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  • Kyna Elliott

Radical Empathy


Today was the first day of the CONTACT Peacebuilding Program at the SIT Graduate Institute. The campus is in Battleboro, Vermont, in a heavily wooded rural area. The campus is secluded and provides no distractions so the difficult discussions and learning is not diluted by external distractions. The participants come from various countries across the world. Four different countries in Africa, Afghanistan, multiple people from Kazakhstan, Czech Republic, Canada, Spain, Yemen, two Native Americans, and a few from the U.S. Bruce Dayton led the days activity and is the leader of the program.

The purpose of this program is conflict resolution and peace building. Conflict resolution of any kind. Political, family, community, any context, level or depth. The goal of the program is to leave with an increased awareness about the causes, consequences, and sources of conflict, violence, prejudice, and division. We are to use this time to build specific conflict analysis and peace building techniques to become agents of change within our own communities and contexts. It is up to us to figure out where, how, and why we apply the knowledge.

One concept that came up today was the question of the possibility to develop radical empathy. Is it possible that we can empathize with individuals we hate the most, who pose the most significant perceived threat? I like the notion and possibility of radical empathy. To accept even the possibility that empathy for an "enemy" could take the edge off conflict is a powerful tool. Our activities today began with defining peace and conflict. The words resolution and peace posed a problem defining and quantifying. So much so that we spent most of the afternoon discussing peace and violence. Bruce brought up sociologist and noted founder of the peace and conflict studies discipline Johan Galtung’s position that peace is an absence of violence with the understanding that the absence of violence is not purely possible. Galtung describe the notion of the triangle of violence. Three types of violence which exist that form the corners of the triangle are direct violence, cultural violence, and structural violence. These three corners can be invisible or visible. Each type of violence feeds the other corners of the triangle. For example, laws that systematically oppress groups, inherently racist education systems, are examples of structural violence. Cultural violence are accepted norms of violence such as gender (male domination), sexual and gender identity. Violence is a charged word with visual and psychological connotations, oppression, macro and micro-aggression's all fall under the catch all term of violence. Cultural violence legitimizes and justifies structural violence. Direct violence are physical manifestations that we typically see in war.

We discussed how deconstructing a conflict means looking at the specific type of violence, to see each dimension of the conflict and how it relates in order to determine where to start. The point was made that peace is both an external and internal process, you can have one without the other. Some brought up basic needs being met and another countered that the basic needs in the U.S. can be very different than in a developing country.

Looking at violence in it any form, we see that social conflicts can be waged constructively or destructively. Determining where the source of violence is and the tools you have available to analyze and manage a conflict determines whether attempts are constructive or destructive. Discussing whether violence is ever justified led to the observation that humans are so unimaginable when it comes to picking tools to resolve conflict. Meaning, historically we have chosen to use tools (ie physical violence) that perpetuates the cycle of violence, pain, and hurt.

Conflicts never really end, neither are they necessarily a bad or destructive thing. Conflict can be defined as where opposing forces meet, and can bring forth innovation, change, evolution, as a side effect of attempts at resolution. When we believe we have resolved a conflict we have only laid the soil for new conflict to arise from the perceived resolution. Conflicts are dynamic and can be transformed to move into a more positive direction.


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