The 1914 Christmas truce

1914 2014To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. Today’s article is the third from Alan Whaites, team leader, Governance for Peace and Development at the OECD.

The Christmas truce of 1914 is one of the iconic moments of the First World War, soldiers on the Western Front took the initiative to suspend hostilities in order to meet, share rations and play football. Accounts of the events on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 often refer to the singing of carols as a point of connection between the two sides. It seems that the power and symbolism of a religious festival that for many is associated with hope acted as a point of unity across divisions of nation and politics.

The truce is a rare positive reminder that identity is a powerful factor in many conflicts; too often identity is seen as the curse of conflict, the mechanism for division. Yet shared symbols, shared history and a sense of belonging to a group are simply the mediums through which ideas and ethics are transmitted. In his classic work Benedict Anderson described this sense of belonging as “imagined communities”, the bedrock of national identity and of the state itself.

Yes, of course the ties that bind can also divide and the phrase “conflict entrepreneurs” was coined to describe those adept at exploiting identity and sense of community for the purpose of individual or collective gain. In a report on a workshop on the issue Marina Ottaway noted that: “Conflict entrepreneurs often mobilize individuals through three general tactics: appeals to ethnic, religious, and/or ideological solidarity; patronage; and positive or negative promises regarding security.”

The vulnerability of identity to exploitation by conflict entrepreneurs creates a sense of pessimism about differentness and belief. In the Clash of Civilisations Samuel Huntington tells us that: “The philosophical assumptions, underlying values, social relations, customs, and overall outlooks on life differ significantly among civilizations. The revitalization of religion throughout much of the world is reinforcing these cultural differences.” Frances Stewart, however, warns against over-simplification: “Clearly, cultural differences alone are insufficient to cause violent conflict, given the large number of peaceful multicultural societies. Hence the many socio-economic and political explanations of conflict. Among these are horizontal inequalities (inequalities among culturally defined groups).”

Stewart’s work points to the need to also look at the power of political divisions. Particularly the role of social and economic problems that can either be harnessed to the mobilising potential of identity; or to those existing divisions that are visible through identity. After all consolidating the support of one constituency can often be discrimination against another, even to the extent of enshrining in law, constitutions and budgets the privileging of identity. These political divisions constructed through the medium of identity create the fuel for it to be instrumentalised by leaders in the context of conflict.

Ultimately this means that it is the choices that individuals make, as leaders, citizens and followers that matter. For this reason the work of those who explore “political settlements” has much to offer. Political settlement thinking recognises that If political leaders are willing to exploit identity for the purpose of conflict then that is likely to be for political gain – and this means political in its raw sense of access and use of power. Identity becomes a vehicle for controlling or destabilising the political settlement in question, but could equally be used to negotiate a more visibly inclusive process to manage power.

Sometimes caricatured as too elitist these studies have instead often pointed to ways in which relational dynamics and personal strategies for managing power make all the difference between peace and war. Political settlement thinking recognises that the strategies leaders use to relate to their constituencies matter, whether a society is deeply heterogeneous or not. Earlier this year Sarah Phillips outlined at the OECD the findings of her study on the Somaliland pointing to the way in which shared experience can play a positive role. Coupled with the work of others, such as Stefan Lindemann’s studies of several African countries, it suggests that the tactics adopted to include others in political settlements are crucial. Inclusive enough political settlements also need to be smart enough.

Choosing the smart rather than expedient path is the challenge. The positive and negative choices that leaders make have always been difficult to explain. Why are some leaders more willing than others to positively manage political settlements, rather than opting for the leverage of mobilisation and conflict entrepreneurialism? We all carry multiple identities around with us, and constantly weigh and prioritise these in the context of circumstances, opportunities and challenges. Yet while in the constant renegotiation and adaption of resilient political settlements these identities still surface and matter they are not usually instrumentalised as frameworks for discrimination and privilege. Research groups such as the Development Leadership Programme, ESID, and others are now chipping away at the issues of why some political settlements work in managing these processes, while others collapse.

The failure of leaders to manage these processes in 1914 provided a stark illustration of the cost when managing political settlements – including cross border ones – breaks down. It is therefore apt to remember that the ability of shared values and shared humanity to overcome those failures, shown momentarily at Christmas in the same year, is something that works on both identity and political settlements and it needs to be built on – not fear.

Useful links

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security

Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things)

Today’s post is written by Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing.

