It’s been a while since my last writing over here. Unlike blogs which require to be kept alive because of a business model of any sorts, by keeping the readership (or in case of vlogs, the viewership) being supplied with a constant stream of interesting pieces, this blog is for when I feel I have something I want to say. Whether it is interesting for the reader, well, you decide that. I also felt I had written a lot in a short period of time, recently.
This one is about a blip. This blip:
If you have had the patience to wait some 13 seconds until the blip finally becomes audible, you had the patience to witness a cosmic event, with gravitational waves from the merger of two Black Holes, recorded by some of the most amazing technology on Earth, LIGO, and transformed into a sound wave. Two monsters of the universe. At the center of them physics as we know it is breaking down, so we can’t explain the innermost workings. They were circling around each other, in ever closer orbit, until they merged. That blip, representing gravitational waves which have traveled for billions of years before reaching our finest detectors, it is testimony to some of the most massive energy bursts we know about in the observable universe. Many say correctly that it also gives testimony to the precision of modern day applied physics. True. But read about Black Holes, or Neutron Stars, or else, and the size of what is out there may perhaps rightsize the perception of our big achievements.
Am I becoming a physicist now?
Well, as on uncounted occasions before, these days I am trying to wrap my mind around the cutting-edge findings in quantum mechanics and general relativity. Moving forward and backward through what we explore on smallest and on largest scales of the universe as we believe to understand its “workings”.
Each time I do this, I end up somewhat exhausted, blown away, baffled about the complexity of mathematics which I don’t understand, but also feeling a fundamental sense of appreciation on a, perhaps, more intuitive level. I still am the child who, five or six decades ago, looked at the sky, wondered what was there, and walking into the public library after Sunday’s mass and coming home with a selection of science books, and science fiction books. Ever since I have been wondering what this is all about, limited in my understanding, and equipped with never ending curiosity asking known questions again and again, and discovering new questions which drive me further. Sometimes mad and crazy, but mostly further.
The extent to which everything we learn about the fundamental forces and conditions of nature is governing literally everything in our daily life is extraordinary, and mostly not understood by many people. Whether we believe in a flat earth or in real science; Whether we manipulate truth or seek to find it; Whether we adhere to universal values of humanity or not; Whether we live a life in entire denial of global warming, or are concerned about the future of our children, nature on Earth, or the planet at large: We all live with and use technology which fundamentally exists only because of an understanding of physics which is almost incomprehensible for most of us. Just look at your smartphone. You will be able to explain most things related to how you are using it. Explaining how it works may be a much bigger challenge, often enough an impossibility.
Some may say “Why bother about what these eggheads say? I care only about what is useful for me.” Some say “Let them work away, writing up these crazy formulae, but God forbid if they are in my way.”
For the universe at large, the relevance of this denial and selfishness is smaller than minuscule. If we blow it up, the blip of that event will transverse the universe at the speed of light, and some distant future observer on Kepler-B 1423a will write a scientific paper in some language and logic unbeknownst to us, attempting to conclude what caused the blip. That alien scientist will note that the energy transferred through “that blip” indicates the explosion of a little planet, very unlike the billion times stronger energy released through a Black Hole merging event.
Another piece of extraordinary technology has made it into the main news stream: Like the Hubble Telescope before, the James Webb Space Telescope JWST is making the headlines. On the eve of the first public release of JWST’s first images, U.S. President Joe Biden was presented with one of them:
If you take a grain of rice and hold it up between two fingers, extending your arm towards the sky, the area which will be covered by this little grain of rice contains all the information similar to the picture above. Meaning, if you cover your entire perspective of the sky with such grains of rice at arms length, and you would be able to look through the Earth and do the same for the entire three-dimensional sphere that is the sky, the number of pictures like this one would equal the number of rice corns you have to use for this exercise. And with the exception of a few foreground stars, what you see in pictures like these are galaxies. Each of them containing billions of stars. According to our now ever firmer knowledge about the prevalence of planet forming around suns, there will be more planets circling around suns than there are suns in galaxies. And we talk about hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe, at least.
I grew up with the hubris thinking that we may be alone in the universe. I can’t even emphasize how ridiculous such a thought is, in my view. But the period during which our observable universe has presented conditions which allow life to form as we know it, this may be the case since a few billion years. On a scale of the universe, civilisations like ours are a speck of dust, and I believe there are many of them.
If we blow ours up, oh well, will the universe notice?
Well, I am leaving the field of science here, and I will say the universe will cry because of our failure to do what we are supposed to do. Contributing to the beauty of this universe, rather than to our own selfishness.
Three – How Groups establish Common Frameworks of Perception
Too close for comfort? No, I’ll let you have a little peek view into my neighbourhood, when I’m in Belgrade:
I am trying to get the finishing touches on Part 3 done from a campsite close to Bucharest in Romania. My vanlife has given me the opportunity to meet so many people from different walks of life. I just offered a coffee to a young German man who is traveling in a small van, with his partner, her daughter, and a dog. Have you ever listened to somebody who feels alienated, ostracized, craving for acknowledgement, and trying to make sense of his or her personal life story? The intensity with which they argue, the words they choose for making their cases? His story about a little group of travelers trying to keep life together, seeking a place to live in Romania, dropping out of regular life also as a consequence of the pandemic and personal circumstances, it offered a practical example for how perceptions develop, and how they lead to reinforcement processes. This person, whilst clearly not there yet, is on his path sympathising with “Reichsbuerger” identity, living at the fringes, and I don’t know whether much more has to happen to him before there is a path towards delusionial viewpoints, and radicalisation. All the time I was listening to him, I was thinking how I can interact with his attempt of making sense of the world, instead of myself just apologising, stopping communication, and staying in my worldview. Because this is what happens: A negative self-fulfilling prophecy about all the things which make this world un-just to oneself is leading to less communication outside of the group one feels to belong to. The more extreme the divide in fundamental assumptions, the more likely is that any communication with somebody who does not share a similar narrative of the world will not happen. We feel uncomfortable facing such extreme differences, at least. We may feel being upset, angry. We may react with hypocrisy, cynicism, open verbal confrontation. Or we may just walk away, and then it is about that the perceptions of two people engaging in a conversation were so fundamentally different that they did not fit into the reference framework they each feel comfortable in.
We see this all over more recently. Radicalisation of views is related to narratives that diverge extremely. Either a fringe view is colliding with mainstream views. Or several radically different mainstream views exist: The great divide between Democrats and Republicans which grows ever deeper, or the smaller fringes that we try to address in order to not see them growing into mainstream divergence, it’s all the same. All people on all sides believing in their version of perception, judging, or even condemning those who hold different views.
Wherever my international work and life has taken me, I always made it a habit to live in a local neighbourhood. Not those fancy Expat-areas, rather I feel most comfortable when I am a guest, and a neighbour, in a typical local hood. Sipping a coffee with very local people hosting me as a guest in their country, I learned so much, in Pristina, in Gracanica, in Brussels, Sarajevo, Brooklyn, Naples/Maine, Berlin, Belgrade, or so many other places. Since I started part-time Vanlife, on my campsites in Germany, or roaming the countries in the Western Balkans and around, or anywhere where I stop near the road for the night, I enjoy the same experience.
