Can reading literature help counteract the problem of dehumanization? My latest from Common Ground. Also published in Middle East Online, Global Arab Network, The Daily News, Bikya Masr and Palestine Note.
A basic fact of conflict is that people’s perceptions of each other matter. Viewing someone as subhuman or demonic, for example, reduces people’s inhibitions towards using violence against them. Likewise, negative images of the other escalate conflict through engendering fear, misunderstandings, blame and zero-sum thinking.
Research conducted by psychologist Albert Bandura has demonstrated that individuals inflict much harsher punishments on people whom they view negatively, as opposed to people whom they perceive in neutral or sympathetic terms. Importantly, his experiment also showed that subjects invested with positive qualities were least likely to be harmed.
Because how we imagine others is consequential, it is essential for conflict resolution practitioners to find creative ways to mitigate the destructive influence of negative stereotypes. One approach to tackling this problem was developed by American psychologist Gordon Allport who argued that qualitative contact between conflicting groups is a meaningful way to reduce hostility and prejudice as well as cultivate more positive attitudes between group members.
By qualitative contact, Allport meant direct interpersonal relations between participants of equal status who pursue common goals with the help of institutional support. Some great examples of contact theory put into practice are organisations like Seeds of Peace and bilingual Jewish-Arab schools in Israel such as Hand in Hand.
While personal contact is key to transforming threatening images of the enemy, unfortunately, it is not always a possibility. This is because people, particularly during times of conflict, may not be able to meet face-to-face. Obstacles to contact can include restrictions on travelling, legal concerns or physical danger. Moreover, even if people are able to meet, the contact itself may feel too threatening or emotionally taxing.
In such circumstances, the problem of perception needs to be addressed through other means. One such approach is engagement with literature—a type of vicarious contact theory.
The novelist Iris Murdoch once said that the purpose of literature is to “prove that other people really exist”, meaning that literature calls on people to generously insert themselves into the lives of others. In so doing, books (especially those that deal with the problem of dehumanisation) can help children and adults to (re)-develop their capacity for broad empathy and sympathy.
Echoing and amplifying this idea, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written: “Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than the casual tourist’s interest-with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society’s refusal at visibility.”
Highbrow as it may seem, there is empirical evidence to back up the pro-social value of literature. In the United States, for example, studies done with white elementary school students have shown that reading stories with multi-ethnic and multi-racial characters significantly reduces negative perceptions and attitudes. Other studies found that reading fiction (as opposed to non-fiction) correlates with a high level of empathy, and that putting yourself in other people’s shoes is one of the most effective ways of reducing stereotyping and in-group favouritism.
Reading novels and storytelling may seem like a poor substitute for person-to-person contact, and to some degree this is true. But, there are also advantages. Chief among them is that literature provides a uniquely safe space for identification. Moreover, contact on the pages of books also has the advantage of allowing the reader to withdraw-emotionally and cognitively-when identification becomes too strenuous.
This is not to suggest that reading ought to replace direct contact, but rather that because an engagement with literature can prepare people psychologically for the difficult work of reconciliation, it should serve as a handmaiden to the practice of conflict resolution.
Some recommendations for incorporating literature into conflict resolution practices include selecting a canon of relevant literature. Books such as Elie Wiesel’s Night, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the autobiography of Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Fawaz Turki’s The Disinherited and S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, are some examples.
In addition, it is important to create guidelines-a springboard for discussion-so that the messages in the great books may be properly internalised. And where possible, it would be best to work with education ministries to develop a curriculum for widespread use in classrooms.
Alternatively, book clubs and workshops can be formed, both within communities and among conflicting parties-thus combining both direct and indirect contact.
To be sure, negative attitudes and perceptions of the other are not going to be altered overnight. However, if we are to prevent, manage or transform conflicts it is essential we find creative ways to do so. Reading literature is not a bad place to start.
Conflict resolution, one book at a time.
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