Over the course of the past year, I've been teaching interpersonal, ethnic and religious, and cultural conflict analysis and resolution to a group of undergraduate students in Hawaii.
In the past few months, I've been researching programs like Play For Peace and asking the question: Can they really work?
Conflict resolution theorists and practitioners have noted for some time that a general lack of empathy, combined with the psychological changes that occur in individuals and groups as a result of hostile conflict, provide a major obstacle to meaningful conflict resolution.
Unless each side is prepared to acknowledge and respect the needs of the other, conflict management becomes nothing more than sweeping dirty issues under the rug.
Dennis Ross, the chief Middle East peace negotiator during the Clinton era, wrote in his memoir on the process that lasting agreements "are forged not on the basis of slogans or desires, but on the basis of reconciling needs on the basis of reconciling the fundamentals each must have to preserve its identity, dignity and political base."
As official negotiators and politicians try to use available diplomatic tools to manage the conflict, any type of conflict resolution requires an effort to change the reality on the ground as well as in the negotiation room.
Ross wrote that one of the major lessons he learned from the failed Oslo peace accords was that negotiations cannot succeed if "there is one environment at the negotiating table and another one on the street."
People-to-people programs that break down barriers between publics need to be promoted. Programs that bring together students, teachers, journalists, artists and others in cooperative ventures are necessary for breeding greater familiarity, for making it harder to demonize and for eroding stereotypes between the publics. All of us talked a good game when it came to people-to-people programs. Yet our investment in these programs in terms of time, money and effort was far too limited. We focused far too much on the leaders and negotiators and far too little on the publics for each side. To be sure, peace cannot be negotiated from the bottom up in these societies. But peace will not come only from the top down, either.
Out of this paradigm have come a number of grassroots-level peace workshops and dialogue groups that attempt to change the discourse on the ground in an effort to further the goal of peacebuilding. Do they work?
There is a long-standing belief in the conflict resolution world that intergroup contact, mingled with sustained dialogue, can be effective in dissolving stereotypes and prejudice, creating empathy between conflicting groups.
Dialogue becomes the process through which parties experience the other side's worldview. Parties begin to expand their worlds to include the other and construct a different identity of themselves in relation to the other. These worldview conflicts may begin to work themselves out when parties that hold different worldviews interact in meaningful ways.
Conflict scholar Yehuda Amir writes: "When intimate relations are established, the in-group member no longer perceives the member of the out-group in a stereotyped way but begins to consider him or her as an individual and thereby discovers many areas of similarity."
Perceptions are changed. Understanding, then acceptance and ultimately empathy result.
Despite the glowing reviews of dialogue as an essential tool of peacemaking, two questions plague the field. First, does dialogue have any long-term effect on the participants? Two, can dialogue work in the midst of acute conflict?
Critics argue that reduction in stereotypes and dehumanization that comes from participation in dialogue groups is temporary and that long-term change is unlikely because participants must re-enter their own worlds and face social pressures to return to societal norms.
Given the fierceness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could dialogue work?
Harsh imbalances of power, deeply ingrained stereotypes, and ongoing, acute conflict seem to have the opposite effect when dialogue takes place. Several older studies indicate that in such environments, dialogue actually strengthens identification with your own group and increases apprehension toward the other group.
Therefore, according to a number of studies, the parties must do more than talk. They must engage in activities that help them develop and pursue superordinate goals.
"The biggest misnomer about conflict resolution is that dialogue is the key," Dr. Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, said in an interview. "But dialogue alone isn't enough to change relationships. What changes relationships are shared experiences that create bonds. It happens when any two groups enter into a symbiotic relationship to care for something together."
Muzafer Sherif coined the term "superordinate goals" to describe the process by which two competing groups develop goals that "are compelling but cannot be achieved by the efforts of one group alone."
Sherif stumbled upon the idea while doing experiments with boys at a summer camp. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to mediate disputes between the two groups, Sherif had counselors at the camp sabotage the water supply. The only way for the boys to fix the problem was to work together. After the boys fixed the problem, Sherif reported that conflicts between them de-escalated and future conflict was reduced. Sherif noted a sharp decrease in name-calling and derogation of the out-group after the superordinate goal was achieved. He also found that the boys were less likely to glorify or brag about the in-group.
He concluded that group contact, even with dialogue, can lead to further argument and recriminations without superordinate goals. However, when superordinate goals were present, communication between groups moved in the direction of reducing conflict.
