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‘Outcast’ or The Problem of Re-entry

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I was inspired to write this blog entry after reading a fellow blogger Jamila Mammadova’s “Key Chain.” Jamila writes about her experiences attending a conflict transformation workshop designed to promote a people-to-people dialogue between Armenians and Azerbaijanis on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. The experiences and emotions that Jamila describes are common to many of these workshops: hesitation, frustration, anger, and in many cases, transformation of previously held intransigent views and even formation of enduring friendships between the participants from the opposite sides. Jamila, too, went through many of these emotions and by the end of the 12-day workshop she even became friends with an Armenian participant, who presented her with a parting gift: “a key chain with one of Armenia’s largest churches on one side and ‘Armenia’ written on the other.” Despite valuing her newly formed friendship and the gift, Jamila writes about her dilemma of displaying the key chain and being viewed as a “traitor” by her Azerbaijani friends and family or hiding it and, therefore, not being true to her friendship.

Jamila’s dilemma is not unusual and is often referred to as the “re-entry problem” in the field of conflict resolution. Conflict transformation workshops are designed to probe assumptions and break negative stereotypes and prejudices by creating a safe environment for the participants to express their opinions, fears, frustrations, and also listen to those of the other side. These interactions allow participants to see the “enemy” as human beings and realize that the issue at hand is not as black-and-white as they had been taught to believe. This experience also gives them a glimpse of what a peaceful coexistence would look like: although we may have different views, we can express them and work them out in a civil way. The immediate effects of such workshops are, therefore, increased understanding of the other side and more moderate views about the conflict and how to solve it.

The next step for the participants, then, is to go back to their respective communities and share their experiences and transfer the knowledge and trust they built on an individual level to their societies at large. However, this is no easy task. Upon return to their home countries, participants usually feel pressured to abandon their newly acquired moderation. They feel isolated, rejected, and ridiculed by friends and family. Accusations such as “you’re a traitor,” “they brainwashed you,” or “you probably have [insert ethnicity here] relatives, that’s why you sympathize with them” are flung at them from all directions. The task of promoting moderation is even more taxing when the belligerent views are reinforced by media and political leaders. Feeling alone and intimidated, some participants begin questioning themselves and the validity of their newly found moderate views or refrain from sharing them altogether to avoid hostile confrontations.

One way to overcome the re-entry problem is to keep in touch with the fellow participants in order to build the self-confidence needed to promote peace and reconciliation in your community. Chances are they too face the same obstacles and feel isolated. Another way is to utilize new media tools such as blogs to share your views: these are easily accessible to many and allow for a “breathing space” in initiating uncomfortable discussions. Unlike face-to-face conversations where people might feel “cornered,” blogs allow for reflection without the pressure to immediately respond. Furthermore, the ability to set the rules and moderate discussions allow for a civil thought exchange.

Although the ultimate goal is to draw in hardliners to reevaluate their rigid views, a feasible first step to take is to connect with more open-minded people, who might not necessarily agree with you, but who would be willing to listen. As the network gradually expands and those outside of this network realize that moderates no longer constitute a small minority and that more moderate views are “in the air,” they might also be more willing to join (a phenomenon usually referred to as the “social cascade”). Finally, the most important thing to remember is that these processes take time. So to avoid disappointment and the temptation to give up, it is important to set reasonable goals. Even if you are able to persuade one person to reconsider his or her views, it is one less person wasting his/her energy on hatred and it is one more ally in promoting peace.



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