Not only that my cat friend Tigger is making new acquaintances all over Europe, it happens to me too. So, in that picture above you also see my local grocery store in Belgrade. There is a man inside, very friendly, selling fruits and vegetables, often talking about his love for German soccer clubs. More recently, he looked at me with a scared face and spoke, in broken English and German, about the war in the Ukraine.
When I recently cleaned my van, a very old and fragile neighbour, certainly in his late eighties, stopped by. Turned out to be a very nice and open minded person with a lot of curiosity. After a few comments about my mobile home he asked me about my opinion about what’s going on in the Ukraine. He asked me whether this would have been caused by NATO.
When I walked Tigger on 01 May, neighbours invited me to their open barbecue. Guess what came up? Fear about the war in the Ukraine. “Don’t go there”, one of them told me. “Well”, I replied, “You never know.”
When I’m in Germany, conversations will immediately turn to the developments in the Ukraine, too. As one might imagine, there the question will not be about NATO’s role starting it, but about NATO’s response to actions for which the Russian President will be damned. At least within those circles I relate to. But on campsites I will also meet other people. Like 2020, when a conspiracy theorist took me by surprise. Or as it just happened this morning.
When I’m in Romania, I will hear the local context, which, again, is entirely different from Serbia, and Germany. When I am in Bosnia&Herzegovina, I will get three different versions of the context in which the Ukraine war is being perceived. If I would listen in Albania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, or Poland, everywhere I would get a local and different perception on the same war, and the fears which are related to it. The common denominator is profound fear. The context will be explained differently, with nuances, or starkly. And all people truly live and believe their perceptions, no ordinary person on the streets will tell a fake story truly for manipulative reasons. Those people who do this on intent, they are very different, I feel their malice, and some, if not more than a few, are leaders.
The huge diversity of opinions based on culture and history and belonging, that’s Europe. Literally. It always is so hard to understand for people outside Europe, like those who say “Does the European Union have a telephone number”, those who may call for a strong unified European Union voice. In a true democracy view, the diversity of opinions on this continent is, of course, very hard to capture and to transform into more than the least common denominator. The alternative is autocratic attitude, and we have some of those, too. But believe me, no autocratic Europe would be more homogenous, compared to the Europe holding on to democracy. Rather, autocratic attitude is a recipe for intolerance, violence, and war. Just look back into Europe’s history of the last millennium, and especially the last century, and you will see that coercion into one identity only works temporarily. After Tito’s death we witnessed it again, more recently. The answer can only be tolerance for others and enthusiasm for diversity.
But, back to perception:
Those who I sometimes label “pied pipers”, they can be seen on a global level, and they seem to gain influence. They are those who scare me, because they operate on the opposite to tolerance and diversity. They are responsible for unfathomable suffering of many. And they could not do this without the considerable number of others who willingly buy in into distributing distorted versions of reality, or fake constructs of reality, for many different reasons, all of these reasons being motivated by selfishness.
From there, manipulation of reality permeates into the minds of who I would call, with all respect and compassion, “ordinary people” who try to explain themselves in relation to what life is throwing at them. Everywhere there are these wonderful local neighbours who struggle to make sense of what they see, fear, and are being told.
I am not wishy-washy, I have a very pronounced opinion, including on the war in Ukraine and the larger threats, and my core is torn into pieces because I believe that we need to do what, for example, Germany is participating in. All the way long, cold-blooded, decisive, but with great compassion and with healthy fear about escalation getting out of control. Doing whatever we can to avoid that the cauldron is exploding, but being very clear and very tough in saying “No way that we are going to allow this blatant attack on all values we have fought for since the end of the last World War.” But it is about how these values are being established, and what that then means to the competition of value frameworks.
I can not write this without a heartfelt word to my Ukrainian friends: I am sorry for your suffering beyond words, and you have all rights to be upset with the world, since you need, and deserve, the most decisive and best help possible. I just hope that we keep the balance in finding ways to ease, and to end, your suffering, without creating even more suffering. But your perception of what is going on, it needs to be, and is, at the core of everything we consider. We need to bow in front of you.
I am very privileged by having the opportunity to experience so many different neighbourhoods, cultures, nations, beliefs, countries. That is why I put this at the core of Part 3 of this writing. Because I am allowed to see this diversity in perceptions. People who live an entirely local life, they probably are more challenged by the need to be aware of, and tolerant to, other worldviews. I see very friendly people with great hospitality all over. Whether in Europe, or any of those conflict-ridden countries in Africa I have been spending time in, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Haiti, to name but a few. I don’t meet them in that proverbial mediterranean beach resort I was mentioning in Part 2. Not in holiday-mood, not with booze. But just very real, in day-to-day life.
“Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari makes for absolutely fascinating reading. As do his other books. I directly quote from Wikipedia when saying that Harari is dividing “Sapiens” into four main chapters:
Much of my rambling is influenced by Harari’s explanation about communication between groups, tribes, communities, and especially when large meta-groups comprised of smaller communities come into play. His book is a fascinating journey connecting the evolutionary development including the brain of Homo Sapiens and its ability to form concepts that have no representation in the real world, and to communicate these concepts through language. The book seriously enlarged my appreciation for how we are able to form societal cohesion on a scale above relatively small groups of individuals.
At the beginning, in Part 1, I focused on how a representation of the environment is being put together from sensoric input. That’s the neurophysiological view. But already there perception is the result of an interpretation based on previous experiences through memory, and hugely influenced through emotions that accompany the sensoric input, or have influenced previous situations.
In Part 2 I have referred to neurophysiologist David Eagleman and his statement that brains need other brains for communication. Once communication comes into play, the result of perception becomes different because individual members of a group of living beings who communicate establish a joint, a common, perception. Communication allows for team-work. Orcas hunting as a group, they communicate what their individual group members see, perceive, and do. The same is true for wolf packs, or many other examples of collaboration. One way or the other, collaboration requires communication, and an ability to communicate what I see. Walk with me under a tree with ravens or crows on it, telling all other animals about the presence of my cat friend, and you will agree.
Reading Harari was a revelation for me in my understanding aspects of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, 70 millenia back in time. I can only be selective in explaining here, but he maps out in detail what we know in relation to the cognitive difference which set us, Homo Sapiens, apart from ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. It is related to brain development, allowing for much more complex perception, and understanding, and more complex language. But the single most defining difference appears to be our ability to imagine things which have not one single reference in the physical world around us, which we see. We can come up with virtual realities since 70.000 years, and not just since Mark Zuckerberg hopped on the metaverse-ideology.
Amongst all living beings on this planet, our communication has evolved into language and other forms of formal representation of concepts (such as mathematics) allowing for highest levels of sophistication in representing the world, describing the world, communicating what we see in the world, doing this in oral and written form, and to establish concepts that have no representation in the physical world. Harari’s example of legal personae within the field of law is brilliantly told. And the same is true for religion, concepts of governance such as democracy, ideas like human rights, the rule of law, so much more. They are extremely relevant and some of them belong to my core values, but the important thing is to understand that we, Sapiens, are able to establish concepts which have no physical representation in the world. Harari is so convincing in explaining that this is the single defining difference which allowed mankind to form means of communication and cohesion that allow to operate on levels far beyond small groups, bands, or tribes. It is this evolutionary step which enabled mankind to form cohesion, and control, on societal level, it allowed for modern States, it allows for identities, like those of faith, which keep billions of people in one framework. Religions serve as means for societal cohesion, including through control. That’s why they also can, despite their mystical core, develop into instruments of brutal suppression, creating suffering. Whether it is about terror from Sunni extremism against Shia, or whether it is about overturning abortion rights by the U.S Supreme Court, in all this there is the ugly face of control, for reasons of enforcing one framework of belief and impressing it on others. With structural force, or physical violence, the motivation is the same.
