Us vs Them from a privileged position.

It was kind of serendipitous to leave the political and academic setting of the Post-Development conference in Kassel for a very hands-on, relational workshop on Theater for Living. With the topic being “Us vs Them”, I took some time for reflecting my relation to this particular topic and how this may have played into my wish to participate.

My own “Us vs Them”
My “Us vs. Them” feels like it has much to do with my conscious and cautious self-positioning as a white privileged person, in a relationship with an “oppressed” (from my perspective, while he wouldn’t agree to such labeling of himself at the moment) Person of Colour and our child. It feels as if it was weaved into my wish to be “one of them” – to stand on their side to fight the right battle alongside them – in my particular personal history mostly referring to Rwandans – but seemingly prototypically for all African people. With this desire, knowing that I can never physically be one of them (if it truly is about skin colour), I feel trapped in the urge to side with them, while never really being able to leave the us – at least inside of my head, in the ways I am personally othering myself.

To explain my struggle with and the story behind this positioning, let us travel some 9 years back in time. 2010, in preparation of my voluntary year in Kigali (Rwanda), I first came in touch with the perspective of structual racism through the walk of power/privilege – and I was deeply confused, because I had never seen myself as one of the disadvantaged. In there, however, I noticed how people were advancing forward one step at a time, while I stayed somewhere in the back of the room. Comparing my own social position to those of others was awful and strange. And I felt like all of this did not even matter a single bit when I was in Rwanda shortly after. I admit, I sometimes played out the “I-am-not-as-purely-German-as-the-others-“ card when I was asked about my origin and I would rightfully say Kazakhstan. It was a complex ( )story.

More than six years have passed with a condition of trying to make myself pay for a collective legacy of guilt and Eurocentrism. I felt like I was given the only taste of healing through pregnancy and giving birth to our son – who was neither ‘us’ nor ‘them’. I felt this sense of him being the impersonification of all my desires for re-humanization and decoloniality – and still, over time, I realized that my and my partner’s positionalities put our child in a very tense and difficult situation, because he can never fully be “us” here, and never fully be “them” there – no matter from which place and position you voice this, it might be holding true (in a very pessimistic sense).

Theatre for Living
Back to Hamburg, September 2019. I entered the workshop of Theater for Living with this  lived heaviness of “us vs them”, the desire of being with “them”, not really expecting too much about the topic as such, but much more excited to learn about the technique which I haven’t experienced myself yet.

The academic journeying into the post-development conference in Kassel, has left me with sense of powerlessness that usually haunts me after deep reflections on the world and its future/systematic change. Still, it has poured some drops on a seed of agency that lies buried in my head (or heart?). With Theater for Living, I felt like the soil has been watered, fed and exposed to the sunlight, because of a sense of agency that was created in concrete theater exercises, derived from lived and felt experiences of the people in the room.

Theater for Living is based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, and it transcends it through a systemic understanding of oppression (and all other social phenomena). It aims not just to storytell at them (the oppressors), but rather with them, acknowledging that the oppressors and their violences are not just something out there, but are weaved into and have grown out of the community as such.

And it did take courage. David used to say “making theatre (or anything) about people we want to help does not take as much courage as making theatre about us”. The Eurocentric way of thinking and doing politics/development/peace has been perfecting the judgement calls on people over there, while rarely looking itself in the mirror and thereby acknowledging the entanglement of histories across the globe. David’s observation that communities are hungry for storytelling resonated in my cells and fueled my desire to listen to the stories we share collectively. 

Offering, adding to and transforming stories became collective therapeutic practice inside the living organism of the group. It was miraculous.

For the first time ever since I started to read and learn about coloniality and racism, capitalism and modernity, I could feel a true sense of agency in the small stories that were present in the room. It chills me to the bones even as I write these lines. David repeatedly said: Specifity creates Universality, and it became alive through the experiences I was given in this workshop. I realized that what might seem as mundane stories in my own life mirror larger stories of global interconnectedness and the big pictures that I often seemed to feel powerless about.

Back to my “us and them”. Eventually, through the practice of techniques and methods from Theater for Living, I understood through my body what has been cognitively clear to me ever since I dived into peace studies, namely that the illusion of seperation is at the root of conflict. There is no us and them, and where there is, it arises from a conglomerate of needs and fears which want to be heard. My personal story of “us and them”, along with my desire of being with them, is eventually not a story about taking position on either side of the oppression or the violence. It now feels more like Ndlovu-Gatsheni calls it – choosing “the will to live” as a decolonial attitude against the “the will to power” which is at the base of coloniality. Hence, I find myself at precisely the crossroads that David identified when he said that we might need to change the tactic: Instead of merely protesting against something we don’t want, let us rather creating change that we do want.
The systems theoretical approach that lies at the foundation of Theater for Living provides it with powerful and transformative qualities of personal and collective agency. With deep and heartfelt thanks, I remain activated by these insights.