A number of studies over the years have fleshed out Sherif's findings and have identified several ways that superordinate goals are effective for conflict resolution.
One of the most important is their ability to create a sense of shared identity. The two groups become, in a sense, members of a new group whose members are less likely to become antagonistic toward one another.
Conflict resolution theorist John Paul Lederach writes that the key to conflict resolution is to find a way to get the parties to reimagine themselves in a web of relationships, even with their enemies, which explores, painfully sometimes, what has happened in the past, and most important, what is possible in the future.
The question becomes how to tap into those powerful identity-making forces and redirect them in a way that creates a sustainable peace.
The stability of communities and nations can depend on the degree to which cross-cutting bonds between diverse members of a community or country are formed. The structure is stable, in part, because conflicts aren't as quick to escalate when individuals and groups form meaningful bonds with each other.
Sport is one medium through which identities can be reimagined and cross-cutting bonds formed.
Sports, writes John Hoberman, "exercises a deep hold on the human imagination which is virtually universal and which does not seem to vary from society to society at this level of emotion."
Alan Bairner argues that advancing the cause of civic sporting identities might lead to peace since "the emotions [sports] inspire may possess an integrative potential that helps people to live together more harmoniously."
Can sports be used as a form of conflict resolution?
"Sports is not your typical nonviolent reconciliation," Gopin argues. "It's aggressive. But because it's aggressive, it can have a powerful impact. It's a constructive way to channel conflict. It creates dialogue. It pushes things to more constructive venues."
If the creation of superordinate goals can help bring people together, create a new dual shared identity and reduce existing conflict between the groups, a sports program that brings together two different conflict groups and molds them into a team has the potential to be an excellent way to get people of different groups working together toward superordinate goals.
Instead of having nations compete against each other what happens if they compete with each other?
Can workshops that employ basketball training be an effective medium through which national or ethnic identities are reimagined? Is there some sort of new, inclusive common identity that can come out of it? And more important, can it be a lasting part of the process toward building an authentic cross-community?
PFP has ongoing studies to measure its effect. In the short term, the studies indicate that the program is very effective at lessening stereotypes between the groups. It will be a few years before we know whether it has lasting long-term effects.
PFP faces a number of obstacles to reach its goals. Funding is a huge issue. It takes money to run programs like these and, despite a board of directors that includes such sports luminaries as agents Arn Tellem and Ron Shapiro and former basketball players like Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry, PFP is in a day-to-day struggle to pay for its efforts.
Another problem in Israel is inability to get beyond basketball to overt peacebuilding at the moment. Right now, PFP is on the ground and building trust an important first step in creating a sustainable program in the Middle East. Before long, it's going to have to implement a conflict resolution program that creates dialogue among the participants the way it has done in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Without it, they'll never get to true reconciliation. Such plans are in the works, but implementing them is tricky.
Despite the roadblocks, it seems like PFP has the right ingredients for a meaningful program.
To get to true peacebuilding, three elements must exist, not only among the parties enmeshed in conflict but also within those attempting, from the outside, to build peace. Without all three, peace is impossible. Combined, the three comprise a part of what Lederach calls "the moral imagination," what he defines as the "wellspring that is rooted in the challenges of the real world yet is capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist."
The first is the capacity to imagine the web of relationships. Peacebuilders must nurture the ability of individuals and communities to reimagine themselves in a web of relationships, even with their enemies. To get there requires humility, self-awareness and a sense of interdependence. These acts emerge from a voice that says in the simplest of terms: "I am part of this pattern. My choices and behaviors affect it."
Second, Lederach says we must find a way to provide space where these relational webs can be constructed. Without this space, it becomes difficult for parties enmeshed in conflict to imagine any alternative to the cycle of hatred and violence they currently employ. We must have the creative space to imagine other possibilities.
Third is the acceptance of risk inherent in engaging conflict. Changing your identity isn't easy, especially when faced with the perception that your enemy is trying to destroy it. Hatred and violence toward the other become interwoven in the definition of self.
Parties to the conflict must be willing to step outside group boundaries and reach across the divide. Doing so poses enormous risk to their identities, social status and, in some cases, even their physical safety. Peacebuilders must take the same risks.
The chance of failure is ever present, but the potential rewards make the journey worth taking.
Chad Ford covers the NBA draft for ESPN.com and is an assistant professor of conflict resolution at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.