Performance, Absurdism and Peace by Roger MacGinty
Peace and conflict are full of performance. Indeed, militaries, states and combatants invest huge resources into intimidating their opponents through appearance. This might be the massed ranks of riot police and very visible surveillance equipment to cow demonstrators, or propaganda showcasing the latest weapons at their disposal. Peace also involves performance, whether it is peace agreement signing ceremonies, community reconciliation rituals or peace marches.
Last weekend saw a wonderful piece of absurdist performance in support of community relations in England. The right-wing English Defence League (EDL) had organised a protest outside a mosque in the city of York. They were hoping to capitalise on anti-Muslim feelings in the wake of the murder of an off-duty soldier in London. And what did the members of the Mosque do? Did they call the police and barricade themselves in? Did they organise a counter-demonstration outside a Christian church, or perhaps outside a pub (a favourite haunt of EDL supporters)? No, they met the protesters (albeit there were only six protesters) with cups of tea and conversation. The act was so absurdist (and so humane) that it disarmed the situation.
There is a strong tradition of absurdist protest against power. This reflects the power dynamics. The protesters are often in a minority or have limited resources and so cannot match power with power. One option is to highlight the absurdism of the situation, of a butterfly being broken on a wheel. States often deploy overwhelming force against already marginalised people, or use antiquated laws despite obvious movement towards modernity. Take this wonderful example from Iran. A court ordered a man to dress as a woman to humiliate him. In solidarity, other men dressed as women, thus making a statement that to dress like a woman, or indeed be a woman, should not be seen as a punishment. In others words, ‘Stuff your punishment! It says much more about you than me.’
There are other examples of peace and equality campaigners doing exactly the opposite of what one would expect. Te Whiti, a Maori leader, saw how Maori lands were being seized by British colonialists. Land that had been free was being partitioned and fenced off. It was mapped and given or sold to settlers. While many Maoris engaged in violent resistance against the British (much of it with considerable military success), Te Whiti adopted a non-violent approach. His supporters cultivated the land that the British had annexed and built fences across newly made roads. The British did not know how to react. They had tried and tested means of repressing violent opponents but there was little in the rulebook about how to react to nonviolent protest. Gandhi was able to exploit the tendency of states to over-react 80 years later.
One trope that holds many of these absurdist acts of protest together is that those involved do precisely what is unexpected of them. This is somewhat ironic as the unexpected is a mainstay of military operations: stealth, undercover, surprise, feints, diversionary attacks etc. are all key parts of the repertoire of military actors. Yet in these cases, it is peaceful actors who are using ‘ju-jitsu’ or relying on their opponents to use their obvious strength and through themselves off balance
A final example of the unexpected: there have been a number of examples of churches being vandalised in Northern Ireland. Invariably these attacks take place overnight and they are designed to inflame tensions between Catholics and Protestants. When one Catholic Church was vandalised, nearby Protestants came – unasked – to help with the clean-up. So rather than waking up to see a vandalised church, many Catholic parishioners found their Protestant neighbours cleaning the vandalism from the church. This is a powerful statement, not only of inter-communal solidarity, but also of intra-community tolerance. The act of cleaning the church was highly public. The Protestants involved in the clean-up were sending a message to members of their own community: ‘I am not with you. I have more in common with people who have a different religion than with you.’ Putting your head above the parapet takes bravery in a deeply divided society.
Roger Mac Ginty
University of Manchester