Thus, these non-physical manifestations of concepts compete, and often don’t go well with each other, they sit behind the clashes of groups, nations, religions.
But when I sit in neighbourhoods and I listen to people, respecting their different frameworks of identity, I see wonderful individuals, all of them with inner beauty.
So what’s my final point?
The diversity of frameworks which ultimately, and inevitably, form the basis for how I perceive the world, it is a fact of our reality. There is no ultimate solution, and sure as hell happiness of people is not a direct function of democracy. Individual life can be fulfilled and happy in East and West, South and North. And whenever I reach a point in my reflections where I try to identify at least a few common denominators that allow all of us to thrive, and not to kill this world, not many core values are needed. Human rights belong to it.
But here is what I feel relevant in the current context: The invasion of the Ukraine has been identified as a fundamental violation of the Charta of the United Nations. This needs to be acknowledged. Then, only, we can also have a discussion about whether others have done the same before. That introspection won’t be easy, because a decade ago we believed that we had found a principle called the “Responsibility to Protect”, overriding under certain conditions the sovereignty of States. It literally hurts to see the Russian President establishing a fake reality of oppression of peoples in the Ukraine to justify and cover up his unprecedented aggression.
If we loose the achievement of the Charta of the United Nations, we are in really big trouble.
Two – Reminding of the Role of Emotions, and Memories, within the Process of Perceiving
Let’s have a second look on the first picture which I was using in Part 1:
An abandoned and decaying building – Belgrade, Košutnjak Area, picture taken by the author, May 2022
If you and I would describe this picture, we would quickly agree on objects and elements, we would probably conclude about the beauty of spring, we would likely exchange views on the charm of decaying buildings, or the wonderful colors of blossoming bushes and trees. But I would also want to describe the emotions attached to this picture, in order to have you appreciating how I perceive the scene:
I am walking the paths in Košutnjak almost every day when I am in Belgrade, especially during spring, summer, and fall. And so I did for the first time in April 2020, and for many days to follow during that spring and summer. My emotional memories which always come back even today are those from the first traumatic phase of the Covid-19-pandemic. I found myself, like all other people in Belgrade, in a strict lockdown. Roads and public space were empty. Almost no car was moving. No restaurant and cafeteria was allowed to open. A curfew forced me to be back in my apartment 5pm at the latest, otherwise I would have risked a fine. From Friday evening to Monday morning not even any walk in nature was allowed. Grocery stores were open under limited conditions, shopping malls and everything else closed. No discussion about vaccinations during these days, people were hospitalised in Emergency Departments, so many were dying. Strict border controls re-occurred in the European Union, flight connections were shut down, for months I had no idea how to get from Belgrade anywhere else. Don’t need to write more, you get it, and once I am telling you about my emotions related to this only refuge from feeling imprisoned, you will respond with your emotions and memories and where you were at that time. But it does not mean that, looking at this picture, you and I will share the same perception, once we discuss aspects beyond the physical representation of objects in this picture. Depending on how vulnerable I am when we talk about this picture, my re-processing the Covid-19-trauma may also trigger thought-loops and emotional patterns which always come up when I am re-living my multiple trauma. If we try hard enough, communication will establish some sorts of synchronisation in how we perceive things. But that is for the communication part which will follow a little later.
Let me use another example, by showing you the following picture:
I have so many pictures from this area, especially because I lived and worked in Sarajevo for four years.
My perceptions: They are related to so many times when I was climbing the roads and forest paths up to beautiful spots surrounding East Sarajevo with my mountain bike. Many memories relate to how we as a family took our children up there for walks and hikes, explaining to toddlers why they needed to hold Mom’s and Dad’s hands in certain areas still harboring unexploded ordnance from the war.
Mom’s perceptions: Amongst many other issues also the memory of her time in post-war Sarajevo, between 1996 and 1999.
Our nanny’ perceptions: One day in 2009 or 2010 I suggested a walk with the kids and I was asking our Nanny to come with us. We were close to our nannies, so I immediately felt her unease. Being in her early twenties at that time, and being a Bosniak in a country home to a Bosniak nation, a Croat nation, a Serb nation, and minorities, she had first hand knowledge of the time when Sarajewo was shelled and snipered from positions of the Serb Army, including exactly the spot where this picture is taken. She felt physically unwell, but she wanted to undergo this experience, so we went for this walk with our children. When she looked at Sarajevo from this spot, her perception was entirely different from mine, though she was seeing the same scenery.
It goes without saying that any of my Croatian and my Serbian friends in Bosnia&Herzegovina had similar traumatic memories, and they all tell me personal stories which would both include their fear and feelings of powerlessness, but their narrative would partly be astonishingly different in how they would explain why all this happened which they now remember.
At this point of my writing I want to use these examples in order to demonstrate that the cognitive perception of, for example, visual input, always goes beyond the interpretation of physical features. Rather, and especially when we look at something which we have seen already before, perception includes creating, and touching, of memories. I do personally not know of any memory I have with no emotions connected to that memory. I may not be aware of it. Yet, when we show pictures to friends, we will also explain the emotional context. Take out your most recent holiday pictures, or just look at the emotional touch with which we lace selfies on FaceBook or Instagram, you get the story. Emotions are inseparable from memories, and thus they also are inseparable from how we perceive things.
I do go a step further: I wrote about perception often being a process on auto-pilot, allowing the constant inner dialogue to chat away, plan away, worry away, mourn away. What I perceive, and what reaches my conscious awareness, it is embedded in a constant inner dialogue which I have, 24/7. In most cases, daily perception of, for example, visual input runs on auto-pilot and I walk half-blind to what is happening around me. Except when I practice meditation, for example through mindful breathing and mindful walking. It is amazing how much more visual or acoustic input I become aware of, it is almost a miracle to then feel physical sensations on my skin, or becoming aware of the smell around me. As long as I do not pay mindful attention, the perception which is constructed from what I see, hear, taste, smell, feel, it is very limited. I can drive a car without even paying conscious attention to what I do.
And if I drive a car together with other people, the memory, and the narrative, of this joint ride will look entirely different for each passenger in the car. A joint narative can only be established to the extent all passengers would agree on some basics which they all remember. But far away from objective perception. I think there is no objective perception, at least not in the strictest of all senses.
Which is what I needed to say before coming to the role of communication. Which is the big chunk. For now, just keep in mind that I deliberately choose the examples above in order to create a gentle conduit into how different the perception of entire constructs of our reality can be, just depending on which history an individual has, and to which groups and communities and society this individual belongs. The differences in perception, and then subsequently how to navigate in the world, and how that individual identifies in her or his belonging to groups, communities, and societies, they can be huge, and they often stay entirely “under the hood”. If those individuals meet in a mediterranean beach resort, you won’t probably see too many differences, as long as there is some sort of joint communication, some sun, music, and some booze perhaps. But the trouble begins when people get to know each other on deeper levels, and when they just assume that their joint framework of reference for how they perceive things is similar enough, being surprised when it turns out it isn’t.
