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ReThink-ing Prevention

Emma Smith May 30, 2023

In 1972, the government of Burundi attempted to slaughter “every possible Hutu male of distinction over the age of fourteen.” Estimates of the final death toll vary by the thousands, but evidence suggests that somewhere between 150-200,000 Hutus were killed in less than a year. Within the U.S., that would be the equivalent of murdering every single man, woman, and child in Salt Lake City, Utah. Or, it would look like filling up Stanford University’s football stadium, and killing everyone in attendance—and then repeating that process three more times.

Genocide is preventable. Research in recent decades has identified the core drivers of this particular type of identity-based violence, and policymakers have a set of early warning mechanisms and interventions to step in when a country is at risk of atrocity. But for many people outside of the atrocity prevention community, this ability may seem difficult to conceive. That’s because atrocities, like the genocide perpetrated in Burundi, have a messaging problem.

Emma receiving her International Relations diploma from former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller and her thesis advisor, Dr. Kenneth Schultz.

Mass atrocity crimes are the victims of twin tensions. The violence is of such a mass scale that it is often difficult to visualize the extent of the suffering, leading to dehumanization of the people targeted. The scale of the attacks is also such that many feel overwhelmed by the horrors; they don’t want to think about the violence, much less act on it when mitigation seems implausible. These pathways of thinking lead to the same conclusion: the sense that atrocities are irrational and inevitable—provoking a history of inaction, and limited political will to invest the time and resources necessary to prevent them in the future.

The tension between theory and practice—that such horrific conflict is preventable yet is not consistently prevented—drove me to spend my Scoville Fellowship with ReThink Media.
I’d identified my niche my freshman year at Stanford after taking “Genocide and Humanitarian Intervention.” The seminar introduced the idea that genocide was predictable and, in turn, preventable. It was world-expanding.

I spent the next four years in internships and research positions to better understand the incentive structures around why and how people engaged in identity-based violence. Most importantly, I looked to identify potential points of intervention. I had the opportunity to conduct research at a small NGO in Sarajevo and then compare the work to that of a large think tank, researching transitional justice at the now-defunct Brookings Doha Center. I advanced policy to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers at the State Department and developed peacebuilding interventions in the Horn of Africa at Search for Common Ground. All of these experiences, and more, were essential to learning how and why individuals choose to engage in violence. Learning from and playing a role in this work inspired optimism. It’s an essential trait, I’ve learned, to remain in a field filled with such suffering.

Perhaps most influentially, I spent my senior year writing an honors thesis on the intersection of international development projects, climate change, and intercommunal violence. That research was transformative in the sense that it highlighted the ways in which best intentions sour— in which projects meant to address the drivers of violence end up exacerbating them instead. The failed projects I studied were rarely a result of bad ideas or bad actors. By and large, they were failures of implementation. Failure to engage with community-specific risks and resentments. Failure to engage with local leaders and contractors. Failure to invest the time and resources necessary for the long-term success of a well-intentioned project.

My thesis became, then, a broader reflection of my frustrations with the peace and security field: the lack of sufficient investment in, and prioritization of, conflict prevention mechanisms (mechanisms we know would be effective, if given the time and resources to succeed). As such, I was drawn to ReThink Media, an organization dedicated to building movements around peace and security issues through the media. By elevating the voices of experts and advocates, developing data-driven messaging guidance, and aligning policy communities around shared goals, ReThink works to shift public opinion about topics that rarely make it to dinner table discourse. As such, I came to ReThink to learn how to harness these strategic communications skills, hoping to use this knowledge to shift the status quo around conflict prevention.

At ReThink, I spend each day working with advocacy organizations to use the media to advance policy change around specific issue areas. Sometimes these goals center on representation: the years-long effort to increase the “voiceshare” of women and folks of color in the media on nuclear weapons issues. Other times, it’s more immediate, like aligning the community around an effective message to promote arms control in the face of Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber rattling. Always, the goal is to expand the audience of people invested in the issues we believe are most important.

Recounting the lessons I’ve learned would resemble drinking from a firehose; it’s too overwhelming to do the ideas justice here. One that will continue to resonate with me, though, is a lesson on perspective, just as much as tactics: that it is impossible to solve the problems of the day without being able to describe, and advocate for, an alternative, better world.

Emma and her ReThink Media colleagues at Win Without War’s 20th Anniversary Celebration

This can be a challenge—to argue for a future that resembles utopia, while living in a time that can often verge on dystopia. It’s a particularly pernicious challenge for those of us who spend our days thinking about how the world might end (and trying to convince people to care enough to prevent it from happening).

Emma representing ReThink at a meeting with the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs at Ploughshares Fund, along with several other nuclear security advocates.

Fearmongering and solution-less criticism are pervasive when it comes to many existential threats, contributing to and exacerbated by the rise of “doomerism.” Many, especially in my generation, are avid mixers of this deadly cocktail of complacency and despair. We are drowning, it can often feel, in proclamations of inevitable decline and disillusionment. These feelings are understandable. But, ultimately, they’re ineffective. Messages of fear and despair don’t motivate people to act. Rather, it’s messages of hope that can move the needle on seemingly intractable problems. Conveying a vision for a safer, brighter future, paired with tangible steps for individual people to bring that world into fruition.

Preventing the world from ending is slow, hard work. It requires learning about the worst of humanity, and then sharing that horror, over and over, with broader groups of people. In the context of mass atrocities, it often means seeing these horrors happen again, in real time. Engaging in this work in a way that generates action, rather than apathy, is difficult. But it’s an existential task, and it’s one that I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to begin in my time as a Scoville Fellow.

Emma Smith is a Fall 2022 Scoville Fellow with ReThink Media.