Sunday, 13 July 2014

West Side Story - a parable for all times

Last night I went to see a stage production of "West Side Story". Although I seem to have known most of the songs throughout my life it was the first time I had actually seen it, either on stage or as a film, which was pretty surprising for someone of my generation.

Although it dates from 1957, its story is timeless. Racially-divided New York gangs fight over a small area of the city, one death leads to another and the cycle of revenge starts. It was relevant then, it was relevant to Shakespeare when he wrote the original 'screenplay' as "Romeo and Juliet", and it is relevant now.

When you think in systems and see a situation which never changes you recognise that there are systemic factors in play that are maintaining some sort of status quo. It then becomes possible to see the futility of many actions which are taken to try and stop the violence.

As the second act moved towards its tragic conclusion I started to think about the news I had heard earlier about another escalation of violence in the Middle East. Israeli youngsters kidnapped and murdered, tit for tat murder of an Arab youth, more rockets coming out of Gaza, Israeli tanks massed to invade Gaza. Such has been the story of my life, it seems.

So what are the systemic factors going on here? In 2002 David Peter Stroh wrote an interesting article for "The Systems Thinker" magazine (Volume 13, number 5, "A systemic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"). Using a system dynamics approach, he identified an endless cycle:

1. Both sides fight for the right to exist - each side denies the right of the other to exist, so coexistence cannot be an option.

2. Tension escalates - retaliation becomes the strategy, as each side sees itself as a victim, and in the short term retaliatory activity seems to justify the right to exist.

3. Pressure leads to negotiations - at some point in violence becomes unacceptable, internally or to the external international community and peace talks start.

4. Peace efforts break down - extremists on either side take some action calculated to provoke a reaction, and the peace talks break down.

The overall result is that actions intended to create peace (negotiations) actually have the opposite effect, and provoke violence. To a systems thinker, this is not unusual.

Stroh captures these dynamics in a causal flow diagram (here, clipped from the PDF of his article).

He uses this to identify leverage points, where changes in strategy could actually lead to progress in reducing violence. For example:
  • Each side should think about what it can do to initiate change by reducing threats to the other side.
  • Administrations on each side need to take risks to stop the actions of extremists.
  • Each side should affirm the goal of peaceful coexistence.
  • The international community should not take sides and should come together to support both Israel and the Palestinian Administration to make the necessary internal changes.
Maybe, just maybe, this change in strategy could lead in the longer term to peaceful coexistence in the Middle East. And it is sorely needed. As a wicked problem, what happens in Palestine has a profound effect on events elsewhere in the world. For example, as Jason Burke points out in his very readable "Al Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam", many Muslims see western support for Israel as being a continuation of the mediaeval crusades, and the occupation of Jerusalem gave an initial twist to the current feedback loop of violent, fundamentalist terrorism. Systemically therefore, to deal with such terrorism we need to look at root causes rather than erode civil liberties through enhanced surveillance - but that is probably for another blog.

Disputes over land have always been problematic, whether it be in the Middle East or in the fictional New York of the 1950s. The deaths of Tony, Riff and Bernardo can serve as a parable to help us understand what we might be able to do better rather than embark on an endless cycle of violence.

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