In this interview with Inasa Bibić, Wolfgang Dietrich, UNESCO Chairholder and academic coordinator of “Acting for Peace“, shares some of his personal stories, thoughts on revolution, peace, balance, and what he calls the dance of life. He shares his journey through the decades, systems of peace work, international peace missions, peaces, elicitive conflict transformation – or in a nutshell: life itself.
INASA BIBIC: I would like to start by asking you about your work and career. You started your academic work in the 1980s in Central America. Can you tell me more about how this came about, why you went there, and how this whole experience influenced your later work?
WOLFGANG DIETRICH: Well, this could be a long story of course – it’s my life. It is difficult to give a clear answer to your question. Why Central America? Well, it was sexy at that time.
After the 1970s guerilla movements, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became very famous. According to the general opinion of student movements across Europe, it was popular that these people were rebelling against ‘the bad dictator’. Therefore, all the other ones were considered ‘the good ones’. Of course, this was a very attractive concept.
I was a student and was interested in what we called the ‘Third World’ at that time. Since Nicaragua was a point of tension, I got closer to researching it and immediately fell in love with this revolutionary spirit. It was a fascinating project in a small country and at that time – with a very limited population (the official number was 3 million, but in reality it was rather around 2.5 million). The new government was trying to be innovative and interested in social experiments. I had a human rights background and was on my way to become a lawyer, so I soon began inquiring into questions of human rights and constitutional law. There were many questions calling for discussion, for example, the tension between doing a revolution and following the legal standards. The conditions were similar in El Salvador and Guatemala, where the guerilla turned out to be not as innocent as they presented themselves to the world. In Guatemala there was the classical leftist guerilla movement, supported by Moscow and Beijing and also the religionist movement – all mixed up in a country of 23 different ethno-political groups.
This complex situation fascinated me. That is how I got involved into working for different organizations in Central America. I always tried to balance fieldwork and academia. Hence, I started to write my first book: Nicaragua – Entstehung, Charakter und Hoffnung eines neuen Weges. The book became a bestseller and it was the only book of such kind in German at that time. Many German journalists bought my book and invited me for interviews.
Between 1989-1991, I became president of the Austrian section of Amnesty International. Interesting period: I did not yet consider myself a peace researcher. Back then I did not even know that this field existed. I rather considered myself as someone who does Latin American and Human Rights Studies. That changed as I got invited to more conferences, where I discovered that an academic branch called Peace Studies actually existed. It was in the 1990s that I started my academic work in Peace Studies.
INASA: How do you see the role of conflict transformation in the 21st century? Where does it fit into our society in the context of an individual?
WOLFGANG: Here I have to be a little bit picky. At our program in Innsbruck, we follow this particular peace philosophy and elicitive conflict transformation. There, we tend to distinguish between conflict resolution and conflict transformation. And this is partly the answer to your question, since it has a lot to do with epistemology.
Conflict resolution perceives the conflict as a problem – one could almost say as a sickness – and the conflict worker as a doctor who comes to the patient – the conflict – and knows what is wrong. But where is the conflict? Is it within the parties, or between the parties? As a doctor, the conflict worker knows the remedy and makes some prescription. In the end, if the patient conflict follows this medication, the conflict will be resolved. And that’s the end of the story. This is a very lenient philosophy – it means that the perception of human relations is factorial, and therefore believes in – what the word says – resolution.
In our systemic approach of transrational peace studies, we strictly talk about conflict transformation – meaning that we understand conflicts as dysfunctions in relations and therefore the energy for transformation lies within dysfunctional relations. The conflict worker does not know the answer or the solution, but can just provide a frame for the parties to meet and become aware of the dysfunctions in their communication and relations, and discover options in differences of their behavior and the way of relating. What you get, if this works, is a change, and not a solution. The place of conflict transformation in the 21st century is in the awareness of the systemic relational nature of conflict. This goes for all kinds of human relations – from issues of domestic violence, to the big international headliners. It is always the same thing – human relations, and dysfunctions in communication.
INASA: You already said quite a lot about the approach to the conflict that is exercised at the MA Peace Studies program at the University of Innsbruck. But for somebody who does not know anything about the school, what would you like to add?
