Lebanon’s election is an opportunity for peace

Lebanon has been a place of violence for so long that it is surely wrong to pin so much hope on one election. The outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary election today will not defuse ethnic tensions in Lebanon, nor will they stop foreign powers from intervening in Lebanon’s internal affairs. However, they do give the nation a chance for a peaceful future.

Little violence was reported after polls closed. Even in this tight race for power, characterised by two opposing coalitions, each representing a motley group of constituents, opposing parties competed not to kill each other but to hand out flyers, food and water. Amin Gemayal, former president and head of a Christian party in the election, urged his supporters to accept its outcome regardless.

Observers, particularly from Europe, North America and Israel, complain that Hezbollah, recognised by the US government as a terrorist organisation, is competing as a legitimate party. Hezbollah is notorious for being pro-Syrian, despite Syria’s longtime occupation of Lebanon, and has been, to say the least, a thorn in the side of Israelis. However, it is part of a coalition of different ethnic groups and ideologies. If a supposedly divisive group such as this can cooperate with another Shiite party and a secular party, whose leader, Michel Aoun, and his mainly Christian supporters, who oppose Syrian influence, surely it can cooperate with its political opponents. It may not rush to recognise Israel’s existence, but under pressure, in time, it may consider it advantageous.

Moreover, if Hezbollah is a major part of the government, conflict with Israel is less likely, not more. When it was an opposition party and terrorist group, it could cause endless mischief for Israel because it had no shape that a conventional military could strike. It was not a well-defined group with famous actors that Israeli missles could selectively assassinate, and buildings Israeli tanks could shell. If it forms the government, however, it will be forced to act more responsibly. Its members will occupy government buildings that the Israel Defence Forces can target more easily. It will not want to risk an international war because all rich country aid to Lebanon would be cut off. More of its members will be distracted with affairs of state such as improving the economy, too busy building a reputation for responsibility and openness, reaching out to foreign governments for aid.

That, of course, is assuming that Hezbollah plans to build up a reputation for responsibility and openness, still a highly speculative possibility. But a peaceful election, pressure from coalition partners and the impracticalities of continued violent conflict with its neighbours mean the chances of violence in Lebanon are lower than they have been for a long time. Whatever the outcome of this election, Lebanon has a new opportunity for peace.

Barack and Islam: the to-do list

President Barack has just given a speech in Cairo intended for an audience of the entire Muslim world. The speech was a good one–sincere, inclusive, friendly–but there is a lot more to be done.

Though I do not think Islamic terrorism is America’s biggest problem, nor will it ever be, I do think Islamic extremism poses a serious threat to American interests. Those interests include free markets, secularism, democracy and peace. And contrary to popular belief, extremism is caused far less by poverty and religious pluralism than by perceived injustice with no outlet through which to vent. And on this note, we begin Barack’s To-Do List for Better Relations with the Islamic World.

#1: Encourage freedom and support pluralism in Muslim countries

The Barack administration needs to work with its allies among Muslim countries to ensure everyone has a voice. With so many repressive states that are nominally Islamic, and so many of them (again nominally) aligned with the US, Barack and Hillary need to continue the pressure on people like the House of Saud to allow freedom of expression. Eliminating extremism is not a question of democracy per se; indeed, the idea of democracy has become a laughing stock among many Middle Easterners. The unpopular Bush administration promoted democracy as a panacea, and as soon as an Islamic party (Hamas) was “democratically” elected, it refused to recognise it.

But pluralism and freedom are still ways to promote peace–if you disagree with me, you can say so without getting arrested. To say they are not suited to Islam is nonsense: they were part of Islamic civilisation for at least 500 years during the Islamic Golden Age. Without pluralism and freedom of expression, Muslim civilisation would never have made such great scientific advances. Saying pluralism and Islam cannot coexist is like saying Muslims speak with one voice. Yet these values are at the root of the debate going on within Islam today. Having lived in Indonesia, Barack is in a good position to understand and sympathise with Muslims.

His charm is also handy. Though I do not like the idea that charm can move mountains, it can. They have won him his popularity up to this point, and have even slightly increased the United States’ abysmal image among Muslims. Charm has brought him to this point, but it can take him no further. It has opened up many doors, and Barack must enter with a plan. The focus of his plan must be understanding.

