Most conflicts that touch on security—and therefore for most wicked problems—have identity issues at or near their core. They come in many forms—race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and more. Whatever the form, they are almost always there and almost always hard to solve both because they tend to be extremely emotional and because they lead to so many other issues, not the least important of which are economics.

Indeed, it is easy to look at the news about Israel and Palestine, ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the protests in Ferguson MO and come to the conclusion that identity based conflicts defy solution. However, once we dig a bit deeper beyond the headlines, one finds initiatives in which dedicated individuals are chipping away at anger, fear, and hostility whose roots often can be traced back over generations and centuries.

Their one common denominator is that treat what look like entrenched and even permanent disputes as examples of what the political scientist, Benedict Anderson, calls imagined communities. Thus, our identities are “socially constructed” and thus can be “reimagined” in more inclusive and tolerant ways. In the new language of neuroscience, our brains are far more “plastic” than we might traditionally think and, therefore, that our racial, religious, ethnic, and other identities can be changed and moved in a more cooperative direction than previously thought.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other efforts in that once segregated society are often held up as the poster child for overcoming identity based conflict. But even in places where conflict fills the daily news, you find projects like Border Lives that bring Catholics and Protestants together in Northern Ireland, the Parents Circle that does the same with people who have lost family members to the violence in Israel and Palestine, the Contact Project which works with Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria, or the lib.


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