Life in Harmony

I thought I’d throw out some thoughts on the idea of harmony. This is something I may develop more in the next few weeks.

At the 10th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10), the theme for the event is “Life in Harmony, Into the Future.” Harmony is everywhere in the discussions: objectives are harmonized, initiatives work in harmony, biodiversity conservation and development work together in harmony. Sounds great.

“Harmony” is something I’m going to call a “yielding word.” Social scientists and lawyers have recognized fighting words for some time–those key words and phrases that, by their use, constitute an aggressive act. The use of fighting words is an example of performative speech: the speaking of these words constitutes an action in and of itself. Saying “the sky is blue” is a different type of action from saying “you are ugly,” even if the description is accurate. While fighting words typically mark conflict or social tension, yielding words as I am defining them are also performative, but do the opposite: they are anti-conflictual, and are, therefore, hard to speak against. Wait, you may say, why would you want to speak out against harmony? Which makes my point exactly. Other yielding words may be things like “happiness,” “peace,” “justice,” “love,” etc.. It is an idea in need of further development, but I’ think it is useful here.

Why, then, would I like to argue against harmony? I’m an Aikido practitioner, and we are supposed to love harmony, right? I’m not specifically arguing against harmony, but against the uncritical use of the term to drive specific agendas forward. Here it is useful to look at some of the ways that the term is being used.

At the COP10 in Japan, “Life in Harmony” uses the term “共生” which translates as “living together in health” or “symbiosis.” This is different from the harmony in Aikido, “合気道”, which refers to aligning energies. It is also different from “調和” which means peace, balance, or calm. All of these are potentially read as harmony. Harmony is being used at the COP in the symbiosis-of-all-life sense, but also in the sense of “harmonizing” agreements so that they do not conflict and, rather, build synergies. Harmonization in this context implies a win-win outcome. While this sounds great, win-win outcomes are notoriously difficult to achieve. Using the idea of harmony as a tool to silence argument against specific agendas echoes Laura Nader’s idea of “coercive harmonization.” Her idea is that conflict avoidance, rather than justice, is often the underlying goal of political processes. A conflict avoidance approach tends to favor the interests of the most powerful. Harmonizing with the interests of large governments and transnational corporations can lead to a redefinition of rights: away from things like the right to self-determination, and toward things like the right to engage more in the global economy. In the same way, use of other yielding words makes participation difficult by silencing contesting voices.

Aikido, mentioned above, is a form of understanding and attempting to resolve conflict. Perhaps the most difficult part of the art is learning to engage or turn away effectively without devolving into either simple conflict avoidance or the use of aggressive force. Harmony in this sense is a potential outcome of applying a goal: non-harming engagement. When harmony itself becomes the goal, both full participation and considerations of justice can be lost.