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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Very, Very Good for What Ails Us

Old tree at Kehl Lake
I had written a whole long post, replete with quotations, on a book I read last week, but rather than publish that today I’ve decided to go with another book, one I finished Monday out by Kehl Lake while Bruce was at the bookstore helm. The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, by William Ury, held me spellbound from the beginning. It is exciting reading. For one thing, he leads off with some surprising statements, such as--
“Stopping” [fighting] does not mean ending conflict altogether. Conflict is a natural part of life. It brings about change In the form of business competition, it helps create prosperity. It lies at the heart of the democratic process. The best decisions result not from a superficial consensus, but from surfacing different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Few injustices, moreover, are addressed without serious conflict. We need more conflict, not less.
More conflict and an end to fighting? How’s that going to work? And isn’t aggression simply part of human nature?

Since no one would take the rest seriously if the question of human nature were left unaddressed, the author tackles that one head-first. I am going to spend a disproportionately small space here on his argument, but basically he cites recent archaeological evidence that has overturned the earlier “killer ape” theories. The emerging view is that our ancestors lived for 2,500,000 years without warfare and that only as hunting and gathering gave way to agriculture (in the past 10,000 years) did human beings seek to dominate territory in an attempt to defend fixed resources. (Here I also recommend David R. Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, which argues that agriculture’s ability to provide for larger populations led to overpopulation, tillage of marginal land, erosion, flood, and war.) We have a longer history of cooperation, says Ury, than we do of war. For me, the author’s careful and detailed refutation of Hobbes was beautiful.
It is easier, in fact, to imagine cooperation than coercion. If one person tries to coerce another in a simple, nomadic society, the victim can simply pick up his or her few possessions and go join kin elsewhere. Or the victim can recruit allies. A bully may be more powerful than any one person [echo of Hobbes], but not more than a group. The use of force would, moreover, undermine the valuable cooperative ties that sustain the bully along with everyone else [my emphasis added].
Okay, maybe we will agree with Ury that “human nature” is not simply programmed for war, but how does that agreement support his larger claim that peaceful cooperation is possible at this stage of history? It isn’t as if the human race is going to stop growing food and go back to hunting and gathering, is it? And with the global population what it is now, wouldn’t even that lead to a world “red in tooth and claw”?

Next step of the argument: Resources in the primitive hunting/gathering world were, he argues, an “expandable pie.” With the coming of agriculture, the formerly expandable pie of resources became fixed; compulsion rather than cooperation became the means of ordering social groups; human relationships went from complicated horizontal networks to vertical (hierarchical) levels of power, concentrating the most at the top, the least at the bottom. But now that knowledge has become the coin of the global realm, we find ourselves once again with an “expandable pie.” Knowledge grows by being shared. Knowledge is advanced by cooperation. Moreover, as weapons of war have become more dangerous--and knowledge of the dangers spread throughout the world—motivation grows to cooperate rather than to coerce and kill. And so we are once again dependent on getting along with one another, as were our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

World peace is hardly inevitable, the author acknowledges. It would be difficult to say right now, in 2012 (or when the book was first published in 1999), that it is even probable. But William Ury makes a strong case that it is possible—and that we can all help to bring it about.

One of the most wonderful things about The Third Side is that it is not merely theoretical but practical, and the roles we can take on to further peace are available to us in our everyday lives. In fact, it is in the ordinary challenges of family and community life that we can try on the roles of the provider, the teacher, the bridge-builder, the mediator, the arbiter, the equalizer, the healer, the witness, the referee, and the peacekeeper. We can, that is, retrain ourselves and help to retrain others to deal with conflict cooperatively.

Ury’s last chapter, “Next Steps,” answers the question, “How can I start?” with twelve concrete suggestions. Do you have a troubled relationship somewhere in your life, with a family member, friend, or community member? (Who among us does not?) This book shows in practical terms, with specific strategies, how to move from hostility and resentment to healing, and for that alone I would recommend it highly, but the author’s insights apply all the way from the interpersonal level to the international level.

Working for peace is not easy, but don’t human beings love a challenge?
In the sheer magnitude and complexity of the challenge, the struggle for peace, ironically enough, most closely resembles nothing so much as war itself. Think of how much work goes into preparing for and engaging in wars. Consider how many men and women serve in the armed forces. Weigh how much treasure, talent, and blood is poured into this gigantic venture. Reflect on the around-the-clock vigilance required for huge numbers of individuals. No less effort will be required for the sake of peace. Think too about the virtues required for the successful conduct of wars. Courage? Peace demands just as much; facing up to force nonviolently calls for perhaps even more bravery and self-control than fighting. Cooperation and discipline? Solidarity and altruism? All these ingredients are needed to transform treacherous conflicts. Ironically, in the end, war may have served as a great training ground for peace. For peace is harder than war.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. What do you say? I would love to see this book chosen as a "Leelanau Reads" selection (as far as I know, there is no such program--yet) and have everyone in Leelanau County take its lessons to heart.

Bookstore at 106 Waukazoo Street


Kathy said...

Pamela, this book sounds so intriguing. I am always fascinated about how and why we fight--and what we can do about it. Read a similar book a few years ago. Searching for the title on the book shelf, but it's AWOL.

Honoring you greatly for sharing this here! So important that we can learn how to communicate with one another. (And I totally did not mind your soapbox. It was the very best kind of soapbox.)

P. J. Grath said...

The soapbox Kathy refers to here is her blog, where she posted about conflict, asking readers how they dealt with it, and I shamelessly took the opportunity to rave this book. Kathy, thank you so much for your hospitality and appreciation!