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Challenging the 'necessity' of violence

'What if destructive conflict were preventable - and we simply did not

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2000


The words above aren't the words of an ivory-tower academic or a naive optimist. They come from someone who's spent years at the heart of conflict - from family struggles to bitter labor strikes to such intractable wars as that in Chechnya.

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William Ury, an anthropologist-turned-negotiator, has distilled the lessons learned from two decades at the center of many storms, and 10 years of in-depth research, into a provocative and surprisingly heartening message about where the human race stands in "Getting to Peace" (Viking, 1999). His latest book follows two international bestsellers on negotiation: "Getting to Yes" and "Getting Past No."

The new book is a challenge to the prevailing "myth of human nature," to the idea that violence and wars are inevitable, and to each of us who thinks we aren't in a position to do anything about it. He sets about to show us why we can do something - and how.

The "why" has to do both with the truth about us and about our times. "With all the changes taking place in the world today," Dr. Ury says in an interview, "some enormous opportunities have opened for us to begin to take our collective fate back as a matter of choice."

We have the choice, he says, because our history is not what we have believed. "This myth that human beings have been killing each other most of the time for as long as they have existed - that it's our basic nature and if you scratch the veneer of civilization you get a Bosnia or Rwanda - is fundamentally mistaken. It is not borne out by what we know scientifically," he adds. Ury devoted years to studying archaeological records and visiting with tribes that most closely resemble our ancestors.

He presents the case that for the first 99 percent of human history, the norm was not organized violence, but coexistence; only in the last 1 percent did violence become the way of resolving differences. He describes how the change from hunter-gatherer societies to farming led from horizontal to vertical power structures, to tension over fixed resources, and thence to organized violence.

"We have been maligning our ancestors," he says. It's not that they weren't capable of violence, but they worked hard at preventing and resolving conflict - and found ways to do so. The time he has spent with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the Semai tribe in Malaysia, and even tribes in New Guinea, have convinced Ury that "if anything, we [as a species] are 'Homo negotiator.' "

The tribes employ a conflict management system - what Ury calls "the third side" - that is wholly pertinent to contemporary life, he says. That's because our global society is in many ways becoming more like earlier periods in human history. With the "Knowledge Revolution," we are shifting from fixed resources, such as land - long fought over - back to an expandable resource. Pyramidal structures of authority are breaking down, and self-organizing, cooperative networks of horizontal relationships are emerging.

While helping to train the worldwide managers of the Ford Motor Co. in negotiation, as part of the company's shift to a new decisionmaking network, Ury was struck by "how often I was reminded of the Bushmen and other simple societies. Here were the most modern management ideas being put into practice, yet they were reinventions of common practices I had seen among hunter-gatherers."

Ury splits his time between teaching negotiation, working in conflict situations, and trying to capture the lessons learned in the books he writes. He discussed his passion for peacemaking recently after leading a Harvard University negotiation-program workshop on "Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Situations."

It's clear from his high-energy-yet-relaxed presentation style that he hasn't lost any enthusiasm for the challenge. And how many people would relish the idea of getting involved again in negotiations over the Chechen conflict?