What are some human tendencies in responding to conflict?
While walking this morning along the streets of Oxford (to a conference I am presenting at the weekend), I saw a group of people gathering and asked what was happening. They said the Dalai Lama was coming. So, like any tourist, I wanted to see him and get a picture if possible. I came back in an hour when there was a much larger crowd and heard people shouting something in a chant.
I will soon post here some pictures from the event. I didn’t end up getting a picture of the Dalai Lama, but I did get a lot of conversations that were perhaps even more valuable.
I assumed the shouting was either from Tibetans protesting China or Chinese protesting the Dalai Lama. Then I looked over the crowd and started to realize it was separated into three parts. Only a part of the crowd was holding Tibetan flags on one side, there was a small gathering around a Chinese flag in the center, and then a large group on the other side – many of which were dressed in long Buddhist robes – holding signs that said the Dalai Lama was lying. This is where the shouting was coming from. Buddhists protesting the Dalai Lama?
So I went back and forth between the different groups in the crowd in order to get a better understanding of what was happening. I have captured the conversations that came from it, and I think you will find it interesting how people reason and make sense of the situation.
The situation itself is interesting, but the conversations around the protest is what I am more interested in discussing and hearing your thoughts about. They surprised me in some ways, and helped me understand a little more about how people deal with conflict: always questioning the motivations of others (especially repelled by any sign of hypocrisy), making quick judgments based upon assuming negative motivations, asking so few questions (and usually only the kinds of questions which help them justify their previous opinions), and then giving labels for the people they feel are opposed to them.
CONVERSATION #1 (To a person with a Tibetan flag)
Who are the protesters, and what is their concern?
“They are all just a bunch of communists.”
CONVERSATION #2 (Walking over to a protester who hands me a pamphlet)
What are you protesting? What do you think the Dalai Lama is lying about?
“He is lying because he is hypocritical – saying he supports human rights, but he suppresses them amongst his own people. He has outlawed people from being able to practice something called Dorje Shugden (a prayer to a certain Buddhist deity) – said there was an evil spirit in it – and if people do practice it then they have had their houses burned down, and some people have even been killed.”
Why do you think he outlawed the practice?
“For political reasons. He wants to unite Buddhists, and while politically that might make sense, spiritually it is very destructive.”
Oh, someone told me that you were communist protesters.
“Yeah – they don’t really know what they are talking about.”
CONVERSATION #3 (Walking back to someone with a Tibetan flag draped around them)
What do you think they are protesting about?
“Oh, they are angry that about the practice of a certain kind of prayer that the Dalai Lama has spoken against. It is a complicated split in Tibetan Buddhism. But they don’t even know what they are talking about. Go over there and ask them, and most of them are just westerners and don’t even know why they are protesting. They don’t even know what they are talking about. You don’t see any Tibetans over there, do you?
The Dalai Lama just said that he wasn’t going to practice the Dorje Shugden anymore, but he does allow religious freedom to people, but just asked if they follow him not to practice the Dorje Shugden as well. He doesn’t say that they cannot practice it, just that he finds an evil spirit about it.
You don’t see any Tibetans over there, or hardly any. They don’t even have any intelligent chants. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were paid to come together. You know that happens. Paid mob.”
[And she handed me a statement from the Tibetan government describing their view on what had happened.]
CONVERSATION #4 (Walking again over to a different protester)
What do you think the Dalai Lama is lying about?
“He has suppressed the practice of Dorje Shugden – even though his spiritual leaders practiced it. In Buddhism, you are supposed to follow your spiritual leaders. Now, people in the Tibetan communities of India (where they are living in exile) are forced to carry cards that indicate that they do not practice the Dorje Shugden. If they do not have the card, they get persecuted – and even their lives are in danger. There are even stores that say above the entrance that if you believe in Dorje Shugden then you can not shop there.”
Why did he think the Dorje Shugden was an evil practice?
