Understanding irrationality to save the human race: Lord John Alderdice
by Allan LEONARD
15 May 2019
The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast hosted a spring conference in honour of the 10th anniversary of the awarding of an honorary degree to President Daisaku Ikeda (President, Soka Gakkai International (SGI)). The evening before the day conference was marked by the unveiling of a commemorative peace bench in the university’s quadrangle garden, as well as a peace tree in Botanic Gardens. With a welcome by Professor Hastings Donnan and introduction by Professor Richard English, Lord John Alderdice delivered a keynote speech in the Great Hall: “Respect and Understanding: Civil Paths to Peace”.
Alderdice described how, as a young man, he saw people making decisions in Northern Ireland that were not in their best interests; he was observing a cycle of violence and political stalemate. He explained how he entered the study of psychiatry, to learn why people make irrational choices. He thought that if he could understand this from an individual’s point of view, then perhaps he could understand this at a larger, communal perspective. Alderdice proceeded to describe how difficult this has been.
When Alderdice was elected in 1989 to Belfast City Council, Councillor Alex Maskey extended his hand. At that time, it was customary for opponents of Sinn Fein to not respond in kind. But Alderdice explained that he did shake hands with Maskey: “I treated him as a fellow human being.” But he continued by saying that incorporating human feelings in political life is not without consequences. When his brother, David Alderdice, led the Alliance Party group in the council to approve a proposal for the selection of Maskey as the Lord Mayor of Belfast, opponents “couldn’t find David’s house, so they threw bricks through my windows”.
But Alderdice added that was okay, because windows could be replaced; feelings are another matter. He has learned that what people will remember the longest are feelings of disrespect and humiliation — not poverty, injustice, or disagreements. If someone publicly humiliates you, for example, you’ll remember that feeling long after you’ve forgotten what the argument was about.
Alderdice argued that this sense of resentment works at a group level, too. He made the case of the extension of university education and fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland; as Catholics still found themselves disadvantaged, that community’s call for respect got louder. Some resorted to violence, which Alderdice argued could not have been a strategic decision, because there are many historical lessons that show terrorism usually affects your own community worse. So why does terrorism happen?
Alderdice disagrees with the notion of trying to address “extreme thinking” (en vogue with efforts to combat “Muslim extremism”). Rather, those who are incredibly angry and frustrated will take actions at great costs, to themselves and even their own community. Alderdice said that those who deem themselves to be in an existential threat will think differently, in what are called not rational, but “devoted actions”, based on sacred values.
This helps explain some responses to peacemaking, when one actor spurns any financial incentive for cooperation. There are some relationships that you cannot put a monetary value on, such as one’s wife or say, one’s tribe. But acknowledge the hurt caused and you could have a basis to keep talking, this line of negotiation suggests.
So, Alderdice argued, Northern Ireland’s problems weren’t fundamentally economic or poor policy decisions, but “bad historical relations”. He said that it was right to explore the perspectives of power and humiliation through the three-stranded approach among the British and Irish jurisdictions. Alderdice lamented that this multilateral relationship building has not continued.
Looking beyond Northern Ireland, Alderdice suggested not that there is no role for military force in global security, but “the military cannot deliver peace”. He underlined that “the salve of civility has a role — listening, engaging, understanding”.
“How we feel is part of the way we think, and we need to incorporate this in our business of learning,” Alderdice concluded.
In the following Q&A session, Grainia Long (Commissioner of Resilience, Belfast City Council), asked about post-conflict trauma, especially that presented by children who never experienced traumatic events firsthand. Alderdice replied that “what we are doing to our children is worse than we thought”, explaining how not only is trauma transferred down generations by social means, but that some psychological damage can permanently affect one’s genes and thus create a biological basis of transgenerational trauma. He suggested interventions at group levels as a potential remedy.
Another member of the audience asked about the relationship between feelings and knowledge. Alderdice made reference to our current experiences of disruptive technologies (social media, automation, machine learning), and argued that “rationalism alone has run its course. It is not good science to think humans behave like computers — the way you wish humans reacted instead of what they actually do.”
Alderdice concluded: “We need to study irrationality as an opportunity not only to understand, but to survive as a human race.”