During his career, Tim Phillips has learned a great deal about reconciliation and human behavior. One lesson in particular stands out: The Enlightenment was deeply flawed.
“During the Enlightenment, scholars believed that humans are rational beings who happen to have emotions,” Phillips says. “In fact, the opposite is true—science is showing that we are highly emotional beings who happen to have moments of clarity.”
It’s a lesson that’s been reinforced throughout the 27 years Phillips has spent leading the nonprofit Beyond Conflict, which he founded in 1992 to support governments and organizations as they broker peace and reconciliation in areas ravaged by war, oppression, trauma, and discord. Phillips helped pave the way for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which aimed to bring restorative justice to victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses under Apartheid, the nation’s strict system of racial segregation that came to an end in the early 1990s.
Since then, Phillips has worked to resolve conflicts in more than 75 countries, including Northern Ireland, Cuba, and countries in Central America and Eastern Europe. During each mission, he’s seen the burden that emotions have on human behavior.
“A friend working to bring peace to Guatemala and El Salvador in 1992 told me that exclusion is a main driver of conflict,” he says. “At the time, I understood what he meant intellectually, but as I started working around the world, I saw that some form of cultural, social, or economic exclusion was consistent in every place.”
He later learned, from his extensive work with neuroscientists and psychologists, that such forms of social rejection are experienced as physical pain in the brain. The close association between brain and social sciences led Phillips to establish the Beyond Conflict Innovation lab for Neuroscience and Social Change, which uses cognitive and behavioral science research to inform the design of better interventions for building peace and promoting social change.
Phillips will be among the scholars and practitioners participating Wednesday in a half-day conference in Athens, Greece, hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins. The conference, titled Talking (and Listening) Across Divides: What We Can Learn from Research and Experience, will bring together experts whose work sheds light on conflict resolution as well as methods of coalition and consensus building among groups with competing agendas.
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