By Metta Spencer
Special to the Toronto Star, August 21, 1983, p. F4
Peace activist Metta Spencer, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, attended two recent peace conferences.
The first was the Soviet-backed World Assembly for Peace and Life Against Nuclear War in Prague, Czechoslovakia, attended by 3,625 delegates (40 per cent from the West). The conference’s official “dialogues,” she reports, “were actually only a series of unrelated monologues … and not very open to controversial discussions (but) they did provide occasions for people to make new contacts informally.” .
From Prague, Spencer travelled to Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, for a conference on nonviolence attended by 75 people, many seasoned peace-workers from throughout the West, plus a number of new pacifists. “With the exception of one Yugoslav lawyer, who was presumably as anti-Soviet as everyone else, not a single communist attended the Dubrovnik conference,” she reports. The participants were representative of “a rapidly growing section of society, the people who are looking for non-military responses to the conflicts that now, for the first time; so clearly lack any genuine military solutions.” Spencer founded and is a director of the Canadian Disarmament Information Service, which provides information about activities in the peace movement across the country, and edits and writes for its publication, the Peace Calendar. Following are excerpts from Spencer’s accounts of the two conferences.
Should the West have dealings with the official Eastern peace movements?
THE Soviets pay a heavy price every day in terms of international prestige for holding to their intractable position on human rights. Surely they know that relations with the West would be vastly easier if they relented on these matters, yet there is no indication that they will even .consider it.
The changes that Westerners call for seem so small that it is hard to see any rational reason for their adamant refusal to budge.
We must assume that they actually fear any liberalization, on the basis of prior experience in Czechoslovakia and Poland, where the relaxation of repression yielded such an upsurge in demands for change that the regime itself was threatened and a harsh clamp-down became necessary.
Human rights were not the only thorny issue at the conference on non-violence in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, of course. Afghanistan, the SS-20 missiles and a variety of other unpleasant matters added up, in the minds of the participants (as elsewhere in the West) to evidence that until the Soviets mend their ways, they and their mammoth Peace Committee should be treated as our enemy.
Everyone readily conceded that the U.S.S.R. had made substantially more favorable offers in the direction of peace than had the NATO countries. While these moves were all regarded as commendable, they were not deemed sufficient to improve the Soviet Union’s over-all standing in trustworthiness and international morality.
It is impossible to be sure how much of this mistrust is a reasonable response and how much it represents a carryover of Cold War ideology into the heart. Of the peace movement itself. Yet obviously a continuous, realistic appraisal of the situation is of utmost “ importance for the peace movement, and we must be self-critical to maintain a balance between paranoia and naivete in dealing with the Soviets.
I think there has been too little genuine reflection and discussion of the question, and too little recognition of how any of us may be hoodwinked on the one hand or ideologically overzealous on the other hand. One cannot doubt that Soviet Peace Committee officials are uncommonly skillful at manipulating public opinion, and that they are trying to influence the Western peace movements for the benefit of their own country’s international power. Everything that U.S. President Ronald Reagan charges along these lines probably has several grains of truth to it.
At the same time, many peace activists are so sweeping and categorical in their denunciation of Eastern motives that a review of their stance is definitely overdue. There seems to be a kind of social obligation involved, a duty we have imposed upon ourselves since the days of McCarthyism to be more anticommunist-than-thou, and it prejudices everything that goes on between the two sides. Presumably ou r counterparts in the Warsaw bloc compete to be more anti-capitalist-than-thou.
THE arms race is a manifestation of this polarity and will probably exist so long as the mutual suspicion is a socially prescribed attitude. No one wants to be conned,but many people in the peace movement seem to dread being conned by the Soviets more than they dread missing opportunities for constructive breakthroughs in our dealings with them. .
This issue gave rise to several hot disagreements in Dubrovnik.
Helga and Konrad Tempel are veteran peace activists who live near Hamburg, West Germany. Helga, Konrad and I formed a coalition in favor of tolerant dealings with the official Eastern peace movements. A young man named Ned Humphreys was heatedly arguing that our true friends are the unofficial peace groups and that we owe them the strongest possible support.
“To be sure,” we agreed readily. “To support one’s natural friends comes spontaneously. But if you want to make peace, it’s your enemy you have to go to, not your friends. So we have to find a way of relating to the people with whom we disagree.”
Instead of seeming convinced, Ned was becoming angry. He insisted that we have to stand up for our friends against the group that is persecuting them — the Soviet regime. Since the official peace groups never take a stand against the government, we have to take a stand against them, out of loyalty to our oppressed friends.