#2: Foster cross-cultural understanding

Back to the president’s speech. Barack set some things straight about religious freedom in America. “[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” (Youtube, 12:00)

He addressed the stereotypes many Muslims hold of America and Americans hold of Muslims. He has started the intercultural ball rolling. Other people need to run with it. Start programs that teach, at all ages, about each other’s culture and religion and help them to see each other’s points of view. Let them see and feel the plurality of views among the people, that the other side is not a monolithic or hateful mass, and the new ways of thinking all of us can learn from this interaction.

Even the language we use limits our understanding. It can be difficult not to speak and think in terms of “Muslim countries”, “Islamic states” and moderates vs. extremists, but there is so much more to the issues than this thinking implies. We need to realise that, like everywhere, there are nuances in the groups we are talking about that we can work with to achieve goals that benefit everyone.

“And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our god. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.” (Youtube, 12:30) Barack has begun to bring us all together in common humanity.

Another part of his plan is the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

#3: Close Guantanamo

Barack said “unequivocally” that he prohibited the use of torture by any forces he commands. This is quite the promise for an American president to make, as it is convenient to invoke the misleading ticking time bomb scenario and to the charge of torture plead patriotism. If no stories of torture emerge under his presidency, we should be impressed by his adherence to principle.

He also said, as he has done before, that he will close Guantanamo. Great. When? When everyone else agrees to take the US’s prisoners? I am not clear on why the prisoners at Guantanamo cannot be shipped to civilian tribunals in the United States. This is the most logical answer to me. By asking other countries to take them, the US government is asking favours. Charm has made closing Guantanamo a possibility, but it will not ensure the safe transfer and fair trial of its prisoners without costs to the US’s international political capital. And that capital will run out even faster if he does not do what he promised on the campaign trail.

#4: Bring the boys home from Iraq

Barack has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq by 2012. This may or may not be a good idea; suffice it to say, it is a promise, and fulfilling it will bring him credibility (right in time for his reelection). As part of the wider War on Terror, which many Muslims see as a war on their religion, the war in Iraq was framed as the way to keep the US safer. Having inflamed many a Mohamedan mind with images of fear, torture and killing, it has clearly had the opposite effect.

Part of the reason is the us vs. them attitude exhibited by all the War’s protagonists. We have a tendency to view struggles as good against evil, and I need to know who everyone around me supports so that I can know who the good guys are. But conflict is rarely about good and evil but two groups who do not want to listen to each other and admit they are wrong. Barack seems to realise this, and when he speaks of reconciliation with the Islamic world, he is trying to forge a wider “us”. Bringing the troops home from Iraq would mean that one of the biggest symbols of “them” to so many people, the continuation of a war on Islam, will be over. That is, unless American troop presences elsewhere become increasingly seen as illegitimate. The wrong moves in Afghanistan could reverse progress on Barack’s goodwill efforts.

#5: Win Afghanistan and Pakistan

The United States military, in conjunction with Pakistan’s, has an incredibly difficult task ahead of it: stabilise perhaps the most dangerous region on earth. They have scored some military victories, but the real question is, are they winning hearts and minds? This is war among the people, not between states, and it is not clear that technology and manpower will end it. What is needed are hospitals, schools, entrepreneurship, legitimate government, grassroots organisations and the rule of law. These are not possible outcomes in the short, election-focused, American political attention span.

Barack must make skeptical Muslims realise the benefits of this war, which will be very hard. Perhaps even harder, he also needs to show progress. “[W]e plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced…. [W]e are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend upon.” (Youtube, 20:16) Will it be enough?

Likewise, Barack must sell this war realistically to the American people. The American public needs to understand that Afghanistan is a twenty, thirty, forty-year project. Not resolving every last one of these conflicts in Barack’s term will not make him a failure. But no matter how long it takes, it will cost more money and more lives. If they are not clear on these points, they will demand the troops return home as soon as there is an Afghani equivalent of the Tet Offensive. If that happens, Afghanistan will become an oppressive, totalitarian Islamic state, a hotbed of extremism and America’s worst nightmare. It may go the way of Iran, or it may go a lot further. Ironically, Iran is a potential ally in defusing the Islamist threat on its borders.

#6: Stop antagonising Iran

That is just what the hardliners want you to do. When governments feel threatened, many, especially those whose economies are booming, will act tough. If their nation is threatened, proud nationalists in Iran will vote in a hawkish government, on the belief that it is better positioned to protect them. Pushing Iran on any major issue will give Iranian government hawks just the backing they need to escalate the country’s military and nuclear development. A conciliatory approach, however, will give liberals room to manoeuver in Iranian politics, and the results could be a partner in the wider fight against extremism.

