Discovering unRivalrous Academic Space:
The 2022 COV&R Conference in Bogotá

Lyle Enright, with
Suzanne Ross and
Joel Aguilar

Focusing on personal relationships and experiences can make academic gatherings exciting, inspiring, and nonrivalrous.

At unRival, we’re not shy about mimetic theory’s influence on what we do: René Girard’s ideas about human imitation and violence are central to our vision for durable peace. The artisans of peace in our network agree that rivalry is the understudied heart of violent conflict—and also its secret solution. 

We want to contribute to the ongoing work of mimetic theory, to see how it can aid artisans of peace.

But how do we go about doing that?

Collaborating with the Colloquium on Violence and Religion is one way. Here, scholars of mimetic theory gather to talk about their research and how Girard’s ideas might shape the future. 

The colloquium has a long history of friendships that have lasted across decades and spanned continents. These scholars are not strangers to the importance of connecting to each other, not just as scholars, but as human beings.

But academic conferences have as many weaknesses as strengths. The custom is to gather in lecture halls to listen to others’ ideas. The seating faces forward, which discourages relating to those seated beside us. During brief coffee breaks, it’s natural to catch up with friends with little time to make new connections. Wrestling with big ideas may leave us intrigued and curious, but if we have questions about how to make the world a better place, those often go unasked.

Many of us being teachers, we experiment with other forms of learning inside our classrooms. But we rarely allow ourselves similar space to experiment at our conferences. 

So it mattered that the 2022 COV&R Conference was hosted by peacebuilders in the philosophy department at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. This made it possible for unRival to partner with the scholar-practitioners from Javeriana to gather with local peacebuilders the day before the conference began. 

Together we experienced the uplifting, empowering energy that opens up when… 

  • we introduce ourselves in human ways, decentering our merits, accolades, and titles
  • we ask questions of others that center on their humanity, not their credentials or ideas
  • we talk about ideas in real-life contexts, bringing our entire selves to the topics at hand.

Inspired by this collaborative gathering, the three of us from unRival (Suzanne, Lyle, and Joel) did our best to carry that spirit into the lecture hall. Each of us saw how contagious it can be to focus our personal relationships and experiences, even during a scholarly gathering. Here’s how each of us experienced that week:

Suzanne Ross, unRival Co-Founder & CEO

UnRival sponsored a speaker at the conference, the guerrilla-leader-turned-peace-activist Vera Grabe.

She almost didn’t make it. When it was clear she’d arrive just before the last day, Roberto, our cool-headed organizer, rearranged the schedule to accommodate her presentation.

When I finally met her at lunch the last day, we talked about her travel woes and how relieved she was to not disappoint Roberto. From their smiles, I could see they were good friends with a long history.

I asked her a few questions about her time as a guerrilla leader. She’s given many talks around the world about her journey from violent revolutionary to peace educator. 
When she travels, she says her hosts are often disappointed when they meet her. They expect a dark-haired, indigenous person, but Vera is very much a daughter of German parents—fair hair and light-skinned. She laughs at how her appearance reveals an unspoken assumption about what a revolutionary from Colombia looks like!

Vera’s appearance subverted expectations, drawing attention to her humanity. She capitalized on this. She started the conversation off on a new footing based on her unique story. Any academic insights she offered came first from telling her story and making sure that what she had to say about violence connected to life.

Lyle Enright, unRival Chief Writing Officer

Life feels too fast lately.

News moves at light speed. Social media keeps us in rivalry not only by showing us things and people we disagree with. It also cultivates a moral responsibility to react. Some new, urgent problem is always waiting over the horizon. There just isn’t enough time to deal with it all.

Time was a major theme at this year’s COV&R conference. We heard talks on how speed and information deform our sense of time, and how the experience of art can put it right again. We were reminded that religion can transform our sense of time completely.

These all feel like airy, theoretical ideas—unless you’re living at the speed of the internet.

After one lecture, I talked about this with my friends Susan and Juan-Manuel over a glass of wine. Each of us felt the same breakneck speed, and that there wasn’t enough time to deal with it all. Changing our priorities didn’t feel like an adequate answer. We needed something more radical.

In that conversation, the theories presented to us by other scholars—the imagination with which they described art and faith’s ability to heal our experience of time—felt suddenly real to us. They did not solve our problems. But together we thought up practices of reflection and excursion, abstinence and prayer. We started changing our relationships to our phones, our inboxes, and our families.

At COV&R we let ourselves leap into someone else’s radical and rigorous way of seeing the world. We needed these heady, abstract forays into the philosophy of time to help us see from a different angle.  When we came together after, we felt empowered to rethink the practical, hopeful possibilities available to us in our day-to-day lives.

 

Joel Aguilar, unRival Board Member
One night before I left, we went out for dinner with a group of friends. At one end of the table, I, Lyle, and another conference-goer named Paul had a beautiful conversation around music, TV shows, cartoons, our kids, family traditions, and more. We also talked about philosophy, anthropology, and academic ideas.

What I find interesting about that conversation is that we talked about academia and life in an integrated way. We did not change the tone of the conversation. It all flowed from sharing stories as fathers, husbands, and academic practitioners. This reminded me that the memorable moments happen around a table. When we enjoy a good meal. When our bellies hurt from laughing, and we lose sense of time.

The academic world has been rivalrous and exclusive for a long time. We need to re-humanize ourselves as academics and remember that we are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters–that we are human first. We have let academia define who we are. Instead, I believe we need to let ourselves define academic work.

I see a beautiful opportunity for unRival to “unrival” academic environments, which are often sterile, dry, and rivalrous. I believe that we, at unRival, can re-humanize and enliven the academic world. We can lower the anxiety caused by academia’s constant examination and criticism. We can sit around a table to laugh, eat, drink, and tell stories about our lives and how they shape our work.

The memorable moments happen around a table. When we enjoy a good meal. When our bellies hurt from laughing, and we lose sense of time.

Making Space for Change

Common knowledge says that academic ideas kick around for half a century before affecting public opinion and society. 40 years ago, Critical Race Theory was just an idea in Ivy League legal classrooms. Now, in its best and worst forms, it is at the center of our “culture wars”. It took even less time for queer theory to shape US politics.

The speed of impact is only going to get faster as education and technology bring more ideas under public scrutiny—sometimes deforming them along the way. 

Mimetic theory is going through this process right now. Entrepreneurs and activists are taking up its insights. With COV&R, we at unRival are asking how we can ensure that the best parts of mimetic theory make it quickly and lucidly into the hands of peacebuilders and change makers. How might we shepherd its use, not just for profit and self-actualization, but for the good of all?

It starts with peacefully subverting the spaces where these ideas are born and discussed. It starts by bringing these ideas out into the street.

UnRival is creating spaces where we can be more aware of how environments shape our learning, and how we can shape our environments before learning happens.

  • When we introduce ourselves in human ways—by talking about our homes, or families, our hobbies—we show that we have more at stake than just our ideas.
  • When we ask scholars about their lives, we connect as human beings. We take their minds off their next publication, off their reputations as academics, so they can also reflect on what’s at stake for them and their homes in the research they do.

     

  • When we take these ideas outside the lecture hall and out to dinner, we transform them with our joy. Having “low stakes” conversations paradoxically makes the ideas more real and valuable to us.

Peacebuilders are proving that mimetic theory matters to real life. Artisans of peace show that local action proves and refines the theory, making both valuable to one another. 

These artisans pile on the evidence every time they engage unrivalrously with violence and conflict.