The Politics Perspective on Peacebuilding

April 24th, 2011

Anna Khandros

I occasionally find it difficult to balance what I learn in my Politics major classes with what I learn in my Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies minor classes. Just try taking “Problems of National Security” after “War and Possibilities of Peace,” or “The Arts of Building Peace” alongside “Managing Ethnic Conflict” – all excellent courses taught by brilliant professors and experts in their fields – and you’ll understand the dilemma of simultaneously studying both peace and policy, of trying to understand both bottom-up grassroots movements and top-down government strategies.  Although the on-the-ground approaches to conflict resolution and reconciliation in each field can and do often supplement each other, the relevant academic theories often contradict each other.

On March 23, Dr. Deborah Langstaff visited my PAX 250 course, and, in some remarkable way, touched upon all of these things that I’ve been thinking. After she read and sang her translations of poems by the German-Jewish poet Hilde Domin, and played original accompanying music, she answered questions. Somebody asked her to discuss her personal and professional journey.

Dr. Langstaff spoke of being young and wanting to change the world, and the thought process through which her idealism turned into realism. She also asked a question that I’ve often tried to answer, and that everyone involved in both politics and peacebuilding should at least consider: Why do you want to help?

Why do so many of us want to help, to develop, to intervene, to mediate, to negotiate? To shed our outsider stigma and become insiders to dangerous situations? Is it for those we are helping or for ourselves?

Dr. Langstaff also discussed the struggle to obtain funding for genuinely well-intentioned projects. All those of us struggling to choose between accepting unpaid internships with remarkable non-profits and pursing financial independence can relate. How many of us have ever wanted to scream, “Why is it so hard to help?!”

Finally, Dr. Langstaff spoke about our ability to leave a situation whenever we want, and that that’s what differentiates those who try to help from those who may or may not need help. Third parties can leave whenever they want and local citizens can’t. This reminded me of studying abroad in Beirut, and Lebanese citizens constantly reminding me that I only love Lebanon so much because I can move on whenever I want.

Back to balancing peacebuilding and politics. On April 1-3, I attended a workshop sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life’s Peacebuilding and the Arts Program.  The workshop, entitled “Peacebuilding and the Arts: Core Concepts and Principles,” was designed for students, administrators, practitioners, and policymakers in the fields of the arts, cultural work, and conflict management.  Although the workshop largely reiterated what students in the Arts of Building Peace course learn, I gained a great deal by talking to people who apply what I learn in class in their personal and professional lives. Interestingly, the week of the event, in my Managing Ethnic Conflict course, we discussed techniques for mitigating violent conflict. These included power-sharing, devolution, and partition – all political approaches. The workshop added to my understanding of community approaches to ending conflict, but also to healing and reconciliation after fighting has ended.

On April 12, the Peacebuilding and the Arts Program premiered its documentary, Acting Together on the World Stage. Extremely well researched and presented, the documentary tells of theater bringing people together and helping communities non-violently resist oppressive governments and heal after conflicts. It highlighted productions in various parts of the world, including Argentina, Australia, Cambodia, and Serbia. The documentary is unbelievably touching and inspirational, and I happened to watch it at the perfect time – right when my Politics classes were making me doubt that we can ever really ever end violent ethnic and religious conflict.

If the study of politics sometimes makes me pessimistic, the study of peacebuilding, whether through policy or community-based work, usually makes me optimistic. Turns out that partition – separating groups of people into enclaves through government policy, largely to counter the security dilemma – is not as effective as reconciliation through the arts – bring people into common spaces so they see that they have nothing to fear.

So my struggle will continue, as I lie somewhere in between wanting to create policies that address security and wanting to facilitate reconciliation that addresses relationships.

Defined Terms (should) lead to Definitive Action

April 11th, 2011

Kate Alexander

This past year, the international judicial community has made huge strides in combatting terrorism and aggression of nations by finally agreeing to definitions for these terms. The difficulty and significance of nations agreeing to definitions for terrorism and aggression should not be underestimated.

These definitions, in no uncertain terms, were agreed upon by states from a variety of cultural, political and economic backgrounds, and bind the conduct of their states to definitions they agreed upon. These definitions will create more opportunities for nations to be held accountable for crimes that fall within the agreed-upon definition of these terms. I applaud the diplomats involved.


So, what are these definitions? Let’s take a look!

  1. Aggression, which was defined at the Rome Conference in July 2010 that reviewed the work of the International Criminal Court, is the following: the use of armed force by one State against another State without the justification of self-defense or authorization by the Security Council. The definition of the act of aggression, as well as the actions qualifying as acts of aggression contained in the amendments (for example invasion by armed forces, bombardment and blockade), are influenced by the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) of 14 December 1974.


  1. Terrorism, which was defined clearly for the first time in a recent decision by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, is: the perpetration of a criminal act (such as murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, arson, and so on), or threatening such an act; (ii) the intent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it; (iii) when the act involves a transnational element.


