Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Nobody sees themselves as the villain – Contemplating the ‘Other’

If I learnt one lesson from my time with the CIA, it is this: everybody believes they are the good guy.

Confessions of a former covert CIA agent – Amaryllis Fox

Last month an Al Jazeera video of a former undercover CIA officer went viral. Her message was simple and straightforward. Listen to your enemy and you might just learn from them.

In philosophical terms, the other needs to exist so that we can define “the self”. Without differentiating, we would find it much harder to build collectives. You and I, us and them. We create bonds and relationships, and then form groups through what we share. Those multiple layers of identity find themselves contemporarily in the nation-state, language, gender, race, sexual orientation, social status, ideologies, educational institutions, fields of work, hobbies, values, and in an indefinite number of other variables. Find yourself in a group of people and see how many things you can divide and connect from each other.

The other does not necessarily start off as an enemy. As dynamics develop, however, stressors can put significant pressure on groups to react to each other. Turkish-American psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s “Robbers Cave” experiments demonstrated how socially-constructed collectives can turn on each other in real life situations. Having invited 22 pubescent boys to a summer camp, they were divided into two groups. After developing strong social bonds in their respective groups, they were all brought together to compete against each other in win-lose activities. External situations were then devised, such as one group arriving at a picnic before the other and eating all the food first. Conflict broke out over and over often relating to limited resources. As group cohesiveness increased, inter-group conflict and animosity become stronger.

Our class representing 17 countries, men and women, languages, and many other layers of identity, all connected through a mutual desire to understand and contribute to peace in some way, had an excellent activity to start off our journey together. A lecturer read out a story and asked fellows to contemplate their reaction to it.

The Sheriff of Nottingham captured Little John and Robin Hood and imprisoned them in his maximum-security dungeon. Maid Marion begged the Sheriff for their release, pleading her love for Robin. The Sheriff agreed to release them only if Maid Marion spent the night with him. To this she agreed. The next morning the Sheriff released his prisoners. Robin at once demanded that Marion tell him how she persuaded the Sheriff to let them go free. Marion confessed the truth, and was bewildered when Robin abused her, called her a slut, and said that he never wanted to see her again. At this Little John defended her, inviting her to leave Sherwood with him and promising lifelong devotion. She accepted and they rode away together.

We were instructed to categorise the four characters in the order we saw them showing the most morality and honesty. Although the subsequent ranking could provide a psychological profile of the participant, we were instead asked to walk around the group and connect with like-minded classmates that had chosen the same pattern.

At first, many assumed the answer was obvious and that most others had ranked the same way they had.  It soon proved, however, that there was a significant range of views on the morals of each character. Suddenly small debates began to break out amongst classmates. In one heated discussion where two people had ranked the complete opposite of each other, I saw gender, cultural, and privilege dynamics playing out with both participants putting in all their effort to convince the other why their point of view was more valid. A heavy insistence prevailed with most people holding onto their rankings and continuing in a cycle of debate with no end. In this simple scenario, “the others” had been formed.

In conflict that complexifies and deeply polarises groups, people that engage “the other” often get the most flack from “their own”.  Instead of being seen as connectors or dialogue facilitators, they can be reversely labelled as fools, instigators, or even traitors.

During the Vietnam War, American anti-war activist Jane Fonda travelled to Hanoi to meet with her country’s foe to witness first-hand the effects of warfare on the ground. Over two weeks she visited hospitals, schools, factories, and villages to get a sense of the other side of the story. Her return to the US was met with a significant national outcry of repudiation and calls of treason. She was quickly nicknamed “Hanoi Jane” and became one of the most despised people of her time by a significant portion of the American population.

In Uganda, laws against homosexuality and same-sex relations persist with a strong majority in society that condemn and marginalise the LGBTQ community. The result is an overwhelming narrative of gays as the other. Despite persecution and widespread violence, 84 year-old bishop Christopher Senyonjo, has publically challenged laws, societal discrimination, and the church’s role in the demonisation of them. He began providing counselling to LGBTQ youth and holding religious services for them. He was cast out of the church, publicised in a magazine as a sympathiser, and receives death threats on a daily basis.

In May 2015, thirty international female peacemakers walked with thousands of Korean women calling for an end to the Korean War. Crossing from north to south through the Demilitarised Zone, they succeeded doing something that 65 years of neither diplomacy nor international relations have been able to accomplish. Led by Korean-American Christine Ahn with renowned feminists and personalities such as Gloria Steinem, they rejoiced in carrying out the seemingly impossible. However, instead of being recognised as heroes that had taken the initiative to engage in difficult dialogue, the South Korean and American media largely treated them with disdain and portrayed them as foolish and naïve.

The hardest thing to do in an inter-personal conflict can often be having a difficult conversation. In some contexts, a direct approach might be used to deal with the issue at hand and come to an understanding. In other contexts, indirect communication or subtle navigation might be employed to find a way to overcome the tension or the conflict.

In a group conflict, when dealing with us and them, it becomes more complex. In an ethnic, national, or identity conflict that has reached such a point of protraction, simply engaging the other to better understand may no longer seem like a logical step. A century ago, it was far easier to simplify identity in an international relations context by nations in an inter-state conflict. As the trend for intra-state and trans-national conflict supersedes traditional conflict, identity blurs and groups of all shapes and sizes come together and bump into others in conflict at varying levels.

One of the more positive results coming from the Robbers Cave experiments was observed during the final stage of the summer camp when the two opposing groups of boys were reunited. In attempt to bring them together and lessen tension, group film screenings and firecracker activities were organised. It didn’t work. A new approach was employed to create a series of problems, such as a blocking the water and other obstacles over the next few days. Despite hard feelings and division, the boys were put into situations that required group unity. By the end of the summer camp, they all decided to travel home together in the same bus. Peace prevailed and relations had been transformed – and the “they” became “us”.


Raymond Hyma – Canada

Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 21



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