One – Getting Myths and Misconceptions Out of the Way – The Basics of Perception
I believe in science when I try to navigate in the world. Not only, I am also deeply spiritual. But I believe in the proven fact that science is a crucial tool when I am seeking facts, and truth, and guidance on how I should relate, in the world.
This writing came together as a result of my mind being all over the place. Like, I wanted to write down my own thoughts how I understand contemporary science on cosmological and on quantum scale. Hoping to improve my understanding like a student, summarising what I have learned, in taking notes and writing down what I understand. I have mentioned it earlier that one of my most long-standing interests also relates to cosmology and quantum mechanics. Which is not subject to writing in this blog directly.
I am also tinkering with an insanely powerful piece of software called “Unreal Engine 5” aka UE5, which is a 3-D graphical engine behind many modern computer games with which these impressive virtual worlds are being created that people get addicted to in gaming. It is my nerd nature and my interest in computer technology which is making me do this, and my attempting to accompany my youngest son, who spends countless hours per day in these virtual worlds and is also designing some of them. Then, again, my tinkering with UE5 brought me direct insight into how we perceive the world.
But when I embarked on this writing exercise I quickly saw that there is much more to my futile hobbyist effort understanding science. Beginning to write down my knowledge of vision, the history of optics, and today’s mindblowing science, I quickly saw that I also needed to put it into a larger context, generally thinking about how we perceive the world. From there, it was a small step only to see the linkages between perception, emotion, communication, and interaction, and the crucial role of memory, and the relevance of this topic for discussions in the field of work that this blog is relating to: Within a snap I was on a mental discourse heading towards thoughts relevant within the framework of this blog about Peace&Security, Justice&Reconciliation.
It goes as follows:
Instruments of perception
What I see is not the real world. Not even a true image of it. Visual perception is the result of an interpretation: The interpretation of the projection of light rays on the retina of my eyes. I interpret signals that come in from the nerves connecting my eyes with my brain. It is not just a stream of pictures coming in like from a “camera obscura”, an upside down image of the light from the outer world being projected on the retina inside my eyes. Of course, physically speaking this is what happens in my eyes. But the process in my brain is much more complicated: My brain is creating a mental image of sorts, somehow in my conscience, from those signals which are being transmitted from my eyes to the brain, and it does so in a very complicated way. Incoming signals are being subject to categorization and interpretation involving various separate sub-systems at different locations of my brain, and somehow the results of these processes end up as a composite representation in my consciousness. There are so many conditions for how I interpret the signals from my eyes, they include even subconscious assessments about whether incoming signals would indicate a threat, which is even happening before the conscious parts of my brain have a chance to say: This is what the eyes see.
Or: Dive into the many baffling examples of optical illusions just as one piece of evidence for this statement: That which I see is an interpreted image of some kind of the optical input reaching my eyes, forwarded from there as electrical impulses to my brain. What I perceive as the “final result” is the construct of a number of highly complicated and not yet fully understood processes in my brain, responsible for various components of vision, and input from other senses, and then comprehension. Nothing I see will be transformed into perception without an inner judgement aboutwhat I see. The statement related to an optical input such as “These are trees “ in the picture above, it is an academic reduction within a logical and communicative framework. Daily reality works differently.
The point I want to make is that “seeing” is so much more than only establishing a mental picture from the input of my eyes, and “perception” is even larger than “seeing”. It is about various ways of interpretation of a “picture”, and much of that happens without me having any control over it. Seeing is way more than a linear transformation of an optical process. This is what we know today, because neuroscience has advanced so much.
The same goes for what I hear, what I smell, what I feel, what I taste. I put this all together into an explanation which helps me navigating in my everyday world: I can touch something that I see, and I can get a sensory input about temperature, surface structure, the smell of the object which I see and touch. I lick what looks like a white rock, is feeling like a crystal, and it’s tasting like salt, so my conclusion that this likely is a lump of salt allows me to interact with the world of which I am a part. If that lump of matter looks different, feels soft, smells foul, I’ll probably not lick it. There is this joke about Daddy and the whole family driving on the highway. Daddy bragging to the kids: “See that card box ahead of us on the road? Now Daddy shows you how it sounds if you smash it with the car.” Thing being: If Daddy would have known that the card box wasn’t empty, but that this washing machine which fell off the truck was still inside, the story would have ended with less damage.
Perception is the result of a conclusion about what sensoric input I get. I’ll come to the role of emotions and memory in this a little later, but if Daddy’s memory is fine after his release from the hospital, he will hopefully see the danger next time he attempts to ride over a large object on the road. Fear will help him on that learning curve. But I’m too far ahead, though I will say: Perception can also be inhibited through faulty memory, or traumatic emotions. If the kids have suffered from serious trauma on occasion of this event, the impact of these events on future perception of cardboxes, and Daddies, will get drastically more difficult. Hang on, I need to systematically develop my point first.
I still highly recommend David Eagleman’s book “The Brain” and it’s visualisation within the equally named series of videos on PBS, inter alia available on Apple TV. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, and his popular science teaching on what we know about the brain has blown my mind a few years ago. Perception has a purpose, perhaps only this purpose: To allow me to navigate in my environment. The purpose is not to reflect my environment in the most precise objective way possible, but to allow me navigating in it the most suitable way possible. Or, as David Eagleman puts it: Brains constantly need other brains to communicate, and they establish a shared interpretation of reality through this.
All living beings (virii probably being at the border between living and non-living entities) have a process which I name “perception” going on, and the perception of the environment is meant to establish a common interpretation of it, through forms of communication. Bacteria are able to avoid hostile environments, we can demonstrate this in experiments: They don’t only die on poisonous surfaces laced with antibiotics, and thrive on nutrients. There is a choice involved after some time, and from what I know, there may be some form of communication involved. Plants do communicate environmental threats, and the mystery of mycelium, of which we mostly only see the mushroom parts popping up in the forest, it includes a lot of communication within this underground network often stretching out hundreds of meters, or more, and likely also communication between a mycelium and, say, trees. Animals of all levels of development communicate results of an interpretation of their environment. And the higher the cognitive processes, the more also the ability to understand effects where seeing and touching may not lead to a congruent expected answer. What does, for example, my cat conclude if he sees his picture in the bathroom mirror? Head over to YouTube or Instagram, go see. The coherence of sensual input is contextual. If I see a face and can smell and touch it, it’s likely a being. If I see a face which I can’t smell and I bump into a surface when I want to touch it or I get my paws wet in the water, my human friend calls this a reflection.
Interim conclusion: I started with the sense of vision here, but in order to make the case that optical representation in the eye is not the same as its interpretation in my brain, the combination with other senses needs to be mentioned: In my everyday life, conclusions about what I perceive are rarely made on grounds of only vision, or only smell, or taste. Usually it’s a combination, and usually it is a sort of an automatic process running in the background. Like I mostly don’t have to pay attention to how I manage to walk, or how I drive a car, the same is true for most of my sensory input. Only when some event or perception requires a cognitive analysis, this analysis is -hopefully- triggered in my frontal lobe. If I’m sloppy, I’ll rely on autopilot. Which creates huge risks, not only on highways littered with washing machines, but on a social level also for communities and societies.
