New understanding of the brain matters for peace building and diplomacy in a surprising way because negotiating with your adversary involves the symbols already inhabiting our social environment. Politics reinforces these ideas, making coming to consensus a very challenging task.
This neural confusion about the literal versus the metaphorical gives symbols enormous power, including the power to make peace. The political scientist and game theorist Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan has emphasized this point in thinking about conflict resolution. For example, in a world of sheer rationality where the brain didn’t confuse reality with symbols, bringing peace to Israel and Palestine would revolve around things like water rights, placement of borders, and the extent of militarization allowed to Palestinian police. Instead, argues Axelrod, “mutual symbolic concessions” of no material benefit will ultimately make all the difference. He quotes a Hamas leader who says that for the process of peace to go forward, Israel must apologize for the forced Palestinians exile in 1948. And he quotes a senior Israeli official saying that for progress to be made, Palestinians need to first acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and to get their anti-Semitic garbage out of their textbooks.
Hope for true peace in the Middle East didn’t come with the news of a trade agreement being signed. It was when President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan attended the funeral of the murdered Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. That same hope came to the Northern Irish, not when ex-Unionist demagogues and ex-I.R.A. gunmen served in a government together, but when those officials publicly commiserated about each other’s family misfortunes, or exchanged anniversary gifts. And famously, for South Africans, it came not with successful negotiations about land reapportionment, but when black South Africa embraced rugby and Afrikaans rugby jocks sang the A.N.C. national anthem.