Thank you David.

Further Reading

Diamond, David. 2007. Theatre for Living. the art and science of community-based dialogue.

Turning Peaces Inside Out

I remember well when I received my first tattoo at the age of 16.  It was the symbol of the world ethos, which represented (and still does) to me an ongoing search of universal values that connects humans across cultures and geographies. The process of choosing the particular design, arranging an appointment and then receiving the tattoo underneath my skin had a deeply spiritual meaning to me.

It then happened that I fell in love with a [tattoo] artist in Kigali, who is now working in Munich and practicing this intimate art on a daily basis. He has come a long way from a selt-taught mobile tattoo artist who started off using conventional needles and threads to standardized German tattoo machines and regulations. At the intersection of tattoo profession, peace work and transcultural language, this contribution reflects some of my thoughts about tattooing as a spiritual practice of peace.

In Germany (and i dare to assume this applies to the majority of Western countries), tattooes have gained popularity over the past decades. Now, almost 30 % of the population are tattooed and it is largely accepted as individual freedom to mark one’s body.

Certainly, the nature of ‘Western’ tattoo popularity might need a critical reflection of commercialization and – most importantly – of cultural appropriation that inhabits tattoo trends, particularly those tribal designs that have culturally significant meaning, yet are often taken from their context onto a person’s skin “just for the looks”.

Tattooing is a practice that appeared across different cultures, times and places simultaneously.  Associations and interpretations of tattooes, however, differred across time and cultures. While now, in ‘Western’ countries, tattooes are predominantly seen as forms of storytelling, often through bricolage-style arrangements of tattooes, but also as forms of agency over one’s own body and acts of creating oneself, they were rather associated with criminality and violence some 50 years ago.

The individualized form of tattooing fits neatly into our culture of individualism (with all of its downsides) in which many are marking, even modifying their bodies to stand out and differentiate from others. Nevertheless, in other cultures and other times, tattooes carried deep meanings as they conveyed a sense of belonging and membership to a group, having also been used as markers for social achievements and even spiritual power. Handed down by cultural and ancestral heroes, tattooing rituals would invoke a reconnection to the ancestors.

Such indigenous understanding of tattooing seems far removed for a ‘Western’ individualist mind, but given the entanglement of stories that connect through time and space, it is not. Sadly, the connection between European colonizers and indigenous tattooists is rather one of epistemic and direct physical violence.

Under the dominance of moral interpretations of peace, such as Christianity and Judaism, tattooes were rather marginalized among the imperialist Europe. When James Cook intruded the Pacific island of Tahiti, and witnessed tattooed people and the power that lied in their practice of tattooing, it is not unlikely that this was an intimidating experience for him.

The ideologies that underlie the colonial condition, including racism and cultural superiority, probably made it easy to attempt to erase the practice of tattooing among the colonized peoples, in order to dominate and strategically subjugate them under their own cosmovision, which includes the Cartesian seperation of mind from body and its hierachization over the body.

Bringing the body back into our understanding of the meaning of tattooing leads us from what Ng called the “outside-in” view of the body (i.e. the social constitution of the body through discourse) through an “inside-out” experience of tattooing as a process (i.e. somatic knowing as valid way of knowing).

This insight has the potential to profoundly irritate our understanding of peace as non-violence. Because, in a way, the very act of tattooing is a painful and violent process, with the needle protruding into the skin and creating an image through physical damage of skin tissue. Viewed through the notion of “thinking through the body” (Blackman 2008, 8), then, tattooing presents a wholly different way of understanding practices that have a peace-invoking function, because that is what I read and experience in getting tattoed.

Still, the need to reflect cultural appropriation and the act of resistance that maybe read into indigenous forms of tattooing, become louder to myself. For now, I remain with the irritation voiced above.

Blackman, Lisa. 2008. The Body: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg.

Ng, Roxana 1998. “Is Embodied Teaching and Learning Critical Pedagogy? Some Remarks on Teaching Health and the Body from an Eastern Perspective.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 13–17 April, San Diego, California.

Content of the post is adapted from a short documentary with interviews with indigenous tattoo artist Elle Festin and tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak.

Symposium: Body-Oriented Approaches in Peace Studies

From Monday 03 June to Wednesday 05 June, I took part in a Symposium on Body-Oriented Approaches in Peace Studies, organized by the Research Group Body Oriented Approaches and Arts in Peace and Conflict Transformation within the Research Center for Peace and Conflict at University of Innsbruck. My concrete contribution was in the potentials of Hatha-Yoga as a tool for Peace (Re)search.

Having explored a variety of body-oriented approaches in the study and experience of peace (Yoga, Dance, Theater, Meditation, Active Listening, Contact Work, Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey), I left the symposium deeply touched and inspired. Central to reflections I take home with me are the urgency to shift rational learning processes towards embodied learning, in which the mind is not silenced, but translated and acknowledged through the body.

