Time to declare war on dysfunctional behaviors


The recent controversy surrounding Kinijit supporters in the diaspora—Kinijit USA (KUSA) and Kinijit International Leadership (KIL) -- is the latest in a history of feuding and infighting among Ethiopian political interest groups and parties. Indeed, over the past few decades, we have seen countless political organizations created, only to be shortly disbanded, abandoned, or rendered ineffective, often because of intra-group conflict -- conflict among the membership -- and an inability to resolve conflict.

I believe that these conflicts are a fundamental reason for the absence of democracy in Ethiopia today. Indeed, it is these conflicts, magnified to a national level, that have resulted in dictatorship after dictatorship in Ethiopia. Endless feuding and infighting from the grassroots level on upwards have made it difficult for Ethiopians to attain the organic solidarity necessary to build and sustain the institutions necessary for democracy. I think it is imperative that pro-democracy activists make awareness of intra-group conflict a top priority in the struggle for democracy. But before I make my case, I would like to describe the nature of the problem in greater detail.

Here are a few interesting points. First, the intra-group conflicts we see in Ethiopian collectives are seldom caused by differences in ideology, organizational structure, or other substantive reasons. Nor are they confined to organizations whose members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Indeed, the most virulent conflicts occur in apparently homogenous groups whose memberships have not only similar ideologies, but similar frames of reference, perspectives, and interests. The current KUSA/KIL conflict, for the most part, is an example of this.

Another interesting point is that such conflicts occur just as much in the Ethiopian diaspora as they do in Ethiopia. This is interesting because, in the diaspora, factors such as poverty, political oppression, lack of education, etc., do not exist.

Finally, intra-group conflicts are not restricted to organizations of a political nature. They are found in all types of Ethiopian collectives. We can observe chronic feuding and infighting in families, extended families, non-political civic organizations such as professional associations, churches, local community organizations, charity organizations, and others.

So, why is there so much intra-group conflict, characterized by personal feuds and infighting, in Ethiopian society? And when there is conflict, why is conflict resolution so difficult? One explanation is that we have been brought up in an environment where certain dysfunctional behaviours that hamper effective communication and cause conflict are the norm. Below is a list of some of these behaviours that I have observed. I ask readers to reflect on whether you have seen them in yourself; in others; in meetings and other group settings.

  1. Personalization of issues: This is when we are unable to conceptually distinguish between people and their ideas or thoughts. For example, if someone objects to a suggestion I make, I see the objection as personal attack, not as a simple difference of opinion. In response to the perceived personal attack, I respond with a personal attack, instead of discussing the issues. Hence, the initial disagreement over ideas turns into a personal struggle, and because it is a personal struggle where pride and survival are at stake, we end up unable to constructively ‘agree to disagree’. Groups whose members find it difficult to ‘agree to disagree’ become paralyzed by feuding and infighting and eventually collapse.
  2. Parochialism (weganawinet): We tend to irrationally favour those from our own kin or wegen—family, village, team, ethnic group—no matter what the cost. For example, if a person from my wegen has a conflict with a stranger (be’ad), a person outside my wegen, I automatically favour my colleague, no matter what the substance of the disagreement. Furthermore, I extend the conflict to a dislike of the stranger and his entire wegen—his family, friends, place of employment, ethnic group, etc. This is the root of blood feuds (dem). Parochialism within organizations leads to ineffectiveness, as decisions are made based on who supports the decisions, rather than on their merit. It also leads to organizations being split into smaller and smaller factions, and eventually collapsing. For example, an organization may split into two main factions. Factions will develop within those factions, and further splitting will occur, until the organization fails.
  3. Chronic suspicion and mistrust (teretaray): We view each other first and foremost as potential threats. With such a heightened level of threat-awareness, any idea or thought, no matter how innocuous, is quickly considered to have negative ulterior motives behind it. Even the most innocent comments by the closest of friends can be misinterpreted as sinister, resulting in the breakup of fruitful relationships. This behaviour is a fundamental cause of conflict in a group setting. By definition, no group can be effective without trust.
  4. Paranoia: As we view everyone as a threat, we tend to disproportionately develop a paranoid outlook in our interaction with others, with the ‘threat’ foremost in our minds in all our interactions. This paranoia, in a group setting, results in organizational paralysis, with everyone looking over their shoulder and hesitant, instead of working towards the common goal.
  5. Lack of empathy and empathetic understanding: Empathy, the ability to identify with or understand others’ situation, feelings, and actions, is critical for effective communication and teamwork. However, in Ethiopian society, we are not sensitized to the importance of empathy. We do not ask questions such as ‘what in his background might have caused him to react this way’, or ‘what would I have done in his shoes’. This leads us to make erroneous judgements based on incomplete understandings, which leads to misunderstanding and conflict within groups.
  6. Lack of suspending judgement or giving others the benefit of the doubt: Suspending judgement is fundamental to effective communication. Unfortunately, the combination of chronic suspicion and lack of empathetic understanding lead to the absence of awareness about the concept of suspending judgement and giving others the benefit of the doubt. If someone does something we do not understand, we do not ask, ‘Perhaps there is something he knows that I don’t,’ or ‘Let me wait and see before making a judgement.’ We judge hastily, without taking time to examine all possibilities. This results in erroneous judgements and personal conflicts.
  7. Character assassination (sem matfat and alubalta): Rather than addressing conflict directly, we chronically spread rumours and innuendo about those with whom we disagree. We engage in character assassination because we know that it is an effective weapon in our society. Since we do not give each other the benefit of the doubt, we tend to believe bad things about others! A strategy of muddying someone’s reputation will render them useless, as people will simply have had their existing suspicions confirmed. Obviously, character assassination quickly leads to infighting and paralysis in groups, a scenario with which most of us are familiar.
  8. Lack of openness: Openness facilitates effective communication. As Ethiopians, we are not open and forthcoming about our thoughts and expect the same guarded approach from others. This is related to our lack of empathy, which makes us afraid of being judged hastily and incorrectly if we speak openly. This fear leads us to be initially vague, unclear, and non-committal, which inevitably leads to communication gaps and communication breakdown, as others persistently try to interpret the hidden meaning of what we say, and often end up interpreting negatively and incorrectly. Lack of openness leads to misunderstanding and conflict.
  9. Holding grudges (qim and mequeyem): We tend to chronically hold on to personal grudges. Understanding or forgiveness of perceived affronts is seen as weakness, as it is assumed that everyone is and remains to be a threat. In a group setting, there are bound to be conflicts, and if people hold on to grudges, there can be no effective teamwork.
  10. Envy (mequegnenet): We hate it when others are better off than us in any context, but instead of struggling to improve our own lot, we work to reduce others’! This comes from our ingrained perception that everything in life is a zero-sum game. If someone is rich, it is because another is poor. If someone is happy, it is because another is sad. It is as if the world has been alloted a fixed amount of wealth, happiness, etc., and it has been ordained that everyone should have more or less the same amount. Failing this, the ones with more must have committed some kind of crime to improve their lot and the ones who have less must be cursed.
  11. Stubbornness and lack of compromise (getterenet): Because of our zero-sum view of the world, compromise is seen as a weakness. We do not understand the concept of compromise as a building block for future win-win endeavours. Instead, compromise is seen as a loss forever.

