Wednesday, March 25, 2015

It’s “Woo-ster” . . .

Not “War-ses-ter” . . . It’s “Hah-vud” not “Har-vrd” (Harvard). We were in Worcester, Massachusetts (only Boston/South Boston will be more populous) and were with a Texan and an Alabamian. And our host was laughing his heart out hearing “aliens” that had come down on their land. And, of course, my two Bulgarian friends could only roll their eyes seeing how in America people can be aliens in their own country.

Over dinner we learned that the Southerners in our group were marketing their products in the South and Southeast regions of the US and would like to expand the business thus their presence in the trade show in New England. “We hope to win more markets,” said the Texan. And added in jest that he had his stint in the military. And so we egged the young Bulgarian with us to share: “I had my stint in the Communist Party when I was a kid; but Pope John Paul could say that too.”

Left unsaid, of course, were the assumptions and biases people have, influenced by where they’re from . . . their experiences . . . and beyond . . . And we could laugh them all away . . .

“While social and economic factors account for some of what divides us into warring camps, psychologists since Freud have suspected that something more fundamental is at work. In 1963, the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram famously showed that average people were capable of inflicting grievous harm on one another — in this case, administering what they believed were powerful electric shocks — if they thought they were following the orders of a superior.” [The Brain’s Empathy Gap: Can mapping neural pathways help us make friends with our enemies (?), Jeneen Interlandi, The New York Times Magazine, 19th Mar 2015]

“A few years later, in an equally famous experiment, the Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo had subjects play prisoners and wardens and showed that context can be far more powerful than our own values and personality traits in determining how we treat other people. Together, the studies are perhaps the most emblematic of a generation of psychology research into the social cues that determine how one group treats another. What role does group identity play? Does authority make us passive or just reinforce our belief that we are right? How much of our empathy is innate and how much is instilled in us by our environment?

“In the past two decades, with the advent of f.M.R.I. technology, neuroscientists also began to tackle such questions. Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent the past seven years studying intractable conflicts around the world. He has looked at Israelis and Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank, Mexican immigrants and Americans along the Arizona border and Democrats and Republicans across the United States. By supplementing psychological experiments with brain scans, he is trying to map when and how our ability to empathize with one another break down, in hopes of finding a way to build it back up.

“Kornelia Magyar, director of the Hungarian Progressive Institute, thought the experiments sounded promising. She believed that racial prejudice was thwarting efforts to assimilate the Roma, and thought studies that exposed it could only help their cause. But she, too, was concerned about what the next steps might be. ‘Once you measure it,’ she asked, ‘How do you change it?’

“Bruneau said he thought the answer to that question might lie with non-Roma activists like her. And then he asked a question: What made her, an educated white woman, take up the Roma cause? This gave Magyar pause. After a brief silence, she explained that she grew up in a city close to the Austrian border and that she always felt like an outsider when her family would cross over to go shopping. Daroczi couldn’t help interjecting; after the fall of communism, he said, Hungarians crossed the border in droves, mostly to purchase basic goods. ‘It was written in Hungarian on the walls of the shops, ‘Hungarians: don’t steal!’ ” he said.

“‘It felt shameful,’ Magyar added, nodding. ‘I think that really affected me.’ Bruneau lit up at the anecdote; it was very similar to the stories he’d collected from other non-Roma activists. He told Magyar and Daroczi about the brain scans of the Israeli peace activists — the blue dots in a sea of red — and about his desire to somehow array the power of their experiences toward intervention efforts.

“‘Yes, but even that is tricky,’ Magyar said. The way a person related her own experiences to the experiences of others was complicated, she said. ‘Sometimes those same experiences trigger the exact opposite reaction.’

“‘Bruneau hopes that neural focus groups might help determine which interventions are most likely to succeed. ‘We would get people in the lab to view a number of different candidate anti-Roma bias campaigns,’ he said. ‘And then see which ones generated the greatest response in predefined brain regions.’ Ideally, social scientists working in Hungary would determine which programs to measure, and Bruneau’s research would help evaluate and refine those programs. In psychology experiments he conducted, short narratives about individuals from rival groups proved particularly effective at getting opponents to empathize with one another. He imagined intervention programs that used narratives like these in a variety of ways.”

“At the age of 14, I was displaced for three months in a violent civil war, without the protection of my parents. As a first hand witness of widespread carnage and having seen a dead baby clinging onto a lifeless mother, fighting for peace is an all-consuming priority for me.” [Fight for peace, Asif Ahmad, A GREAT BRITISH VIEW, The Philippine Star, 19th Mar 2015; Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador]

“The pursuit of peace requires courage, commitment and compromise.  History rightly holds in high regard those who have forged peace in the midst of conflict. Naysayers and shallow opportunists fail to register even as a footnote. When a settlement is within touching distance, it is time for statesmen to step up and push through the last remaining obstacles and overcome setbacks.

“In the UK, we have had to fight hard to secure and maintain peace in Northern Ireland.  A conflict deeply rooted in history was ended 17 years ago with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement . . . Four months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed and just as the enacting Bill was in the hands of Parliament, a bomb exploded in the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland. Twenty-nine people were killed including 12 children and a mother pregnant with twins. With anger and emotion, some said there could be no peace deal with terrorists. Others said if the perpetrators could not be prosecuted there was no justice.  Instead, former combatants and political enemies worked for the good of their community. Today, Northern Ireland is a prosperous self-governing part of the United Kingdom and no one wants to return to troubled times.

“The Bangsamoro, as a devolved administration underpinned by the proposed law, is a step in the direction of long term peace. In exchange for limited autonomy, all who have been engaged in armed conflict have to submit to the rule of law and a system of democratic government that is not the exclusive purview of any one faction. If the MILF wants to play a part in the future Bangsamoro government, then its political party will have to secure support from the outlying islands, the indigenous people, Christians as well as their core base. The proposed form of government for Bangsamoro is designed to create a coalition of interests rather than a unilateral victory for one side.

“Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano is aware that his strong opposition to the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is affecting his chances in the 2016 elections. Despite this, the senator said he has no plan of backing down, adding he will instead let the people decide if they want him to run in the next elections or not” [Cayetano aware stand vs. BBL affecting his chances in 2016 polls, Amita O. Legaspi, GMA News, 12th Mar 2015]

The bottom line: We better do our homework . . . and better do it right?

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