The Search for Peace and Harmony
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The Search for Peace and Harmony • Posted: Dec 23, 2009 08:51:39Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Perhaps the most frustrating characteristic of human beings is their propensity for discord. No two individuals think alike. Even within close kinship groups, such as families, rancor is more the norm than the exception. And then, if we look at governmental bodies where social mechanisms have been intentionally designed to peacefully iron out disagreements, what do we see? Paralyzing discord.

What is the answer? How can humans achieve agreement, cohesion, and behavioral harmony in a way that is both attentive to our problems and satisfying to our psyches?

A classic early experiment in social psychology may give us a clue. The exact reference is no longer within reach for me, but those early researchers looked at rival groups of boys at a summer camp and found they could end the feuding by alerting both groups to a challenge from a rival camp. To meet that challenge, the two feuding groups came to see the only way to avoid mutual embarrassment at the hands of that rival camp was to put aside differences and refocus all efforts toward working together.

The researchers labeled the outside factor that brought the two rivals together a "superordinate threat". Using that same dynamic, George W. Bush attempted to unite Americans and Europeans in a War on Terror. For a while, it worked. But in the end, it failed. It failed because most people never really saw, felt, or believed the threat of terror. Only our soldiers did. Certainly, tens of thousands of innocent victims caught in the war zones never did. They were more likely to see our soldiers as the threat. For most bystanding citizens, the consequences of an inept government, i.e. Katrina and all those innocent casualties of our war effort, were much easier to see, feel, and believe. Still, the validity of that early research remains. Where and when a superordinate threat is real, people do tend to put aside their differences and pull together. They did in WWII. And today, the looming threat of global warming is beginning to feel undeniably real for most of us.

But must there always be a superordinate threat for feuding rivals to put aside rancor and discord? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Some groups do persist with little rancor. Their members do tend to maintain a workable state of cohesion and harmony. And there isn't always a tangible superordinate threat.

In his early seminal work, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that some groups held together by a set of shared beliefs, celebrated and ritualized within religious practices. In other words, the consequence of religion was to bind people into a cohesive group practicing harmonized behavior. As long as those behaviors continued to produce acceptance, security, and subsistence, members of the group were more than willing to doggedly rehearse the time honored rituals of their religion. However, when the tenets of that religion began failing to provide satisfactory outcomes, groups no longer held together. People moved on to other sets of conditions and other sets of beliefs. Those who stayed behind expecting different results from the same failing behaviors perished.

May your search for peace, harmony, and prosperity lead you away from identifying threat and toward inclusion, reverence, wonderment, effectiveness, and charity.

Sunday, December 20th, 2009
Van Horn