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Monday 31 March 2003

Conflict Resolution

A rather disorganized story in the Washington Post today examines the non-violent conflict-resolution education programs that have been popular for kids over the last decade as one of the roots of widespread opposition to the war among young people.

For a decade, our children have been taught at school to use their words, not their fists, to settle a score with a classmate. And to do so politely, after listening to the other kid’s side of the story. […]

“Americans are dictating for the Iraqi people what a ‘good life’ looks like,” says Puneet Gambhir, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. “Why didn’t we communicate directly with the Iraqi people, ask them what a government for their families and friends would look like, allow them to buy into our dream? We never created buy-in.”

Classic conflict-resolution talk.

“I hear this all the time from my 19- and 20-year-old students,” says James Garbarino, a professor of human development at Cornell University. “They say they’ve been told to use their words, seek compromise, walk away from provocation, work with those in authority for a peaceful solution.”

All of this ignores, of course, the reality that non-violent conflict resolution in ordinary interpersonal relationships is almost always backed up by the threat of state violence. These days, if a high-school student fails to resolve his conflict with another student in a non-violent way and resorts to assault, he’ll almost certainly be expelled from school and charged as a criminal. If found guilty as a first offender, he’s unlikely to actually be incarcerated, but the threat is there.

Attempting to apply rules for people living in a lawful state to the actions of sovereigns, and expecting anything but disaster, is at best silly and at worst idiotic. And, in the current case, this approach ignores the fact that the United Nations, which is supposed to create some kind of ‘rule of law’ among sovereigns — has been attempting to solve the Iraq crisis in a number of non-violent ways since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It hasn’t worked.

The Post story quotes a student who helpfully points this out:

Zach Clayton, student chairman of the National Association of Student Councils, wonders whether the interpersonal skills taught in school should even be applied to international relations. “We’re quick in third grade to teach nonviolent resolution strategies,” he says, “but by our junior or senior years in college we know that countries can’t always play paper-rock-scissors.”

Non-violent resolution of conflicts is definitely preferable to getting into a fight or going to war; even Donald Rumsfeld would admit that. But when the schoolyard bully continues to threaten you and to take your lunch money despite all your efforts at negotiation and your explanations of why this is wrong, violence might well be preferable to continuing to live in terror.

Posted by tino at 14:49 31.03.03
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