Op-Ed submitted by George Lakey, Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Research Fellow at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility
I understand the hesitation to endorse MJ’s forceful action, nearly at the outset of the hour the Board had set aside publicly to dialogue about the proposed divestment of fossil fuel stocks from the College’s endowment. After all, the room included students, staff, faculty, and alums who were interested in the dialogue.
By setting aside the hour the Board was showing a responsiveness to MJ’s researched and published proposal. How can one justify panelist Patrick Walsh’s upsetting the applecart and announcing a new format, backed by some 200 students filing in and standing against the walls of the room, completely surrounding the gathering? For some it was beyond forceful; it was “rude,” even “intimidating.”
Before leaping to judgment about unusual and shocking events, I sometimes try to analyze them from the opposite end: what, if anything, was useful, and what dynamics operated underneath?
The frequent usefulness of conflict is supported within sociology, psychology, and other branches of the social sciences. Here at Swarthmore we watched a very characteristic feature of conflict: a drama unfolded in which a series of margins spoke out. Women, students with Hispanic ancestry, working class people, the LGBT community, representatives of an over- stressed eco-system, African Americans, and so on, speaking with emotion, assisting those present, including Board members, to experience what cannot be rendered in reports.
Those of us who study conflict know that mis-assessments are often made by decision-makers for lack of information about what the stakes are. Conflict reveals critical information about what the stakes are, information that is often only expressed when the conflict is hot enough. Open conflict corrects a bias especially celebrated in environments like Swarthmore, a bias toward cognitive linearity. Wise decisions are in fact not made one-dimensionally, through linear thinking, but through interaction with other dimensions as well, including the capacity to read energy.
I write as someone who taught here at Swarthmore in the nineteen-sixties and then again a decade later, and I’ve found, this time around, a dispiriting degree of individual self-absorption. Conflict often lifts attention away from the self and directs it toward the community. So, it’s not surprising that members of Swarthmore who could release themselves into the process found new connections, gained new perceptions of themselves in relation to others, saw others in new ways, and sometimes even enacted before the whole — recall the Collection — rituals of healing.
To summarize these three uses of conflict ,we can imagine a wise medical doctor who pays attention to the parts of us that are ignored or over-ridden, who uses multiple perceptual avenues for diagnosing us, and who respects painful eruption as the body/mind’s agency in its deep yearning for wholeness.
Another way that conflict serves a place like Swarthmore is in its challenge of control. It has been said that an empire in ascendency focuses on achievement, and in decline focuses on control. Naturally, an elite college in the U.S. would reflect its unwritten mission through emphasizing control, including student self-control. Even activists in elite colleges may serve this theme, trying to control others through political correctness.
The enactment Saturday morning, therefore, of up-ending control by creating a line in which everyone was free to stand, including Board members, and take their turn to speak authentically, initiated a counter-theme that energized the campus. It continued in the Parrish discussions, Collection, and the “teach-ins” in the IC and LPAC.
It’s time to underline the vulnerability of that challenge to control, however. Gandhi was arguably the 20th century’s most conflict-friendly politician, but is still rarely understood because he situated the wielding of power in a context of vulnerability, including his own. If someone risks suffering, Gandhi believed, it should be the confronters. The nonviolent way is one of confrontation, yes, but also risks vulnerability.
I see MJ as having chosen to take a risk by intervening. (What if the Board walks out? What if no one stands in line to participate? What if the whole exercise flops? What if that great fear of many Swarthmore students – contempt by peers – is directed toward MJ?).
MJ also chose vulnerability by letting go of its signature issue – divestment – in order to allow other realities of marginalized student experience to be expressed strongly. As the days went by, I heard any number of students and faculty express their wonder that MJ would “give its time” to the well-being of the whole.
As a Quaker I can’t help seeing in all of this an analogy of another conflict-friendly legacy, that of 17th century Friends. They confronted often and vigorously, interrupting sermons, judges, aristocrats, and even the Puritan way of life in Massachusetts. Then, when Friends “got their own way,” and set up Pennsylvania, they made sure that other faiths were free to practice, as well as theirs. Perhaps this gave Lucretia Mott and Alice Paul some of the confidence they needed to do the confronting that they did, in their turn stirring conflict we’re now grateful for.