Because, after all, within living memory, they were hunters and gatherers, living pretty much like our ancestors lived for maybe 99% of the human story.
And all the men have these poison arrows that they use for hunting — absolutely fatal.
So how do they deal with their differences?
Well, what I learned is, whenever tempers rise in those communities, someone goes and hides the poison arrows out in the bush, and then everyone sits around in a circle like this, and they sit and they talk and they talk.
It may take two days, three days, four days, but they don’t rest until they find a resolution or better yet — a reconciliation.
And if tempers are still too high, then they send someone off to visit some relatives, as a cooling-off period. Well, that system is, I think, probably the system that kept us alive to this point, given our human tendencies.
That system, I call “the third side.” Because if you think about it, normally when we think of conflict, when we describe it, there’s always two sides — it’s Arabs versus Israelis, labor versus management, husband versus wife, Republicans versus Democrats.
But what we don’t often see is that there’s always a third side, and the third side of the conflict is us, it’s the surrounding community, it’s the friends, the allies, the family members, the neighbors. And we can play an incredibly constructive role.
Perhaps the most fundamental way in which the third side can help is to remind the parties of what’s really at stake.
For the sake of the kids, for the sake of the family, for the sake of the community, for the sake of the future, let’s stop fighting for a moment and start talking. Because, the thing is, when we’re involved in conflict, it’s very easy to lose perspective. It’s very easy to react.
Human beings — we’re reaction machines. And as the saying goes, when angry, you will make the best speech you will ever regret.
And so the third side reminds us of that. The third side helps us go to the balcony, which is a metaphor for a place of perspective, where we can keep our eyes on the prize.
Let me tell you a little story from my own negotiating experience. Some years ago, I was involved as a facilitator in some very tough talks between the leaders of Russia and the leaders of Chechnya. There was a war going on, as you know.
And we met in the Hague, in the Peace Palace, in the same room where the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal was taking place. And the talks got off to a rather rocky start when the vice president of Chechnya began by pointing at the Russians and said, “You should stay right here in your seats, because you’re going to be on trial for war crimes.”
And then he turned to me and said, “You’re an American. Look at what you Americans are doing in Puerto Rico.”
And my mind started racing, “Puerto Rico? What do I know about Puerto Rico?” I started reacting.
But then, I tried to remember to go to the balcony. And then when he paused and everyone looked at me for a response.
From a balcony perspective, I was able to thank him for his remarks and say, “I appreciate your criticism of my country and I take it as a sign that we’re among friends and can speak candidly to one another. And what we’re here to do is not to talk about Puerto Rico or the past. We’re here to see if we can figure out a way to stop the suffering and the bloodshed in Chechnya.”
The conversation got back on track. That’s the role of the third side, to help the parties go to the balcony.
Now let me take you, for a moment, to what’s widely regarded as the world’s most difficult conflict, or the most impossible conflict, the Middle East.
Question is: where’s the third side there? How could we possibly go to the balcony?
Now, I don’t pretend to have an answer to the Middle East conflict, but I think I’ve got a first step — literally, a first step — something that any one of us could do as third-siders.
Let me just ask you one question first. How many of you in the last years have ever found yourself worrying about the Middle East and wondering what anyone could do? Just out of curiosity, how many of you? OK, so the great majority of us.
And here, it’s so far away. Why do we pay so much attention to this conflict? Is it the number of deaths? There are a hundred times more people who die in a conflict in Africa than in the Middle East. No, it’s because of the story, because we feel personally involved in that story.
Whether we’re Christians, Muslims or Jews, religious or non-religious, we feel we have a personal stake in it. Stories matter; as an anthropologist, I know that.