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.
Stories are what we use to transmit knowledge. They give meaning to our lives. That’s what we tell here at TED, we tell stories. Stories are the key.
And so my question is — yes, let’s try and resolve the politics there in the Middle East, but let’s also take a look at the story.
Let’s try to get at the root of what it’s all about. Let’s see if we can apply the third side to it. What would that mean?
What is the story there?
Now, as anthropologists, we know that every culture has an origin story. What’s the origin story of the Middle East? In a phrase, it’s: Four thousand years ago, a man and his family walked across the Middle East, and the world has never been the same since. That man, of course, was Abraham.
And what he stood for was unity, the unity of the family; he’s the father of us all. But it’s not just what he stood for, it’s what his message was. His basic message was unity too, the interconnectedness of it all, the unity of it all. And his basic value was respect, was kindness toward strangers. That’s what he’s known for, his hospitality.
So in that sense, he’s the symbolic third side of the Middle East. He’s the one who reminds us that we’re all part of a greater whole.
Now, think about that for a moment. Today, we face the scourge of terrorism.
What is terrorism?
Terrorism is basically taking an innocent stranger and treating them as an enemy whom you kill in order to create fear.
What’s the opposite of terrorism?
It’s taking an innocent stranger and treating them as a friend whom you welcome into your home, in order to sow and create understanding or respect, or love.
So what if, then, you took the story of Abraham, which is a third-side story, what if that could be — because Abraham stands for hospitality — what if that could be an antidote to terrorism? What if that could be a vaccine against religious intolerance?
How would you bring that story to life? Now, it’s not enough just to tell a story. That’s powerful, but people need to experience the story. They need to be able to live the story. How would you do that? And that was my thinking of how would you do that.