Metta Spencer

Finding Your Curriculum in Unlikely Places

by Metta Spencer

A subtitle for this paper might be, “ Suggested Themes for Thirty One Cocktail Party Conversations.” what I want to explore are some of the issues that could be raised in a variety of different courses that bear upon conflict and peace studies. Since any one of these topics could be the subject of a whole paper, what follows here will be necessarily fragmented, and presented only for heuristic purposes. Suppose you find yourself called upon to lecture on the following subjects, or even chat socially with people whose interests run along the following lines: How on earth can you drag peace studies into the discussion?


1. Russian culture emphasizes the primacy of the collectivity, whereas western liberal culture emphasizes individualism. Does the anthropologist’s commitment to cultural relativism offer any framework for stepping outside one’s own cultural framework and observing the poli-tical struggle between East and west without ethnocentric bias?

2. Marvin Harris has explained primitive warfare as functional for population control. Can such a theory be defended and, if so, can it be applied generally to other types of warfare?

3. Ogburn argued that “cultural lag” was a serious problem, since human values rarely change quickly enough to keep up with technological situations. Does this notion apply to our failure to see the dangerous new situation brought about by nuclear weaponry and our failure to adjust our beliefs about war to fit this new situation?


4. Piaget and Kohlberg speak of the development of the capacity for moral reasoning as resulting from the cognitive development of children as they experiment with different principles of action. Can more mature ethical frameworks be taught to children through systematic classroom programs? If so, can such advanced levels of thinking be applied to teach children and adults civility and the capacity to manage conflicts with mutual respect instead of coercive tactics?

5. “Parent Effectiveness Training” is a popular approach to resolving conflicts within the family. (There’s a famous paperback book on the subject.) It urges parents not to issue edicts to their children but to consistently pursue accommodations that will be acceptable to both sides of a conflict and not settle for anything less than mutual satisfaction. Can this technique be applied to conflict situations generally? (I think the book could be used in a very advanced discussion of conflict resolution at the post-secondary level.)


6. Is aggression an immutable psychological impulse, as Freud suggested in Civilization and its Discontents? And if so, is aggression really the basic motivation giving rise to warfare—or is modern warfare fundamentally motivated by obedience instead of hostility?


7. Lloyd DeMause (in his Foundations of Psychohistory) argues that childhood is a particularly horrible phase of life, and that repressed emotions from that period are the source of organized warfare. He claims that the panicky feeling of being trapped in the birth canal is the source of the emotion that is evoked during the preparation for war. A content analyses of the imagery in political speeches during a time of international tension shows that such themes abound. Do such emotions really play into a society’s general readiness to go to war?

8. Erik Erikson wrote a book linking Gandhi’s use of fasting, nonviolent resistance, and other innovations in his adulthood to the culture and unique familial circumstances of his childhood. would not the psycho-historical approach suggest wrongly that such tactics, having been generated in one culture, could not be applied universally in all cultures?


9. A great deal of research has demonstrated the impact of social pressure on individual judgment and even perception. (Asch’s work in the 1950s showed how people will say a short line is as long as a long one if the other members of the group claim that it is. Irving Janis has shown that members of U.S. Cabinets are as susceptible as anyone else to the tendency toward “groupthink”—an uncritical distortion of facts when there is an illusion of agreement within a cohesive group. He pins such fiascoes as the Bay of Pigs and Truman’s attack against North Korea on such irrational group dynamics. what can be done to alert decision-makers to the danger of having their thinking affected by social pressure? Might there be value in demonstrating to high school students that they, too, have to be on guard against this tendency?

10. Muzafer Sherif conducted an important experiment many years ago in which he created two competing groups of young boys at a summer camp. The rivalry between them build up to dangerous levels and could not be reversed by usual methods such as Sunday School lessons and opportunities to play together. Sherif found that the only way to overcome this was by creating a situation in which the two groups had to work together to attain some goal that they both shared. To what extent does this finding apply generally to inter-group relations among adults—such as ethnic rivalries and even conflicts between nations? what sort of “superordinate goals” could be set for nations to work together on?


ll. Many ethnic groups prize the cohesiveness and in-group solidarity of their ethnicity and claim that they would lose their “identity” if ethnicity became less salient. Others worry that any emphasis on a particular “in-group” always brings the danger of discrimination or prejudice against a contrasting “out-group” and hence raises the potential for intergroup conflict. Is this so? what is so valuable about ethnic “identity” anyhow, and why would anyone fear he was less of a person without it? Is nationalism and similar particularistic loyalty necessarily fraught with the potential for chauvinism and rivalry?

12. At the end of World War II, it was generally believed that the world had learned its lesson and would move now toward “one world” by giving up nationalistic and ethnic identifications. Yet we have seen a continuous increase ethnicity and nationalism as organizing principles for political entities. Karl Deutsch started a line of research that pins this trend on “modernization”—the disruption of traditional patterns that thrust people into communication with strangers and require them to relate to the outside world where traditions alone will not be sufficient to carry them through their interactions.

