Last summer I had spent some time looking at the website for The Third Side, so when I saw the book at a used bookstore, I bought it, looking forward to a more thorough discussion of the topics on the website. I was not disappointed. The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, by William Ury, presents a thorough discussion of the human history of fighting followed by detailed looks at the ten roles one can play in a conflict as a thirdsider. Ury’s writing, although at times a bit dry, presents the topics in an accessible manner, with a clear goal of making this information available to and understandable by as many people as possible.
In the first section of the book, Ury presents a compelling argument that the majority of human history has in fact consisted of relatively peaceful coexistance, and it is only in the last 5,000 years that armed conflict has become the norm. First of all, there is no archeological evidence of warfare prior to the last 5,000 years. Of course, as Ury points out, the lack of evidence does not imply that warfare did not exist. However, Ury continues with a detailed analysis of what we do know about pre-historic societies and explains how cooperation rather than coercion would have simply made more sense in ensuring survival. In a hunter-gather society with a low population density, there are enough resources for everyone, cooperation ensures more rather than less, and social ties with other groups are important to survival: “If a drought occurs or a seasonal imbalance in game, plants, or water, people can go visit relatives and friends, who would share their territory and food. The following year, the visitors could reciprocate and receive the hosts of the previous year.” Five thousand years ago, when humans became settled and agricultural rather than nomadic, the population increased and force became an effective way of ensuring survival. Thus, there was more armed conflict and this is what we think of as human history. Ury’s basic argument is sumarized is follows:
In truth, however, the violence and domination we have known are the product not so much of human nature but the complex logic of settling down, intensive reliance on land, population increase, the weakening of the third side, the closing of the exit option, the development of authoritarian hierarchies, the growth of the state, and the contagion of war. At the bottom of this logic is the dependence on fixed-pie resources—first of land and then of power over other human beings.
Ury sees positive signs in the last 50 years that we might be on our way to a society where once again force does not make sense for survival: the Knowledge Revolution – knowledge is an expandable rather than fixed pie and sharing it benefits everyone; weapons have become so destructive that war now has an “all-lose” nature; it is much less likely that the aggressor will win than in the past; war is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the larger community; humans are forming networks across the globe, creating a large and powerful potential third side; and negotiation has become necessary and expected in business and politics.
I found Ury’s arguments about the history of conflict and the potential for peace in the future persuasive, but I did not need to read such in-depth analyses in order to be convinced that peace is possible. I already believed that, for a much simpler reason than what Ury presents: humans have successfully resolved conflicts without force. The simple fact that it has happened, that humans at some point, somewhere, have resolved a conflict satisfactorily without force, is enough for me to believe that if violence is human nature, then cooperation and peaceful resolution of conflicts is equally so. I believe that we have a choice in any conflict whether to use peace means or violence to resolve it. However, perhaps this is a somewhat idealistic view of things. Ury argues that the structure of a society and the way in which resources are distributed affects whether violence and force is a logical way to resolve a conflict. This suggests that even if humans are always capable of choosing peace, they will not choose it in certain situations where force seems to better ensure their survival. This could easily lead one into a state of despair, thinking that because of the way our society has evolved, violence is simply inevitable and there is nothing we can do. If I start thinking in this way, then I find Ury’s final arguments about our current situation and future possibilities quite reassuring. Society is continually evolving, and it is possible in our current situation to make cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution the more logical choice. To help make this happen, we need to invoke the third side during conflicts.
And thus we get to the second part of the book, where Ury discusses each of the ten roles one can play on the third side of a conflict: provider, teacher, or bridge-builder to help prevent conflicts; mediator, arbiter, equalizer, or healer to help resolve conflicts; and witness, referee, or peacekeeper to help contain conflicts. Although I had already read about each role on the website (and wrote about them in an earlier post), I enjoyed the additional depth and more detailed examples in the book. However, somewhere close to the end of the book I suddenly stopped reading it for a couple weeks. I think I was having trouble staying engaged because it was not that new to me. I also noticed that the part I stopped in was about containing conflicts, which is the least interesting to me – I would much rather work on preventing or peacefully resolving conflicts than on trying to contain them once they have started escalating.
The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop is an important book that I think everyone should read, especially the part about the ten roles one can take on (the first half of the book, while interesting, is not necessary to learning something from the second half; however, if you believe that violence is simply inevitable and there is no hope, then I suggest reading the first half). It is not necessary to take on one of the roles formally in order to help in a conflict – simply understanding what these roles are and seeing examples of how to use them can give you the ability to step into a role more naturally when you encounter a conflict. You may not notice that you are taking an explicit role, or you may be doing a mix of roles, but you are still acting as the third side and helping work towards peaceful resolution of conflicts.