The senses with which I am equipped, they are an evolutionary result of what is useful for my species in order to successfully interact with my environment. My interpretation of how the world looks like, feels like, smells like, it is based on the capacity and calibration of my senses. By no means I can conclude that the world is as I “see” it’s representation in my brain, and by no means I can conclude that the way this process of representing the “outer world” is unique and the same for everyone, and every species: Some birds, or many, are able to gauge the magnetic field of the earth; many animals can hear sounds which we human beings can not hear, in the low and in the high spectrum; bees see the world on a spectrum including ultra-violet light; some fish, like sharks, sense the electromagnetic field of other animals in their neighborhood. Some animals can even send out such a field, for probing their environment, and to paralyse prey. Bats are using ultrasound like an acoustic radar.
I will focus on vision and how we, over millennia, tried to understand the process of optics, but not without concluding that our senses allow us to interpret our environment, as far as our senses reach, and the interpretation always allows us to interact. Run away. Fight. Eat this. Don’t eat that. The more complex the brain of a living species connected to a set of sensors, the more sophisticated are the interactions with the world.
But for any living being it is true that our specific senses allow an interpretation of our environment, they allow a representation of our environment in our brains and they do not give us a full image, they only allow to see what is within the capacity range of the sensors, and what our brain makes from this sensory input. We do not see the world. We see an extremely limited interpretation of the world.
We do not even know in principle if two persons have the same representation of, say, a color, when they name a color. How do I know that the representation of the color “blue” is the same for my neighbor? Color-blind people find different ways to conclude something may have an attribute that others name “blue”. There are rare instances of cases where people connect a sound to a color. It’s called “chromestesia“.
For any living being without a higher cognitive process running in the frontal lobe of the brain, such academic or philosophical questions are less relevant. As long as they successfully interact with their environment, the question of how their eyes work, and how light behaves following the mathematics of optics is less relevant for them.
If there would not be not the role of communication within a perception of the world which is established between groups of beings.
Part Two of this writing will focus on how groups establish common frameworks of perception. For the moment I stop, this blog entry has become very long already. Let me, and you, take a break.
Elements of successful strategic assistance measures
This outline of considerations is based on personal experiences and lessons learned in a specific professional context, and it is based on many years of work in various international capacities. I have recently put this into a specific context and the following is the de-sensitized version which I hope is useful for a more general reflection on international assistance efforts.
Any form of international assistance to domestic, national or regional development of governance happens in different societal and cultural contexts, has to be framed within a specific and complex historical and political environment often including various and very complex stages of post-conflict states of affairs, and depends on political and strategic motivations of (a) States receiving assistance, (b) involved regional and international organizations and (c) donors. There are only limited blueprints available, and no copy/paste strategy works.
Situational ambitions and motivations by all involved actors are driven by the momentary situation and need to be used for, and reconciled with, the requirements forming the basis of long-term strategic and sustainable development based on a vision, a strategic framework, its operationalization, its measurability, and constant evaluation. There is no successful strategic development if it fails to deliver immediate operational impact, nor will quick-impact-projects without an evolving framework of flexible strategic commitment, robust enough to sustain itself in rapidly evolving political and security contexts, be more than piecemeal.
“Local/domestic ownership” and “assistance” are crucial terms. However, they are vulnerable to becoming lip service. Thus, the DNA of any strategic assistance must hard-wire the commitment of all who assist to put beneficiaries into the driver seat and to demonstrate this in all actions. Since growth of confidence, capacity and capabilities of domestic governance are inherently a fundamental objective of such assistance, constant dialogue on all levels needs to mitigate the different motivations of all involved actors, putting the beneficiaries front and center. This requires a high-level agreement of beneficiaries, implementers and donors prior to any development of a concrete assistance strategy. The agreement needs to reflect motivation, commitments, and limiting conditions of all parties involved, and it should be subject to regular proactive evaluation on a high level, bringing all partners in this joint exercise together. In order to get there, operational kick-starter activities need to demonstrate visible commitment to partnership and transparency.
Strategic assistance, if successful, attracts many who are interested to participate. Coherence of efforts must be robustly built in from the outset on, an accountability framework must bring all actors together. It works better if the capacity for growth is built in early. It is particularly relevant to include beneficiaries as partners: If unguided, donors and implementors can develop a mindset based on exclusive talking. This can be very subtle, allowing for claiming that domestic ownership is fully implemented, and the differences only been seen by insiders, but especially being felt by beneficiaries. Donors need constant reminding of what “assistance” means, and implementors will benefit from a larger accountability mechanism which helps them to mitigate their genuine motivation to assist (thus, to work at taking themselves ultimately out of the equation) with their business models (they need to generate projects because it is part of their raison d’être and they have payrolls to serve).
Beneficiaries with a strong interest in identifying needs on a strategic level and a commitment to implementing governance processes and institutions committed to international principles and standards and resilient against undue political interference and corruption;
International/Regional Organizations with an ability to reflect and integrate regional political and security aspects and a willingness to establish, or significantly contribute to, and politically support, a technical steering process for all aspects of assistance to beneficiaries;
Donors with a willingness to be trailblazers in a partnership approach within a long-term political commitment, bolstered by the ability to significantly contribute to financial funding, political support, and being ready to deploy long-term advisers into the regional context.
Map a path into structured dialogue, based on principles of strong partnership
Champions on the side of international organizations and donors to generate a technical dialogue leading into high-level ministerial support, visibly owned by political stakeholders of beneficiaries.
Use kickstarting assistance in order to establish visibility and demonstrated immediate commitment
On basis of a preliminary needs assessment, from the outset on empowering representatives of beneficiaries, to identify quick-impact projects.
Tie kickstarting assistance into a political dialogue encouraging to express long-term intent and readiness to establish a roadmap
It allows for regional cooperation amongst those who are ready for it, and design a draft roadmap with vision, objectives, first-level operationalization, and benchmarking.
Identify the coordination mechanism which involves stakeholders from all sides allowing for what is needed most: Growing technical dialogue on basis of an understanding of equal partnership. This then is the basis for political operationalization, using these examples as successful templates for stating: “Cooperation works”.
December 5, 2021, the New York Times published a story “He Never Touched the Murder Weapon. Alabama Sentenced Him to Die.” It is a heartbreaking story with an introductory video pointing to a longer documentation which is available elsewhere on the Internet. The short video documents last minute phone calls made in an effort to stop a planned excecution, which is scheduled in 35 minutes. It involves the sister of the murder victim agreeing to help preventing an execution of a person she thinks is innocent in the murder of her brother.
Nathaniel Woods had been convicted 15 years earlier in connection with the shooting deaths of three police officers. The circumstances of his arrest for a misdemeanor involve his being in a drug house at the time of the police officer’s operation to arrest him. Yet, the story is about that Nathaniel Woods “never killed anyone”. To quote the article: “Alabama — one of 26 states where an accomplice can be sentenced to death, according to the American Civil Liberties Union — argued that Mr. Woods had intentionally lured the officers to their deaths. It did not have to prove that he actually killed anyone in seeking his conviction for capital murder.“
The article is very detailed and complex, shedding light on a story of a person’s troubled upbringing and controversial life. You will read accounts of all sorts which will allow to take, emotionally, one or the other side of arguments whether, and why, Nathaniel Woods became victim of injustice. The New York Times finds a balanced approach detailing the personae of the real cop killer, the person who actually shot and killed three police officers in cold blood, even admitting this in interviews, exculpating Nathaniel Woods as a drug dealer who happened to be subject of police action executing an arrest warrant against him, but not being armed, not engaging in violence, just fleeing in horror as he witnessed the other drug dealer opening fire and going on a killing spree. Everything in this story can create arguments in favor or in opposition to his being sentenced to death.
