Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Maybe Not Everyone Does Want Peace: Violence is a Choice and a Variable

Many years ago, I was writing an paper for a graduate seminar that I hoped to submit for publication. In that paper, I had made what I thought was a clever claim about conflict resolution: "everyone wants peace, they just want it on their own terms." I thought at the time that this was a particularly insightful piece of wisdom (being a grad student, I didn't know any better).

Before I sent the paper to the journal I was targeting, I ran it by my advisor. He pointed to that sentence and said, "No they don't. Take that out, it's wrong." Lightly stung, I followed his advice - which did get me published (or, at least, it helped).

Ever since then, that question has stuck with me: is it really true that everyone wants peace, or are there people who actually prefer war? Over time, I've come to see more and more that he was right - there are clearly people in the world who prefer violence and conflict over peace.

At first, it was easy to see why this might be true for some. In any conflict (especially a widespread one), there are people who benefit from it. Leaders who amass political power because they do well in war situations, arms dealers and middlemen who make a fortune off of conflict - it's easy to see why these kinds of folks prefer war to peace. Slobodan Milosevic did much better when his country was actually fighting wars than when it stopped.

But these are rationalist arguments - people prefer conflict (especially, in the case of political leaders and arms dealers, conflicts fought by other people) because they get something out of it (money, power, etc.) But could it also be the case that some people just prefer fighting for its own sake?

There was an excellent blog post today at Political Violence @ a Glance (a collection of some of the top minds in academic conflict studies - really smart people) on just this point. You can read the full blog post here, titled "Some People Just Like to Fight". The sophisticated arguments connecting genetics to circumstances are worth the read by themselves.

For those who don't want to wade through an excellent but decidedly academic essay, here are a few take-away points:

- There are genetic variations that predispose people to be more or less prone to violence. These variations are not absolutely determining of behavior, but they do matter. Some people, in other words, are biologically more likely to be violent than others.

- People who are predisposed to be violent are often pushed to be so by their circumstances, especially when growing up. This goes a long way to explain why widespread violence (in civil wars, for example) seems to spawn further generations of violence.

- For people who like to fight, the reward is not the "spoils of victory" - money, power, what have you. The reward is internal - fighting and winning feels good.

These are really important observations for a host of reasons, but largely because most of our thinking on how to resolve conflicts ignores this reality. We assume that people fight, or engage in conflict, because they want something. That was my original, grad-student wisdom - give people what they want and they'll stop fighting. Even the Milosevics and Victor Bouts of the world can be bought - they have simply learned a way to profit from other people fighting.

But this only gets us so far. If there are people out there - schoolyard bullies, street thugs, overbearing CEOs - who get pleasure from the conflict itself, our usual tactics won't work. There is no Getting to Yes with someone who wants to fight just to fight.

Of course, this presents us with another diagnosis problem - how can we tell if someone is a "fighter, not a lover"? That's a challenge for another day. But this does suggest, at the least, that it's good to be prepared not only to seek peace where it can be had, but to defend oneself when peace is not an option.