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ASU professor helps nations find forgiveness, reconciliation

Political psychologist at Thunderbird to address genocide-awareness conference

April 12, 2019

Pain and trauma can afflict not only individuals and families, but also entire countries.

Eileen Borris is a political psychologist who has worked to generate healing in war-torn nations by training groups of people in forgiveness and reconciliation.

Borris will be one of the speakers in the weeklong Genocide Awareness Week starting April 15 at Scottsdale Community College, a series of lectures, art exhibits, film screenings, memorial services and storytelling by survivors, scholars, politicians, activists, artists and members of law enforcement. Her talk is titled “Healing Hate in America.”

Borris, an associate professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, is on the board of Forgiveness International and has consulted with the U.S. Agency for International Development on several projects.

She answered some questions from ASU Now:

Eileen Borris

Question: How did you get into the field of forgiveness?

Answer: Once I finished getting my doctorate in clinical psychology and counseling psychology, I went on a trip to the Soviet Union and I was asked to teach about conflict resolution there. This was at the peak of the time when they were considered to be “the evil empire.”

I recognized that not only do I like working with individuals, I also really like working with groups of people who have been in conflict to help to bring the walls down and build relationships.

Then I was invited to do some work at the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, where I started to develop conflict-resolution programming and I began to study forgiveness. I asked if there were case studies about forgiveness in international affairs, and there was nothing. I began thinking and writing about this, and that’s how I became interested in the area of political forgiveness.

I’ve worked in a number of different countries, most recently in Afghanistan. I worked in Liberia and Nigeria and Lebanon and with the Tibetan government in exile. I did some work in Rwanda and some teaching in South Africa

Q: How do you start teaching a nation to find forgiveness?

A: I connect with different civil society organizations or nongovernmental organizations, and they tell me what they need and I develop a training program to accommodate their needs. In Liberia, I was invited by the foreign minister, and I gave trainings in multi-track diplomacy, conflict resolution and forgiveness.

One concept is to give them skills in conflict resolution so they begin to understand how conflict develops and the components of conflict, so they can look at their differences with greater understanding.

We talk about how to heal the pain and fear, and how do we learn to deal with anger? Is there a different way to deal with anger besides killing each other?

I introduce the concept of the psychological landscape of “the other” and how we can begin to walk in their shoes. I help them to learn about empathy and understanding that we’re all human beings and will react in similar ways in similar circumstances.

The conflicts are different, but the concepts are the same.

Q: You’re writing a book about political forgiveness. What’s it about?

A: It’s about reckoning with the past and how that requires a change in society, which means new contracts between citizens. We can’t ignore the painful past if we want to move forward.

We have to look at individual forgiveness — how can we help heal individuals who have gone through trauma and pain?

It’s a difficult process. None of this is easy. It requires changing the mindset of leaders.

Q: How does your expertise translate to the business world that Thunderbird students are studying?

A: It’s the same concepts. If you want to be a successful negotiator, you need to understand something about the person you’re engaging with and you need to understand some of the fundamentals that make up conflict. For example, you’re going to have different needs from the person you’re negotiating with and you might have a different set of values.

The more you understand yourself and the more you understand “the other,” the more effective you’ll be in negotiating.

Q: Is it important to have events like Genocide Awareness Week?

A: Absolutely. We haven’t learned. Most of the people who lived the genocide of the Holocaust are gone now, so we don’t have their stories. And it was so unbelievable that we don’t want to repeat history and yet we are repeating history all over the world, especially in Africa. We see a cultural genocide happening with Tibetans.

We need to start applying what we’ve learned from around the world to this country.

Q: What will you discuss at your talk on Wednesday?

A: I’m going to start off with the story of what happened in Charleston, and ask the question of why did this happen and talk about crime here in the United States. I’ll talk about how we can heal from that.

I’ll talk about political forgiveness and the importance of restorative justice, and I’ll share the fact that there have been some truth and reconciliation commissions in the United States, including one in Greensboro, N.C. There are some novel things being done in Alabama, through the Equal Justice Initiative.

There are many ways to think about truth and reconciliation processes. In this country, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all. Each state has a different history.

And I’ll talk people through a visualization to imagine a world that didn’t have to deal with all this pain and suffering, and to imagine a world without violence and war, where our anger would be washed away.

Borris will speak at 9 a.m. Wednesday. All events are in the Turquoise Room of the SCC Student Center, unless otherwise indicated. Two other events will feature experts from the ASU community:

A panel discussion at 1 p.m. Tuesday titled “Stewards of the Story of Beth Hebrew, Phoenix” will include Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of Jewish Studies, a professor of history and the Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism at ASU, as well as Volker Benkert and Jason Bruner, both assistant professors in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

A performance at 10:30 a.m. Thursday titled “Soviet Memories: Music and the Holocaust in the former USSR” will feature Alexandra Birch, a violinist and scholar of music and the arts in the former USSR who holds three degrees from ASU, and Dani Shraibman, a faculty associate and doctoral candidate in the School of Music at ASU.

Top image courtesy of Pixabay

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