Why do we address identity-based conflicts through sport?

Sport blurs the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and gives us a new identity, a shared identity.

This week’s blog from the Middle East is written by PPI – ME’s newest intern, Rohit Kumar, from New Delhi, who holds a master’s degree in conflict analysis and peace-building and is spending the month of July in Israel as part of an international program for the study of conflict resolution. He maintains a blog on the subject of Sports for Development at s4dp.wordpress.com.

Conflict theorist Terrell Northrup defines identity as ‘an abiding sense of self-hood.’ Our personal and social identities make us feel secure. But identities are fluid. They form, reform, and fall apart in due course. And depending upon different contexts, we take on different identities. Identity is indeed a powerful force, and a threat or perception of threat to our identities invites defensive responses. At times, these responses are violent in nature.

In divided societies, ‘media, myths, and stereotypes’ form the narratives through which we learn about the other side. This leads us to a biased understanding and instills fear, while we dehumanize the ‘other.’ As a result, physical and psychological barriers are created that divide us. In order to find a resolution, we need look at the deep-rooted causes of the conflict.

Sport blurs the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and gives us a new identity, a shared identity. Photo: Joel Dzodin

Sports can provide a solution, or at least a platform where solutions could be employed. To begin with, sport blurs the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Sports give us a new identity, a shared identity – that of a fellow team-mate – and encourages us to work towards the shared goal as a team. By bringing us on the same field, sports give us the opportunity to learn more about each other, and ourselves, through the eyes of ‘other.’ Simple interactions, on and off the field, have the potential to break the biased narratives we have about the ‘other.’ Interactions are instrumental in bridging differences. Conversations make us realize that ‘us’ and ‘other’ have much more in common than the differences we have been told about.

Besides, sports provide a safe and neutral environment for the ‘us’ and the ‘other’ to engage with each other. Engagement is the first step towards resolving the conflict. Engagement opens the door for communication, which could foster understanding and build relationships. Sports transform the ‘us’ and ‘other’ into ‘we,’ gives us an opening to write a new, common narrative, instead of settling for existing conflicting narratives. On the soccer field or on the basketball court, people play by the same rules. This narrows the inequality and affects the dynamics of relations between individuals and groups in conflict. The lesson could be helpful in other areas of our lives too.

Relationship building has been a focus of conflict resolution theorists and practitioners for a long time. Engaging people through sustained and well-executed programs can build the relationship through enhanced interaction between communities.

Further, sport is particularly effective in reaching out to marginalized groups, such as girls, underprivileged, at-risk youth etc., from within our community. This way, we have a chance to address issues our own community is affected by. Finally, sport-based initiatives are carried out at the local level by local individuals and peer groups. This gives the agency to the people, which make it simpler for the participants to adopt these programs.

International experience shows that majority of participants engaged through sports based initiatives express fewer stereotypes and biases compared to children and young adults who were not a part such programs. PPI believes that ‘children who play together can learn to live together,’ and living together is a great leap towards addressing identity-based conflicts.

PeacePlayersIntlWhy do we address identity-based conflicts through sport?

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