“Oh, it was just some dream he says he had. Stupid. Really he is both a spiritual and political leader, and so he makes certain decisions for political reasons that are devastating spiritually. Westerners understand that you cannot do this, that it is unhealthy and wrong, and so we are speaking up to try and get his attention. We do not hate him, we love him, we have peace in us, and we cheer at the end of each chant to show it is a peaceful rally. But we just want him to listen and he is not even open to dialogue. It is not democratic at all, but more like medieval ages in the west when the rulers made spiritual decisions for political reasons and then forced them on people. That is the problem when someone is both the spiritual and political leader.
In the west we know that is wrong, but that is where they are stuck. It is not a democracy at all, he won’t even discuss it with people. Western media is just so nice to the Dalai Lama, not recognizing the hypocrisy – but we are trying to change that with demonstrations like this.”
Why do you think there are not more Buddhists protesting?
“There is a couple, but they are putting their life at risk by being here. The Dalai Lama has a group that will find him out and punish him if they can. All the ones over there feel they need to be submissive to him no matter what, they think that he can’t be wrong because he is their spiritual leader, and the Buddha. [He did a mock bowing motion]. Crazy. In the west we know that is not right.”
CONVERSATION #5 (To the Tibetan on the protester side)
Why are you protesting?
“I went into the monastery when I was 12. I was there for 40 years, but because I did not want to agree, I was cleared out. After 40 years! That was my home. If I had a family in India, and they did not have the passes, then the children would be cleared out of their schools, they would be cleared out of their community.”
Why do you think that the Dalai Lama felt this Dorje Shugden was evil?
“There are four branches of Buddhism in Tibet, and he is only the spiritual leader for only one of them. He wants to weaken the strongest branch, if he can, so that he can be a stronger leader by making all the branches more equal. The main thing is that in the west is freedom of speech – and he does not allow that.”
Why do you think more Tibetans don’t stand up to this?
“They just don’t understand.”
CONVERSATION #6 (Then talking to a couple of Chinese representatives who gave me a pamphlet about how beautiful Tibet is)
Why are you here?
“We just want China to be one – to be united.”
Why do you think Tibet want to be free from China?
“I really don’t know.”
What percent of people in Tibet want to be free of China?
“I don’t think there are many left in Tibet that want to be free anymore. It is just a small percent. But they are doing violent things, surrounding the Olympics, and that is not good.”
What do you think the Dalai Lama wants?
“I think they were just in power before China took over, and so they just want the power again.”
They say that you might be getting paid to be here. Is that true?
“No! We are just here. That is not the reason we are here! Just look at the flag – we don’t even have enough money to buy a good flag.”
What do you think about the recent talks between Chinese government and the Dalai Lama?
“We support them. It is a good thing, and we hope it continues. The Dalai Lama just keeps speaking the same things – and there is no progress. We want to see things improve.”
CONVERSATION #7 (Walking once again to the Tibetan side and talking to a Caucasian woman holding a Tibetan flag)
Why do you think the people over there are protesting?
“I can’t imagine!”
Why do they say that the Dalai Lama is lying?
“They’re just horrible people! They are shouting horrible things! I’m Roman Catholic, but I know the Dalai Lama stands for peace! I don’t know why they would do such a horrible thing!”
Why does Tibet want to be free from China?
“I would want to be free from them! They’re barbarians – they murder their own students. They are just horrible barbarians.”
CONVERSATION #8 (To a Tibetan man holding a Tibetan flag)
Why does Tibet want to be free from China?
“The Chinese do not allow any religious freedom. They make it so that we cannot pray and practice as we would like to.”
Why do you think the people are protesting?
“They are upset about some direction that the Dalai Lama gave on changing something. But it was even his own practice, and he recognized that he needed to change too.”
And then I had to get back to the conference…
I’m sure there are a lot of nuances in the actual conflict which I am not aware of. But I don’t want to discuss the conflict itself – I am more interested in discussing the approach to the conflict that was taken by people on different sides of the argument.
First let me say that I am aware that people frequently can have less-than-the-best of intentions – and so it makes sense that as humans we are always questioning the motives of others.
My questions for you:
- At the same time, doesn’t this tendency to quickly label the intent and intelligence of others frequently lead to unnecessary labels/judgments and miscommunication?
- Do you agree/disagree – or see anything else in these conversations?
- Any suggestions for how to get around skepticism, quick labeling, and the resulting miscommunication?