Playing by the rules?

Published: Friday September 5, 2014

David SmithAre you, I wonder, a compulsive picture-straightener? Do things which appear unbalanced offend your sense of how the world should be? Many people seem, on the surface at least, to have a great sense of symmetry, and that is reflected in much of the architecture and environment we create for ourselves. We appreciate symmetry. We give prizes at the garden show for perfectly round onions and dead straight carrots – not that it makes them taste any better. We talk of a balanced diet, of work-life balance, and of a balanced personality, all as being good things to which we should aspire.

More seriously, the Cold War era was dominated by an apparent need to ensure a balance of power between Soviet and NATO forces – the reality of course was both sides secretly striving to see whether they could achieve some technological superiority over the other. Even when it is clear that things are very much out of balance – poverty, civil wars, climate change, etc – there are too many of us who think that all could be solved if only everyone else would start to play by our rules: western, democratic, Christian, capitalist, and whatever other adjectives you care to add.

Since the end of the Cold War, military thinking and doctrine has been dominated by “unbalance” by so-called asymmetric warfare. In simple terms, not only do the warring factions at the heart of the world’s current trouble spots not play by “our” rules – they’re not even playing the “our” game. Before we think of committing our service men and women to yet another Middle East conflict, we need to remind ourselves that ISIL and their like are playing by a very different set of rules. We need to be prepared to adapt our own methods in ways which might appear unpalatable, but if our team has to continue to play cricket, there’s no point in sending them against an opposition who are determined to play rugby.

The Revd David Smith, Parish Priest St George’s Tuffley & St Margaret’s Whaddon and Area Dean, Gloucester City Deanery

One thought on “Playing by the rules?

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You cannot ‘negotiate’ anything with a man who says ‘do everything I say, or I cut your head off’. If there is no ‘give and take’ between the parties, there can be no negotiation at all. All too often we hear (or read) of ‘negotiaitions failing’ but we are seldom told the reason is that one side or the other refused to concede anything from their list of ‘demands’. Just as you can’t play cricket against a side using rugby rules, you can’t negotiate ‘non-negotiable’ demands. We like to think we are so civilised everyone else will fall over themselves to see things in the light of what we consider ‘reason’ but the fact is they are not unreasonable – just using a different set of ‘rules of reason’ to ours. The ISIL do not, in fact, share any part of our understanding of what a free and fair society is or should look like. We are not on the same page, not even in the same book!

    There does come a point, I’m afraid, where we have to accept that savagery can only be overcome by the exercise of force. Once the dust has settled, then the process of persuasuion and negotiation may stand a chance. I find it terribly ironic that we are now in the same position we were in 1939 when facing a dictator with territorial ambitions against his neighbours now with Mr Putin and his re-annexation of tracts of land belonging to sovereign nations. It is equally ironic that our ‘tolerance’ seems to have lead us to a position where our own society is spawning recruits for the ISIL.

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