As Colombia seems to be moving away from using arms to resolve conflict, it is important to strengthen how we debate since that will be our tool to “defeat” our enemies, or maybe learn to live with them.
Violence is zero sum
The use of violence to resolve conflict has too long pushed away compromise, and peaceful, democratic and civilized ways to achieve a democratic right. This violence, despite being merited and constitutional in a number of cases, does polarize, eliminates common ground and makes us forget that “getting our right” is not a matter of completely defeating our enemy or opponent, but to convince the other that our arguments are not just valid, but valuable and worthy of inclusion into a compromise. This way you generate social cohesion, political inclusion and broadly supported policies.
When force is applied to resolve a conflict, the result is always the victory of one and the defeat of the other, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the solution of any problem.
Resolving domestic disputes without violence
Mind you that this is not just a political issue. You see similar levels of violence in Colombia’s society where opponents — for example spouses — too often resort to physical force to resolve a disagreement.
Allow me to use the spousal conflict as an example. If my (imaginary) wife and I have a conflict over how we divide doing the dishes, I could easily convince her to do these chores every day by giving her a proper beating, I mean, I am a 6ft2, 95-kilo Dutchman and could easily submit any woman that is shorter and lighter (female martial arts experts excluded).
However, I think we all agree this is not how you resolve issues within a marriage. Ideally, my non-existent wife and I come to a compromise in which I agree to do at least some of the dishes.
Spousal problem-solving requires a debate where the involved parties exchange thesis, antithesis and come to synthesis, said the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and explained to me by, oh irony, a Colombian military official.
In other words. Spouse 1 says “I don’t want to do the dishes ever.” Spouse 2 then proposes the antithesis: “I want you to do the dishes as much as I do.” As a result of the conflict between thesis and antithesis, the two spouses ideally start exchanging arguments. “I can’t do the dishes half the week, because I also have a 48-hour job” is a fine example. Usually, this exchange of arguments results in both spouses agreeing that not doing the dishes at all isn’t fair while going 50/50 ignoring Spouse 1’s professional duties also isn’t viable.
Hegel calls this the “synthesis,” which “solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths and forming a new thesis, starting the process over,” Wikipedia reminded me.
Following the reaching of the synthesis, the two spouses — now with a partial agreement — will renegotiate and are likely to find compromise.
You have to admit that this way of resolving conflict is more harmonious and civilized than forcing our spouse to submit. In fact, it’s how we actually construct a matrimony in which both partners can live happily and flourish.
A violent democracy is a dysfunctional democracy
If we apply the logic of this example to politics we should recognize the following: Like spouses, the citizens of Colombia share a home. Ideally, all occupy this shared space harmoniously, that is without bashing in each other’s skulls or displacing our partners. Instead, we look for the common ground and by recognizing the value of the arguments we jointly come to a compromise in which all feel equally represented. Result: a happy society.
This is not only where many Colombian marriages have stranded, but also where this country’s democracy has failed ever since the founding of Great Colombia.
Democracy is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives,” says the Oxford Dictionary.
In Colombia however, the aforementioned system of government is severely dysfunctional because of this almost complete absence of compromise. Those in control will inflate their control, failing to recognize the relativity of their power to leave some with their political adversaries.
The way I see it, being a gringo with some experience with Colombian politics, the political culture here is that of “the winner takes it all.” All being not just the electoral victory, but also all available jobs in the administration and people’s tax money when the electorate isn’t looking.
Examples of this widespread and historic political dysfunctionality or dysfunctional democracy are abundant.
Take the 2002 and 2006 elections during which the intimidation of the electorate was used to take control of Congress, one of the most serious crimes against democracy possible. This massive electoral fraud corrupted Congress’ very essence; being the people’s body that exercises control over power.
Look further down history lane; the historical horror of the Liberal Party creating the Liberal Republic in 1930 after defeating the Conservative Party’s hegemony, another insult to democratic values.
Or worse, look at “La Violencia” during which hundreds of thousands of Colombian citizens were killed for belonging to a different political party, or later in that century, the FARC and AUC resorting to almost unprecedented violence, or the genocide of thousands of members of the Union Patriotica party, or the murders of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948, Luis Carlos Galan in 1989 and Jaime Garzon in 1999, all acts of violence committed to repress opposition or progress.
Despite the massive body of historical evidence showing clearly that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we deal with criticism, dissent or opposition in Colombian politics, there are still some who think we should entirely defeat rebel groups like the FARC instead of looking for a strategic and clever compromise.
At the same time, there are still people who voluntarily join groups like the FARC or ELN with the aim of defeating their opponents while they should pursue peaceful means to find a place in their own society.
Peace starts at home
Now that peace may be close to ending the embarrassment that the armed conflict has become, it is important we look ahead and do not commit the mistakes we have been making for so many generations. We need to stop repeating that which has made this country chronically resort to violence as a solution. We need to stop being so absolutist about our right and should allow more space to those who oppose our views.
It is of vital importance for the sustainability of peace, the functionality of Colombia’s democratic system and the well-being of the Colombian people that we recognize the historical errors made by prominent Colombian and foreign individuals, and that we collectively welcome dissent and plurality, promote debate, and actively seek compromise.
Now we can wait for our politicians to give the right example or just begin with ourselves. The latter seems by far the most practical, cheapest and fastest solution.
If you and I don’t promote a culture in which we personally respect the rights of our (political) opponents or competitors, and appreciate their added value, we are not able to create the conditions in which a democracy can flourish. Instead, we can personally be held accountable for perpetuating the conditions that have given us nothing but misery, war, corrupt politicians and a dysfunctional democracy.
This article was first published on Colombia Politics, a website focused on the ins and outs of politics in Colombia.