To me, the story also demonstrates the enormous role of different interpretations of what one would consider “capital murder”. Not under any circumstances German criminal law would provide that Nathaniel Woods behavior would establish him perpetrating an act of capital murder. And German constitutional law does not allow capital punishment.
So, what makes me using this article for a piece in my blog under a headline “Indifference”?
To quote the article itself, and Bryan Stevenson therein: “The tragedy is that people like Nathaniel Woods become victims of our indifference to injustice,” said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in Alabama. He added, “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time doesn’t make you someone who is evil.”
This sentence struck a cord. I often talk or write about the need to passionately promote values. Stressing compassion, and making an argument for standing up for justice, for truth, for rights, for democracy. Here is the other side to it, expressed in one sentence: The passion for upholding a value is confronted with the indifference to the opposite of that value. The very same thing happened when the 45th President of the United States, just shortly after his inauguration, sat for a TV interview in January 2017, stating into the cameras: “Torture works”. He didn’t say he condoned torture. But everyone felt (either encouraged or being disgusted and horrified) an unspoken belief that he did. People rarely noticed, perhaps because he just started to go on an ever escalating news cycle, using this modus operandi on countless occasions. But to me, it established the ultimate red line to cross.
The erosion of values does not happen because of the absence of those who promote them. The landslide is caused by a combination of those who actively undermine them, combined with those many who act in indifference. It is not about the silence of the sheep. It is about the selfishness which is inherent in indifference. – “Why bother? ” “Who cares?““Is it really that bad?” –
Yes, it is.
By the way: After the inauguration of the new German Federal Government two days ago, the German news reported Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, expressing his fear about a new German policy coming up, including being “pro-immigration”, and “gender-friendly”. Of course, he did not say that with a note of welcome, but as a statement of criticism. He also stated this in the State-controlled Hungarian media, read it here in the Hungarian Times. Of course we can have controversial discussions about immigration policies. But “gender-friendliness” as a topic of criticism inside the European Union?
Another red line. For me. It is about indifference which is allowing to get people away with demolition of values.
The New York Times editorial board recently wrote about the latest report published by the collective of American intelligence agencies: “Global Trends 2040”. Since a while, such a report is being issued every four years, at the beginning of the term of a new U.S. administration. It aims to assess and to anticipate where the world will be headed over the next two decades. Released April 15, 2021 by the National Intelligence Council, quoting from the OpEd, the report “finds that the pandemic has proved to be “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II,” with medical, political and security implications that will reverberate for years. That’s not sturm und drang. It’s the prologue to a far darker picture of what lies ahead.”
The report can be downloaded here, and it is a very interesting read. As the authors themselves make clear, “scenarios are not intended to be predictions but to widen the aperture as to the possibilities, exploring various combinations of how the structural forces, emerging dynamics, and key uncertainties could play out“. Noone can foretell, at least until now, the future by analysing the key dynamics of the past and the current situation. But even without the five scenarios which the report is drawing up, already the five general themes identified by the report are a valuable narrative and assessment themselves, not least because the report synthesizes intelligence methodology and information with a wide range of global consultations outside the intelligence community, inter alia including societal stakeholders and civil society.
148 pages can not be summarized correctly here. Neither I want to do this. Rather, I would like to create interest in reading it oneself, by reflecting a little bit, including through own thoughts, on the themes of the report.
Five themes are identified: (1) Global Challenges, (2) Fragmentation, (3) Disequilibrium, (4) Contestation, and (5) Adaption.
Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report states that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assesses the current pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.“
This assessment resonates a lot with what some, or increasingly many, of us begin to realize: The pandemic was not a temporary event which would cripple us for a few months until summer 2020. It is ongoing, and I belong to those who feel that it will not be gone for a longer period of time, despite all containment efforts, including lockdowns, and vaccinations. Moreover, I feel we might be in a transitory phase where “defiance meets acceptance”, where things have become a norm which we would not have believed to witness a few years ago. Last weekend, I walked over an empty promenade along the shores of the river Rhine. Provisional signs regulated that, between Friday 1 pm and Sunday 7 pm, as well as between 10am and 7pm on public holidays, this strip could only be used wearing a facemask. Boy, those who got self-righteous when seeing people without facemasks, how many of them would have raised their eyebrows when seeing Asian tourists wearing facemasks on airports, just a few years ago?
This example of weird and perhaps over-regulating buerocracy just being used as a picture for my feeling that we transition into a new normal, where the fabric of societies is becoming altered beyond a temporary timeline. The depth of any analysis needs to go deeper, but some of those changes which appear to be there to stay, they become slowly visible.
It is also true that over the past year or so, the pandemic discussion with all its horrific extremes, including through simply denying it, playing it down, glossing it over, inciting polarisation and anger, it all deflected from the big threat underneath: The threat through climate change. Nothing made this less urgent, we just stopped paying attention.
Fragmentation flows from these global challenges almost logically. Whilst each of these challenges is transnational, even global, the report also pays attention to a new “smallness”, as I would coin it. Psychologically even understandable: Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex raising the shield, or “turtling up”. In my view, such a defensive reflex will also be increasingly accompanied by selfishness. Every self-protection is a selfish but necessary act, simply because it is about protecting myself. However, with many things perceived as being at threat, including medical and economic well-being, this may lead to an unwillingness to share, outside a limited and accepted circle. But we may also see that such a fragmentation, somehow, works, because it may not affect global trade or global communication. The Internet grew during the pandemic, and so did the transportation of goods. There are winners in the economy, Amazon being just one of those, and most visible for us when we pick up our jeans, underwear, or groceries on our own doorsteps.
Disequilibrium is the third theme of the report, flowing again from the previous, fragmentation. It may be less visible for many, especially during selfish times, but it carries enormous destructive potential. The report focusses on its effects in a widening gap between what societies, communities, and individuals expect from governance and services, and what they can deliver. Thus, the report addresses the credibility challenges which became apparent already before the crisis. Legitimacy of democratic governance, and credibility of elected officials in such a system, this is not something new since the beginning of last year. Neither is the profound inability of systems of international order providing peace, security, and other important issues enshrined in the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The pandemic may just have been the rocket fuel which incensed the already existing slow-burning wildfire. Like I said in my previous blog entry: Feels like a perfect storm.
Contestation is the fourth theme. We see it already. Wealthy societies pump their reserves into handling the crisis, and into the race of getting out on the other side in the best position for competing, on economical and power levels. But the report also identifies disruptive potential of contestation inside societies. In my view, these will just increase the intent of societies and states to stay competitive. In this regard then, wealthy societies will stand a much better chance. Poor societies will be left to their own devices of internal contestation. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on those more developed societies which, given all the above, might even lock themselves down even more. Lockdowns keeping others out. For me an interesting question: How will tourism develop? The more we can pay, the more likely we will spend our holidays in protected resorts? May be in wealthy societies we will see the “One Percenters” enjoy themselves in even more luxurious seclusion, those who always have been local and rural might not feel a difference at all, and the forces tearing things apart will be felt by the many in between?
