Navigating conflict and peace—abroad and in the classroom

May 01, 2024

There has always been an informational component to conflict, but it's different in a situation where you have these lower barriers to sharing information. The way that I think about AI is the extent to which social media has lowered the barriers to sharing content. And we can think about that in the context of peace and war in terms of particular actors that might benefit. But that's what we try and do in the classroom, right? On being “pro-” or “anti-” people or nations:Michael Posner: I'm pro-Israeli and I'm pro-Palestinian, and I don't think that's a conflict.

On how social media shapes the narrative of conflict:

Joshua Tucker: When we think about warfare now, we have to think about warfare in terms of having a physical, on-the-ground component. And we also have to think of it having an informational component. That, though, is not new, right? There has always been an informational component to conflict, but it's different in a situation where you have these lower barriers to sharing information. The way that I think about AI is the extent to which social media has lowered the barriers to sharing content. You still have to produce that content. AI lowers the barriers to producing content, but it does that for particular actors. And we can think about that in the context of peace and war in terms of particular actors that might benefit. One of the things AI is going to make it easier to do is to produce content in languages that are not your own. It also points us to this big question about living in a world where there are a small number of platforms that have an inordinate amount of effect on what content people see. So it's no longer the newscasters, the media, right? Everybody can produce content, but who's controlling the algorithms becomes a huge question.

On facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom:

Cyrus Samii: One of the ideas that I try to convey to students who are trying to study conflict if they're interested in learning about peace negotiations, or peace building, is that you have to be willing to go to some uncomfortable places in your mind. I mentioned that I've done a lot of work with former combatants. And one thing that I came to appreciate is that a lot of the portrayals of what motivates combatants—whether they're soldiers in a regular army or members of an insurgent group or even a terrorist organization—are oftentimes very simplistic and tend to point mostly toward material factors. 

To truly understand the dynamics that animate an intense conflict, you have to be able to put yourself in the mind and occupy the stance of somebody who is perhaps committing atrocious acts, but doing so with a sense of purpose and righteousness. And that's a difficult thing to do. But that's what we try and do in the classroom, right? We suspend a sense of trying to assign who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. We first try and understand, right? It doesn't mean that we completely abandon any moral commitments that we have or anything, but we're trying to pursue this in a manner that leads to understanding. And then when we want to come back to our moral commitments, we use that understanding to try and think about productive avenues in that direction. 

On being “pro-” or “anti-” people or nations:

Michael Posner: I'm pro-Israeli and I'm pro-Palestinian, and I don't think that's a conflict. I have friends in Israel. I have friends in Gaza. And I have a sense of both communities. And again, coming back to where I started, everybody's losing. There are no winners. And we're still at a point where people are having a hard time understanding that there needs to be a way in which differences are discussed in an open and honest way. Doesn't mean agreement. Right? But how do you get to the place where you can begin to have that discussion about the future? 

I spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland in the ’90s. What brought [Protestants and Catholics] to the table was a common sense of opportunity brought by the European Union. So London and Dublin became much less important. But at the end of the day, what made a difference in the peace process was that there was a willingness on the part of the British government to recognize that the policing had to change. All of these conflicts, at the end of the day, involve questions of security, and how people are being treated in their daily lives. 

On bringing students to Rwanda:

j. Siguru Wahutu: There's a difference between learning about these conflicts and these genocides in a classroom and being in Rwanda, interacting with Rwandans, but also going to genocide memorials. So that then means that for a lot of the students, this becomes a very real thing. And the idea of somewhat inhabiting the space of the perpetrators—this allowed students to move from the simple “good person, bad person’” to question what really happened. The why. Why does a neighbor rise against another neighbor? And that trip allowed students to do that. That was the beauty of this particular trip, that it allowed them to feel, see, smell, touch, but also talk to people, which they hadn't gotten to before. And that's changed how they approach these types of topics. 

The source of this news is from New York University

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