Finding a path to peace
I write following the challenge in the February issue: Can psychology find a path to peace?
Of course, we all want peaceful outcomes to the present turmoil within various individual countries (increasing standoffs, confrontations, riots, etc.) and conspicuously so between and within countries in the Middle East. But I worry that the hopes (pious and impious) and the happy talk from various pundits about political conflict resolution may largely miss the point.
There are likely to be cycles in human large group behaviour that tend to counter such aspirations. Some behavioural economists predicted the present turmoil well over a year ago (references available). The same authors predicted that the turmoil will not end till 2020ff. We shall find out in due course.
If indeed there is such a ‘war cycle’, the best that psychology can expect is to round off the more jagged corners.
Sad perhaps, but not too surprising.
I appreciated the contribution by Diane Bretherton to your feature ‘Can psychology find a path to peace?’, which highlighted important questions for me.
I am writing this from the perspective of an integrative psychotherapist and counsellor working with mainstream groups and not as an expert in ISIS, radicalisation or conflict resolution. But there are a number of ideas I would like to explore.
As psychologists, psychotherapists or counsellors we know that enabling someone to feel heard can allow anger, hostility and conflict to dissipate. Showing someone we seek to recognise, understand and acknowledge their struggles seems to be widely acknowledged as the first step to conflict resolution of any level. Rogers’ (1961) approaches have become seen as valuable tools not just in counselling but in any personal as well as professional relationships.
I have wondered for many years if we invested as much time, energy and money in training and deploying diplomats, or diplomatically trained staff, rather than combat staff and weapons, would we be able to defuse conflict earlier and without the need for escalated military action; my assumption is that diplomats are highly trained and experienced in listening, negotiation and conflict resolution skills. In fact, many psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors develop the same skills either intentionally or as a by-product of their training and work.
I have explored this idea in informal conversations with professional diplomats I have very occasionally met socially over the years. The response to my enquiries tends to be ‘We [diplomatic community] think this, but the trouble is, how to convince the government!’
I am not idealistic enough to imagine that simply applying active listening skills or Rogerian Core Conditions to any radicalised youth in Britain or elsewhere will overcome ISIS, but there seems to be an increasing body of concurring research that suggests that radicalised individuals have emerged from those who have felt marginalised from their communities, socially isolated and depressed (e.g. Bhui et al., 2014).
Surely these are the areas in which psychologists work, in different ways, and with different client groups every day? In writing this, I came across the research by Kamaldeep Bhui, who says ‘We believe strongly in a public health approach, where those at risk of radicalisation are identified and helped, rather than focusing solely on rare and unpredictable terrorist events after they’ve happened’ (see tinyurl.com/z4kd29j).
I have also been struck for many years that funding is always found for military campaigns. Yet, government investment for psychological therapies is tightly controlled and limited and dependent on charity. Essential and valuable counselling and psychotherapy is often provided by charities whose counsellors or supervisors may be early in training and working on a voluntary basis, paying for their own insurance, supervision, travel and other expenses. There seems to be a major disparity somewhere that I feel requires highlighting and review. I value the deployment of British UN Peace Keeping forces to certain conflict zones overseas over the years and also the application in the UK of Community Support Officers. These seem to be indications of a way forward. But there seems to be huge scope for expanding and developing these activities and roles either working alongside the psychology professions or for increased training within the police, armed forces, intelligence or diplomatic services.
So I am left wondering how much can we can influence our political leaders from the perspective that we are of helpless victims of terrorism and must meet aggression with defence and hostility, to seeing those vulnerable to radicalisation, not as demonic, but as wounded and needing support like other troubled members of our community?
Bhui, K., Warfa, N. & Jones, E. (2014). Is violent radicalisation associated with poverty, migration, poor self-reported health and common mental disorders? PLoS ONE 9(3), e90718. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090718
Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable.
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