`Reperception' may be key to world peace. Responsibility for change lies with individuals, says Stanford futurist
It is one of those sparkling, sun-splashed California days when the whole world seems to be at peace. Or should be. Or could be. ``But it isn't . . . yet,'' says Dr. Willis W. Harman, seated in a book-lined conference room. Behind him a window frames a scene of quintessential peace: the deep blue of San Francisco Bay and the gentle, golden hills of Marin County.
``We have to be on guard against the belief that experts have all the answers,'' he says, smiling and trying not to sound too much like an expert. ``Fundamental change in societies has always come from vast numbers of people changing their minds just a little.''
When it comes to defusing something as big as the nuclear dilemma, where does one start ``just a little'' change?
``First, by reperceiving the problem,'' says this amiable, silver-haired man, who believes the key to a sustainable world peace lies in changing, albeit transforming, some fundamental ways we think.
Dr. Harman is president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a research organization started 12 years ago by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell. The institute has been a pioneer in the systematic study of ways of ``knowing'' -- such as intuition and intellectual knowing -- all the areas that traditional science usually ``won't touch with a 10-foot pole,'' Harman says with a laugh.
Harman also founded the Futures Research Group at the Stanford Research Institute 16 years ago and is currently a member of the Board of Regents of the University of California. He is a professor of engineering-economic systems at Stanford University and the author of several books about the future and the potential of creativity.
To explain how a critical problem can be ``reperceived,'' Harman uses the analogy of the person who has triumphed over alcoholism. ``It's not the alcohol that was his problem,'' he says, ``it was his view of reality that brought him problems which led him to turn to alcohol as escape. When he looked at the problems in a new way, then they were quite solvable. In fact, he had the resources within him all the time to solve the problems.''
Just as individuals can change conscious and unconscious beliefs, Dr. Harmon contends, so should nations change at a societal level.
``One of the beliefs we have to be on guard against,'' he says, ``is the belief that . . . somebody else is going to do it, that we don't have the qualifications or the official positions to be effective [as peacemakers]. We, the people, give legitimacy to institutions and institutional behaviors. When we change our minds about what is legitimate, then institutions change their behavior.''
He pauses now, his bushy eyebrows coming together a little as his voice rises. ``In 1969, I had long arguments with my son-in-law, who was trying to convince me that we should get out of Vietnam.
``And I kept saying the experts had knowledge we didn't have, and the Chinese menace is waiting there to take over the whole of Asia. Of course I was dead wrong, and now it's hard to believe I once held the other conviction.''
In a global perspective, Harman sees the United States and the Soviet Union as locked in belligerent and limiting perceptions of each other. Reciprocal shouting and political posturing continually fuel nuclear escalation. Trust is nonexistent.
To take his own measure of the Soviet Union, Harman packed his bag last May and went to Russia on a three-week tour sponsored by the Noetic Institute. After a lifetime of second- and third-hand information about a complex nation, he saw it through his own eyes. In public and private settings he talked with doctors, scientists, journalists, Jewish dissidents, young people, ordinary citizens, even two American women who had married Russian men. Much to his surprise, Harman underwent more than ``a little change.''
``While I find much to criticize in the Soviet Union, as I do in the US, the one thing I learned is that you can make no generalizations about Russians,'' he says emphatically. ``It's even more foolish than to try to make generalizations about the US. I went there with stereotypes and presuppositions I didn't know I had, that were built up out of reading the American press and accounts of Americans who had lived in Moscow for a number of years.''
Harman found the Russians to be a ``warm, hospitable people, but frightened by what they perceive as US intentions. And some of them think that Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev might be an intermediary between an old generation and a generation of new leadership.''
Could he trust his perceptions of Russia based on only a three-week visit? He says quickly, ``Yes, I went into a number of Russian homes and had very frank interchanges late into the evenings. I spoke with people critical of the establishment, and people enthused over Russia's `social experiment.' ''
Describing such one-to-one visits as ``one of the most important things happening on the planet,'' Harman says he returned to the US with the conclusion ``that the nuclear arms race looks all the more insane.''
To those who insist that nuclear deterrence and the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union has maintained a balance of power -- certainly not ideal, but the best we have under the circumstances -- Harman says, ``Enemies are a transient matter. Numerous countries have converted from our `enemy' to `friend,' or vice versa -- Japan, Germany, China, Russia, to name a few. Thus we cannot assume that if some miraculous rapprochement with the Russians were to take place, the nuclear dilemma would go away.''
It may be that beyond resolving our differences with Russia lies the even tougher task of understanding the needs and different cultures of developing countries, Harman contends. Living in the shadows of superpowers, and out of self-defense, many smaller countries seek nuclear weapons, he says, so ``non-peace'' persists.
``The first step is realizing that some self-deception [about who is to blame for hostilities] is often involved,'' he says. ``It is apparent in the very language we use to describe our feelings. We say, `He made me angry' or `My work is frustrating.' How much more honest it would be to say, `I choose to be angry with him' or `I choose to feel frustrated over my work.' It is not only more honest, but it helps to recognize that I don't want to choose that way. Then things begin to change. . . .''
The second step, says Harman, is ``outer work'' -- the kind that recognizes that if society's institutions need to be transformed, then people have to roll up their sleeves and get to work. ``Such a transformation will come about only because great numbers of people willingly play a diversity of roles. There is a role that you are especially equipped to play, one that will use all your skills, [perhaps] pushing from outside institutions . . . [or] working from inside helping to ease the system through a difficult transition. . . .''
Either way, he says, ``Love is central to the issue. The word `love' has been debased as currency to the extent that `I love New York,' `I love smog,' or `I love anything' that makes a bumper sticker.
``To me, love is a bucket-shaped word into which you put all your experiences and it grows to have more and more meaning. The more you love in a mature way, the less likely you are to say what's good for somebody else and try to impose it on them.''