Vanessa Gordon reflects on how studying peace and conflict in Belfast during “the Troubles” gave her important insights into privilege, responsibility and an understanding that those living in conflict zones are just like us.
Confess: it’s my profession
that alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
though Lord knows I don’t go out of my
way to be scary.
Taken from “The Loneliness of the Military Historian” by Margaret Atwood
Back in 2000-2001, I decided to do a Master’s degree in Comparative Ethnic Conflict at Queen’s University of Belfast. The Program was ranked among the very best in Britain, and I would get my academic qualifications while being ‘on the field’. I was very excited at this idea.
Once there, someone asked me why I chose to go all the way to Belfast to study violence when at the time, the Quebec biker war was claiming more lives. If conflict was a pyramid with the primary victims located at the top, wherever I was, I would occupy a privileged place at the bottom: I would have front row seats in the nosebleed section.
Yes, there were bomb drills, armoured vehicles, soldiers, check points and ‘what happened to friends of friends’. There were the paramilitary flags flying on so many of the street corners, marking the city’s territory. What did they mean? Should I even be here? I fantasized about climbing the flagpoles at night to replace them with Pokémon pennants, for the kids. To travel from city center to the hospital where I worked, I took a bus with double tinted windows. Perhaps every single time, it was aggressively whipped with rocks thrown by people I couldn’t see. My MA thesis advisor was truly inspiring: he continued his work even after taking a bullet to the chest for his efforts.
Personally though, my biggest problem was our Ministry of Education’s sudden backtrack on granting me loans and bursaries. Maybe only after I had arrived in Ulster they figured out that I was not, in fact, at Queen’s University Ontario? I found myself constantly scheming ways to find food and rent money and pay down my hefty tuition bills. You better believe that I turned on the charm in all of this, but the school’s administration started joking about how I’d be the very first Canadian deported from Northern Ireland.
I got used to being broke and my state of absolute financial ruin brought out the very best in all those around me who knew about it, including the school faculty and administration, and my numerous employers. It turns out that this was a place where people like you and me were trying to get by, just like you and me. Basically pretty much everyone I met was great. Life, though not perfect, nor normal, was pretty good. I loved it there.
I think that there’s good reason for why Military History Departments are disappearing as fast as Peace Studies Departments are proliferating. It comes at a time of paradigmatic shift away from the notion that humans are intrinsically ‘evil’ and towards the idea that, under the right conditions, we are capable of great understanding. While science is busy tracking our empathic mirror neurons, I like to think that lots of peoples the world over are deciding for themselves that violence is not intrinsic to the human condition. It doesn’t have to be.
The modern optimist might conclude that humans will be at their best when inevitably, the warping effects of their multiple oppressions will cease to exist. The people who interest me more though, are those who understand that they benefit from their place in the structure of oppressions that harm others. When faced with demands for change, they don’t turn away with a shrug and an ‘it’s not my fault’. They listen, and they understand that as lovely as they are, they have a responsibility to do something about it.
Political Science, Dawson College