Another central aspect that has accompanied with me for some time, and has been reiterated by the discussions within the Symposium, is the need to cultivate systematic reflections. While embodied methods make peace(s) and conflict(s) experienceable, they tend to do so in concrete encounters. In order to not neglect larger structural dynamics, we shall be aware of the manifestation of larger discourses in the body and their systemic meanings.

I remain inspired by what has been shared with me, yet began to reflect what I perceive a rather subtle difference among them. It appears to me that some of these methods are rather working on an intrapersonal level, stressing an introspective approach, while other methods work interpersonally and draw their impact from relationality. Certainly, these are not meant as categories, but rather as dynamics ends of a continuum, in which both of these aspects are always present at any time. Such typologization has helped me to identify what differentiates my personal regular practice of introspection from relational methods which I can more easily build into academic learning and teaching.


Hatha-Yoga as a tool for Peace (Re)search

I have had an ambiguous relationship with the practice of Hatha Yoga, a practice that has accompanied me for many years. Beyond the cultural and postmodern critique of a certain interpretation and performance of Hatha Yoga, I have stayed a faithful practitioner and a passionate sharer of the practice.

Yet, I have not always been able to connect the embodied practice of Yoga and Peace scholarship in a manner that I thought would be deemed professional, even though both were deeply connected in my heart. Only recently, I have begun to cherish Hatha Yoga as a particular tool both of the study and research of peace as well as the fostering of a form of inner peace on a regular basis.

From his experience with peacemakers in Palestine, Marc Gopin derives that a “central source of endless conflict and misery between enemies – but also a central source of misery in families and communities – is the emotional, cognitive and ethical failure to be self-examined” (Gopin 2012, 113). In the same line, Adam Curle stresses the importance of awareness, noting that low levels of awareness are “associated with the belonging-identity, which is the sourse of competitive materialism and all the bitterness and violence that flow therefrom” (Woodhouse and Lederach 2017, 79).

Taking Curle’s reflections on the practice of peacemaking as conceptual basis, the practice of Hatha Yoga can, under certain conditions, provide tools for such self-examination in the context of applied conflict work. Fostering introspection and the silencing of the mind both through breathing and physical practice, Hatha Yoga practices can create a calm and conscious atmosphere for conflict parties to encounter each other. Located around practices in the context of what Adam Curle calls conciliation, the facilitation of Hatha Yoga can be seen as “applied psychology tactic aimed at correcting perceptions, reducing unreasonable fears, and improving communications to an extent that permits reasonable discussion and makes rational bargaining possible” (Woodhouse and Lederach 2017, 69).

Acknowledging that an introspection would ideally precede the conflictual encounter with the ‘other’ (bargaining), I can visualize Hatha Yoga practices both within a facilitation process and as a regular habit for Peace and Conflict workers, which not only calms their mind but also brings them physically back into their bodies.

As part of a facilitation in applied conflict work, elements of Hatha Yoga practice can ideally be incorporated to the process of conciliation. This may include grounding breathing practices such as Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) or Sama Vritti Pranayama (equal breath) which calm the mind and ‘lower the temperatue’, hence also “provide a moment of calm in which reason can reassert itself” (Woodhouse and Lederach 2017, 66). It may also include physical practices such as simple grounding techniques in tadasana (mountain pose) and/or simple seated postures which elongate the spine and thereby increase consciousness of personal agency. Ideally, even in applied conflict work, the practice would end in savasana (dead corpse pose) that can allow for letting go for the reasons mentioned below.

As a regular habit, raising awareness levels requires self-discipline and the help of others (Woodhouse and Lederach 2017, 85). In concrete Hatha Yoga practice, being helped by others can simply refer to letting oneself be guided by the instructions of the facilitator, not consciously in need to anticipate the next step. While this also requires a sense of trust, it comes with the benefits of letting rational resistances go, which eventually may peak in the final resting of savasana. Here, I see the possibility to experience a form of energetic peace in which the own personal contours dissolve and an individual can experience oneself in harmony with the universe.

A shared Hatha Yoga practice (in a group) also carries and supports the individual in her or his personal practice. If facilitated and practiced well, comparison and competition – features of modernized practices in Western culture – will become irrelevant and the group’s instrospective energy can serve as systemic platform for individual processes of generating awareness. These latter reflections also hold for the didactics of studying peace. With the possibility of experiencing energetic peace that goes beyond an intellectual epistemology, perceptions of recipients can open in a way which ackowledges and affirms alternative ways of knowing.

Marc Gopin. 2012. “Becoming a Peacemaker: Personal Discourses of Peace and Violence”. in Forming a Culture of Peace. Reframing Narratives of Intergroup Relations, Equity, and Justice, edited by Karina V. Korostelina.

Tom Woodhouse and John Paul Lederach. 2017. Adam Curle. Radical Peacemaker. Hawthorn Press.