Practice what you preach! (Do yourself what you advise others to do)

Written by Svetlana Ceca Kijevcanin
Peace activist from Belgrade
September 2016.

This might be the simplest, yet the most difficult imperative in our lives, and especially if one claims to be a peace activist. There is another way of expressing it:  Treat others how you want to be treated or to use the phrase from the Holy Bible: Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke: 6:31).

I call myself peace activist and I’ve got involved in conflict resolution, non-violent communication and reconciliation long time ago, when Yugoslavia fell apart. Initially, I had a pure human urge to help people in need, affected by war that started in Ex-YU back in 1990. That was the moment when my peace education and practical application of pacifist, non-violent principles have started in my work with others and in my personal life. I’ve attended numerous trainings and peace education seminars, and had real opportunity to apply my knowledge and develop my skills in mediation, implementing various reconciliation projects and conducting trainings on non-violence, conflict transformation and anti-discrimination by myself. And it is a long life journey…

I am not anymore so directly involved in peace projects, but I have a feeling that I live my life according to the fundamental principles of respecting others, appreciating diversity and promoting peace values wherever I go and whatever I do, and it is not an easy task: to synchronize your actions and yours believes and to be consistent in that. It seems easy when you educate others, or you practice tolerance through some exercises in training context, but are we always doing that in our real lives? I’ll give you here some anecdotal examples of the things I teach others in the trainings, and how they look like when I try to implement these in my life.

•     “I – messages” – practicing assertiveness
Addressing others in so-called manner of “I – messages” and practicing assertive behavior is one of the golden rules in trying to protect your own rights in communication with others, when you feel that your rights are violated, and at the same time not to violate the rights of others.

How difficult it really is to practice these behaviors, especially in the culture that does not cherish self-promotion in its education and upbringing principles, since the more socially desirable behavior is “not to show off” but “being modest”? What I am citing here are the most common participants’ reactions to the assertiveness exercises, as the training participants usually say “these are things imported from the western culture”, and “it is not that easy to implement these techniques in real life as it looks easy in the training” etc. We generally tend to justify our own passivity or absence of any reaction, because we think that if we react immediately, it might cause the conflict, or we tend to justify our over- reaction and rather aggressive response, thinking that we have the right to do it, because we felt someone violated our rights.

In trainings on assertiveness we encourage people just to try to articulate to say something in assertive way (nor passive, neither aggressive) expressing their own needs, giving the other side the signal that they do feel that one violated their rights, as it is the only way to give the other side a chance to try to change his/her behavior towards us. If we do not say anything, we support indirectly that behavioral pattern of others in relations to ourselves. On the other hand, if we over-react we are increasing chances for immediate conflict and “closing the door” for communication. In practicing assertive reactions, there is one of the banal examples with smoking. It goes like this: someone lit the cigarette, courteously asking us “do you mind?”, but starts smoking not even waiting for our response. There are numerous ways of responding in such situation, although, these might not be so relevant now, after having huge societal campaigns of ban on smoking in public spaces, institutions, bars, taxies etc. All these campaigns have the same goal to raise awareness among smokers (that they have all their right to smoke), but to be aware that nonsmokers have their needs and rights at the same time. Some typical assertive response in this example would be:  “I see you have an urge to get your cigarette, but I do not tolerate smoke, so could you please stub it out or move to another place?” If we change our position, moving without saying anything, or if we call for the third person (in case of the restaurant, call the waiter etc.) to intervene, it would be considered as passive reaction, since we haven’t expressed our need, that we can’t tolerate smoking; or any sarcastic reaction in a form of double meaning sentence “I see you waited to my reaction!” which is actually passive-aggressive, are not appropriate or considered as assertive. The passive one didn’t help, as we didn’t say what is our need, nor the aggressive one, which just served to criticize the smoker, but has not told anything about our needs either and just gives greater chances to get in conflict with the smoker.

For the sake of the social experiment, back in time when I started leading trainings on assertiveness, in 1997, but much before the laws on regulation smoking/nonsmoking in public places, we at our house, my husband and I, both being nonsmokers, decided to post the following parole on our entrance door: “At our family meeting, held on Dec 17. 1997, the family Kijevcanin decided that the entire area of our apartment would be nonsmoking area. Therefore, we want to inform you beforehand, prior you decide to visit us, so that you are properly informed about our rules, and you can choose yourself: step in, not smoke and enjoy our company, or leave and enjoy smoking.”

I have to say that many of our friends felt negatively surprised by our “nonsmoking parole”, and didn’t like it at all. We just wanted to put in practice our assertive attitude towards smoking, expressing our needs for fresh air in our private home, yet giving chance people to choose their options after being informed about our rules. Most of our friends considered such gesture as aggressive towards their rights, but they respected it, sometimes nagging more or less, or staying shorter, but at the end of the day, we’ve achieved our goal. This parole survived at our entrance door in last 15 years, until the ink shaded, but there are still many people, my former students and other visitors who still remember this anecdote long time before the laws on respecting the nonsmokers’ rights were implemented in Serbia. There is an epilog to this story: both of our kids turned to be active smokers. I am wondering now, was it only their own reaction towards our principle rules on nonsmoking, wanting to show us that they have their own rights to be different than us/their parents. This made me think deeply: what is a real power of positive role models? If we were alcoholic parents (by any chance), our kids might have turned into strong anti-alcoholic attitudes, having their negative personal experience with alcoholic parents…so I am wondering is the negative role modeling stronger? But that is a question for some other debate.