Click to see the book on OECD iLibrary

Brittany, 1689. Voltaire describes how a trilingual Huron arrives on board a ship and is invited to supper by the town worthies. When asked which of his three languages he prefers, the man picks Huron. “Is it possible?” cried Miss Kerkabon. “I always thought French was the first of all languages, after Lower Breton.” “The company speculated a little on the multiplicity of languages; and all agreed that had it not been for the unfortunate affair of the Tower of Babel, all the world would have spoken French.”

Following in Voltaire’s footsteps, Dave Barry stated in 1991 that: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.

Beyond the satires about universal ethnocentrism lies an essential issue. What is at stake when we learn non-native languages and why should we bother to learn languages at all? Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding (which cites the above) explores these issues. This bulky (470-page) OECD publication is the fruit of close co‑operation with Harvard University Graduate School of Education where the man behind the project, our OECD colleague Bruno della Chiesa, also works.

The scope of the book is breathtaking: it explores language learning all across the globe, in countries ranging from Canada to Tanzania and from France to Kazakhstan. It goes well beyond (applied) linguistics to deal with history, sociology, ethnology, psychology, neuroscience, music, philosophy and ethics. For those who think that OECD publications are dull, think again. This book is witty, irreverent – and thought provoking.

Why do we learn other languages? In our globalised world, learning languages is more crucial than ever. In fact it’s vital. For a job-seeker, mastering only one language could be a drawback. Writing in The Guardian, Will Hutton points out that “In the UK, the unemployment rate for language graduates is extremely low. The labour market values them. The economy needs more people who can speak foreign languages. This is a valuable skill, whether you’re part of the global scientific community or the world trade system.”

At the country level, mastering languages can also become a competitive advantage. Look at Canada for example. Its multicultural and bilingual policies seem to give the country a competitive edge.

The world’s seven billion people speak about six thousand languages – there are over 30 times as many languages as there are states – and speaking more than one language is quite normal, with around two-thirds of the world’s children raised as bilingual speakers. Yet, some countries tend to be more monolingual than others. Why is that? Could this possibly turn into a competitive disadvantage, even when the country’s language is today’s lingua franca, English? Could it be that power (both in its present and past – colonial – form) lures nations into believing that they (still) don’t need to speak foreign languages?

English is spoken as a first language by only 7% of the world’s inhabitants. It replaced Latin as the international tongue with the rise of the British Empire and US economic expansion. Could it be overtaken in turn by the language of today’s emerging economic powerhouse, China?

By examining what is at stake in language learning, Languages in a Global World goes to the heart of what is often the subject of intense ideological debate. Language is inseparable from cultural identity. Our motivation to learn languages is driven by values and beliefs.

Is one’s national identity soluble in foreign languages and cultures? The good (or bad?) thing about language learning is that it brings awareness – of oneself, of the other, local and global awareness. You may study the world in your native language (only). Or you may live it, think it and feel it as people who speak other languages do. The real thing. The music of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Musil etc. As Goethe said, “those who do not know other languages know nothing of their own”.

We can only understand the importance, richness and specificity of language and culture if we are familiar with other languages and cultures. Lorca’s amazing “duende” sounds more miraculous in Spanish than in any other language. And some (culturally resonant) words lose something when they are translated: “accountability”, “gobbledygook”,  “tartle” (Scottish), “saudade” (Portuguese), “laïcité” (French), “Torschlusspanik” (German), “hyggelig” (Danish), “mamihlapinatapei” (Yagan – Tierra del Fuego), “Iktsuarpok” (Inuit) etc.

Learning languages unveils new worlds. We not only learn how to speak but also how to relate to people in brand new cultural contexts – at subtle levels of perception, cognition and emotion. This gives a new perception of one’s self, of one’s identity and culture.  “If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself in just one language. It’s harder to play” as Michael Hofmann argues.

Learning languages helps us expand our own being and be in tune with the world, or to put it another way, to truly address the other. In that respect, Languages in a Global World is reminiscent of Levinas’ philosophy of responsibility and ethics: our response to another’s face is language. It is the beginning of intelligibility and understanding. Language as an ethical commitment.

Could peace only be a few languages away? Language learning and global understanding go hand in hand. By not speaking other languages, we isolate and impoverish ourselves – economically and humanly. We lose a precious opportunity of becoming open and curious, receptive and creative. We don’t fulfil our potential and just shut up. “Drawing on my fine command of the (…) language, I said nothing.” As Robert Benchley said.

Useful links

OECD work on education

Understanding the brain: the birth of a learning science