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Breaking the cycle

Last April the Atlantic Monthly published a lengthy (and fascinating) essay, "Seeing Around Corners", about artificial societies — essentially, computer simulations — and the insights they reveal into large-scale human behavior. Just a simple set of rules governing the behavior of individual members, the article demonstrates, is sufficient to predict how entire societies can be affected by a changing environment, or by conflict with another group.

I was reminded of that article last week, when I read another one, in the New York Times, about a recent book by Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. Varshney's study of violence in India found that organized ethnic integration — as defined by the existence of integrated organizations like business associations, political parties and sports clubs — is vital to preventing ongoing cycles of violence between diverse ethnic groups occupying the same region.

What's interesting about the studies is that political and governmental leadership isn't a major factor in either. It's all about what the men and women on the street are doing, and how likely they are to resort to violence. (I'm thinking Varshney's results indicate that ethnic integration makes individual agents less likely to act against others of the opposing group — i.e., it adjusts one of the preset factors in the artificial society simulations.) In some ways, this is disheartening: Once a conflict starts, it's hard to imagine anyone creating an integrated organization (of all things), and taking that essential step back toward peace.

But maybe real hope lies in this. The members of the organizations Varshney found to be such critical factors were unified by a common interest (financial success, political power, or sports, for example). And people are always looking out for their own interests; almost anyone would be willing to give up senseless violence if there were something in it for them, right?

August 6, 2002 9:13 AM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

A war of equal powers isn't profitable to communities -- at least the ones we've been constructing for the past circa 10,000 years.

War might provide those with an interest in the conflict some short-term windfall (e.g., in North America the white heavy industry owners). But, as you look out over the long-term, it becomes increasingly unprofitable (unless you're winning hands-down -- which is increasingly less probable in today's world community).

IRA-vs-UK, Israel-vs-Palestine, Tamils-vs-SriLanka, US-vs-USSR

All these examples prove the point. Each party, eventually, had an overwhelming interest in stopping said conflict (or is showing such now). And, each party was roughly just as powerful as the other (remembering that quantity/quality of force can be mitigated by the nature or type (read: tactic) of an opposing force. For ex, the IRA was vastly outnumbered and out-gunned/out-explosived by the UK, yet the IRA's tactics largely reduced the UK's use of this power to that of the IRA's own power. Or, to easily prove this point in one word, vietnam.

Conflicts usually spatter themselves out. Over time most powers (mis)manage to become equal to their adversary's strength, in the context of a conflict.

Added, given the nature of our (new type of) community, the world's conflicts are largely producing no clear winners (unlike, say, in the days of Napolean). How we're presently organised lends itself to this whole dynamic.

Things are getting better.


Posted by rob adams on August 6, 2002 4:23 PM

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