Neuroscientists are the new rock stars of peace studies

31 May

There was an arresting comment at the Alliance for Peace/United States Institute for Peace conference last week: “Neuroscientists are the new rock stars of peace studies”. It was made by a leading figure in a US policy and practice organization. As such, it is important. A number of people suggested that if this person deems this topic important then other people, organizations and resources will follow. The herd leader has spoken. The herd will follow.

Basically, advances in neuroscience are suggesting that the impetus for violence is often chemical-biological and there are interventions (basically peace drugs) that can – in some circumstances – deter individuals from violent acts. I won’t pretend to have expertise on the science, but my sceptical antennae were immediately raised by the prospect of administering some sort of ‘peace serum’ to the pro-government militias in Sudan who are engaged in extreme violence against civilians.

Maybe such drugs would work, but it seems just too simple. For a start it – yet again – locates the ‘solution’ to the world’s problems among the technologically advanced peoples of the global north – where the largest pharmaceutical companies are based. The idea of a peace drug replaces the white saviour complex with a chemists in white coats complex. Secondly, if private pharmaceutical companies stand to gain from the development of peace drugs then what are the ethical restraints on them gaming the system – fomenting conflict in order to magically appear on the sidelines to offer their pacific (and profitable) services?

Thirdly, the idea of peace drugs shifts attention away from all of those contextual socio-economic factors that cause and sustain violent conflict: unequal trading relationships, global capital that moves without responsibility, national and international elites who are spectacularly corrupt and exploitative. To concentrate on peace drugs risks taking attention away from the structural issues that often implicate us in the global north in the political economies of war and peace. Fourthly, can these drugs differentiate between the precipitants of actual violence (imminent direct violence) and support for violence by others? It is not only the violent actors (individuals and members of militaries) who are responsible for violence but also the long chain of enablers that includes arms manufacturers, politicians, and voters. To put it bluntly, would a peace drug administered to Tony Blair in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have helped to avert the tens of thousands of deaths he is responsible for?

And then there are a range of practical and ethical questions about who would have access to these drugs, who would administer them, what level of consent would be involved, who would make the bio-ethical decisions (clinicians or judges or politicians or military actors) ….?

So there is an endless list of questions, but I get the impression that some of those who would consider themselves to be connected to peace studies are about to go off on a wild goose chase. Every dollar and hour invested in that is a dollar and hour not invested in thinking about poverty, inequality, the arms trade, militarism, bad choices by political leaders …


One Response to “Neuroscientists are the new rock stars of peace studies”

  1. alanbullion 31/05/2016 at 12:08 pm #

    See the recent Hurst book on Drugs and War. And of course LSD was used on US troops in the fifties. Soma! ________________________________

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