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Practicing Better Conflict in Times of War - BCB #71
A Guide for Confused Americans
We must begin by saying we don’t have anything but sorrow for those who have lost friends and loved ones in the recent fighting. And we recognize that for many, there is no such thing as neutrality in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This note is for those not directly involved—American bystanders who are watching a far away war divide their communities at home. The conflict in the Middle East has become a new fault line in the American culture wars.
While those of us without connections to the place can do very little to affect the course of the war, we can choose how we respond to it in our own communities, and learn how to interact with each other with empathy, dignity, and understanding—even in the face of real atrocities.
Embrace The Bitter Complexity
This conflict is anything but simple, yet some are asking us to treat it simply.
“This is not a time for nuance. People who have been dancing on nuance, it’s going to be really, really hard,” said Stu Loeser, a leading adviser to New York Democrats on Jewish issues. “It is an important which-side-are-you-on moment.”
But only complex narratives can lead to peace and justice. Amanda Ripley’s classic piece about complicating the narrative reminds us that nothing is ever simple—particularly the Israel/Palestine conflict which has been running for a long time. The two sides do not even agree on when or how it started.
Peacebuilders know the power of complex stories. The Institute For Integrated Transitions explains this with a narrative tree, growing from historical stories, to a trunk of central framings, to branches of specific attitudes.
Better conflict requires narrative complexity:
The most problematic narrative landscapes are made up of group narratives that become increasingly simplified and self-reinforcing. … In such an environment, previously complex group narratives shrink to simple stories with linear plots, which are supported by a particular interpretation of key events in the conflict and focus blame on ‘others’, who are often portrayed as victimisers. As group members and influential actors repeat and elaborate the simplified narrative, it grows into a large narrative tree with a trunk that is so stable that it is received by members of the group as a given, rather than as a choice
Understood in this way, the aim of actors working for peace is to enrich their narrative landscape, since one dominated by just a few trees is liable to produce unconstructive conflict and complicate peace efforts.
Those who condense complex history into simple moral judgements often do it for the best of reasons: to clarify who is to blame and what must be done. But in the long run, simple stories cannot lead to peace, because the truth is never simple — especially not here.
Notice Your Feelings (And Other’s Feelings Too)
You will read and hear things which will provoke strong reactions in yourself. Conversations on this topic are likely to be tense and anxious. We cannot and should not pretend we are never angry when the stakes are so high.
But we can also notice our feelings, so that they don’t control us unconsciously. When you see that post, or your friend says that thing, and you just have to respond — first take a moment to feel what is happening in your body, and to watch how anger, fear, and grief change what you think and what you say.
Anger isn’t bad — it’s right to be angry when people do terrible things — but emotions also play a key role in making conflict both worse and better:
As a result of negative feelings, one party may be antagonistic and resist anything the other party proposes. A person may also seek revenge for what she sees as the bad behavior of the other side. Anger, in particular, sometimes disrupts negotiations by reducing the level of trust, clouding parties' judgment, narrowing parties' focus of attention, and changing their central goal from reaching agreement to retaliating against the offender. In sum, negative emotions tend to lead toward inaccurate judgments, lessened concern for the other parties' preferences, and neglect of one's own instrumental goals.
Ignoring such emotions is likely to harm the negotiation process, not help it. Often trying to suppress or dampen the emotions may simply lead to resentment and the breakdown of agreements. Parties may try to disrupt a process because they do not feel heard, or refuse to follow through with an agreement because their feelings were not recognized.
Become aware of when your interactions bring out strong emotions — in both you and others. And try to spot the exact moments where your mind starts to see someone as other, as an enemy. Perhaps counter-intuitively, noticing and acknowledging strong feelings is a key skill in preventing the destruction of our communities.
The Fog Of War: Navigating Unprecedented Misinformation Levels
Misinformation has and will continue to run rampant in this conflict. Experts have claimed the levels are higher than anything they’ve ever seen. The widely circulated “40 babies beheaded” story that proved to be false is an example of how far things can go.
Figuring out what’s true in a war zone is hard even for professional news organizations. Just a few days ago the New York Times changed a headline that read “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds” – it’s still not clear what actually happened on the ground or even how many died, though of course both sides are now claiming the NYT is engaging in propaganda.
This is why it's important to carefully assess the information you see or hear – especially the most outrageous information, which is liable to travel fastest. The problem is not only intentional disinformation, but people making honest mistakes and misinforming others.
There are simple techniques to help verify information such as the SIFT method: Stop before sharing, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original source.
Believe In Peace, Against All Odds
We are dealing with the deepest moral issues. Yet it’s exactly these moral judgements that make it impossible to see a peaceful resolution. As Beyond Intractability puts it:
Parties involved in moral conflict also tend to have great difficulty in imagining a win-win resolution of the conflict at hand. The substantive issues are often a matter of rigidly held moral beliefs, based on fundamental assumptions that cannot be proved wrong. These fundamental moral, religious, and personal values are not easily changed, and people who adhere to a particular ideology may very well be unwilling to compromise their world-view. They may engage in diatribe, a rhetorical strategy that discredits adversaries by characterizing them as evil or morally inferior. Such characterizations often lead to subversion, repression, and violence. Because rational discourse has become useless, each party may try to force the other side into compliance. The conflict is likely to escalate and become more protracted as a result.
Indeed, moral conflicts often stem from a desire to safeguard basic human needs such as security and social recognition of identity. On some occasions, the continuation of a conflict may seem preferable to what would have to be given up if the other party were accommodated. Unfortunately, those enmeshed in moral conflict may be unable to discern the effects of conflict, even if those effects themselves threaten the basic human needs that were at issue. Because moral conflicts tend to be intractable and have great potential for violence, we must search for new ways to manage them.
It's imperative for Americans who are far removed from the immediate context to uphold a firm commitment to peace and dialogue. Discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict often spiral into polarized debates justifying violence, detached from the lives of people on the ground. Whoever argues that the loss of innocent lives is necessary is on the wrong side of history.
The principles of conflict transformation underscore the importance of envisioning a shared future, even when it seems most distant. Believing in a possible shared future isn't just idealism; it's foundational for transformative change.
Quote of the Week
For Jews & Muslims who live in America, this is where our friendships, alliances & solidarity are most needed, especially as our communities are tested. Lean in to it despite the pain and discomfort. For our kids sake. For humanity's sake.