In such situations of social insecurity, people try to reconstitute the sense of community that has been lost by building an “ersatz” community based on similarity of language, religion, cuisine, clothing style, and other external manifestations of ethnic or national membership. In most cases, this upsurge in nationalism has brought about separatist political demands and has heightened conflicts over limited resources. what policies can governments take to obviate these trends and assure members of minority groups that their political and social claims will be respected and their interests protected? Can any such government policies be counted on to avoid the conflicts that are so general now?

13. Martin Luther King and Gandhi both applied nonviolent methods of protest with considerable success in their bid for group liberation. what other situations today have a potential for resolution based on such methods? Can_the Solidarnost movement be classified as a similar approach? How might it be more effective?


14. Divorce conciliation is a new movement gaining considerable support as an alternative to the use of lawyers representing the two conflicting marital partners. There is much resistance to this movement within the legal profession, although a few lawyers are acting as mediators instead of advocates. (A description of the method is provided in O.J. Coogler, Structured Mediation in Divorce Settlements Toronto: Lexington Books, 1978) Is it likely that such mediation techniques can provide a less painful end to unhappy marriages than the adversarial system of blame and self-justification that is traditional in family law? More generally, what potential exists for mediation to replace litigation as a regular process of conflict resolution in other types of cases besides divorce?


15. There is research suggesting that violence in hockey is learned througn role modeling, as youthful players watch violent professionals, whose fights are admiringly appraised by the newscaster. There is also evidence that sports violence, by breaking a taboo against injuring others, sets a behavioral precedent that often leads to further violence in family settings and elsewhere. David Phillips (see below) shows that the homicide rate in the U.S. increases about 13% for about one week following each heavyweight championship prizefight. Should all acts of violence in sport be abolished through legislation or heavy penalties?

16. Janet Lever’s fascinating book, Soccer Madness (U. of Chicago Press, 1933) discusses the riots and other irrational acts of violence besetting countries such as Brazil when a soccer match is at stake. However, far from disapproving of soccer and labeling it a divisive activity, she claims that it is a major integrative institution that depends on the conflict as a source of integration. That is because the sport involves various levels of conflict and solidarity. Each – town has several teams that are bitter rivals. However, the winning team represents the whole town in the regional competitions, so neighbors who support rival teams one week will patch up their fight the next week and support the same local team when it is away at the next higher level of the competition. Thus conflict and integration are both integral aspects of the system of competition that captures the attention of the whole population. By putting their emotional energy on a fight that is not ultimately of any consequence at all (a game instead of a real fight over substantial issues or resources) they are able to give their loyalty to something without endangering the social cohesion of the society. is Lever’s reasoning correct? Do sports rivalries contribute to the general harmony of the society, when organized in this fashion? Or does this kind of “ersatz” conflict take energy away from the kind of issues that ought to be addressed for the society to make progress? Do sports rivalries exacerbate existing tensions when they are not organized in such a way that the cleavages at one level of conflict are healed by alliances formed in supporting teams at the next higher level? what general principles can we learn from this system that can be applied to make competition work in a positive way to motivate people without multiplying the hostilities between their groups?


17. Most great religious traditions include strong teachings favoring pacifism. Buddhism is especially a nonviolent religion—albeit with such exceptions as the Samurai warriors of Japan—and Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” is a perfect statement of pacifism. Are such teachings political nonsense? If so, should they be followed anyway?


18. Bruce Porter has an article showing that the expansion of personnel in the American government has been a result of war. Every time there’s a war, the number of government employees has increased great-ly and that they are never all laid off at the end of the war. Thus every war has had a “ratchet effect” on the size of Big Government. (The Public Interest, Summer 1986).

19. The philosophy of liberalism (which is now actually conservatism) stems from Adam Smith’s views on laissez-faire economic principles, which assumed that if citizens all pursued their individual interests, the system as a whole would benefit. This belief still undergirds our whole political system, but it can be shown conclusively to be erroneous: Rapoport’s work on The Prisoners’ Dilemma shows that we have interests at the individual level that may be diametrically opposed to our interests as members of a collectivity. Likewise, the famous parable, “the tragedy of the common” shows that allowing my own cows to graze all they please may’be in my individual interests, but as a member of the whole community, I cannot ignore the fact that if everyone operates by that principle, the field will soon be bare of grass and all our cows will starve.


20. Does deterrence work? Does punishment for crimes prevent further crimes? Under what circumstances? Does the death penalty preserve lives? Do speeding tickets prevent traffic accidents? what general principles can we discover, if any, that describe the circumstances under which deterrence works—as opposed to the circumstances under which it prompts retaliatory counter-measures?

21. Would strict legislation outlawing guns prevent many crimes? More generally, would strict disarmament agreements prevent many wars?

22. Law is the main civilized alternative to violence as a method of settling disputes. what can be done to institute international law as an equally normal process for resolving world-wide disputes?


23. Research has shown that urban people are less likely than people in small towns to take responsibility for helping others in need. The ‘ famous case of Kitty Genovese in New York is an example. Some research suggests that this public indifference to acts of violence or crime results from the uncertainty as who who is expected to take responsibility when there are so many people around. Does the same principle explain public indifference on the matter of nuclear warfare—a sense that responsibility is diffused over so many citizens that np one is responsible?


