Last week we touched on the question of conflict. It was in the context of blanket bombing and the nuclear arms race. Standing back, we might wonder how it happened that a handful of nations were actually ready to destroy each other with bombs so powerful that Hiroshima and Nagasaki, terrible as they were, would have looked like garden fireworks in comparison. And the Cuban missile crisis showed us that the threat of the destruction of society was a real one.
Today we see Syria consuming itself with internal war and a future of despair for generations to come. And Muslims and Christian rabbles are rabbles first, and religious last. So it has it been throughout my life and throughout history – but with longbow, club and tank replaced by mass destruction.
How is it that human beings who want to live in peace, and on the whole wish their neighbours well, can behave so irrationally? Let’s explore a little.
The basic model is two five year-olds quarrelling in the playground. Some trivial incident starts the process. It is treated as a hostile action and a stronger riposte is made. And the sequence continues to mount so that, stage by stage, a violent, screaming fight brings teacher running over to separate the children by the scruffs of the neck. Ten minutes later the children are contented, even playing happily with each other. End of story until the next time.
The step from small incident to full scale fight seems a big one – but not when it comes stage by stage, with each combatant faced at each step by victory or defeat. Remember a little incident at Sarajevo?
It is not so strange; it is very close to us. I have seen disputes on this blog quite quickly move in the direction of anger – it starts perhaps with one contributor including a little taunt or a challenge. And surprise, surprise! the target responds with a stronger taunt or challenge. And so on – upwards. We may be critical of such antics, until we get into such a dispute ourselves and find that the crushing retort which will win the day becomes all important. Lord, what fools we mortals be! Blessed are the peacemakers, says the Beatitude. But it does not remind us of how our own pride contributes to our own conflicts.
In the early years of marriage my wife and I would tend to get stuck in arguments. They could go on for a long time after we had forgotten what had triggered them in the first place. Then we discovered a solution: the first one who apologised was taken as having won the argument. It worked like a charm.
The patterns of human conflict are so universal and so predictable that the psychologists are happy to develop mathematical equations to track the escalation of conflict. From the domestic example of rising conflict between parent and screaming baby to “Bloody Sunday” the same patterns pertain. That tells us something about our helplessness. And the whole sequence of ‘game theory’ has been studied and developed into an area of psychology and sociology large enough for an expert to spend a professional lifetime exploring it.
Perhaps a deeper understanding of how easily we allow ourselves to be pulled down into sterile conflict can give us insights into how it happens on a global scale. We can perhaps begin to change ourselves through our understanding, but can we ever transfer that into peace for the world?