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From Disruption to Engagement

An excerpt from The Neutrality Trap

In The Neutrality Trap, we examine the relationship between conflict work and social activism. We discuss how effective social movements require both communication across our differences and disruption of existing systems of oppression and exploitation. We are concerned that the instinctive reaction we often have to any social crisis—such as to George Floyd’s murder, the invasion of the US Capitol, or the conflicts surrounding the truckers’ occupation of Ottawa—is to want to bring people together in dialogue. But if these well-intentioned efforts are disconnected from a commitment to confronting the systems that underlie these crises, they can easily contribute to maintaining the status quo rather than changing it.

By addressing this tension, we address what is a foundational challenge for peacemakers and mediators, but for many other professionals as well—social scientists, journalists, lawyers, psychotherapists, and others, and that is one of identity. Is what we offer rooted in a self-identification as objective, dispassionate neutrals, with all the values and practice standards this implies or as transparent, authentic, and rounded participants in the struggles of our times? This is not a new challenge, but it remains an important one, and how we answer it is critical to the impact we have on social change efforts. 

To address these issues, we consider the role of professionals, the nature of social change, the importance of our intersectional identity and those of the people we work with, and the interaction between efforts to connect across our differences and to disrupt systems of oppression in building movements for change. We consider the relationship between chaotic and spontaneous efforts at system disruption and strategic and long-term approaches to change systems. We bring to this effort a long history as students of conflict, activists, and conflict interveners and share both our personal experiences and our observations of both small-scale and global efforts at social change.—Bernard Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán

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