It is very unlikely the US and Iran will get into any direct conflict, as I have said before; but Iran could still put a stop to Barack’s plans in the Muslim world, especially if oil prices rise again. If, on the other hand, the US reached out to Iran as a partner in the wider struggle against extremism, it may gain from it. It would be seen as less threatening to Muslims as once believed. Its government is not as psychopathic as some Americans seem to think, and the people have some power to choose their representatives. Iran’s government might look petty if it rejected an olive branch; then again, it might look justified. Iran’s people may perceive a bigger threat in the form of the equally belligerent Israel. With a lot of effort, Barack could smooth over the tensions between these two. This task will be easier if Israel cooperates. Progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue would not hurt.

#7: Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But how? Does he have a new road map? Will he try to resurrect an old one? Barack proposes a two-state solution. Is this idea viable? Creative, new ideas could be encouraged. Does he and his team have any new ideas, such as some of the ones shot down here, on any of the complicated issues? Will the president lead peace negotiations? Will he continue to back Israel unconditionally? If so, and it certainly seems so given his actions since his election and his use of the word “unbreakable” to describe the US-Israeli relationship, what are the consequences for the Palestinians’ security? For example, is the American government willing to provide more humanitarian aid to the Occupied Territories? What would it take for it to intervene to stop an Israeli offensive in its territories or neigbours? Will American-led progress elsewhere among Muslims make finding a resolution easier? The answers to these questions will determine the outcome of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It might take a lot longer than eight years, but if Barack can move ahead on a resolution between the longtime rivals, he will have done his best. Honest efforts to end the violence in Israel will be viewed positively by some people, but let us hope Barack is not stepping into the crossfire with this one.

#8: Stop calling the United States a Christian nation

Every president the United States has ever had has invoked the Christian god in his speeches. It is time to stop throwing bones to the Christian majority of the United States and to start acknowledging what it really is: a pluralist nation. Actually, Barack has already done this one. So he is well on his way. This task completed, perhaps more Muslim Americans will emerge as political leaders, making American politics more pluralist, and thereby wiser.

In his speech, President Barack went into details about how American Muslims have helped make America great. “Since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch.” (Youtube, 8:31)

Barack and his administration have a daunting to-do list. Can he complete all these tasks and realise our goals of a more peaceful and just world? He has started many of them already, and eight years is a long time in the modern world. But anything could derail progress: another major terrorist attack in the name of god on American soil, broken promises, American domestic politics, nuclear weapons here, a collapsed state there. But I have confidence that the Barack administration can maintain the support and good judgement it needs to resolve one of the major conflicts of our time, between the US and Islam.

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BlqLwCKkeY

Tiananmen demonstrations fall on deaf ears

On this day 20 years ago, hundreds or thousands of peaceful protestors, many of them students, were killed in Beijing for demanding democracy. The world remembers them; Mainland China does not.

Protests and vigils took place in Hong Kong this week. The Mainland Chinese press did not report on them. The protestors were not demanding a change of government in Beijing; they were only demanding restitution for the Tiananmen killings (“平反六四”). And what effect did it have? 可想而知–not much. In fact, today’s China Daily (one of China’s biggest English daily newspapers) headlined letters of protest by Mainland Chinese at France’s recent honouring of the Dalai Lama.

The 1980s were a time of opening for China. The China that had been closed for thirty years inside Mao’s fist was opening up to the rest of the world’s media, people, business and ideas. Less well known is that it was also opening up to self-scrutiny. Deng Xiaoping was moving forward on reforms, and China’s leaders were interested in political reform for better stability. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was divided between reformers and conservatives, and the intellectuals of China were coming out of the shadows to give their opinions of China’s development. Tolerance of debate and dissent grew; but as the CCP soon realised, if you give them an inch, they will take a mile.

As with much of the rest of the communist world (and perhaps spurred by them), demonstrations, protests and riots grew in number. In 1987 and 8, rioters in Lhasa demanded Tibetan independence. College students elsewhere in China, led by “well-established intellectuals” (Zhao, 147), were specific in the reforms they proposed. The long and the short of it was, the CCP should hold elections and be willing to hand over power.

Students and other protestors marched in many cities in China in the thousands between April and June 1989. By June 4th, as many as a million people stood in Tiananmen Square. Though they did not all agree what they were protesting, they were all venting their anger at the CCP. The soldiers opened fire on June 3 at 22:30. (Wikipedia)

Most chinese people have taken a very different tack since 1989. Their living standards have improved and are more focused on family, education and money than on politics. The CCP has become adept at manipulating nationalist feeling and directing it outward, mostly against Japan and America. And because they are not taught about the Tiananmen Incident, they feel less angry against their government.

