Peace, Justice, and Systems Thinking

December 30, 2011 @ 7:54 PM
posted by Zarrin Caldwell

I’ve been writing an article this fall on religion and peacebuilding that will, hopefully, be published in 2012. I’m fascinated by systems theories as it relates to conflict resolution and address this in my text as follows: 

In an interesting, new book called “The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts,” Dr. Peter Coleman at Columbia University and a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, mathematicians, anthropologists, conflict managers, and others explain that intractable conflicts are intractable because they have self-organized into a complex, interrelated, and mutually-reinforcing system. These systems are understood in a simplified “us vs. them” narrative. To get out of these conflicts, Coleman suggest, means to empower the “latent attractors” in the system and to break the institutionalization of conflict narratives.[i] Coleman looks at conflict from a systems point of view, which requires examining the underlying patterns of the system and the role that “attractors” can play in moving the system into a state of greater equilibrium.

What that means in more practical terms is working with individuals or groups who are using their social capital to stay connected to the “other side” and to support what is working. Along these same lines, I often wonder whether policymakers and practitioners are paying too much attention—and giving too many resources—to the dividers in society vs. the connectors?  For example, conflict entrepreneurs are often the main actors at peace negotiations for the sake of getting a peace deal in the short term (witness the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia). But, are such strategies really sustainable over the long term? Keeping such individuals in power often leads to more corruption and criminal violence. More importantly perhaps, many innocent victims who have suffered untold misery at the hands of these oppressors see these approaches as grossly unjust. In short, it sets terrible precedents where justice is concerned. Peacebuilders seem to increasingly believe that “spoilers” must be brought into the peace process, but I’m not all that convinced by this argument. It seems a short-term gain for a long-term loss. As Winston Churchill once said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

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