Bringing Sanity to Politics

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The Emotional Brain

Part of the difficult task of trying to resolve conflicts is getting past the perceptual barriers that stand in the way of seeing conflicts for what they really are.

Longstanding traditions of diplomacy focus on state and interest-based negotiations, or an emphasis on concrete issues, like, for example, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, on resolving borders or settlements in the West Bank.

These approaches are understandable because they are based on familiar institutions and methods. However, they assume that since we don’t see other potential causes of conflict, that they must not be there.

As we've indicated, despite the best intentions of conflict resolution specialists, these efforts often fall short. This is because attending strictly to “issues” does not take into account the deeper human dynamics that give rise to those issues in the first place. 

Unacknowledged are the psychological and cultural aspects of conflict, which are fundamental and which, if properly understood, may hold the keys to improved conflict resolution.

The role of excessive emotion in Middle Eastern cultures, for example, is a factor that is virtually unrecognized or brought to bear in studies involving conflicts in the region. And yet emotion is one of the most salient factors, playing a crucial role in helping to instigate and maintain political conflict between human groups. 

Cycles of revenge, spite, exacting punishment and an inability to see beyond the needs of one’s own group - actions and reactions between antagonists in the Middle East today - are all driven by excessive emotional states.

Discoveries in the behavioral sciences allow us to see why the key to understanding and resolving conflicts lies in understanding our brains, and in our emotional brains in particular:

  • Our emotional brains date back to the earliest life forms on Earth and evolved to help ensure our survival
  • Extreme emotional arousal results in primitive thought patterns and triggers the "fight-or-flight response," creating a mindset that sees the world in either/or, black and white, and good or bad terms
  • Being in a highly aroused emotional state prevents us from seeing subtle distinctions and shades of grey that are the mark of intelligent or evolved thought, and that more accurately depict reality
  • Too much continual emotional arousal creates a state of ignorance in people and makes individuals susceptible to indoctrination and brainwashing

All violent conflicts, and acts of inhumanity and discrimination have as their hallmark high emotional arousal. It is therefore easy to understand how a region like the Middle East, with its emotionally-charged culture and complex politics, continues to be embroiled in so many ongoing difficulties.

However, this idea has not been embraced because it does not fit into our constructs of the world. We are not educated from an early age to know how our brains work and so we passively accept that all forms and degrees of emotion are simply an acceptable part of being human. The idea that excessive emotion may be largely to blame for many problems may also seem simplistic, and a leap from the hard interests that we usually equate with politics.

If we were taught from an early age about the consequences of excessive emotional arousal and the need to temper those emotions, we might stand a chance to greatly reduce the periodic tides of conflict that arise between peoples.

As it stands we only view excessive emotion as a problem if it seriously disrupts our interpersonal relationships. In these cases we may seek out counseling or attempt to learn things like “anger management.”

But what about on a collective level? 

Certainly, in cases of war and violent conflict, our group relations are more than disrupted. Is there also not a dire need for something akin to anger management among groups when it comes to certain international, interethnic, and inter-religious relations? 

John Zada