After the elections — What next for reconciliation and trust building?

Image taken from Initiatives of Change International

A couple of friends asked me to reflect from a peace building perspective what should the new US administration be looking at in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Ironically this is something one would be doing in a country going through post conflict rebuilding. I never thought it would be as applicable in the US and other similar contexts as it is in post conflict contexts. Using what has been learnt from reconciliation processes in other contexts, here are a few lessons that should be thought about to bring about healing in the US not only for the new political administration but also individuals and society.

As peacebuilders, whenever we are dealing with a country that is going through a post conflict reconciliation process, despite the international community’s insistence to hold elections as a sign of democratic stability, there is always scepticism that elections hold the path towards bridging gaps within and between communities. This is because elections always bring out the most basic and innate differences and then celebrates victory and loss thereby perpetuating the hurt and anger. Hence often the propensity for violence is heightened after an election rather than calming it. As we always try and prepare for having learnt from other mistakes, the new team coming in should not underestimate the fact that the previous team has created an ideology that will outlive it and created the systems that perpatuate this. This ideology if unchecked, unaddressed, and marginalised will fester and come back at the next elections with a bigger vengeance. Hence it is not about winning or losing or lauding over the ‘other’, but reflecting where the work has to be done and addressing the real concerns not only of your ‘supporters’ as well as those who voted against you. These are the warning signs for the new administration in the US to be aware of.

Now that the elections are over, the real and hard work starts

Building trust is the essential foundation for building healthy communities.

So how do we build trust and reconcile with communities?

Firstly we need to take responsibility. Building trust in the post-election stage is about taking personal responsibility and recognising that we begin with ourselves with a values integration to model the change and be the catalyst for change we want to see. This has to start by acknowledging that there are no winners and losers in this election. Engaging in victory and loss will perpetuate the hurt and anger and this needs to be understood and stopped as a starting point. We have to have the courage to challenge the status quo and those that perpetuate fear and distrust. Taking responsibility is not just for the select few but for everyone (men and women) to step forward to take the lead in overcoming division. Taking personal responsibility will also means moving beyond victimhood and ensuring that to overcome burdens that can destroy people in order to give them a new lease of life. Moving beyond the victimhood is about addressing the victory and loss mentality.

We will need to build the relationships with the ‘other’, especially those who are hurting and are angry at the moment, to include everyone and listen to everyone, to dispel the misinformation now infinitely magnified and exaggerated by the Internet. Very often, we exist in comfort in our echo chambers without willing to or actually listen to different points of view. Dialogue to understand, respect and accept has to be the intention. Thus it all starts with getting to know the other. In some cases it is about breaking bread or having a cup of tea with the other. It is about getting to know the ‘other’, understand their lived experiences through learning their culture and traditions and sharing a meal with them. This requires the practice of humility, because it involves listening to what they have to say. This is true community engagement.

We will need to do more to build those bridges and relationships with people. There is no magic formula to build those bridges rather just to be humble, with an ability to listen, build relationships with diverse communities, learn and understand from the others. Building relationships is hence about dialogue. Dialogue is a process of exploration and coming to know the other, as much as it is an example of clarifying one’s own positions. Therefore, when one dialogues with others, what is desired is to explore their ways of thinking, so as to correct misconceptions in our own minds and arrive at common ground. This common ground is the desideratum of all dialogue, and lays the groundwork for mutual cooperation based on the principles of good relations with neighbours. How much are we willing to engage in dialogue with the ‘other’ to build that relationship and understand how to move forward to build the trust?

Building relationships is about ensuring respect for others. One of the key components of this is to ensure a space for dialogue that is safe is built where what is discussed is not only kept confidential, but more importantly that the spaces are kept welcoming. It also means that we should not be seen as hypocritical when demanding respect or showing respect unless we are prepared to reciprocate. We cannot call out oppression and injustice by one side and not another. That respect has to also acknowledge the past so as to create a better and stable future. Acknowledging and working toward a shared understanding of history has to be the goal. Acknowledging the past can only be done if a safe space is created, an outreach is done and people are treated with respect.

Lastly we need to continuously reflect. We need to be humble enough to continuously have checks and balances to see where we are going wrong and where we need to correct. We need to reflect on the fact that those who are hurting will continue to hurt and be angry if they are not genuinely looked into. We can not afford to isolate and marginalise this hurt and anger and to indulge in activities that will perpetuate that.

Trust is not a hotline

We need to bridge social capital

Keep the doors open

The famous Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton once wrote that ‘All Faith is false, all Faith is true: Truth is the shattered mirror strown In myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own’ (The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi). In his mind, he meant that you will find parts of the truth everywhere and the whole truth nowhere. This concept of the ‘shattered mirror concept’ enables us to see that ‘each shard reflects one part of a complex truth from its own particular angle’ (Appiah 2006).

Distrust comes from the fact that we consider that ‘our little shard can reflect the whole’ and that our little truth is the whole truth. Building trust is about understanding that for the common good, each of us (with our faith and spiritual teachings) have a bit of that shard of broken glass. These small shards of glass which, require careful positioning to create a compelling mosaic that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

Trust building starts with all of us individuals and then grows with the communities in which we live and work. The question remains whether we are brave enough to take that step?

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton.

Corcoran, Rob. 2010. Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation and Responsibiity. University of Virginia Press.

Guiso, Luigi, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales. 2006. “Does Culture Affect Economic Outcomes?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20 (2): 23–48.

Harari, Yuval. 2018. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. London: Jonathan Cape.

— . 2020. Yuval Harari’s blistering warning to Davos. 24 Jan. Accessed May 2020. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/yuval-hararis-warning-davos-speech-future-predications/.

Mahmood, Jemilah. 2020. “The trust deficit in humanitarian action — does going local address it?” IFRC. 20 February. Accessed February 21, 2020. https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/speech/trust-deficit-humanitarian-action-going-local-address/#:~:text=About%20two%20weeks%20ago%2C%20UN,imperil%2021st%2Dcentury%20possibilities.%E2%80%9D.

Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban, and Max Roser. 2016. Trust. Accessed May 2020. https://ourworldindata.org/trust.

Putnam, Robert. 2000. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” In Culture and Politics, by L Crowthers and C Lockhart. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yaqin, Amina, and Peter Morey. 2016. “How do we build trust between cultures?” Knowledge Quarter. October. Accessed May 2020. https://www.knowledgequarter.london/how-do-we-build-trust-between-cultures-by-amina-yaqin-and-peter-morey/.

is an analyst writing on decolonisation,peacebuilding,humanitarian,interfaith,Islam, Sri Lanka & other issues of interest. Have a PhD on ethno politics