WOLFGANG: We presume that students of Peace Studies are people who want to work in the field of conflict transformation. The conflict worker can only provide the frame for encounter and dialogue. This Masters Program is not cognitive-oriented, while most other programs in our field are. You will not know about 25 different conflicts in the end. We do not believe that successful peace work follows from doing only what academia tells you. We focus on the person, the future peace worker. It is all about YOU, as the student in the program. As the peace worker provides the frame for the parties, he or she has to has to fulfill a lot of requirements and needs much more subtle skills than the conventional peace worker that works as a doctor. Why? Because, to find out where the conflict between the parties lies, it takes much more than reason. Therefore, we call the approach “transrational”. It is not irrational; we totally accept reason and believe in all the rational methods that are available. However, we also accept that the human being is more than rational, especially when it comes to conflict. Most conflicts in the world are not created reasonably, and hence cannot be solved reasonably. We start from the conviction of different layers in human nature, and try to map the human character to find out the imbalances on these layers.
Most of the time, as a conflict worker, you get a story. Nonetheless, you will never get the complete story or know the real truth – just versions, surfaces, or what we call “the narratives of conflicts.” And what you get through this narration is usually not what the conflict is all about. That means – and everybody I think knows it – that you are fighting about things that seem to be very obvious and can be solved with a little bit of good will. But still – we keep fighting. The point is that the energy for the conflict lies on another, not immediately visible layer. And, as the conflict worker, you need to know about these layers. We all are – as humans – familial, communal, societal, and in a way global beings. All of these things are relevant for our self- interpretation.
What we are doing in our program now is that we try to equip the students – first of all – with awareness of their own aspects on all these layers, and then – according to the three principles that we are following (correspondence, resonance, homeostasis) – that they train these relational aspects of themselves. This is what the whole program is about, which means that you find that there are few conventional, academic exercises and seminars, but all sorts of these (what you probably thought in your mind as) unconventional things that we are doing because we have to address all these previously mentioned factors. So, we (purposefully) bring the student into a situation where these aspects are addressed, and then a question is posed: “Who am I, if?” That is more or less the point of how the program works.
INASA: In a nutshell: you try to bring these different layers into balance at the Peace Studies program. But, what about people who do not have this balance? If the conflict stems from one layer, can you “fight” it with another one? For example, would you fight or influence the primal nature with the ethical one, or how does it go?
WOLFGANG: If we talk about balance, homeostasis means dynamic balance – it is not static. Meaning – you cannot have this balance. You are always dancing around it. In the best of all cases – if you dance the dance of life in a smooth way – you get a bit bored of that and you want the other thing.
The simple way to understanding this is just breathing. We know that the human body needs oxygen; therefore it is really good to inhale. But, if I tell you to inhale – and I do not let you stop inhaling for some minutes – you will feel very uncomfortable, and you will soon realize that it is great to exhale. So after a certain time of inhaling, you feel the need to exhale. Suddenly, your value system turns around. “Wow, exhaling is so great”, because it releases you and allows you to get rid of all the particles that have to get out, and of course – it continues the dance of life in this energetic way.
This also goes for relational aspects: you want to be with a lot of people, you want to be alone. This is never totally true, but it is always like a dynamic change of desires that you have in this regard. Being aware of that is the beginning of the outer conflict transformation.
For a peace worker, it is important to be aware of that and know how to deal with these needs of yourself. Usually – this is our observation – most people who are interested in peace work are wounded, or have been wounded. The motivation for going into such a program and such a job is that you want to do something because you have been through this or that experience, which made you want to do things like peace work. And if this is the case, you have a lot of potential. The wounded healer is a wonderful figure in our world. However, the wounded healer also means that you heal your wounds first, and then – because you know the pain – you can be empathic with others since you went through something similar.
We respect that a conflict is about the people who live in a certain area and with a certain conflict. The whole process is about providing the frame, and not about solving their problems. Therefore, the methods are very different, and what we are doing now in our program is that we show the students a lot of methods that belong to this toolkit of elicitive conflict transformation, and we apply them in our directives on them. If I tell you that, for example, The Five Rhythms dance is a healing thing – then first of all, you have to dance. It does not matter that you know this, and that you know somebody who can instruct it. The point is: feel it!
INASA: It sounds like a very unique approach to Peace Studies. Going from conflict resolution to conflict transformation.
WOLFGANG: Perhaps I can you a concrete example – somewhat away from spirituality and dancing, but hands on. The UN has formed its missions on the clear principle of neutrality. What we did in our simulations with the Austrian army is that, for one whole week, the students did not get very much sleep – all that intertwined with changes from low to high altitudes, temperature, rain, wind, and a lot of stress.