Adaption being the final theme, I have the most diffiulties to identify with the anticipation, because it is so difficult to see where adaption will lead us to, locally, regionally, and globally. Of course, we will adapt. We already have begun. However:
My blog is about peace, security, trauma, and reconciliation. Somehow, all my entries here revolve around this set of topics. So, whilst I encourage to also read the scenarios in depth which form large parts of the main body of the report, I wanted to offer some thoughts just related to this introductory part of the report itself. Thoughts related to my focus.
The challenges for values, such as human and individual rights, democracy, the rule of law, they have only been growing over the past many years. The Covid-19-pandemic is pouring gasoline on this fire, and some of the developments become more visible for more people. The influencing factors which may lead to even more erosion during a time of new adaption, they are captured well in the five themes raised in the report. Not necessarily expressis verbis, but one can see it. Much will also receive more detail in the main body of the report, but in these introductory sections, these challenges are incorporated in a larger context, but are not made standing out for those who may only read executive summaries.
But taken together, global challenges, fragmentation, disequilibrium and contestation do pose significant risks to how we help an international system in its adaption and, at the same time, transfer as much of these values into it, these values which have meant so much for many of us for many decades. In a competitive world driven by economic and power contest on the one hand and more fragmentation on the other hand, maintaining these values is one of the big challenges. We can only maintain values “at home” if we also contribute to their promotion abroad. With a different phrase, Kemal Atatuerk said the same, or the European Union in their strategy documents from 2003. It stays true, however, and even more so today. Otherwise, gaps will be filled by others, and ultimately the usefulness of these values will also be questioned in any disequilibrium at home. Selfishness will lead to greed if others are more successful, with or without values like the above. Ultimately, forces which contest these values will grow.
So, in preparing for a new world order, it continues to be absolutely vital for us “at home”, wherever that is, and whatever it means, if we continue to share.
That is where we need visionary leaders, willing to take risks by maintaining that we need to share, even if the storm of anger from those who feel disenfranchised blows straight into their faces. We will see much more erosion, we have not reached rock-bottom yet.
My boss is very clear. There is no diplomatic coating if Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister, is calling out Donald Trump’s urging his supporters to vote twice as disturbing and unscrupulous behavior. Which it is.
I am glad we speak the truth, we do it with diplomatic language whereever we can, do not play into the antagonization game whereever possible, use moderate language instead of yelling, call on upholding human values including decency and truthfulness. I am also glad to see that we can be clear, crystal clear, saying “enough is enough”. Which it is.
If somebody were to tell me that there is a kind of a universal blueprint which must be used for successful reform of police, I would be very suspicious. My experiences, good and bad, relate to addressing corruption and crime in medium size police precincts, warrior mentality in a police station under constant mental siege in a hostile environment, establishing community-oriented policing primacy in a large and diverse, yet national police organization, harmonising a joint understanding of service-oriented and accountable policing in extremely complex and diverse international executive policing environments, and in countless ways assisting jurisdictions ermerging and recovering from conflict in coming to terms with policing allowing to contribute to societal healing, and representing the communities they serve.
Nothing would allow me to refer to experiences how to alter policing in a setup where people estimate that a country has approximately 18.000 agencies responsible for policing. That is the situation in the United States of America, and that is the scope of the challenge over there. But I continue to stress that this is not about “Us and Them”. Rather, a critical examination of reform needs requires to take a self-critical look. It simply is a gargantuan task. Here just one from countless examples.
People take the streets all over the U.S. and globally in large numbers. Polls in the U.S. show that there is majority support for a profound change.
Not undertaking reform is not an option. Compared to the needs to change global bias and selfishness which expresses itself in so many forms, like racism and religious hatred, xenophobia, discriminating minorities, leaving impoverished societies to their own devices, or is depriving women or members of the LGBTQ community from equality in all its aspects, the task of reforming policing appears minuscule, though gargantuan in itself. I don’t want to ramble, but just the other day Greta Thunberg is reminding us, again, about tackling climate change being equal to tackling the Covid-19-pandemic.
We’ve got to shoulder this, otherwise we will be helpless and complicit bystanders: Anger never is a good adviser, but people are angry for many reasons these days, and on a profound level. Some actors follow the principle “If I can make you angry, I have already won over you.” If reactionary forces prevail in “weathering the storm”, muting the discussion and controlling it again, chances are that we may see chaos, rather than evolutionary development from which we collectively benefit. “Us and Them”-thinking will lead to a lot of collateral damage and we may wake up in a world one day which none of us wanted.
To find a meaningful entry point into a contribution, I suggest to look at a recent article “What happened when a city disbanded its Police”:
Two factors came together in Minneapolis which allowed for a sweeping reform of policing:
Top Down: The commitment from highest leadership levels to embark on an undertaking with many risks, including risks for reputation and own job security;
Bottom Up: A deep desire on a grass-root-level for change: Communities were fed up with the way how they were policed.
In my previous articles, I have reiterated where I stand on “how to police”. I have referred to a common denominator of policing: The United Nations’ “Strategic Guidance Framework” is incorporating principles such as the principle of community-orientend policing. I see the same principles at the heart of the re-design of policing which has been the result of a reform effort in Minneapolis.
The question how to design a police organization which is following such principles can lead to an evolutionary development of an existing organization, or, like here, to disbanding an existing police and to build a new one from scratch.
Both scenarios lead to disappointment amongst those who may feel that they have fallen victim to such a reform, like police officers who have lost their jobs, or police chiefs and leaders all the way down to first-line-supervisers who have been reassigned in course of the reform. The higher their numbers, the more difficult it will be to get the dissatisfaction voiced by them being absorbed within the discourse in a larger community, or society. One of the biggest mistakes of the Coalition Provisional Authority following the 2003 invasion of Iraq was “Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2″: It disbanded the Iraqi military, security, and intelligence infrastructure of President Saddam Hussein. Many of those who lost their jobs ended up becoming members of insurgency groups and terrorist organizations and networks which brought chaos and death over Iraq and the wider region.
Painful decisions which will always leave some feeling being on the side of those who have lost from reform require a thorough process of thinking before springing into “less-than-thought-through-action”. Of course, Iraq is not the U.S., or Europe, and American police is lightyears away from forces which have been instrumental in a brutal dictator’s oppression of his own population, but this is universal psychology and it is a classic example of a toll which can be directly tracked to decisions which have not been based on a carefully synchronised discourse “top down” and “bottom up”. In any large scale reform, antagonization must be mitigated, without loosing sight of the dedication to achieve a fundamental change. Otherwise, reform will be watered down into mediocrity at best, or will lead to cosmetic reform with no chances for sustainability of efforts, or being entirely outrun by reactionary forces resisting change.
That is why real reformers will be measured by
Whether, including the top-levels, they mean what they say, and put action to where their mouth is;
Whether they lead an inclusive discourse, from the top down, rather than following the path of antagonization and radicalisation of an “Us-and-Them”-rhethoric;
Whether they listen to communities on the ground, including permanent and more than symbolic engagement by top leaders, and base their reform decisions entirely on including communities on the ground into shaping a joint vision of the future;
Whether they are ready to rely on the participation of communities on the ground in all aspects of implementing a reform effort, holding themselves accountable to those communities which shape the form of policing which these communities want, for themselves.