I am sure that all of us have seen first hand these behaviours manifested in various contexts. We have also seen the resulting conflicts in our various collectives, from families to religious groups to political organizations.

On the other hand, most of us in the diaspora have been exposed to non-Ethiopian collectives where, generally speaking, such conflicts occur far less often. We have also observed that these collectives are, as a result, far more effective and efficient than Ethiopian collectives.

In order to bring Ethiopian collectives, including Ethiopian pro-democracy and human rights organizations such as KUSA and KIL, to this level, it is crucial that we find a way to raise awareness that intra-group conflict is a fundamental barrier to democracy, to put an end to our dysfunctional group behaviours, and to promote positive, constructive behaviours that reduce conflict, increase our capacity for conflict resolution, and increase collective consciousness and organic solidarity.

To this end, as a first step, I suggest that all organizations draft a code of conduct document. The aim of this document should be primarily to raise awareness about dysfunctional behaviours, the problem of intra-group conflict, and the importance of effective communication. In addition, the code of conduct should provide guidelines of behaviour and conduct, along with explanations for the guidelines.

My second suggestion is that there should be a collective attempt to stigmatize dysfunctional behaviours in our everyday lives. For example, we must make it telek newur to attack anyone personally instead of addressing issues. We must not only refuse to listen to character assassination, but openly chastise and correct those who do it. In a charitable and constructive manner, of course—we have to keep in mind that most of us engage in such behaviour almost unknowingly, because of the culture we have grown up in. Unless sensitized to the ramifications of such speech and actions, we cannot become fully aware of the consequences.

I believe that these two actions alone will result in a significant reduction in the chronic feuding and infighting in our collectives and organizations. The resulting increase in organic solidarity and collective consciousness will, in due course, crowd out dictatorship at all levels of our society, including the political. The democratic culture at the grassroots will end up being reflected at the national level.

Indeed, imagine diaspora pro-democracy groups devoid of feuding and infighting. They would make great strides in improving the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia. Imagine that behaviours such as suspicion and paranoia were no longer the norm in Ethiopia. Dictatorship, which thrives on suspicion and paranoia, would disappear shortly.

Doing away with dysfunctional behaviours and intra-group conflict is the only way to achieve democracy. To those who believe in democracy for Ethiopia, I say, we need an all-out campaign: Let us declare war on dysfunctional behaviours!

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The writer can be reached for comments at dessalegn_asfaw@yahoo.com


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