Suddenly, they had to relocate the squads to a safe place, and just run down the steep slope, before coming to the safe place where the armed UN forces were waiting. What we then did with masked role-players was – as the soldiers were running down the slope – to have wounded people on the way, asking for help. It was clear that the shooting was going on above them and armed people were after them: meaning, they needed to run. They were really exhausted. It was a role-play, but the lack of sleep gave them a difficult time in distinguishing reality from role-play. Then, they started to yell and shout, and were trying to grab the wounded and get help – while they had to run. In this moment, the emotional reaction of so many students was truly extreme. Some of them broke the rule and said they cannot abandon the injured, trying to carry them down – which of course created a lot of troubles. Others run down, and reached the safe place. However, once they were there, they started crying and were emotionally exhausted since they did not do what the humanitarian ethical principle would tell them (to save those in need).
I can do the same thing in a classroom – discuss this internal predicament intellectually – or I can show them this way, and trust me: those who run down the slope will never forget this lesson. They then know what the dilemma is. Before they go on a mission, they will think twice about that – which is what we want. We want them to be really aware of what is waiting on international missions. There are too many people who break in these situations because they are not properly prepared before deployment, or do not have the psychological supervision that is necessary in such cases.
INASA: Talking about fieldwork, you are a person who’s done both: academic- and fieldwork. From your experience, what is a(n) “(un)typical” day on the field in a different country? What do you do, how do you collect information?
WOLFGANG: Well, the usual work is boring, compared to what you usually relate to it. An investigation means reading a lot, meeting people, having interviews, networking, writing reports, checking a lot of material… Partly it is not that boring, because you met a lot of interesting people in the interviews, people who have gone through things. But, after a while, you get used to that, and it is not that emotionally striking anymore. For example, if you talk to somebody who has gone through torture, or has lost a family member – it is certainly touching. But listening to that often becomes a routine.
INASA: You develop a kind of insensitivity.
WOLFGANG: Yes, and it is necessary as a professional mode. It is very important to be careful with yourself to be able to distinguish between this professional mode that is crucial (otherwise, you’ll just be sick all the time and that is not helpful for anybody) and your private mode, where you get your senses (re)activated to find your personal balance. Again, it is about the balance here.
This work on the field though – to go back to your question – is not that thrilling. Then again, there are exceptional projects that are reported in the newspapers – when you do a real hard investigation like forensics, or you visit (like the things I did in Guatemala) and talk to people whose villages have been completely wiped out (wondering how they survived at all), or if you become involved with the guerilla movements and so on. These things – yes, they are thrilling.
However, they are exceptional, not an everyday life routine. You usually work quite normal days for about two months, then you have one day with the people. But still, things can be very dense.
For example, in Guatemala I evaluated projects with people who were in danger, and that is not boring because “nothing happens until nothing happens.” But, you never know whether something will. That means, they could sit like the two of us here and suddenly somebody comes in and shoots you or me. You may be on the uninvolved side, but you never know. So, on the one hand, nothing happens – on the other hand, there is always a high level of tension in the room. You need to learn how to cope with these things. This is again the question of balance, and also seeing with whom you are. Some of the heroes of these movements really are the people who look for danger, so you should pose the question of what it is that drives them. Is it the cause that they have on their flag? Or maybe some personal aspect that is (again) hidden behind the story? This is what I have found very often in these revolutionary settings.
INASA: This is probably a good point to make a connective transition from the topic of conflict transformation to “Acting for Peace.” You are the academic coordinator of the short course – did you know about the United World Colleges before?
WOLFGANG: Only vaguely. Paul Müller and Gebi Schatz came to me with the idea of “Acting for Peace”, and I said it sounds good. After that, I familiarized myself with the UWC movement and I found out that it is quite similar to what we are doing in Innsbruck, just with another age group. The UWC principles and the history made it recommendable for me to cooperate in this project. It was also quite convenient that it would be happening here, in Imst – a town close to which I live and am connected to.
INASA: Lastly, what would be your message to these young people – our “actors for peace?”
WOLFGANG: I think that what we have already discussed is a major part of the message. My experience with the young people is that they grow up in this modern narrative that conflicts are a problem that has to be solved. I think that this belief in itself is dangerous. Giving them an idea that being alive means constant encounter, constant interrelation, and the challenge of the decision between self-conservation and self-enlargement. That too is the beauty of life – this dance of life. If we accept the plurality of peaces, and accept the challenge of letting them meet and see what they produce, then – life is different.
I also think that is a very rewarding experience, especially for young people. They do not get stuck in these solution-based beliefs – excluding seemingly strange, crazy things – and they can accept that sometimes, even the paradox might be the promotion to a higher level of life.