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

However, regardless of whether the context is US or Sri Lanka or anywhere else, now that the elections are over, the real and hard work starts. Following a fractious electoral campaign of misinformation, insinuations and personal insults, relations between communities can be and are at an all time low. Trust will be in short supply, with a massive trust deficit in society, with old institutions and entities such as bankers, journalists and politicians facing the brunt of this. In addition, at the moment there is now a trust deficit between the ‘winner’s and the ‘losers’, as well as with different communities especially in the US. This trust deficit also caused by a deficit in leadership has led to a wider distrust within society, with a large portion of the rhetoric of distrust being deflected to people who appear to be the ‘Other’. The loss of trust means that we can also lose hope in imagined realities and where public belief in many core aspects of “the system” is disappearing around the world. As people reject official sources of information, they are increasingly turning to search engines and social media to inform themselves. In the absence of accepted referees of truth, new imagined realities can easily form in the algorithmic echo chambers, that fly in the face of facts rather than building on them, sometimes based on who is shouting loudest (Mahmood 2020).

Building trust is the essential foundation for building healthy communities.

Building trust is the essential foundation for building healthy communities. It inspires changes in individual lives and interpersonal relationships which in turn can catalyse social action and legislative changes (Corcoran 2010). Building trust has to start from the individual perspective as the most needed reforms in our communities require levels of political courage and trust based collaboration that can only be achieved by individuals who have the vision, integrity and persistence to call out the best in others and sustain deep and long term effects. Without trust, true collaboration is unattainable. From history, the likes of Mandela, Ghandi and King worked off social capital based on trust. Building trust is the start to work on healing and reconciling the fractures between and within the community.

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

Trust is not a hotline. Trust is not an auxiliary, it is core to our mission and purpose to bridge gaps and increase understanding. What the election has unearthed is “a clash of cultures”, by pointing to the increasing hostility and animosity between cultural / geographical / ideological regions. This is really a clash of trust or clash of mistrust that has been fed by a lack of relationship, understanding of each other and ultimately respect of differences. There is much to reflect on and also to take responsibility for in terms of creating safe spaces for dialogue and engagement . Whilst there is much that is outside the control of individuals to affect and that remains within a circle of concern, there is still much within the circle of influence where there can be direct impact. Thus individual responsibility is an obligation to respond proactively to the tensions of our world by working actively and methodically to ameliorate them, so as to replace instability with stability, hostility with friendship, and animosity with alliances.

We need to bridge social capital

These alliances are about bridging social capital between communities that are a strong enough consensual basis for trust that takes into account cultural difference (Putnam 2000). We need to develop that so-called ‘thin trust’ that binds us to those we do not know and with whom we have limited first hand dealings, to go along with the ‘thick trust’ that develops from personal familiarity. Thus there needs to be more of an opening up of physical and virtual spaces where individuals and communities can come together, free from the restraints imposed by pre-determined (and biased) agendas (Yaqin and Morey 2016). This comes from understanding that multicultural environments are key to celebrating difference in the practices of everyday life.

Keep the doors open

Trust building through shared endeavour and mutual vulnerability requires a willingness to be open to understanding the lifeworld of another. This most certainly does not mean that one needs to agree with its every detail, nor to, in some way, concede something essential in oneself. It does however need to understand where other ideas are coming from — historically and intellectually. In other words, the doors need to be kept open, not slammed shut. There is a need to delve deeper into analysing structures of violence, not only the symptoms to understand the root causes of the problem. This requires the safe spaces for the honest reflection to be undertaken with respect and responsibility.

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/.