Saturday, March 14, 2009

Inflexibility or Wither Empathy or the Absence of Reason

First, I have to apologise to Christalla for kind of stealing her thunder, but it was her fantastic and illuminating talk that gave me the inspiration to write this. Second, I will apologise to anyone who happens to read this (hopefully there is someone out there), because there are several threats running through it and I will do my best to bring these together in a coherent fashion.

Christalla's talk focused on intractable conficts and the socio-psychological barriers to resolution, which foster perpetuation even when the guns have stopped or are in a period of prolonged silence. When peace can not be reached or maintained, blame is laid at the political leaderships of warring groups. Whilst they are partly responsible, we overlook societal resistance at our peril. Christalla examined this with reference to the Cyprus conflict.

Yesterday, I witnessed first hand the socio-psychological dimension of intractable conflict in a small lecture theatre here in Perth, with relation to Israel-Palestine. A visting academic was here to present an Israeli position on the strategic dynamics in the Middle East and why Israel feels concerned for its safety and security: this is a position I can readily understand. His analysis, like that of most strategists/political scientists/analysts/military officials/intelligence officers, focused on arms races, foreign and military policies, and political rhetoric. This tends to be the focus when examining this and other protracted and intractable conflicts.

However, what struck me as I listened to the subtext, and observed the reactions of the audience, is that if this conflict, and others like it, are to be resolved, even if only to some kind of detente, then fundamental changes need to take place at the societal level - there needs to be both bottom up and top down approaches to conflict resolution and they need to take place in tandem. Only with a sense of equity, in suffering and injustice, can there be a genuine societal will for peace.

Now, I am going to preface the rest of my entry with a couple of qualifiers. The audience yesterday was primarily, dare I say it, overwhelmingly Jewish, and understandably pro-Israel. However, what I observed is not a behaviour that is exclusively Jewish/Israeli, as I have witnessed it in people of all persuasions, it just so happens that this is my case study, so to speak.

What I observed, both in speech and in body language, was a type of victimhood which gives rise to blindness to the suffering of others, a refusal to acknowledge self aggression or responsibility in the situation, a lack empathy for people on the opposing side, and a dehumanised sense of the other. It was displayed in sneers for any suggestion that Israel should shoulder some of the responsibility for the conflict, that they could be equally as guilty of attrocities as Hamas, or that Palestinians suffer as much at the hands of Israel as Israelis do at the hands of Hamas; and in cheers for any statements by the academic that vindicated and justified personal biases and inflexibility. I qualify this by acknowledging that I have met Muslims in possession of the same sense of victimhood and self-righteousness. Neither is helpful; both are destructive.

Even more so, this sense of victimhood silences and sidelines voices of reason, the one thing so desparately needed if this, and other, conflicts are to be resolved. There were two voices of reason yesterday, one Jewish (hi if your watching), one Muslim, who made the sobering, yet I feel, not well received, suggestion for understanding and empathy, to walk in the shoes of the other and to acknowledge that there is an equal sense of victimisation and suffering among Israelis and Palestinians alike. I talked to a couple of younger people after who shared this sense of reason and empathy, and who were concerned by the inflexibility shown by some members of the audience, particularly how this reflects on outside perceptions of the their community: they felt powerless to change these inflexible attitudes.

If there is to be any chance of bringing peace to the Middle East, and indeed to any intractable conflict, then more emphasis needs to be placed on confidence building measures, of the most fundamental kind. People need to be empowered, if you will, with a greater sense of empathy for the other; the other needs to be re-humanised; there needs to be more reflexivity in social discourse, of the kind that is critically reflective of the self and the other.

There has to be a point at which the other is no longer the other, but simply another.


  1. I'm curious about the links between the top-down and bottom-up approaches... are there examples of political elites taking steps to help foster (or discourage) empathy at the grassroots in these intractable conflicts? Are there examples of grassroots cooperation/dialogue affecting the elite level?

  2. Thanks for this posting Kate.

    Yes there are several threads (not "threats"!) running through it, but one clear call for parties in a conflict to "walk in the others' shoes..." which is clearly always needed for real conflict resolution. Of course you're quite right.

    However, as Churchill also quite rightly pointed out in the UK House of Commons when debating the sacrifice of Czeckoslovakia to the Nazi regime in 1938: "There is no difficulty at all in having cordial relations between the peoples. ... but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy."

    Regretfully, the Arab world has repeatedly rejected all opportunities for reconciliation and co-existence with Israel, from the Peel Commission Report in the late 1930s, the UN Partition Plan in 1947, the Armistice talks in 1949, the post 1967-war talks, the Oslo "Peace Process" (1992-2000) etc etc, while Israel has accepted each and every one.

    In the specific example of the Israel-Arab conflict, the "top-down approaches" have been a major problem.

    Regretfully, the poor Palestinian Arabs, who have been turned into humanitarian-aid basket cases and cannon-fodder by a sequence of corrupt and despotic leaders in the Muslim world, have suffered the most from the above-mentioned rejectionism.

    The Mufti of Jerusalem, early in the 1900s, long before the establishment of Israel, agitated for murderous rejection of Jewish immigration to the region. He befriended Hitler and Himmler, and planned the same "solution" as they did to his "Jewish problem" (in 1942, he planned, with the Nazi SS to set up another death camp in Cairo...).

    Regretfully, the Arab leaders who opposed the Mufti and could empathise with the "other" (there were 300 of them who signed a declaration welcoming the Jewish immigrants to their ancient homeland - the document is still in the British Museum) were, and still are, drowned out by the voices of hate.

    Since the Mufti, there have been a parade of Muslim leaders whose flat rejection of co-existence with a Jewish population has made it impossible for Israel to find "another" with whom to make peace, top-down.

    While we individuals (at the grass roots level) can readily engage in person-to-person social interaction across all sorts of boundaries, if given the chance, how can an Israeli government "negotiate" with regimes whose entire raison d'etre is to destroy the state of Israel? What should the agenda be? ...the terms of Israel's suicide? ...the method of Jewish genocide?

    So I must say I agree wholeheartedly with your thesis Kate. Both bottom-up, and top-down progress is needed. The problem in this specific conflict that you used as an example (and which is very close to my heart), the top-down is a REAL problem.

    Only when BOTH sides have leaders committed to peace, can we START the process of reconciliation.

    But when any one side has leaders committed to wiping the other off face of the Earth, and is prepared to stop at nothing to hold on to power, including sacrificing its own constituents...then what?

  3. See this:

  4. Thankyou for your comments Steve - this discussion is exactly what we had in mind when we started the institute and blog. Also, thanks for clarifying my typo; I didn't pick it up until after I had posted (a Freudian slip perhaps?).

    I wanted to add another, albeit brief, comment, prompted by a recent address by an Arab academic in which could not bring himself to say 'Israel', rather, he used the term 'Jewish state in Palestine'.

    If the elite on EITHER side, and this applies to any intractable conflict where similar deliberate semantic games are played, can not bring themselves to such a basic recognition of the other, what hope for the rest of the populace, and thus peace?