As I wrote at the time of the riots in Tibet in 2008, people who dream of China’s liberalisation are likely to be disappointed. Today’s urban, middle class Chinese believe they benefit from the Communist Party’s rule and thank it for bringing them such prosperity. Government control of the media means few of them are aware of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, or that the government behaved drastically in Tiananmen, or even that there was any incident at all. What Tiananmen massacre?

Many self-styled China Watchers hope for China’s eventual democratisation. Some even say it is inevitable. Given the tens of thousands of protests around China every year, the liberalisation that comes with economic growth, better education, international exchanges and so on, China is bound to have a democratic revolution of some kind. Having lived in China, I believe that democracy is not inevitable. What we should really take from the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 is that China’s authoritarian government is willing to use violence to maintain power for a long time to come. It has done so before, and it will do so again.

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989

Zhao Suisheng: China and Democracy

The implications of human nature for conflict resolution

Three years ago, I wrote a post on this blog claiming that human nature did not exist. In that post, one of this blog’s most popular and controversial, I said that no one really knows human nature and its being invoked by so many people renders it meaningless. I was wrong because I thought human nature meant what was the same about everyone, and the same in all cultures, and different from what all other animals do.

I have read copiously on psychology and anthropology since then, however, and, fascinated by the study of human nature, realise that my definition of it was wrong; or at least, my definition was different from that of the psychologists. I now have a better definition. Human nature is, basically, what we all have in common, across cultures, based on our evolution. People vary considerably within cultures but each group has certain things in common, because we have a shared ancestry. We all hunt: we do not all hunt the same way, because different environments mean different ways of hunting, but we all hunt. We all sing and dance: taste in music and dance varies wildly, but it is a feature of every culture anthropologists can find.

In fact, there is a long list of human universals by American professor of anthropology Donald Brown that gives us some idea of what we all have inside us. This list, found here, was originally assembled in 1989 and has grown since then. The ideas may not seem revolutionary to you, until you realise that all of these things are common to all human cultures. This understanding can be used to cross cultural boundaries, making it essential for conflict resolution. If we know certain things we can find in any culture, we know practices that are probably recommended or proscribed, and how to negotiate and deal with anyone else more smoothly.

We must separate the myths of human nature from the facts. Steven Pinker, perhaps my favourite scholar on the subject, in his book the Blank Slate, effectively discards the commonly held belief that tribal societies from less complex civilisations (eg. a small group living on the savannah or in the jungle) are less violent than those in more complex societies. The thinking behind this “noble savage” misconception is that, given the damage done by modern warfare, there must be something inherently corrupting about modern life that leads us to kill one another. However, if one looks at the proportion of males killed in war, that of modern society does not even approach that of certain tribal societies such as the Dugum Dani of New Guinea, the Jivaro of Peru and Ecuador and the Yanomamo people of the Amazon. While a tiny fraction of men from the US and Europe were killed in the world wars of the 20th century, that proportion rises to over 20 percent for the Dani and Yanomamo, and over 50 percent for the Jivaro. (Pinker, 39) Furthermore, some 90 percent of hunter gatherer societies engage in warfare and raiding. (ibid.) Returning to a pastoral, hunter gatherer life would not eliminate widescale violence.

The point that I have always emphasised as most important regarding human nature is that, however much we understand it (and many of us do not), we must never use it as an excuse. It may be “human nature” that we cannot sprout wings and fly around the room, but to say that, for instance, nationalism, racism or other forms of collectivism are human nature risks legitimising them. We must not be slaves to our nature but use our ability to think critically to make the right decisions. We are smart and strong enough to resist the pull of our nature if it would lead to morally questionable actions.

Or are we? As I said, we all hunt because humans evolved as hunters. But most of us do not hunt the same way we used to. Some of us hunt criminals or enemies of the state; others collect coins and stamps. To a scholar of human nature, these two acts are both manifestations of the hunting instinct. Desmond Morris, in the Human Animal, a zoologist’s analysis of human life and behaviour, says that war is not an act of aggression, such as the dishonour or anger that might lead a man into a fistfight with another man, but a highly organised hunt. We needed an awareness of geography, an ability to plan and organise, and an ability to kill in order to hunt successfully. These qualities are still around, and so is the killing.

