There Is No Such Thing as Universal

By Alexandria Farris

While listening to the speakers today a thought that kept coming to mind was how often one person’s idea of what’s best for someone else isn’t actually what’s best for that person. Human beings do not have a good track record of knowing when and how to intervene effectively in the lives of others. When it comes to peace interventions, an intervention that is intended to be beneficial and collaborative  can, in fact, be imposing and ineffective for the people whose society is in transition. In any transaction between people, none of the actors are coming from a neutral position, therefore, differences in culture need to be taken into perspective. We all come from somewhere different that influences our behavior, thoughts, and feelings. This idea came up throughout the day while discussing why peace processes fail, understanding the differential impact of governance, and while hearing two opposing stances on the Dayton agreement.

Although understanding individual biases is a straightforward concept, it seems like in many interactions, including during transition processes, this is overlooked. It’s important to be aware of our biased positions. Not every transition program is universal or compatible for all post-conflict regions, and even if a program is tailor-made to a specific place, it is still coming from a mentality that may not be compatible with the local norms. This reminded me of the issue with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).

This is a diagnostic manual that was developed in the United States to help therapists and doctors diagnose mental conditions, such as alcohol abuse, anxiety, etc. and is being used in many other countries throughout the world. However, there are some serious criticisms with this due to the manual’s US-centered approach and lack of acknowledgement that this Americentrism even exists. The manual was designed in the US, developed by and for the American public, and only includes a few separate notes throughout that mention the case of people from other cultures. In other words, the manual is for Americans with a small sections for the “Others.” Regardless, there is an attempt to make this the standard for psychologists worldwide but it is failing to recognize that many of the disorders in the book will not present in the same way in some societies as they do in the US. What is pathologized is dependent on culture and history, which is something the manual does not take into account. It may have good intentions, but as a consequence, many people are being pathologized, which ultimately can have major repercussions in the personal and social lives of many.

These criticisms can also be applied to American, or Western-designed, peace interventions. Our guest speaker, Dr. Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, touched on this point as we created a list of goals which satisfy our definition of a peaceful society, as well as a timeline for how these goals should be implemented. Brainstorming in such a way is a useful tool but it shouldn’t be the only thing we rely on in designing a program. We must keep in mind that, as designers, we are limited by our backgrounds as well.

The example Dr. Westendorf mentioned was about cleaning the streets of post-war debris. Coming from countries like the US, in a way, we take for granted the ease of having rubbish removed regularly. In other countries, especially those coming out of conflict, disposing of rubbish and debris can be a complicated task. We often approach the situation from a biased point of view (our own point of view) and make assumptions that aren’t always appropriate for the context that we’re in, but rather the context of where we are from. Although we can’t change the fact that we’ll never be able to wear the shoes of another person, awareness of that fact may lead to better results.


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