•    (Not) labeling others – appreciation of diversity
My second example is also related to one of the postulates in demonstrating respect of diversity and rights to be different, and it is about non-labeling (for instance in relations to minority groups): in other words advocating for termination of pejorative, but colloquial words in naming these groups: Roma/Cigani (Gypsies), Albanians/Sqiptar, LGBT/Pederi (Fagets), as well as condemning jokes on these groups, jokes on Blondes etc.

We as activists, or allies who support rights of minority groups, can work on awareness raising among majority population, about accepting the fact that discrimination exists and that is done by some representatives of majority group(s). One of these ways of respecting minority rights is “politically correct speech” and open confrontation to verbal discrimination through the jokes, pejorative names and other labels that we use in our everyday life, but do not see “anything bad in that” or do not see discriminatory element in them, but treat them as rather banal and without “bad intentions” (jokes on Gypsies, fagets, blondes). In such cases, although it might seem difficult to oppose group pressure when our peers are laughing when hearing such jokes, we can give us a chance to use some “I – message” vocabulary and to express our disagreement with such behavior, saying something like: “I am not feeling ok while you guys are making negative jokes on these minority groups, and I’d like to ask you not to tell such jokes when I am present. I’d suggest to use some politically correct jargon: to use Roma instead Cigani, use LGBT instead pederi/fagets etc. This is the least we can do as individuals in respecting rights of these groups.”

Sometimes being consistent in our own behavior in above mentioned situations could be quite challenging, as we tend to accommodate to the group pressure, or justifying our acts of labeling by saying “these are just jokes, and I do not have any negative feelings towards these people; I do not mean anything bad by telling this joke”. But representing majority group, the least we can do is to use appropriate names, respecting the way how these groups want to be called, not using arguments such “Why I should call them Roma, when they call themselves Cigani”, or “Why I should call Albanians Albanians, when they use words Sqiptar in their own language etc.” Trying to put people in somebody’s else shoes, to get them de-centered, I usually use the example of being “flap-eared”. If I am a flap-eared, I might use some pet names for myself like Dambo (Disney baby elephant), but I’d not feel good if others call me that way. I’d appreciate if people will not point fingers at my ears, and stress my difference, and if they make fun of me, I’d like to hear somebody protecting me.

Over the years, I’ve been preaching this lecture to my kids. In our house we do not use word Sqiptar! In our house we call Roma people Roma etc. And in any mentioning of pejorative names by third persons in my presence, I would point out the power of “being ally without presence of the minority group” and my personal disagreement with labeling and using pejorative names. I think that these lectures had their positive effects on my children and the fact that they being brought up in such atmosphere, helped them accept these appreciative patterns of behavior towards minorities. Sometimes with resistance and nagging, but at the end of the day accepting it. My son used to say: “You know mom, every time when some of my peers tell a joke about blonds, or Roma, I am not even able to laugh, since in my head I hear your voice: not Cigani, but Roma; not Sqiptars but Albanians”. But he internalized it! And I am proud of him. Not even to mention that his long life best friend is Roma. It is not easy to oppose the group pressure, but it is possible to be consistent, and if we really believe in these principles, we can openly practice them, and not only declaratively preach about them. And even if we fail sometimes, and miss our chance to react in the bigger group who is laughing to such jokes, we can just be aware of that, and promise ourselves to react next time. By doing so, with these small gestures, we are contributing in a greater campaign for respecting others rights, and we can expect that our rights will be equally respected by others.

•    Being a role model: showing your integrity in general
At the end, let me make a point: as I’ve mentioned earlier, it is easier to train others in these practical skills of non-violent communication, to give the best examples of positive constructed assertive messages, but are we ready to really live our own principles of respecting minority rights and appreciating diversity in practice, and to do it persistently and consistently?

As someone who genuinely promotes respecting human rights, respecting minority rights, I consider my duty to attend the Gay Pride, although in Serbia it might be a bit challenging and even potentially dangerous for Pride participants. I do go every year. I know it is much more comfortable to stay at home, watch it on TV, or do something else on sunny Sunday, and not to endlessly walk through the empty streets of Belgrade in order to get to the gathering place, going through the cordons of policemen, (still necessary in Serbian context), but it is important for me by participating, to show that I live the principles I promote and I advocate for. All my friends and family know that, and I think they appreciate it. In my personal struggle for human rights, that is the least I can do! And if everyone would do the same, be consistent and brave, this world would be a better place!

After the Belgrade Pride this year, my daughter was commenting on the photo of me taken at the Pride. She said: “Mom this photo expresses all your enthusiasm in your fight for human rights.” And I am proud of that! I’ve named this photo: “Never miss the Pride”.