CFSC Launches Are We Done Fighting?

I recently had the chance to chat with Canadian Friends Service Committee’s peace program coordinator Matt Legge about the new book he’s written for CFSC.
Keira: What is Are We Done Fighting?
Matt: It’s a book that collects and shares a lot of surprising stories and research directly relevant to many different problems in the world right now – polarization, extremism, the rise of hate movements… Readers will learn about important topics like why we hold fast to false beliefs, when punishments work and when they don’t, and why we often seem to act against our own interests. I wanted to critically interrogate my own assumptions about peace and how we build it within ourselves, our families, and beyond.
What makes your book unique?
This book is written with one goal: to be useful. Of course my ego might love it if you read this and think, “Oh he’s so clever,” but honestly the book isn’t at all about offering clever arguments or theories. The aim is simply to be immediately useful to the reader.
It’s not an academic book, although it could certainly be used in classroom settings. It has around 750 citations, and a lot of those are peer-reviewed studies, so there’s definitely a lot of research informing the book, but it’s not written to be complicated or dry. What I did want to do was make sure it wasn’t just opinions, and to bring in findings from different fields that don’t usually interact with each other. I think that’s one thing that makes the book unique.
It uses a simple and conversational tone with short chapters, each ending with helpful tips. Since my goal was to identify what each of us can readily and realistically do, I chose not to focus on activism or international scale issues as much, although they certainly are discussed. But first and foremost this is meant for use in your personal life and whatever type of difficult interactions you might be having with your partner, with your co-worker, family members… I wanted to keep it very accessible to people of different political stripes, different faith and cultural backgrounds. So it’s an easy read and almost fun to read, maybe, hopefully, although it’s dealing with challenging topics!
The book also includes group activities. Incredibly rich learning opportunities await if you use these! There’s an appendix on how to facilitate the activities and anyone can do this. But if you’d like, CFSC is also available to help facilitate. I’d love to help your group with this. I’m sure we’ll each gain a lot from it!
What are some examples of the tips at the end of each chapter?
If you go on the book’s website there’s a free chapter there, so you can get a sense immediately of what the tips are. I’ll just give you one example. People who care the most about fairness are most likely to cheat on tests. Why is that? The answer is ambiguity. We don’t clearly define what a term like “fairness” means, so we reinterpret it in each new situation. We make it mean whatever justifies what we want to be doing in that situation! So if I’m the professor writing the test, I think fairness means not cheating on it. But if I’m the student taking the test, I say to myself, “This test is unfair because I couldn’t understand the question it was asking, so I deserve to cheat. That’s only fair.”
A lot of our worst behaviours happen in part when we believe that we’re victims of injustice or that we need to act to make the world fair again. Members of hate groups very often think this way. They’re not setting out to be evil, they think what they’re doing is achieving justice and fairness. They believe their intentions are good.
So there’s the tip – when interacting with people, whoever they are, assume that they believe their intentions are good. That shift in mindset can really help you approach difficult encounters in a new light. That tip isn’t enough on its own, we need a lot of other skills too, but I don’t have the space to go into those here.
Is there something you discovered in your research that really surprised you?
There is a lot that surprised me! I kept seeing in so many different cases how whatever it is that I consider positive – empathy for instance – can be abused and can end up getting pushed in very negative directions if taken too far to an extreme. The example I just gave about caring about fairness sometimes leading to great harms was a surprise for me.
Another huge surprise was how little I really knew about power. I discovered incredible stories of people I would’ve thought of as being in impossibly vulnerable situations but who had great power, in one example given in the book even stopping an imminent civil war! These stories aren’t told that often in mass media. Instead we get stories that dramatize and glorify the hero using superior physical force to win, so our ideas can be quite warped and unrealistic.
Why do you think people struggle so much with achieving and maintaining peace?
There are a lot of factors. It’s really important to highlight that there is no one formula. We love being told, “This is the one area we need to work on.” A psychologist named Peter Coleman did a literature review and found that various experts were each claiming they had identified the principle cause of entrenched conflict. When he added these up there were 57 different principle causes!
So there is no one single cause. Large scale conflicts are complex and emergent. Now, if you’re only going to work on one area, probably communication is the skill that most of us could improve on. We’re taught how to communicate poorly and how to deal with conflicts in such a way that they are highly likely to become entrenched rather than to constructively transform. I would suggest that communication and conflict transformation skills are useful for everyone. That can be taught in schools. In the book there’s an example of kids as young as three years old learning these skills.
Why does this matter to Friends?
This book is continuing a way of thinking that has been there in various forms since the beginning of the Religious Society of Friends: looking at taking away the occasions for war. So, reflecting on the deeper causes rather than the symptoms.
This book continues that approach, exploring what each of us can do to live out our deepest values. For CFSC, helping people to gain new skills to live out their peace aspirations is central to our work as the peace and social justice agency of Quakers in Canada.
How did this book come about?
We met in March of 2017 and CFSC members asked me to draft a 50 page document. Little did I know this would turn into a full book based on thousands of hours of research and writing both by myself and other staff and volunteers of CFSC! I’m extremely grateful to CFSC members and associates for their enthusiasm and support as this project evolved.
Even before I started writing I had all of these resources from the various email lists I’m on and from talking with Quakers in Canada, the US, Britain, D.R. Congo… I had a lot of great opportunities to learn about methods that I know some Friends use, but that they don’t always systematically collect and communicate to a broader audience. My hope was to help those messages reach people who haven’t already heard them.
I want to be clear that, although I’m listed as the author, these aren’t my original ideas. This is the collective wisdom that I’ve learned from many remarkable people, both Friends and non-Friends, and that wisdom is tested against and informed by cutting-edge knowledge from many academic disciplines. It’s no exaggeration to say that pulling all this together has been by far the biggest undertaking of my life. Now I’m really excited for people to take this resource up and use it. I’d very much welcome any feedback from folks who do!
This interview was edited. Keira Mann is CFSC’s Program Assistant. Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division is published by New Society Publishers and is available internationally. Proceeds CFSC receives from sales go directly to our peace and justice work. Contact us about Matt giving a brief presentation or facilitating a longer workshop for your group.