Finding Peace: Elevating Community in the Face of Hate

Addressing All Types of Violence with Peace

In a space designed for worship and reflection, Bjorn Ihler, Heartland Democracy’s guest in the Twin Cities for the week, wrapped up his time here in the Heartland with a conversation on finding peace. Those of us gathered at Macalester College’s Weyerhauser Memorial Chapel, heard first-hand from Bjorn about the disparate definitions and theories around terrorism, hate, extremism and violence. It’s this non-unified understanding that makes it difficult at a global and local level to engage in peace processes.

Executive Director Mary McKinley and guest speaker Bjorn Ihler at the Macalester event

As a survivor of the 2011 Oslo terrorist attacks on the island of Utoya, he’s moved through anger over the years by constructively choosing to speak out for peace and explore anger with a lens of forgiveness. As a One Young World ambassador, a Kofi Annan Foundation Extremely Together Young Leader, academic, activist, technologist and storyteller working to end extremism, Bjorn models how to elevate community in the face of hate.

He shows up in spaces where he’s the minority, citing the conference where he first met Mary McKinley, Heartland Democracy’s Executive Director. In a room full of women, many of them Muslim, he stood up to acknowledge the awkward and obvious fact, “Why am I the only young, white male in the room?”

Diversity is hard because as humans we live in echo-chambers and speak to like-minded people. It’s comfortable this way. Advances in technology – online services and a curated media diet – narrow our view of the world and make it more possible than ever to segregate ourselves. We have to intentionally work at getting uncomfortable and seeking diversity. For audience members willing to test uncharted diversity waters, Bjorn assigned homework: grab cup of tea with someone who’s very different from you.

In the Heartland where people are known for their particularly passive aggressive nature, this assignment is a tall order. Passive aggressiveness can manifest in a refusal to look at one’s own self and behaviors that contribute to supremacist views. It can also mean imposing solutions for underserved communities, rather than co-creating or empowering the people who have the capacity to build peace in those communities to do so. Bjorn shared a lot of takeaways to improve this including truly listening to someone who has a distinctly different view and having a respectful dialogue with them.

It was meaningful to link the lack of human connection and listening to the idea that communities are comprised of the stories we tell ourselves. When the stories are divided and not shared, it can lead to cultural violence, which plays out in skepticism and hatred.

Cultural violence is one of the three areas of violence researched in the 1960’s by Johan Galtung, Norwegian sociologist, mathematician, and the principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies. The other two forms, direct and structural, correlate to physical and political definitions respectively.

Bjorn planted the seeds for all of us to be thinking about ways to address all types of violence – even direct – with peace. He reminded us that extremists want to eliminate differences through direct violence, and that hurt people hurt people. He also touched on structural violence stemming from systems and mainstream acceptance of violence as a solution.


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