Though we are not slaves to our nature, we operate in quite predictable ways. In the Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo shows how truly flexible we are when confronted with environments that are unfamiliar, systems that exert their will on us, and situations we are not in control of. We are always at risk of influence by others that can make us do violence, and we must be vigilant or risk perverting our values. One can be a mafia boss, ordering the killing of whole families; a prison guard beating people up for not eating their bread; a politician ordering thousands to kill thousands more; and still go home to our families and feel good about ourselves. The line between the angels and the demons of our nature is thin.

The biggest question is, how can we use our knowledge of human nature to minimise violent conflict? If we understand our most basic urges and the trouble they could get us in, we can minimise their destructive effects and perhaps benefit from them. Here are some features of our nature, how they can be destructive, and how we can change our behaviour.

Behaving predictably. One reason a small act of violence in the form of terrorism can be so effective is that it usually provokes a predictable response. The disproportional retaliations of, for instance, the Bush administration to terrorism played right into the hands of the terrorists. Many popular books on psychology and economics attempt to explain that, while we are ultimately free to choose, we succumb to innumerable pitfalls in our thinking because we are not aware of them.

If you think human behaviour is not predictable, you can test it for yourself. If you are a man, go up to another man bigger than you, surrounded by his friends, also bigger than you, and push him. I bet you that 99% of the time, what you think will happen will happen. If a friend tells you something he believes to be true, say “not only do I disagree, but that was a really stupid thing to say. Do you even know what you’re saying? What’s wrong with you?” Unless you are talking to the Dalai Lama, you are likely to make your friend angry, defensive and more convinced than ever that he or she is right.

Dr Zimbardo says that anyone is susceptible to manipulation, influence by unsavoury characters and contemptible behaviour. The less aware we are being manipulated, or the stronger we think we are to counter it, the more compliant we are likely to be. There are many books on persuasion and influence that can teach us to be aware of evil forces acting on and through us. The best I have read is the Lucifer Effect.

Categorising and simplifying. We have an urge to put things conveniently away into drawers and pigeonholes in order to save ourselves the trouble of thinking too much. We talk in simple language and simple thinking about the Muslim world or the Arab world, the West, Africa, the black community, Asian values, such and such a civilisation, and so on. Speaking this way is easier, but if we do not recognise the nuances, the enormous variety within these groups, we are liable to make serious mistakes.

I write further on this subject in Why Interculturalism Will Work. You can read it at http://www.scribd.com/doc/15987798/Why-Interculturalism-Will-Work. Suffice it to say, if we simplify the world too much, we risk making the wrong decisions, leading to misunderstandings, disrespect, conflict and war.

Cognitive dissonance and self-serving bias. In a previous post, I described part of this shortcoming as windows and mirrors. Windows are what we use to look at others, and we are very good at seeing their faults. But when it comes to our own, looking in the mirror, we see ourselves–and significantly, the groups we are loyal to–as pristine. This happens because we have an inborn tendency to legitimise everything we do as right and noble, to write off our own weaknesses as not really weaknesses and, put simply, to lie to ourselves about ourselves.

The book Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me) is a book about the damage cognitive dissonance can do. It shows how we can believe, for instance, that we go to war for freedom, kill for peace, terrorise for justice and are never at fault when we are wrong. Sure, some people died in the war I started, but they were probably mostly bad people. Sure, what I am doing is bad for others, but if I didn’t do it, someone else would. Sure, it looks like I’m stealing money from my company’s shareholders, but I work hard and deserve it. Really, I should be taking more, but I’m holding back. What a nice guy I am.

This phenomenon may also help explain why dictators are usually unrepentant and incorrigible. They have spent their whole careers killing, suppressing, torturing, dividing, concealing and so on, and have their consciences well under control. We all have self-serving bias which means, among other things, we forget or brush aside our failures and failings. We remember the things we have done that make us good people and forget the things that make us seem bad.

Likewise, supporters of a dictator, members of an ethnic group at war, followers of a religion or ideology can easily find instances of where their people or ideas have done good, and get angry when one brings up the seemingly insignificant or irrelevant instances where they have done wrong. After all, I am a good person, so whatever movement I am a part of must be noble and right.

But knowing our limitations is how we can overcome them. Checking cognitive dissonance requires awareness of how and when we do it. If we have any nagging doubts as to whether your actions were morally justified, we might be right. It is wrong to simply write off everything we do as a legitimate means to some greater end. Imagine someone else doing the same thing. Imagine your enemies, if you have any, doing the same actions. Are they still legitimate? Is it possible to understand the point of view of someone who does similar actions?

