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Can We 'Immunize' Ourselves Against Identity-based, Prejudicial Conflict?

02/17/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

This January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a group of New Champions* got together to brainstorm the following topic:

Is it possible to immunize ourselves from identity-based, prejudicial conflict? Are there interventions that can combat the flaring up of ethnic, religious or other group-based conflict? Is it related to how we approach diversity and 'constructive conflict'?

There was some skepticism about the efficacy of interventions after conflict has manifest itself, "as the lizard brain would've already taken over." In the same vein, it was suggested that tackling symptoms was less effective than dealing with root causes which are mostly economic.

It was clear that the issue had to be tackled at both the levels of action and attitude.

Someone pointed out that attitudes towards smoking have completely changed in his community between the previous generation and his. Someone else observed the same with respect to the way the LGBT community is perceived in her society. What caused these changes?

Stephen Frost likes to point out that "while diversity is reality, inclusion is a choice. We need to consciously choose differences." Antonio Simoes stresses the importance of defining diversity (and inclusiveness) not just in terms of broad groupings but at the level of the 'authentic self'.

The discussion brought out several positive examples from various parts of the world:

  1. We heard how tackling the root-cause of unemployment with enterprise and cultural engagement converted a would-be jihadist into an artist! Economic empowerment helped break the vicious cycle of perceived victimization and scapegoating which feed each other.
  2. We saw examples of jingles, comedy and short adverts on television that aim to counter conflict.
  3. We learnt about community story-telling and a focus on youth through 'democracy camps' for example.
  4. We were told about local task forces and influential individuals who are pre-designated as 'extinguishers', ready to act at the first signs of communal tension.
  5. We were reminded about the power of personal encounters in bridging the "us & them" divide. An extreme form of that can be seen after natural disasters such as the Turkish earthquake or the tsunami in Indonesia which brought previously-feuding sides together.
  6. And we learnt about the Aikido principle - using the aggressor's force against him. One example is the neo-Nazi march in a German town that was turned into a fund-raiser for an opposite cause!

As Sam Gregory puts it: "One good model for involving more people in confronting extremism online is the 'Flower Speech' movement where people commit to speaking back against hate speech online (and offline) with flower icons and positive speech."

As we try out various approaches in our respective local contexts, it would be wonderful to (a) add to the inventory of creative interventions carried out elsewhere and (b) repeat 'hackathons' of this kind in schools and other settings in various parts of the world.

We need more ideas, more experimentation and more scaling up of good ideas.
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*The World Economic Forum describes "New Champions" as the next generation of pioneers, innovators and disruptors. These include 'Young Global Leaders' (YGLs), the under-30 community of 'global shapers', award-winning social entrepreneurs and technology pioneers.