Helga and I responded this way: “What we want to do is convince the official groups to tolerate the unofficial ones to convince them that they can both exist. We don’t want to reinforce their belief that they are mutually exclusive; so we should keep insisting on treating both sides in a friendly manner. Otherwise we’ll just get caught up in the very rivalry that we are urging they transcend.”
“I would deal with them if they’d change, but not otherwise,’” Ned replied. “They have got to change!”
“What if they won’t?” I asked. “I agree it would be nice if they would. I want them to change too. But what are you going to do if they refuse? You won’t make peace with them unless they do what you want them to?”
Helga said: “I have met many Russians who belong to the Soviet Peace Committee, and they want peace too. Really, they do! They belong to that organization because it is the best thing they know how to do to support peace. And I know they are good people.”
Ned was suddenly bursting with rage. “But look what their government is doing! Look at Afghanistan. Look at Poland. Look at their censorship. How can you be friendly with people who support policies like that?”
“Right,” I agreed. “I dislike a great deal about the U.S.S.R. As much as you do. I also dislike some things about the U.S. And Canada. That doesn’t turn them into enemies.
We still have to address the issues. But if we come from the assumption that we will be looking for solutions instead of grounds for hating them. I think that it is easier to arrive at solutions if we hold them as friends, however horrible their faults. And that is just a matter of intention.”
“You’ve sure got a naïve analysis of the situation,” replied Ned. “The Soviet government is as wrong as the U.S. And we have to struggle against both of them. Dialogue with them isn’t going to make any difference. We have to presure them to capitulate. They’re our enemies. If they are willing to change and adopt our point of view, we can accept them.”
“We’ve been studying Gandhi’s methods all week, Ned,” I answered. “The distinctive thing about Gandhi was that whenever he struggled, he never turned the adversary into an enemy. He always assumed that both sides were struggling together to reach the truth, that both sides wanted to find a solution to their differences, even when violence was being used. We must respect our adversary, the U.S.S.R., the way he respected the British rulers he was resisting nonviolently.”
‘Look,’ I said loudly, ‘I’m looking for bridges between our two sides’
Metta Spencer is interviewed by Vladimir Feldman, a journalist who was her interpreter at the Prague peace conference. He had requested the interview for broadcast over Radio Prague.
He wanted my analysis, as a sociologist, of the Cold War.
“It’s a dialectical conflict between two cultures that emphasize two different values” I began. “In the West, we give primacy to individualism. The Warsaw bloc countries, on the other hand, think the rights of the group take precedence over the rights of individuals. These principles are very important because they give rise to very different ways of making decisions. Worst of all, each side finds it hard to imagine how the other side looks at matters…
“In the long run, though, we’re going to find out that the two principles have to be balanced and synthesized; either one alone is workable. But we’re paying for our imbalance in very different ways. Excessive individualism has some very bad effects, and the Western societies are suffering from them.”
Vladimir seemed pleased that I was so critical of my own culture. But he was obviously puzzled. “What bad effects?” he asked. Well, we think that individuals should have the right to say and do whatever they like, with a heavy onus on anyone who wants to restrict those rights. That means, for example, that censorship is rarely imposed, even over statements that may be harmful to the group.
“I think that we’re paying a heavy price for allowing pornography and violence and other gross material to be displayed everywhere. We don ‘t think we have a right to tell anyone to cut it out. If we don’t like it, we’re just supposed to avoid it as individuals instead of demanding, in the name of the group’s culture, that it be stopped. In the same way, young people are taught to look out for their own interests and pleasures, so there isn’t much emphasis on altruism or service to the community.
“We have a lot of social pathologies resulting from this personal atomization. It’s individualism carried too far. But we still can’t understand how any other approach could be legitimate.” He nodded appreciatively, then asked, “You said that the conflict gives rise to different ways of making decisions. Can you explain how?”
I replied, “The belief in individualism goes along with a belief in pluralism. That is, we think that a group’s decision should leave room for the different members to continue pressing for their various distinct purposes instead of having to agree on any single goal for the whole group. So we live with a lot of overt competition and public disagreement within our groups. We think that’s normal and healthy.”
He smiled. “And how do you think we function over here in the socialist countries? What is this attitude that you call ‘collectivism?’” “Well,” I replied. “There’s certainly a lot of emphasis on harmony within the group. Soviet political scientists criticize Western elections, for example, for wasting human energy on debates and conflict. ‘In the U.S.S.R.,’ they say, ‘we prefer to keep everybody working on the same team, toward the same goals. That’s why we have only one party, and we expect people to consult within it before making a decision, but once it’s made, we expect everyone to support it completely.’
