International Alert has produced a new training manual to promote critical thinking in relation to the conflicts in the South Caucasus.
The manual is the result of three years of reflection and research by young professionals from the region, including political scientists, journalists and academics, with the aim of finding new paths towards conflict resolution.
Part of the EU-funded South Caucasus Mediation and Dialogue Initiative, the research focused on previously unexplored root causes of conflict in the South Caucasus, examining the mechanisms through which myths and stereotypes about the conflicts are created, disseminated and manipulated, with a particular emphasis on historical narratives and political discourses.
One of the main conclusions from the research was that the prevailing “enemy” narratives serve to close down the space available for reflection and critical thinking. The conflicts are unlikely to be resolved as long as the political and public discourse is dominated by these enemy images, and as long as the education system fails to encourage alternative interpretations of history. (Read more about the research findings here.)
This revealed an urgent need to equip people with tools to resist the manipulation of public opinion. We therefore gathered a team of researchers and trainers to develop a training and discussion tool that would make the conclusions of the research accessible and meaningful to a wider audience.
Designed to be useful for professionals such as teachers, students, journalists and peacebuilding practitioners, the training methodology provides participants with an opportunity to distance themselves from their own contexts (as far as possible) and take an outsider’s look at the state of affairs in their communities.
The training module has five main sections:
- Myth as a form of social consensus: Helping participants to reflect upon the impact of social consensus on individual and public life.
- Societal trauma and conflict: Introducing participants to psychological mechanisms that give rise to societal trauma – such as victimhood and enemy images.
- Heroes, anti-heroes, history textbooks and narratives: Helping participants understand history as a narrative, and to practise identifying discourses woven into the narratives.
- Political manipulation and political technologies: Inviting participants to reflect upon political manipulation on the theme of conflict.
- Media literacy and conflict: Enhancing participants’ media literacy, ability to recognise “spin”, and to think about media ethics – in particular, the ethics of conflict reporting.
Using a full range of interactive techniques, the training does not impose a particular set of views, approaches or values on its participants, but provides food for thought and reflection on various socio-psychological phenomena.
The methodology encourages a creative approach and experienced trainers can tailor it to the needs and appropriate level for the particular target group in question. The module offers trainers/facilitators a tool box of mini-lectures, PowerPoint presentations, role-plays, group work, video clips, analysis of textbooks and media reports, as well as a glossary and recommended further reading on each topic.
The module has already been tested as both a training tool and a tool to stimulate public discussion in the region, with some 140 participants from varied backgrounds having gone through one of the trainings. One of the participants commented:
‘My eyes have been opened! This training gave me a useful framework to understand certain things that I kind of knew before, but hadn’t reflected on like this; now I understand why people create ‘heroes’ and ‘myths’ – we should be more aware of how we are ‘fed’ information.’
Understanding the sensitivities around certain “myths”, the trainers in each region were given the freedom to select their own target group and adapt the module to their specific circumstances. Some trainers found it easier to steer away from directly discussing the conflicts, but nevertheless were able to bring many examples of manipulation of other kinds of stereotypes. This meant they could adapt the content while retaining the training methodology and purpose.
Most participants found the sections with a psychological theoretical component offered them new insights into conflict identity and why people are so easily manipulated.
‘Having learned that identity is a basic human need, I realise that those with whom we are in conflict have a different identity from us, and now I will always respect that …’
The next stage of this process will be to have a more targeted and systematic roll-out of the training module, through delivery of training for trainers and development of new "level 2" modules that go deeper into the themes designed for specific target groups, e.g. teachers, journalists and students.
In the meantime, we hope that this module will provide methodological support for those who work in this sensitive, complex but important field.
Photo: Participants at a training in Tbilisi, Georgia, with trainer and main contributor to the module, Jana Javakhishvili © Salome Adamia
This project was funded by: