers and connectors needs to be anchored on a grounded and nuanced analysis of the context, in our case one that is fraught with conflicts. Truly worthwhile would bethe search leading to the strengthening of connectors that maximize peace capacities and the weakening of societal divisions that intensify conflicts or create new ones.

There are opportunities for families and circles that have been strained by the events of 2017 to bond better over the coming holidays. Beyond the Christianity-oriented Christmas and Day of the Innocents, we will also mark the more secular Rizal Day and New Year’s Eve.

As we celebrate these festivities that are high on the connectors list, may we remember that the child Jesus had been born to parents who were turned away by mainstream establishments and thus had to take refuge in a stable; Herod caused the slaughter of boys that he had profiled as threats; Rizal was executed for his writings against a colonizer whose powers seemed unstoppable; and that in the beginning a year may seem to stretch out interminably, but before you know it a new time has come.

I have been told that being mindful about dividers and connectors is not as powerful as the us-versus-them mentality. Recognizing that other actors also have potential for positive results pulls the rug from underneath the absolutist binary “we are good and they are bad.”DNH also compels us to analyze what we do and their effects; rather than assume that the justness of our intentions guarantee that we would never bring about negative consequences. It certainly is not as satisfying as the rush that comes with being convinced that one monopolizes righteousness and dominates the moral or political high ground.

In these times when everything is contested, a divider mindset—one that seeks to win at all cost—is bound to prevail. But we have to resist its false allure.

Conflicts are more realistically resolved when causes and factors are dealt with, rather than ‘won’. The resolution of armed conflicts through meaningful political processes is an example of building durable peace rather than winning through costly wars.

Although taken lightly and dismissed as propaganda these days, the annual ceasefires declared unilaterally by government and the Communist Party of the Philippines are important as connectors. Holiday ceasefires not only provide reprieve from the fighting; but they also symbolize our hopes for a future time when the parties would permanently cease hostilities.

May we take time over the holidays to rediscover or strengthen a connecting mindset that would help us prevail over dividers that are certain to visit us in 2018.

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