Business As Usual-6: More Bad Assumptions

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video examines several more misconceptions that often plague disputants and third parties in intractable conflicts.  These include:

  • the notion that "facts" are "facts" and "truth" can be found and agreed to
  • that one's own values are superior and the "other" ought to (and likely will) change their values with good convincing
  • We are all human – so we should all just "get along."
  • Talk is all we need.
  • There's a win-win solution to all problems – we just need to understand their interests.
Unfortunately, the story is much more complex than that!

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Things to Think About and Discuss:

  • Should (and if so, how can) one tolerate those who don’t tolerate others? How do we avoid a perpetual escalation spiral of hate? (Share your thoughts on D6.)
  • How do we effectively deal with the scale problem?  How can we take our “table-oriented processes” and scale them up to societal-oriented efforts?   (Share your thoughts on D7.)

Full Transcript:

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess with the last business-as-usual video, this one entitled "More Bad Assumptions." One assumption that we frequently make in conflicts that gets us into trouble is that everyone has the same facts and that truth exists and can be found and proven.

Now, of course, this is sometimes true. But it often isn't, particularly in conflicts where the two different sides may have very different versions of the facts. Certainly this is the case in Israel and Palestine, where there cannot and has not forever been any agreement about who owned the land, who was there first, who has rights to live there and control the area now.

Factual disagreements also exist over such things as vaccines. Do vaccines help children and our population overall be healthier or are they dangerous? Do they make kids sick? Do they give kids autism?

Now, science is pretty clear on what they think about that. But there's also a large group of people that don't think much of science. The same is true with the conflict over GMOs. Scientific arguments mostly say that genetically modified organisms are safe. But there's a lot of people who don't believe it.

I have a picture of Google down here because, ironically, as much as Google has enabled us to find information, it also has helped us find information that says exactly what we want to hear. So you can use Google to find lots of proof that vaccines are dangerous and that vaccines are safe. That GMOs are dangerous and that GMOs are safe. That the Palestinians have a right to not only Gaza and the West Bank, but all of Israel. And that Israel does not have a right to exist. Or that Israel has a right to own the whole area. And the Palestinians don't have any legitimate claim over West Bank and Gaza.

You can find something that you can call “truth” or “facts,” for each of those things and many others on Google. And assuming that you can agree on facts will often lead you down paths that are not productive.

The same is true of values. I don't think we as often assume that our values are the same as the other side's values, but we often assume that we can change the other side's values. I have the picture here of the woman in the hijab because Western women tend to think that Muslim women are being oppressed when they're forced to wear a hijab or a whole burqa.

Well, I know a number of Muslim women who wear the hijab with pride. It's their choice. They don't feel oppressed at all. They feel that's a statement of their identity, just like Christian women or Catholic women will wear a cross on a necklace around their neck. It's a statement of who they are.

Here's a chart on differing views around the world about abortion. And the Pew did a lot of similar public opinion polling a lots of other moral values. Orange here represents people who think that abortion is immoral. Green are people who think it's moral. And gray are people who think it isn't a moral issue one way or the other.

You can see at the top, almost everybody in Pakistan finds abortion immoral. Very few people in France on the bottom do. The United States is about 2/3 of the way down. You can see that little blue dot is the United States.

So values around the world on abortion vary greatly. You'll see the same thing on gay rights and gay marriage. You'll see the same thing on the way women are treated overall.

There's lots of differences around the world on values. And people don't tend to negotiate values. They hold to them very strongly. They're part of their identity. And if the conflict is about values, you're going to need to find a way to honor both side's values or you're going to be stuck in intractability.

Bad assumption number 3. We're all human. That's a good assumption. But the assumption is that that's more important than the groups that we are a member of.

The picture on the right is the cover to a monograph written by a colleague of ours, Mari Fitzduff called An Introduction to Neuroscience for the Peacebuilder. And one of the things that she points out in this monograph is that humans are inherently tribal, which means that we have group identities to which we cling very strongly. And we all tend to make us-versus-them distinctions, in-groups versus out-groups.

Now, the other thing that Mari points out in this book is that some of us tend to cling to those distinctions more than others. And neuroscientists findings confirm what George Lakoff, a linguist, has been arguing for a long time that there are two basic different frames in the way Americans see the world.

And he divides them into what he calls the strict father frame, which is basically a conservative frame, and the nurturing parent frame, which is much more of a liberal frame. And he gives in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant, and many other books that he wrote after this, descriptions of the belief systems of people who are liberal and conservatives. And one of the differences that Mari talks about in her monograph that has actually been confirmed with brain scans, MRIs, prove that different parts of the brain react to the same stimuli in different ways between conservatives and liberals. One difference is that conservatives are less tolerant of outside groups.

They're less willing to consider changing their values. They're less open to compromise. They're less open to new ideas. They're conservative, traditional. They like to stay the same.

There's lots of other differences as well. But the important thing here is that when liberals say, “we just all need to love each other, we just all need to tolerate each other,” what that doesn't take into account is that some people-- indeed, probably close to half of the people living in the United States and the world as a whole-- are genetically predisposed not to do that.

Bad assumption number 5: talk is all we need. The reason that I have Bush's and bin Laden's pictures here is that I was at a peacebuilding conference shortly after 9/11.

And a mediator said to me-- and this wasn't a joke-- that if she could just get Bush and bin Laden in the same room sitting down at a table with her, she could, “work it out.” Hmmmm. I don't think so, partly because they had very fundamental value differences, and partly because they had very fundamental factual images of what was going on in the world. And I would argue that there was most likely not a win-win solution to the conflicts that these two men had with each other.

It would have helped, no doubt, to understand bin Laden's interests. And we might have been able to meet some of them. But to think that we would be able to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution with Al Qaeda seems pretty far fetched to me.

Here's another picture, a slightly different problem, of the bad assumption that talk is all we need. It is a picture right at the end when Arafat and Rabin signed the Oslo Accords.  And the assumption was that that was the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, it wasn't.

One of the problems was that there were actually a whole lot more people involved. It took more than these two men coming to an agreement. They had to bring all of their constituents along. Now, it has been argued-- and I don't want to get into this here-- that one side or the other weren't really ready to agree, even at the leadership level. But even if they were, the populations weren't included in those talks. They hadn't reconciled the way the leaders perhaps had.

So that's what we call the scale problem. And we're going to be talking about that one a lot more.

Bottom line, the story is much more complex than people often expect it to be. It's large scale, there's factual differences, there's value differences, there's interests, there's human needs, there's all sorts of things going on all at once that have to be addressed all at once in order to make real peacebuilding progress.

So we're going to be discussing that more.

But I want to leave you with two questions. One, should-- and if so, how can--people tolerate those who don't tolerate others? If toleration is the answer, should we tolerate ISIS? Should we tolerate Al Qaeda? Shall liberals tolerate conservatives when the conservatives don't tolerate them? And if your answer is no, then how do we avoid a perpetual escalation spiral of hate and fear and distrust?

Secondly, how do we deal with the scale problem? How can we take our table-oriented processes and scale them up to societal-oriented efforts so that the agreements that are made between leaders at tables actually do stick? We'll be talking about these questions and many more as we go on through these seminars. But we welcome your ideas on these issues now as well. Thanks.

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