Today (July 11th 2014) we remember Srebrenica – the sad and mad genocide of 19 years past when more than 8000 fathers, brothers and sons were systematically separated from their wives, mothers and daughters, taken away, murdered and dumped into hastily dug pits (so inappropriate to call them graves).
Remembering Srebrenica is important but it is not enough. We are remembering a genocide on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the second world war; it happened during a war with seemingly few rules of engagement, bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, ethnic cleansing and systematic mass rape. Essentially a territorial conflict, one in which people of difference looked back on times of peaceful coexistence, however fragile, and forward to ethnic separation, exclusion and to living apart.
The Srebrenica massacre has become iconic of the conflict and of actions where the forces of prejudice overwhelm the forces for pluralism. We remember these acts which are committed with intent to destroy an ethnic, racial or religious group, to force population transfer, to prevent births within the group and to commit mass murder in order to rid a place of a people. These preserved and clear memories provide us with important lessons.
Europe has always been diverse – a complex and changing place. But the two decades that have past since Srebrenica have seen demographic shifts of an unprecedented scale: today we are one of the most ethnically and culturally plural societies in the world.
Opinions about the impact of rising levels of diversity vary. Some associate these trends with separation, progressive decline in trust and heightened tension. Others place an unquestionable faith in the capacity of people and communities to adapt and absorb these major shifts. Whatever our views, and whichever is the compelling explanation of the consequences, diverse communities are here and here to stay.
It may be that the central issue in our modern times is the pace of change, and the notion that society is reconfiguring and refreshing continuously and faster. People find this challenging, if not impossible, to think of in positive terms. The result is that some people some withdraw, disengage and construct walls around what is familiar, their comfort zones, and create ‘parallel lives’. These ‘parallel lives’ are, in themselves, not harmful nor threatening, but they are fragmenting. Some people reject modernity, sometimes with anger, and begin to actively retreat in their minds to a nostalgic view, more often than not mistaken, that ‘things were better in the past’, before the change.
With this approach in mind some mobilise politically – the now-called ‘populist right’ -promoting conservatism, generally anti-change where the focus falls on the ‘other’, the new, the migrants and other people of difference who may have been less visible or numerous in past days. Rejecting rather than coping with modernity seems to be a major problem for living side-by-side and in peace with difference. There are strong parallels but also differences with the territorialism of the Bosnian conflict.
The policy implications may then be more about how to help people to cope with rapid change – a new and contemporary skill-requirement. We do not have to resort to publicly celebrating or actively highlighting diversities, nor to promoting a ‘permissions’ culture where we ‘tolerate’ them. Remembering Sebrenica compels us to focus more on learning to live with diversity rather than fearing it – we don’t have to like it. We may have become more successful at living more comfortably with some differences more than others. In these last 20 years we are less challenged by disability and deformity (we used to hide these away), less challenged by homosexuality (still a ways to go) and less resistant to women as bosses, political leaders and front line military. It seems over the same period we have found other differences to have become more challenging –faith and belief sets being one.
And maybe we have to work more actively to dismantle the obstacle course that most of us must manoeuvre on a daily basis: a negative and campaigning media, poor education and the strength of the forces of prejudice rather than the forces for pluralism. Prejudice requires less effort than pluralism. Diversity and living with change and difference might be a lot easier and more successful if we did not focus so much on encouraging people to like difference and stressed more how and why difference isn’t that big an issue at all.
And all this is against a backcloth of general human insecurity; inequality and political, economic and social structural issues that may outweigh everything else.
There is a growing body of research that highlights the lived experience of people in their everyday lives. This shows that most diverse communities develop relatively successful strategies for ‘rubbing along’ through a process of mutual adaptation. The critical point is that all of this happens in spite of, rather than because of, the actions of government interventions, things happening by accident rather than by design.
And there are a few positives that should be mobilised to reinforce the forces for pluralism. Firstly, social interacting across difference can be life enhancing and enriching. The significant growth in mixed-marriages in Europe may attest to this. Secondly, communities with strong social networks tend to function better, are more resilient and are nicer place to live in. In most studies, strong contact with neighbours builds resilience in communities and places, helping both to solve problems and meet challenges. Finally, strong social networks are a critical part of supporting adaptation and coexistence, particularly with new arrivals, but they are also problematic if they promote fragmentation.
Remembering Srebrenica places the challenges and potential consequences of living side-by-side in our changing and diverse communities at centre stage and demands of all of us to live and behave consistently and continuously to a set of clear and universal values. Remembering Srebrenica also helps assess a horror when trust, peace and social relations break down; the challenges, vulnerabilities and resilience in our communities command a continuous vigilance.
Professor Mike Hardy
Director, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University