Less forgiveness and more cooperation in peacebuilding? What AI and paramilitary fieldwork suggest
by Madison POULTER
22 February 2023
“60% of conflicts reoccur, and surprisingly peace is a rather poor indicator of future peace,” shared Dr Katherine O’Lone. The recurrence of conflicts despite peace processes underscores the importance of inter- and intra-group relationships in developing sustainable peace in post-conflict societies. But repairing relationships and the fabric of society after a conflict is no easy feat — especially when it comes to forgiveness. On 22 February, the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast, in partnership with the Woolf Institute, convened a group of academics, faith leaders, and practitioners to explore the role forgiveness plays in dealing with — and moving on from — the past.
The conference, Forgiveness and the Future: Lessons from Northern Ireland, Bosnia and South Sudan, was divided into two parts. The first half, “Forgiveness and Conflict”, featured Dr Katherine O’Lone, Dr Justin Lane, and Prof. F. LeRon Shults. They shared initial findings from their two-year-long project, “Forgiveness and Future Building”. This project, supported by the Woolf Institute, paired sociological and psychological qualitative research with AI and quantitative modelling to track, understand, and predict intergroup forgiveness in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and South Sudan.
The team used Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory as their basis for understanding and predicting human behaviour. As O’Lone explained, Haidt’s theory posits that human beings are born with “an innate set of psychological systems” that have evolved to help us deal with moral problems. The pillars of the theory — care and harm, fairness and cheating, liberty and oppression, loyalty and betrayal, authority subversion — were used in the team’s AI models to enhance a database of articles, interviews, academic research, propaganda, etc., used in turn to develop psychological and sociological portraits of the different conflict areas.
The AI modelling uses “digital twins” — real-time, electronic societal replications — of Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and South Sudan, to understand what conditions make a transitional society more cooperative or more prone to conflict. O’Lone, Lane, and Shults played with influencing parameters like overall economic stress, the introduction of new groups of people, etc.
Interestingly, the results from their research indicated that transitional societies were most cooperative when the attributes of “fairness virtue”, “sadness”, and “happiness” were highest; “future thinking” ranked low. When it came to conflict, “anxiety”, “authority virtue”, and “liberty virtue” rated highest. Forgiveness is possible when paired with “fairness”, “sadness”, and “happiness”, as it helps process the three traits and catalyse a cooperative way forward. On the other hand, forgiveness does not pair with anxiety or authority — traits that isolate people and encourage inclusivity.
The group was quick to explain that this new platform and AI modelling are not meant to replace fieldwork or human studying. Instead, they hope this tool can be utilised by governments and policy experts to test potential policies and their impacts before rolling them out into the real world, with real consequences. At the end of the day, their work is aimed at producing and understanding the best environments for forgiveness.
Professor John Brewer followed the research findings with his critical analysis of forgiveness as a concept. “For a society like Northern Ireland, forgiveness is the wrong term,” he explained. The concept of forgiveness, he further elaborated, is too often tinged with the hue of religion, allowing each side in a divide to claim righteousness. This hue becomes a moral stand-in for the failure of other institutions’ abilities to meet the needs of the population, he argued, adding that forgiveness is only one part of long-term peace, and for there to be long-term peace, social injustice must be removed.
Brewer emphasised the importance of constructively honouring negative emotions. The emphasis on positive emotions — such as forgiveness — often overshadows the very real and valid negative emotions — like anger — that need to be processed before moving on is possible. For Brewer, anger needs to be released in a strict space that does not humiliate others or make others righteous, for only once the negative is unpacked, that the positive (forgiveness, hope, mercy) can come in.
In the second half of the program, entitled “Understanding Conflict: From the Global to the Local”, Pavol Kosnač and Dr Gary Mason put the theory and findings of Part One into their personal fieldwork experiences. While both presentations were disparate and not directly connected to forgiveness, both of their fieldwork insights were used by O’Lone, Lane, and Shults to develop their AI models and findings.
Focused on his work with paramilitaries in Eastern Europe, Pavol Kosnač explained how to ingratiate yourself and build trust within paramilitary communities. He detailed his experiences in Ukraine — such as offering people whiskey and witnessing propaganda from both sides — to help paint a portrait of the various personalities within paramilitary groups. While in the field, Kosnač had different paramilitaries complete psychological surveys to help reveal the key characteristics differentiating paramilitaries from civilians. Paramilitaries in Eastern Europe, Kosnač found, surprisingly were more agreeable than the average male population and not driven by fear. The main motivation for joining a group — perhaps unsurprisingly — was collective identity, group belonging, and purpose.
Dr Gary Mason expanded on Kosnač’s paramilitary research with his own experiences with paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, Palestine, and the United States. While Kosnač shared that purity was not a driving factor in his experience with paramilitaries, Mason expressed how religious ideals — even when groups are not religious — are used. He explained how paramilitary groups can often tinge identity and nationalism with religious undertones. Religious masking allows for moral superiority and righteousness that encourages violence and prevents dialogue. This righteousness — in many ways similar to what Professor Brewer discussed — becomes a tool in dehumanising the other side. Mason noted that while religion is often used as a purity mask by groups, religious leaders can insert themselves into conflicts to dispel the purity lie and use religion to create safe spaces and promote tolerance.
To wrap up the session, Professor Gladys Ganiel responded to Kosnač and Mason’s presentations. Kosnač’s focus on paramilitaries emphasised, Ganiel explained, an underlying culture of masculinity and violence. She connected the violent culture of masculinity to forgiveness and asked the audience, “To what extent in societies where there’s cultures of militarism or paramilitarism can forgiveness be expected or talked about, particularly when there is still a discourse that violence was justified?” We could expand Ganiel’s question: if there is a culture of militarism/paramilitarism masculinity, is the re-emergence of conflict inevitable?
While the speakers all approached the possibility of forgiveness and propensity towards violence from different lenses, the importance of a region’s social fabric in maintaining peace underscored all of their intertwined research. As Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and South Sudan continue to navigate their new societies, it becomes less about forgiveness per se and more about creating civility, cohesion, and cooperation.