The Perse School

Lord Alderdice lecture inspires the next generation

2 Mar 2017

On Wednesday 1 March, Lord Alderdice gave a topical and thought-provoking lecture on “Fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism – making war, making peace, and making sense”.  He began by explaining how his teenage desire to make sense of growing violence and division in Northern Ireland led him to study psychiatry, so that he could understand why individual people do self-destructive things, with the hope of applying this to whole communities.

Lord Alderdice’s political career, particularly his time as leader of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland and his role in the peace process, has focused on understanding what leads people on both sides to violence and what makes them behave as they do once they are involved in conflict.

His background in psychiatry has allowed him to make links between human psychological development and how large groups of people behave.  For instance, when we are born, we have no sense of ourselves – we do not know that we are a different person from our mother, so feel as if a part of ourselves is missing when she leaves us.  We also have no sense of time, so we do not realise that our mother has left us in the past, but she came back and everything was well again.

In adult life, if the boundaries between self and other or past and present become blurred this can lead to disorders such as schizophrenia, when patients can feel that our thoughts come from outside ourselves, or post-traumatic stress disorder, when distressing events in the past seem to the patient like they are still happening in the present.

Lord Alderdice explained that in terms of large groups of people, societies in conflict have a heightened awareness of identity, of who is within the group and who is ‘other’.  They can also experience a conflated sense of time – in Northern Ireland, an event in the seventeenth century may still be politically relevant today, while in England the Gunpowder Plot is confined to history.

Questions from the floor applied Lord Alderdice’s perspective on conflict to a range of divisions in the world today, from Brexit to religious fundamentalism.  While these problems may seem overwhelming, Alderdice emphasised that an approach to conflict that focuses on relationships means that we can all make a difference by looking for ways of bridging divides in our daily interactions with people who disagree with us.  He described the goal of his own career as “finding a way to disagree with each other without killing each other – it may be a modest ambition, but it’s good enough for me.”

A retiring collection raised £126.20 for the Christel House charity.

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