Sometimes it’s hard to see that peace and coexistence are the human norm, and violence is an aberration. We are social creatures, designed to cooperate, to protect each other, to show kindness, empathy and love. It’s easy, and understandable, to read the headlines and think we (or other people) are a violent lot. There’s certainly ample evidence to show that we can be cruel, and it’s no coincidence that man’s inhumanity to man is one of the classic literary themes.
But a fatalistic assumption that some cultures and groups are violent by nature is exactly what can lead to violence. The revisionist historical perspective that the Balkans were fated for war because of centuries of alleged interethnic animosity led us to turn our heads as blood spilled. We ignored a rich history of multiculturalism, tolerance, intermarriage and overall peaceful coexistence. This fundamental attribution error happened in Rwanda and elsewhere.
The fundamental attribution error plays itself out like this: I resort to violence to protect myself, my family, my clan, my tribe, my country. They default to violence because they are warlike, intolerant people who are hardwired by their history.
Conflict, as we in the peacebuiding biz know, is inevitable. It can even be an engine for change, new ideas, and progress. Violence is not. It is avoidable and preventable. And it’s against our better nature. In an interview on NPR, William Ury cited a study in which three out of four highly trained marksmen were unable to pull the trigger when they could see the eyes of their targets. Seeing the other, the outsider, the enemy as one of us changes the game.
So much violence comes from a misguided desire to protect those we identify as our group, our clan, our family, our tribe. The more we expand our conception of our group, our clan, our family, our tribe, the less violence we’ll experience. We have our work cut out for us to bring about this expansive view of community. Embedding mechanisms, like mediation, for peaceful dispute resolution in society, is crucial to making this happen.
Wishing you all a peaceful, reflective, and healing day of remembrance.