24. Demographers and development economists agree that the best cure for the population explosion is to bring the death rate down as much as possible. where mortality levels are high, it is because children are dying young. The cure for infant mortality is to end hunger. Yet the forces making for hunger are economic—the exploitative landlords, the penetration of the world market into local agriculture, etc. About 41,000 people per day die of hunger or hunger—related diseases— about 35,000 of them children. Although no one sheds blood through direct violence in such deaths, it can be argued that they are the result of violence. Injustice on such a scale is an indirect form of violence. Moreover, the world’s military budget exceeds $600 billion per year, while with an intelligent use of $25 billion per year for 15 years, the Brandt Commission claims that hunger could be ended. Question: Is it possible or proper to discuss militarism, population, and hunger as separate issues? will the solution to one of these problems not also constitute a solution to them all?


25. How can disarmament groups be more successful in mobilizing political support for a change in the government’s policy? Resource mobilization theory is an approach to the study of social movements that suggests this: Groups need resources—people, money, legal advice, publicity, etc—and they are up against the ‘free rider problem.’

That is, if they succeed in their objectives, everyone will benefit from it even if they have not contributed to the work of the movement.

Therefore it is hard to induce people to contribute much, unless one can think of rewards for participating as the movement goes along. Most people would prefer to take a free ride without incurring the effort and cost. The groups that do succeed often do so by capturing resources that have already been put together by other groups. Thus the women’s movement became possible because the civil rights groups and anti-Vietnam war groups already existed and could be linked up. The advice a resource mobilization theorist would propose might be this: Try to recruit whole groups, not individuals. And go for groups that have the kind of resources your group will need right now.


26. Does the publicity given to violence incite more acts of violence?

Apparently so. David Phillips has done dozens of studies showing that the publicity given to a suicide, homicide, or even a fictional violent event regularly increases the suicide rates, homicides, and even traffic deaths for a few days in the area being exposed to the media coverage of these events. Some of these increases are very substantial. Certainly thousands of deaths are prompted each year by “contagion” or “suggestion.” He calls this the “Werther effect” after Goethe’s fictional young man who committed suicide. (That book had to be banned throughout Europe because so many people imitated the hero.) what about terrorism, riots, hijackings, and similar acts of violence? To what extent are these stimulated by the publicity given in the media? ( I think a lot!)


27. To what extent can the techniques used in labor negotiations be generally applied to bargaining situations and other situations of conflict management? Robert Fisher and Stanley Ury’s wonderful book, Getting to Yes is a cheap paperback that is very accessible and is sure to be a classic in the whole area of conflict resolution. The authors are now working at Harvard on applying their insights to international negotiations. I recommend it without qualification for any course on conflict management.


28. The task of salesmen is to overcome the objections of the people they are selling without getting into an argument. Good ones learn to look for areas of agreement, focus on those, acknowledge the perceptions and interpretations of the customer as valid, and then put in their own reply, not formulated as a “yes, but” phrase (which only stiffens the objections of the customer) but as a statement such as “Yes, I see what you mean. And personally, the way I consider the matter is…” This same approach could be studied to good effect in a conflict management course.


29. The best course in conflict resolution that I know of is a packaged course called the “Standard est Training.” It has received generally unfavorable publicity, but research on its outcomes point in quite a different direction. Most people who complete the course go repair old relationships that have been broken through poor communication, stubborn pride, and the like. A major part of the training consists of such principles as the Buddhist “wu-wei” principle: “Yielding to win.” without taking the course, one might get some feel for it from one of the taped lectures of its founder, Werner Erhard, or ‘ from his biography by philosopher William Bartley. Another (less available but more sophisticated) treatment is a Ph.D. dissertation by a former est trainer, Ronald W. Browning, “Psychotherapeutic Change East and West: Buddhist Psychological Paradigm of Change with Reference to Psychoanalysis.” Calif. School of Professional Psychology, 1978. It emphasizes the Buddhist aspect of the program. Finally, certain similarities can be seen in a book by another former est trainer, Stewart Emery, who started his own system, “Actualizations.” His book is by the same title.


30. Gestalt Therapy may be the best organized technique for imparting communication skills on conflictful issues. I have used it in my sociology courses on communication. I don’t think many of the books on Gestalt give a good idea about how the method works, but it is useful to have a look at Gestalt Therapy Now, edited by Joen Fagan and Irma Lee Shepherd. Harper Colophon, 1973.


31. Lots of sci-fi deals with conflict and nuclear warfare themes.

Some university courses now deal exclusively with Sci Fi as literature. My son and his girlfriend recommend particularly: Eric Frank Russell, “…And Then There were None,” a novella in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, ed. Ben Bova, 1951. This portrays civil disobedience when carried to its logical extreme. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed. Planets are used metaphorically to represent the dynamics of mutual misperception between two “cold war” states, presumably the U.S. and the USSR. Bernard Benson, The Peace Book Jonathan Cape Co, Britain, 1980. This children’s book proposes a dandy idea: Have the U.S. government function out of Moscow and the Soviets in Washington.