This Is Your Brain on Metaphors –

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.

via This Is Your Brain on Metaphors –


3 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Metaphors –”

  1. This is a fascinating article. Yet, I find the final point somewhat obvious. The instances used to illustrate how peace was created where all times when cultural bridges where created. Easier said than done, finding common ground is the only way to achieve compromise. Language, lifestyle, religion, and politics rarely cross borders. Instead, leaders in all areas, from politics to business, must find places to unite before attempting to reach resolve. Finding a mutual interest, feeling, or idea provides a place to begin negotiation.

    In Afghanistan, cultural misunderstandings have led to great tension between the US and Afghan officials. The Afghan Defense Ministry has even published pamphlets attempting to educate Afghans of their culture and ways. The Afghans claim that US soldiers are the ones who are acting inconsiderately towards Afghans and their culture. Regardless of which side is right or wrong, although it appears that both are currently offended, peace cannot be found and maintained without first establishing a common ground.

  2. Symbols do wield great power. The power seems to derive from the universality and pathos personified in a symbol. It seems to be the ambiguity of a symbol that allows for diplomatic qualities – a symbol can mean something very to a great deal of people. A symbol can both humanize or dehumanize enemies – it can serve to bridge cultural gaps or widen them. A symbol can give enemies common ground from which they can start building towards diplomacy. A meaningful symbol embodies ideals that cross culture boards, generational gaps, language barriers, etc. A meaningful symbol embodies what it means to be human.

    In regards to the hope for the Middle East, just as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan attended the funeral of the murdered Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, there needs to be more emphasis in the media of these binding symbolic events in regards to Syria.

  3. Actions definitely speak louder than words. This is a very interesting article because it brings a new view to the conflicts. In this example, both sides need to realize the truths about one another and this “grudge” that the Israelis and the Palestinians hold against each other need to be eliminated. Both sides need to be more open and understanding. As Leah said, finding common ground is not the easiest thing to do, especially since these are long, cultural and religious conflicts and misunderstandings.
    I believe that more public unity needs to be shown by the media so these misunderstandings will start to become understandings. Understanding someone else s religion or culture is a key step into resolving conflict. Cultural tolerance among all is needed.

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