To be fair, definitions have not always worked in the past. Genocide is the clear example, they don’t always provide an impetus for action (Sudan) or the word becomes so associated with necessary action that there is an extreme avoidance of using the word despite the fact that it is the only term to describe a given situation (Rwanda).

The benefit of these terms, however, is that it gives those who draft international covenants, conventions, treaties, and all the rest of that documentation, a clear framework for addressing key issues in international law and politics.


Responsible Music

April 6th, 2011

Yuan Yao

A recent discussion in my English class raised an interesting debate about the ethics of songs. Specifically, when it comes to songs, who is responsible for how melodies affect the body and mind—the artist, or the listener?

The origins of our discussion stemmed from an analysis of medieval texts on music and its effects on the body and soul. The medieval understanding of the body relied on a balance of the four classical humors and the assumption that the soul is an inseparable part of the body that lives in the heart. Music, sound, and voice were already understood to be vibrations in the air. Sound was thought to originate from a rhythmic striking of the soul upon the windpipe, thus producing vibrations in the air. It was believed that through music, a musician could translate the vibrations of her own soul to those of the listener. As the vibrations for the musician’s soul touched that of the listener, the listener’s soul would synchronize to the harmony produced by the musician’s soul.

Now, obviously we’ve come a long ways from a medieval understanding of the human body and soul. But if we take a look at how modern understanding of song, I don’t think we’ll find a clear difference. Perhaps we’ve abstracted the almost mechanical representation of emotional transformation predominant in medieval times, but we still hold to the basic tenet that a musician produces her work through an expression of her emotions. For a listener to give audience to a musician’s song requires the listener to relinquish his own reality to experience that of the musician’s. In this way, the musician extends control over the listener and dictates the emotions that the listener experiences.

I can think of multiple examples of how this is still true today. You would never try to put an agitate baby to bed by playing military marches or rock and roll. The obvious choice is a soft lullaby because we know the melodies in lullabies conducive to a calm emotional state. But even beyond that, music can affect our body as well. You will never hear a nightclub playing lullabies because they know that the best songs to get their patrons dancing are pop and electronic songs with an easily discernable beat. Even in our day and age, we cannot escape the medieval observation that music influences our mind and body.

Keeping these ideas in mind, how do we determine where the responsibility of music lies? With the power to influence countless listeners and a measure of control over song creation, should the responsibility fall to the musician? There has always been a debate about the violent and suggestive lyrics of modern hip-hop. How do we reconcile what we know about the power of music with the production of controversial songs? Perhaps the responsibility of music should fall to the listener; the musician is merely expressing her thoughts and emotions in song, shouldn’t the burden of interpretation fall to the listener in a way analogous to how a viewer would scrutinize over a piece of art in a museum gallery?

Find Your Fire

April 6th, 2011

Beneva Davies

It was St Ignatius of Loyola who said, “Ite Incendite Omnia,” a literal translation is “Go, set everything ablaze.” This was St Ignatius’ order to his followers- to spread their knowledge like fire and change those who they happened to encounter.  As a constant witness to it, I can say with ease that there is something so fundamentally recognizable about Brandeis students–fire. There’s a fire, a passion, a certain strive in us all; we are the warriors of change. My interest in justice, human rights, ethics and public life is probably not rare to this campus, but the following is the memory of how I came to find my fire.

After the tragedy of 9/11, like many people, my family fled to their religion. As we arrived at church on Sunday morning it was packed and there was a certain feeling of not just unbearable grief but ironically deep community—as is usually the case, sorrow had brought us all together. The sermon was to have the message of hope, community and courage in the face of overwhelming pain and fear. Half way through the closing remarks the priest said “Lord, for those evil men who run around screaming and praying to their false idol Allah, show them the errors of their ways and protect us all from their savage behavior.” As the church echoed with amens, my father quickly pulled my family out enraged.

At the time I was confused of the implications of that priest’s words. I didn’t understand the anger that had suddenly possessed my father to pull us out of a crowded church mid-prayer. As we drove home he tried to articulate to the little, unaware, eleven-year-old girl I was then, what exactly the problem was. He explained that the priest had blamed all Muslims for an attack of a few, that had the priest done his research before spreading hateful words, he would have known that “Allah” is just the translation of the word “God,” and lastly he seriously pointed out how Muslims in this country would now suffer the consequences of not only association with this terrorism but the ignorance of those who hated blindly. He told me that I should never stand for or accept the mistreatment or blind hatefulness of other people, because as human beings they grieve and feel pain as I do. He repeated the golden rule, as he always had: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Only this time it meant so much more. I was young, but my father walking out taught me to always stand up. That is the day I caught my fire; the birth of my interest in justice, human rights, ethics and public life.

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)