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Laugh If You Want World Peace

Framing international conflicts as comedies could help to resolve them.

As Alan Alda once said, "When people are laughing, they're generally not killing each other." A paper by Riikka Kuusisto at the University of Helsinki, Finland, suggests that framing global conflicts as comedies could contribute to a more peaceful world.

Kuusisto argues that the two major plots that Western powers use to frame their "war stories" are those of the heroic epic or the sad tragedy. Conflicts in which Western powers play an active role, such as the Persian Gulf (1990-91), Kosovo (1999) and today's "Global War on Terror" are traditionally framed as heroic epics, in which there is a clear distinction between the "hero" and the "villain." When these powers rule out forceful intervention, as in the cases of Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1992-95), they frame the conflict in terms of a sad tragedy.

Reframing these conflicts in terms of comedy is in the interest of Western powers, Kuusisto argues. "Epic adventures, Iraq and Afghanistan for example, are costly and the victories claimed in the end less than perfect," she says. "Lamenting over tragedies that unfold around the world gives an image of powerlessness and/or heartlessness."

But "comedy" in this context isn't the same as just laughing a situation off, although that attitude is part of the motif. The comic plot is a story traditionally used in disagreements with friends, where opponents are allowed to make mistakes without losing face, occasionally misunderstand messages, and try a variety of solutions to a given problem.

Kuusisto suggests that persuading Western leaders to adopt a comic framework is not hopeless; she recommends giving due credit for the cases in which comedy has already been employed, such as when George W. Bush accepted the failures of the Kyoto Protocol and showed a desire for a collective response to global warming in 2001, or when Tony Blair reinforced common goals and shared interests when discussing trade with Russia.

She believes that it is important to refrain from the kind of story-telling that depicts conflicts as inevitable, never-ending or unsolvable, which really cut down on possible responses when circumstances change or ardor cools. Who, after all, wants to compromise with evil?

Comedy allows for active and flexible solutions to effect desired outcomes. "Viewing your own role as that of a comic hero, seeing your own actions as occasionally laughable and approaching disagreements with a 'comedy of errors' attitude that speaks against jumping into definite conclusions may diffuse potentially dangerous situations. ... Less-than-perfect outcomes are preferable to total disaster — better to 'grin and bear it' than to 'come out with both guns blazing.'"

Some will view this as "weakness," she acknowledged, "but so may epic heroism be interpreted as arrogance and tragic wisdom as indifference towards the agonies of others."

Although she realizes that "everyone appreciates a good story," she thinks there is a slot for comedy, which she defines as open-mindedness, self-reflection, ingenuity and the prioritization of nonviolence, in foreign policy story-telling.

Media and popular culture play a crucial role in public perception, but Kuusisto believes that each of us should develop a taste for comedy.

"On the one hand, change is difficult; on the other, there is no reason why it could not start immediately and gain ground quickly," she said.

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