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Pondering the "Problem of the Antecedent Condition"



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I have lately been thinking a great deal about what I have dubbed “the problem of the antecedent condition.” As my colleague Laura Zanotti and I work on a book on NGOs and peacebuilding, and as Laura, Ioannis Stivachtis, Marcy Schnitzer, Krisha Chachra and I collaborate on a project exploring the roles of sport in peacebuilding for the Olympic Truce Centre, this concern comes to the fore the more we examine intractable conflicts. Why is it that one or more parties to a conflict finally elects to accord the other standing and to take an alternate view that permits compromise, or at least movement in any negotiation between them? Just as important, why do individuals choose to cling stubbornly to perspectives, even when these doom a project, portend continuing tension or otherwise place them in implacable conflict with others? This issue is central to management of long-lived conflicts and key to any possibility of accommodation among parties in those situations.

In addition to considering the question through the lens of the book and project, I have also had occasion in recent months to witness two alternate roads to intractability that have given me cause to reflect. Both occurred outside peacebuilding per se, but within group dynamics in which reaching consensus was significant. In the first, one stakeholder held fast to a perception and set of claims clearly central to their worldview, although (in my view and that of many other participants too) irrelevant to the matter at hand. That fact, however, did not matter to the individual who argued the same point over and over and refused to shift position. That view involved projecting onto others that person’s fears, founded not in the scenario at hand, but instead in personal (and unrelated) experience. In the second instance, another party to a project slowed efforts to secure consensus among the group’s principals for a different reason. The person was certain, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that their views were not being given the standing the person believed they deserved. Accordingly that party’s concern too, at least in good measure, was a deeply personal one concerning their identity and role and the perception of how others viewed the participant. Like the other person, this individual projected their concerns onto others and presumed their accuracy, hewing to those claims, despite the presentation of alternatives or the protests of others that those perceptions were inaccurate.

What is interesting about these scenarios is that neither was rooted in rational argument. Instead, each was anchored in perceptions and emotions and each was the product of deeply held views that had as much to do with how individuals situated themselves personally in the world as they did with any disputed facts or circumstances. As such, one could argue until the proverbial cows came home that these perspectives had nothing to do with the facts or circumstances at hand. That simply did not matter to the individuals holding those views, as the perceptions were predicated on assumptions and emotions that these people held deeply and projected onto the situations they now confronted. These drove their behaviors and not facts or alternate arguments offered concerning how one should consider the matters at hand. As importantly, in each case these individuals ascribed behaviors to others in accord with their perceptions and without recourse to any other perspectives. That is, they attributed views to others those people in fact did not hold. As such, the individuals’ views fit the very definition of intractability; they refused to accede to alternate perceptions and they behaved as if holding onto their espoused perspectives was essential not only to their view of the matters under discussion, but also to their very identities as individuals. They exemplified “the problem of the antecedent condition.”

How does one reach individuals in such circumstances to open the possibility of examining new viewpoints and alternate positions? I am not sure there is any recipe for the purpose, but it is certainly clear that if these people were ever to consider their perspectives and positions afresh, those working with them would need to engage them emotionally and not simply rationally. The lesson for peacemakers is to stay in the fray and keep offering options that allow individuals the opportunity to consider their views not only through the lens of reason, but also through the reality of emotional connection. Would-be conciliators simply must find ways to help these people to reflect anew in emotional terms, on their own claims and on the costs those assertions portend for others. These scenarios will likely need to be deeply individualized to be effective. Some people will find ways to overcome or reach beyond their hard held stands. Others may never do so. Patience is a virtue in such conditions as intractability is built on heartfelt perceptions and emotions and these do not change easily. Indeed, time may be the agent of change, which may not be measurable in weeks or months or even years, but in generations. In the meantime, intractability may frustrate all efforts to secure change.

Given these realities, I am reminded of President Jimmy Carter’s recounting in his memoir of an incident concerning the Camp David negotiations. The President, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had all agreed they could not come to a new agreement and they had only to discern how to announce that sad reality when Carter sent word to Begin asking how his grandchild (by name) might perceive this turn. The emotion resulting from that question gave Begin fresh impetus to try to come to agreement and proved an important breakthrough in the negotiation. Not only was emotion signally important apparently to the Prime Minister, so too was asking the leaders (Carter next involved Sadat) to consider how those in the future might view their choices. Will such steps always prove effective? I frankly doubt it, but they provide insights into conditions that appear necessary to cause individuals to reflect on their views. One must find ways to reach others emotionally and to cause them to consider the implications of their perceptions for others now and particularly, in the future. Here is the beginning of an answer to the “problem of the antecedent condition.” That it is difficult and vexing is testimony to its multi-faceted character and enduring significance.

Publication Date

July 18, 2010