Rethinking Our Ideas, Paradigm Shifts and Peacebuilding by William M. Timpson

(Adapted from William M. Timpson’s (2002) Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood.)

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela (1994) argues for a paradigm shift, a new vision that can help keep us free from the bitter desire for revenge when we have felt wronged or persecuted, a motivation that too often leads to an escalation of violence and reprisal. Imprisoned for twenty-seven years on Robben Island for his ceaseless work against apartheid, a system of brutal subjugation of the black majority by a privileged white minority, Mandela had every reason to be consumed by anger. Instead he pushed himself and those around him to identify a higher ground outside that prison of oppression and reprisal.

Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me. It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew it as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity (p. 624).

So often the violence needed to sustain oppression only sparks a round of violence in response. In our classrooms, organizations and communities, we can help people see the interconnectedness among all peoples, between their own privileges, for example, and the sacrifices of those who have had to make do with much less. We can help people recognize the sources of prejudice that lurk in the unexamined crevices of their own psyches. We can help them help others rethink their biases.

One of the real joys of learning is that flash of insight when something first makes sense, when you break through “conventional wisdom” and see a creative new possibility. Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, describes the process by which the prevailing paradigms that define our thinking gradually give way to new models as counterevidence grows. Galileo was persecuted as a heretic when he dared to suggest that the earth was not the center of the universe. In some areas of the U.S the word “evolution” has been purged from science texts as creationists push to have alternative theories represented.

If we turn to the classroom or organization, we can see instances where people have felt hurt by a particular comment and lashed back in anger. Some people vie for attention. Others want control. A few may feel helpless much of the time. The work of Dreikurs (1968), in particular, offers some ideas for understanding how these motivations can play out and what options instructors have. Knowing some of this could also help you handle the emotions that surface around revenge, in particular. Naming the underlying motivation can go far toward helping students unpack the danger inherent in revenge and move toward alternative responses.

Dreikurs hypothesizes the following relationships between a person’s inner motivation or goal and how you might be feeling when you come into contact with that person. Knowing about these ideas can provide a useful tool for intervening when conflicts arise and revenge rears its ugly head.

  • Someone seeking revenge for something in the past can produce feelings of hurt in others; dealing with emotions openly and sensitively can help a group, and an individual, move on.
  • Someone seeking power will typically produce feelings of competitiveness in others; periodic reminders about cooperation may help.
  • Someone seeking attention will often generate feelings of annoyance in others. Naming the behavior for what it is can help others identify the source of their frustration and address the issue in a constructive manner; e.g., agreeing to a ground rule that maximizes participation, that allows everyone a chance to speak before any one individual gets to speak a second time.
  • Someone acting helpless can engender feelings of inadequacy in others. When some people just can’t get an idea, it may be best to get others involved, to point those people toward other resources on campus.



Dreikurs, R. (1968) Psychology in the classroom: A manual for teachers. New York: Harper and Row.

Kuhn, T. (1970) The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mandela, N. (1994) Long walk to freedom. Boston: Little Brown.


Bill Timpson has been on the faculty at Colorado State University in its School of Education for many years and a member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club where his focus on sustainable peacebuilding in Burundi, East Africa, has been supported by two Global Grants.

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