3 Books that will transform the way you think

A long commute to work and a surgery that temporarily bound me to the couch have had the positive effect that I read several eye and mind-opening books in the past weeks. Three lessons stood out:

  • We live in the most peaceful of times
  • All is not lost in international peacebuilding and
  • Trust your guts when making a decision.

1. We live in the most peaceful times ever

Steven Pinker: The better angels of our nature. A history of violence and humanity.

Pinker - Better Angels of our Nature Image: www.BookDepository.co.uk

Pinker – Better Angels of our Nature Image: http://www.BookDepository.co.uk

In 1000 odd pages Steven Pinker has managed to answer every single question I ever had about violence and war. Would the world be more peaceful if it is ruled by women? Is the War on Terror justified? Were the dark ages really that dark?

First, Pinker  sets out to convince the reader of his main point: Violence is and has been in steady decline. The rest of the book is dedicated to identify, proof and refute several explanations for why that is. Homo universalis Pinker delves deep into history, politics, sociology, psychology and biology to seek explanations. We learn that through the Flynn-effect humankind becomes gradually more intelligent. The literary revolution and globalisation has brought us closer together and made us more empathetic and thus less inclined to hurt each other.

And more Americans condone violence to reach political goals than Pakistanis. His source base is a joy for every researcher: surveys, quantitative data sets, literature from Kant to Nabokov, secondary studies, archival documents and art.

He  does not shy away to point out and explain inconsistencies, namely the Second World War, a rise of violence in the sixties and the ongoing conflicts in Africa. Game Theory, neurology and personal anectodes are woven into a compelling narrative that is – quite surprisingly – never tiring. Even after 600 pages in narrow typeface the book inspires to delve deeper into the human mind and soul.

2. There is hope for the Congo and successful peacebuilding

Severine Autesserre – The Trouble with the Congo. Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding

Aussterre - Trouble with the Congo. Image: www.foreignpolicy.com

Aussterre – Trouble with the Congo. Image: http://www.foreignpolicy.com

Gavilo Princip, July 1914.  A man and a gun … and an assassination started the First World War and led to one of the vilest and far-reaching wars of the 20th century. Men, soldiers, were scattered like pawns across the European hemisphere acting out the delusional dreams of their commanders in chief. All this ended with a peace treaty signed in humiliation in Versailles, France that caused troubles down the line (read: Second World War), but at least put a stop to all fighting at once.

Sadly, this hasn’t happened in the Congo. We are yet to await a end to the conflict almost since 1994. The international “peace” agreements including the Pretoria Agreement (2002), Luanda Agreement (2002), the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement (2002), the Goma Peace Agreements (2008) and finally the Congo Peace Deal (Feb 2013). Unsurprisingly, those high-level negotiations have not propelled the country out of its misery.

Generally, we are pointing the finger at the Congolese Government, NGOs, diplomats, Rwanda, the UN, France, UK, South Africa, Uganda and a whole lot of other actors that have failed to implement any lasting peace.

Severine Autesserre, however, offers a compelling alternative explanation: A special ‘international’ peacebuilding culture has prevented all stakeholders from responding to the local (local here means sub-provincial) level of violence that has kept the fighting alive for so long. The international culture was conceived and disseminated through E-mails, parties, meetings and conferences by diplomats, members of the UN, humanitarian aid workers and politicians.  Almost all labelled the DRC as a  ‘postconflict’ environment and the witnessed violence as intrinsic to the Congo, where looting and raping is the norm. Eruptions of fighting between ‘former’ enemies causing several hundred casualties and displacing thousands of people are labelled ‘a crisis’ instead of the more appropriate term: war. This has led to a neglect of local peacebuilding and reconciliation activities that could have resulted in a sustainable lasting peace. This is obviously a very brief and poignant summary of her well researched, incredible compelling argument.

Recommended for everyone with an interest to gain a different perspective of the recent history of the DRC. Aussterre demonstrates in a convincing piece of academic scholarship how this  even in this fatalistically failed state unsurmountable challenges have rational explanations and can be overcome.

3. Forget about theory and trust your guts

Malcom Gladwell: Blink. The power of thinking without thinking

Gladwell - Blink. Image: www.ebooksmio.com

Gladwell – Blink. Image: http://www.ebooksmio.com

It is really rather astonishing what the mind can do if we let it do its job. Gladwell combines in an engaging way various studies mainly from US universities on how the vast amount of Information we are receiving is often more distracting than helpful. Students that had to rate the performance of a professor by seeing a  3 second video clip of him came to the same conclusions as students that evaluated performance after a whole semester. Doctors get sued for malpractice not for doing something wrong but for not listening and engaging with their patients. Participants who read an essay about being a professor before answering Trivial Pursuit questions as opposed to reading about being an alcoholic got 55% of the answers right as opposed to 44% of the control group.

Gladwell’s book is an entertaining reminder that knowledge, analysis and deliberation is not everything when it comes to judging other people or making snap decisions about our future.

1 comment
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