Collectivism. Whether or not it is an excuse, collectivism appears to be a big part of our nature. When I say collectivism, I mean treating people in terms of in-groups and out-groups. To a collectivist, there are people in my group that are inherently superior to those outside my group. I care for those in my group like I care for myself–we are human beings deserving respect and dignity. Those outside the group, however are less than human. Our love of team sports, with separate uniforms, chants and rivalries that occasionally erupt in violence are an example of this.

As much as we try to shed them, we seem to have brains stuffed with stereotypes. What this means is that anyone outside the group we consider ourselves part of could be made to seem less important, less complex and less human. As a result, any kind of national, ethnic or religious group will have trouble reconciling its differences with another, especially when the groups have less opportunity to mix. Moreover, men possessed of stereotypes about women are likely to see women as weak, which increases the likelihood of rape.

The evolution of this feeling is understandable. We used to live in small bands where those we knew were family. However, our idea of community has changed over time to what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities”. Imagined communities are groups that consider themselves to have an essential similarity that makes them equal (and by extension, more important than others), though they may never meet. Soldiers go to war to protect their nations, even though the only thing they are certain to have in common is nationality. Zealots engage in holy wars partly because followers of their gods are threatened. See this post for more on collectivism and conflict.

If we can harness collectivist sentiment and language, we can use it to mean everyone. After all, our groups do not have to be exclusive. We can be a brotherhood of men, a community of the world, a united human race.

Proving oneself. Young men, from teenage years to young adulthood, have an urge to prove themselves. That was the age they were most likely to perfect their skill at hunting and find mates. These boys are most likely to want to do violence. In Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff describes the killing that took place in the former Yugoslavia.

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasureable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

Perhaps liberals have not understood the force of male resentment which has accumulated through the centuries of gradual European pacification. The history of our civilisation is the history of the confiscation of the means of violence by the state. But it is an achievement which an irreducible core of young males has always resented. Liberals have not reckoned with the male loathing of peace and domesticity or with the anger of young males at the modern state’s confiscation of their weapons. One of the hidden rationales behind nationalist revolts is that they tap into this deeper sub-stratum of male resentment at the civility and order of the modern state itself. For it seems obvious that the state’s order is the order of the father, and that nationalism is the rebellion of the sons. How else are we to account for the staggering gratuitousness and bestiality of nationalist violence, its constant overstepping of the bounds of either military logic or legitimate self-defence, unless we give some room in our account for the possibility that nationalism exists to warrant and legitimise the son’s vengeance against the father. (Ignatieff, 187-8)

Boys who are occupied and motivated by other things, however, do not kill. Paul Collier, author of Wars, Guns and Votes, says that in post-conflict situations, one of the highest priorities is jobs for young men. “[T]he reason [such situations] so often revert to conflict is not because elderly women get upset, it’s because young men get upset. Why are they upset? Because they’ve nothing to do.” His suggestion is job creation in construction: it is necessary after the destruction of conflict, and the jobs are not subject to international competition.

Some parts of the Arab world have employment laws that favour men. In other words, men get first pick of all the best jobs. Though this of course is a sexist policy, it is probably a good one: the last thing the world needs is more unemployed young men with holy books.

Proving oneself is really another way to say reaching one’s potential, just like one can do in a job. At this key age, young people can be coaxed into anything with the right attention and care. That is why, in strong communities, they play sports and video games, do homework, have jobs and volunteer for their community. Suppressing all teenage rebellion in a society that values freedom is impossible. Therefore, our task is to divert the people most at risk of committing acts of violence and give them occupations that, to their genes, are equivalent to hunting, but to the rest of us are productive rather than harmful.

Ignoring the truth, hunting each other, behaving predictably, dividing the world into us and them and simplifying the world away are just a few sides of our nature with implications for analysing and resolving conflict. Exploring the depths of human nature can help us understand, mitigate and reverse the tragic consequences of some of our most basic, and most dangerous urges.

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities

Collier, Paul: War, Guns and Votes: democracy in dangerous places

Fine, Cordelia: A Mind of Its Own: how your brain distorts and deceives

Ignatieff, Michael: Blood and Belonging: journeys into the new nationalism

Morris, Desmond: The Human Animal: a personal view of the human species

Pinker, Steven: The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature

Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

Zimbardo, Philip: The Lucifer Effect: understanding how good people turn evil