In following blog entries, I will touch upon two other elements which I see for successful police reform: A reform of insufficient training, and representative policing, which needs to focus on the role of persons and communities of color, on minorities, and the role of women as agents of transformational change.
Policing refers to a function of governance responsible for the prevention, detection and investigation of crime; protection of persons and property; and the maintenance of public order and safety. Police and law enforcement officials have the obligation to respect and protect human rights, including the right to life, liberty and security of the person, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other relevant instruments.
In this part I am presenting the argument that it is necessary to identify the core role of policing in a jurisdiction. Funding then needs to prioritize the effective and efficient implementation of that core role, and provide the means to ensure that policing is carried out within the framework of rules which reflect on the values that underpin that implementation of policing.
I also say that it is entirely common to look at which functions a police organization could carry out in addition to their core mandate. Of course, there is funding needed for this as well. However, responsible governance needs to make sure that additional tasks for a police department do not negatively affect the core mandate of that department. Responsible governance also has to question whether police is well-suited for additional tasks that may require specific, or different training. Police training is different from customs training, from military training, from training for correctional services, or from training for social services. Do not use a hammer for screws, or a screwdriver for nails. It destroys hammer, nail, screwdriver, and screws.
It is entirely legitimate to look at whether there would be better ways to implement the additional tasks given to a police organisation, by other means, such as strengthened social services. That, again, would require to re-allocate the necessary funding. Which is a form of defunding the police.
Thirdly, law enforcement needs to be equipped for carrying out its tasks. There is a direct line between the identification of “what” I want to do “how”, and what I decide to use as a technical means of assistance. If a police department decides to procure or to accept military style equipment for carrying out its tasks, that will change the attitude of officers in how they understand the task of policing. If that is leading to problems (which is evident in the United States), then reform efforts may lead to giving up purchase and use of military style equipment. Defunding the purchase of military equipment may allow both for funding core tasks of policing better (such as giving more resources to community-oriented policing), or free funds for support the work of other parts of government, such as social services.
Taken together, all three lines of what is named “defunding” are no reason to believe law enforcement and their staff would be “punished”. Instead, the reform leads to better policing, and more of it, and it leads to better other services of governance, such as social services.
It is all too easy to throw out the baby together with the used water in the bathtub if one doesn’t take the necessary time for a careful look.
The current debate about reforming policing has gone way beyond the borders of the United States of America, and it is happening on grounds of both long simmering discontent and because of current justified anger and immense outrage. Crimes such as the murder of George Floyd have triggered it, and the confrontational and at times horribly abusive handling of the protests by the system of governance is escalating it: It proves the case that something is flawed on a fundamental level. This in turn has led to so much growth of the protest movement in size that we may see, for the first time, a real chance for substantial change.
The sheer size of the demand to reform policing in its fundamental aspects is inevitably causing tension between those who advocate reform, and those who hold conservative views. That is good for a constructive democratic discourse.
Comparing how things are done elsewhere can help, as long as those who describe what they do elsewhere, and how they do it, don’t pretend that they have better ideas and solutions. We all cook with water, hypocrisy is poison to the debate.
I see, however, that there is an element in this discussion which goes beyond the constructive exchange of arguments in a reform discussion:
There are those who dig in. Reactionist forces attempt to quell the reform movement by a combination of (1) de-legitimizing reformers’ motivations; (2) de-legitimizing reformers as persons “per se” by demonizing them; and (3) pretending to associate with the cause, in order to take out the energy for change. The longer the successful application of this strategy, chances are that reform runs out of steam. And like events in 2016 allowed reactionists to boldly roll back honest and deep-looking reform efforts, the same threat is looming over 2020.
An example for de-legitimizing reformer’s motivations: Accuse them collectively and with no supporting evidence that they want to abolish the police entirely, or to de-construct the State.
An example for de-legitimizing reformers by demonizing them: Accuse them of anti-constitutional attitude, label them “radical left”, or even “domestic terrorists”, and freely make use of de-humanizing them, talking about “low-lifes”, “loosers”, or even worse.
An example for pretending to associate with the cause: Jump on the band-wagon of talking about how serious the problem is, express sympathies, be a bit emotional if you can, make sure to spread your hollow words of empathy and sympathy widely, say that you fully agree, throw in a “however”, and talk about anything but the core argument that leads to the reform necessity. Make no efforts to turn your pretended sympathies to the cause into any action.
So: What is the core argument?
The core is related to the question what the function of policing is about. No more, no less. A reform discourse needs to look at this one first.
Second comes the discussion about how (aka by which organizational means) the function of policing is implemented. Here, things become complicated, because the way how policing is being implemented is based on historical developments that are entirely localised. America’s culture is different from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Sweden, Tanzania, South-Sudan, Jordan, Egypt. Or any of the 193 countries forming the United Nations. All are different. Because of their history.
But does it mean we can only talk about one country’s policing approach, and does it mean there is no possibility to come to a common denominator which we all agree upon? Do we have to engage in a never ending “My toy is fancier than yours”-debate?
The answer is: It is very much possible to come to a unified minimum understanding, because we have done and achieved exactly that. I have witnessed that, by participating in it. It took us give or take ten years from voicing the dream, through finding support, learning how to do it, until we had written it down and agreed. The result includes what I quoted in my “Statement of Solidarity“.
And this result is not a collection of lofty sentences. As the United Nations, we needed to put a common understanding of what is policing and how it should be done front and center, for purpose of maximum transparency: This is what you get when we help you, this is what we need you to agree upon when we help you, because we have a few red lines which we all must not cross in this partnership. This is what any UN Police officer will understand as her or his function, notwithstanding from where that officer comes. This is how we expect police officers to be trained before they deploy into a United Nations Mission meant to assist in handling a conflict, or recovering from conflict.
If you look up the entire work which began with the document I quoted from, you see that we broke it down into a detailed understanding: We do have a common understanding about how to carry out community-oriented policing. We share detailed understanding about intelligence-led policing. We do know what a tactical group of the Police, such as a company sized “Formed Police Unit” should do when protecting peaceful demonstrations, and how to engage with those who disturb the peace, become violent, carry out crimes. We do know how police should establish functions that ensure accountability towards the law and towards citizens. We do know how police officers should use force as the last resort.
We have written that all down, and much more. And all along the way, the United States of America was part of a truly global support for further development of this framework, stressing the need that it has to be operationalized through training. Which is what we do, all over the world, and including heavy support by the United States of America. For which I am grateful beyond words.
Does, therefore, police have to look the same anywhere? No. But it does mean that one always should look at whether we have gotten the implementation of the core function of policing right. You can assign additional functions of any kind. The discourse about whether this makes sense, or not, usually carries many practical and political arguments with weight in the specific local context. But it should always prioritize the question whether the additional tasks impede core tasks, and whether police departments are suitable and capable to carry out that task. Like any other profession, training and organization of work in the police creates specific mindsets, highly capable of implementing policing. But it does not mean that this mindset, or training, is the right one for the additional tasks that are being expected to be handled.
The way to ensure this is called management. And any reform of something which has taken root is no less than an art.
Sometimes, less tasks for the police will create much more satisfaction with results.