Challenging the 'necessity' of violence

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

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.

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?

Ury - who led the first face-to-face sessions of Russian and Chechen leaders after a cease-fire in 1997 - would be eager to explore a "third side" approach to the situation, he says.

The "third side" is the alternative to coercion that has been missing in Western approaches to conflict resolution, Ury says. It involves people from "the community" using peer power to foster a process of dialogue and nonviolence to bring about a win-win-win situation (both sides and the community benefit). He offers many examples of its effectiveness, from Boston's reduction of teen homicides to South Africa's peaceful transition to majority rule.

On Chechnya, he would draw on the tradition of councils of elders and weave the situation into a larger context. "Instead of just condemning what's going on, we ought to be making a proactive effort to try to stimulate creation of a council of elders in the Caucasus - with support from Europe, the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe], the US, and Russia - to look at the problems of the region and begin a slow process of peacemaking."

Because of intractable conflicts such as Chechnya, "some very hard lessons are being learned today," he says. One lesson is that much more needs to be done to prevent them. "The war in Yugoslavia was the most widely predicted conflict - 'if [President Josip Broz] Tito goes, the place collapses'." Another lesson is that, after the bloodiest century in history, we are beginning to learn that we can't win through war anymore - both sides lose, he says. "And the realization is dawning that maybe there are ways both sides can benefit" instead.

In fact, in our increasingly interdependent world, he sees "the most promising opportunity in 10,000 years to create a co-culture of coexistence, cooperation, and constructive conflict."

Conflict won't go away - in fact there will be more of it because of our interdependence, he says. And we're more vulnerable to it. But that vulnerability means greater motivation for pursuing nonviolent solutions - and mobilization of the third side.

It's beginning to happen. When he was in graduate school in the mid-'70s, negotiation wasn't a defined subject. Now it's being taught everywhere - universities, the corporate world, government. "In 10,000 schools in this country, kids as young as 6 or 7 are learning peer mediation," Ury says. Many children didn't know there were alternatives to violence to help them stand up for themselves or get respect. Now in the cities, "gang leaders often become the best mediators, and they command respect for the transformation they've gone through," he says.

Ury urges all of us to get involved. His book describes 10 roles we can adopt at various times in our daily lives to contribute to a new culture of coexistence: As a provider, teacher, or bridge-builder, one can help prevent conflict; as a mediator, arbiter, equalizer, or healer, one can help resolve conflict; and as a witness, referee, or peacekeeper, help contain conflict.

Each role holds out the opportunity to do something other than take sides or do nothing. "What did we learn from Columbine?" Ury asks. "That so many people in the community knew something, but did nothing."

"Human beings have a host of emotional needs," Ury says. "If all these needs had to be subsumed in one word, it might be 'respect.'... Most of the wars in the world today revolve around identity and respect. By addressing young people's needs for meaning and respect, we parents, teachers and community members can help avert violence."

Ury is optimistic because we are beginning to grasp the potential of the third side - "that we can apply our innovative genius not only to devising new computers and jet planes, but to better ways of dealing with differences."

Given who we are, we have that choice. The critical question, he says, is whether we will make that choice to get involved. "The third side is us."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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