Photo by Jon Tyson

As I’ve suggested in many previous posts, mindfulness can help us counter the harmful impulses, misguided cultural conditioning, and faulty assumptions that underly some of society’s most pressing problems. One of these is the vernacular of violence we use in everyday conversation. This language of annihilation includes sayings such as: “combatting” injustice, the “war on drugs”, “fighting” for freedom, “battling” climate change, “wiping out” COVID-19, and “beating” cancer. The way we speak, think and act are interrelated – our language shapes our perspective. What if we spoke to one another and of the world – even our perceived enemies – more mindfully, using a language of interconnection, reintegration and transformation?

So called “war hawks” will say that an overwhelming threat of violence is necessary for peace because humans are naturally warlike beings. Some also believe that wars are needed for national unity. These beliefs are being challenged as we understand more about ancient civilizations and the workings of the human brain. We are discovering that, when conditions are favorable for our survival, our default mode is cooperation and compassion. However, we need to be trained to maintain these qualities when circumstances are less than ideal.

We are also challenging the idea that war is an effective solution. There are many examples throughout history in which the destruction and destabilization of war creates unintended negative consequences. For example, the prolonged US response to the 911 attacks – the “war on terrorism” – resulted in horrendous costs for all involved. This includes human lives lost, trillions of dollars spent, and instability enabling the establishment of Afghanistan as the largest narcotics trafficking state in the world and the rise of a violent caliphate in Iraq. As we finally recalled the last of our troops out of the area this year, the violent extremists we spent years trying to “defeat” are rapidly retaking lost ground.

As we begin to more fully understand the longer term impacts and hidden costs of war, we are also dismantling the lore that armed conflicts are somehow good for the economy. It turns out that gross domestic product (GDP), a traditional yardstick for a country’s success, actually isn’t a good measure of wellbeing, and it also isn’t an adequate measure of the consequences of war.

Violence often comes out of reactionary movements, which resist change, thrashing desperately against an inevitable tide, in an attempt to hold onto a state of social affairs that is falling out of relevance. They tend to spring from discontent around the threat of loss of values, personal identity or treasured way of life. Often the harmful actions that are sparked from reactionary movements are impulsive and emotion driven, without a clear or realistic picture of what “success” might look like. This is mindless reactivity elevating an attitude of “me first, right now“.

Movements that support transformation, on the other hand, tend to use tactics that are cohesion building because they are dynamic, creative and generative. They are moving with the tide of change, rather than against it – however gradual and slow the process may be. Although there are always individual exceptions, these movements are largely evolutionary in that they integrate continuous learning and discoveries into new ways of being and relating. Lawyer and Civil Rights Leader Valerie Kaur advocates for a “revolution of the heart”, in which we reimagine a world in which we all flourish.

Reimagining means that we’re doing more than resisting our opponents. We are looking at the cultures that radicalize them and institutions that authorize them. This is the moment to declare what is obsolete, what can be reformed, and what must be reimagined. Reimagining focuses us not just on what we are fighting against, but the future that we are fighting for. – Valerie Kaur

Research demonstrates that nonviolent approaches throughout history have been more effective than violent approaches to conflict. The Nonviolent & Violent Campaigns & Outcomes (NAVCO) data project catalogues major nonviolent and violent challenges to power around the globe from 1900 onward. It shows that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent resistance, both in the short-term and the longer-term, even in the face of brutal regime repression. In fact, historical evidence indicates acts of brutality tend to turn public opinion against the perpetrators.

A 2008 study by Jones and Libicki of terrorist groups that existed worldwide between 1968 and 2006 revealed that most groups ended through the negotiation of a settlement with their governments (43%) or because of operations carried out by local policing and intelligence (40%). Military force (7%) was rarely the primary reason a terrorist group ended, and only a few groups (10%) within this time frame achieved victory.

We also have lots of data now showing that negative reinforcement, such as corporal punishment and incarceration, is not an effective approach to behavior change. When negative reinforcement involves fear, shame, physical punishments, or threats of harm, often what results is avoidance and/or aggression. We know that intrinsic motivation has many advantages over extrinsic motivation when it comes to lasting behavior change. Research shows that the most effective way to eliminate unwanted behavior and increase wanted behavior is through positive reinforcement.

One example of a failure of negative reinforcement is our legal system. Even though the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, we also have a high recidivism rate – our five-year federal re-arrest rate is about 77%. This should be our sign that incarceration isn’t solving the problem of crime – there is something deeper and more upstream that needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, there are many other options beyond the duality of punishment and reward, victory and defeat – there is care, stewardship, adaptation, restoration, healing, recovery, renewal, and creative coexistence.

Reintegration is the process of welcoming what has been lost or rejected back into the whole. I think about the man who built a garden for the resident groundhogs to protect his family’s garden. I also think about the garbage bins, portable toilets and washing stations placed near concentrated encampments of unhoused people, especially when public facilities weren’t available during the pandemic. I reflect on the seemingly too-simple, but generous and trusting, research-backed solution of giving direct cash aid to families to help bring them and their neighbors out of poverty. Finally, I think of the many, many creative solutions people have come up with for compassionately meeting some of society’s most pressing problems.

But what about dire cases, such as violent extremism in which people come to accept violence as a legitimate course of action (OSCE)? Many countries have discovered that offering “at risk” individuals and offenders a de-stigmatized pathway back into civil society is essential for public security and a matter of human rights. Successful programs are non-coercive and take a balanced approach between enforcing safety measures and reducing upstream risk factors, such as trauma, grievances, and harmful structural, social, economic, and political conditions that can lead to violence.  We are realizing the wisdom in offering people an alternative to violence – a pathway for directing their lives more prosocially. What happens when we over-legislate and punish people with grievances, pushing them into dark corners? We already know the tragic answer to that. Relying on harsh punishment alone just results in further destabilization, alienation and entrenchment.

Effective violence prevention programs, on the other hand, build community resilience by “teaching peace and tolerance; promoting human rights and good governance; vocational training and mentoring; raising awareness about the threat of violent extremism in schools and neighborhoods; public information campaigns and community debates on sensitive topics; interfaith and intrafaith dialogues; youth and women’s empowerment programmes; building the capacity of teachers and community leaders…; media messaging and counter-narrative campaigns; and building trust between communities and law enforcement.” Secondary prevention uses intervention strategies such as “psychosocial support, mentoring, family or religious counselling, cultural or recreational activities, theological/doctrinal debate, education and employment training and support, and referral mechanisms” (OSCE).

When you ask people to give up hate, you have to be there for them when they do. – Rev CT Vivian

Research is showing that restorative justice, a peaceful and dignity preserving approach to righting wrongs, finding reconciliation, and repairing relationships adapted from the practices of indigenous groups, makes offenders less likely to reoffend with higher rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability than traditional approaches. Listen to Jesse Morton tell his story of how trauma made him vulnerable to violent extremist views. He explains how the kind and empathetic treatment of others was essential to his change in ideology. Jesse wrote the Counter Extremism Project report, When Terrorists Come Home: The Need for Rehabilitating and Reintegrating America’s Convicted Jihadists.

How does mindfulness factor into all of this? It can help us become better listeners, increase our awareness of the mind-shaping qualities of the words we choose when we speak across differences, and enable a broader view of the kind of world we’d like to inhabit together, as well as the possible pathways for creating it. We can train ourselves to adopt a language of interconnection, reintegration and transformation, working creatively and flexibly toward our collective wellbeing, rather than being rigidly entrenched in a violent fight against perceived threats to our personal self-interest.

The rejection of our common fate makes us strangers to each other. The election of that fate, in love, reveals us as one body. – Dom Sebastian Moore

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