“That idea seems oppressive to most of us in the West who believe in individual freedom. We can accept it in certain circumstances, of course, such as in our government’s cabinet. Cabinet members may argue in private, but they may not criticize the decision publicly, after it is made.
“But this is a rare exception, in the West, to the general principle that people should have a right to dissent as long as they please. Moreover, we think the group loses something valuable when public debate is treated as illegitimate.”
VLADIMIR assumed that I was referring obliquely to the Charter 77 group (an independent Czechoslovakian human rights movement), but when he questioned me about it, I acknowledged knowing too little about it to comment.
Instead, I told him about Mrs. Khodareva, the Soviet Peace Committee woman, and her complaints against the independent (Soviet) peace group with a dozen members. (Spencer had met the Soviet official in Toronto two months before her trip to Prague.) “I remember being quite puzzled by her defence,” I explained, “because her condemnation of the dissident group was based on the fact that they never made suggestions to her organization. I wondered why they should have been expected to do so.
“In the West if we don’t agree with an existing group, the normal response is to start an alternative one. But that comes from the primacy we give to individualism and pluralism, instead of to harmony within the group.
“According to her principles the dissident groups are traitors; according to our principles they are people whose rights are being denied.”
“I think you believe that your way is actually better,” Vladimir accused me mildly.
“Of course,” I agreed. “My values are my values. I’m not trying to get rid of them. I’m just trying to step outside them long enough to imagine how things look from an alternative point of view. It’s hard to do, but well worth the effort.
“It’s more important to understand each other than to agree. What we usually try to do is change the other side to our position.”
“Okay,” he said, “but I think you really believe that Western journalists, for example, have more freedom to tell the truth than we do over here. I don’t think you realize how many lies and distortions there are in the Western press.”
I conceded readily that he was correct, but objected to the standard Marxist explanation for the West’s bias. I told him about how my own story about how 50 million demonstrators had been edited. (Khodareva had complained to Spencer in Toronto that the Western media bad ignored participation by 50 million people in a single week in rallies and demonstrations staged throughout the U.S.S.R. By the Soviet Peace Committee. Spencer then wrote a piece for the Peace Calendar, the Toronto-based publication on which she serves as an editor, mentioning Khodareva’s complaints about the bias of Western journalists. Her co-editors deleted her reference to the 50 million demonstrators, “Because no one will believe you.”)
“NOT because the Peace Calendar is owned by capitalists, but only because there’s a shared belief about reality in each human group, and people feel they need compelling reasons for reporting anything that doesn’t square with those beliefs. Bias is pan-human, its explanation lying far deeper than material interests.”
“Look,” I said rather loudly, “I’m looking for bridges between our two sides. We need to trust the East’s peaceful intentions, and most of the people in my country simply don’t. We are capable of utterly discounting as irrelevant the demonstrations of 50 million people. Just wiping them out! I don’t want that to happen. But we all need to know why it does happen.”
“Which is what?” he asked intently.
“It happens because, according to our standards, people in socialist countries are not able to criticize their governments. Therefore, we dismiss everything they say as if it were all equally coerced. Freedom of public dissent is the only evidence we can understand that would authenticate the peace movement in socialist countries. Without that, we just don’t know what to believe…
“It’s necessary for us to learn how people think in your kind of society — how they value the life of the corporate group more than the rights of individuals. We need to know that honest people really do hold values that differ from ours. Otherwise, we’ll go on demanding that everyone’s values should be the same as our own.”
“FROM the Eastern perspective, it must seem that Westerners are defending traitors when we protect the rights of dissenters to speak freely. That’s what makes it such a dangerous conflict; it’s hard to find any middle ground. As a result, we both tend to discredit everybody on the other side.”
Our talk continued a long time, and when we finished, I sensed an uneasiness on Vladimir’s part.
“Well,” he sighed, rewinding the tape. “I’ll have to go propagandize this now.” I grinned at his astonishing frankness.
“What are you going to edit out?” I asked.
“Actually, I have to think, not twice but three times about whether I can broadcast it at all. I’ll have to consult my boss. You have said a lot that we find hard to discuss on the air. We have to counter all the propaganda of the Western press, you know.”
“Look,” I said, shaking my head in amazement. “Everybody edits. I can accept that. But don’t you realize that you are proving my point? I mean, I told you that the newspapers and even The Peace Calendar proved that the Soviet Peace Committee was right in claiming that we don’t present all the facts. Now you’re proving the same thing on the other side.”
“I knew you were going to say that,” he said lamely. “I’ll tell you what. If I can broadcast this, I will write you and say when, so you can listen on shortwave and see which side creates more bias — ours or the Western press – not that it isn’t important, of course. But you understand.”
(Spencer has not heard from Feldman.)