Not a False Flag, a More Effective Strategy for Fighting Oppression: the Burgesses Respond to Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess  

August, 26, 2022

This is the third in an exchange of posts initiating what we hope will be a larger exploration of relationship between efforts to combat hyper-polarization and efforts to fight oppression.  Links to the full series of posts are available on the Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding discussion topic page. 


False Flags and Elephants

In thinking about Bernie and Jackie's essay, Heidi has to admit, she didn't know what the term "false flag" meant until she looked it up on Wikipedia. (To his credit, Guy did know the term.)  In case others don't know, Wikipedia defines it as " an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility and pinning blame on another party." [1]  Wow. That's quite the accusation!  At a personal level, we honestly don't feel that we are being deceptive.  We are simply trying to explain how we think that our collective insights can contribute to efforts to get us all through this perilous time.  At a societal level, we don't think that we are sugarcoating and helping to sustain an oppressive world order. Instead, we are trying to apply what we know about conflict processes to the task of helping new and more established democracies better live up to their ideals and what we see as the most promising strategies for avoiding a dystopian future.

We were not at all intent on disguising anything or placing blame on anybody.  Placing blame just makes people defensive and angry.  It makes them unlikely to listen to what you have to say.  What we are trying to do with our initial essay and the subsequent discussions is to make our own views as clear as we can, and clarify how they are similar to and different from those of our colleagues.  Indeed, the entire reason that we are having this discussion, and the reason we invited Jackie and Bernie to join it, was because we wanted to get these very important issues on the table and being discussed out in the open, instead of being papered over in superficial and unfounded attacks on "the other," which we believe are contributing greatly to the deep mess our society is in (and we certainly do seem to agree that we are in a "deep mess.")

It strikes us that we and Bernie and Jackie together are giving a great illustration of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. For readers who don't know that story, it tells the tale of a group of blind men (or people, to be more inclusive) who come upon an elephant for the first time.  One touches its tail and concludes it is a rope.  Another touches its ear and concludes it is a blanket.  Another touches its trunk and concludes it is a big snake.  The fourth touches its leg and concludes it is a tree.

Guy and I maybe have done something like that in thinking about The Neutrality Trap, and we feel as if Jackie and Bernie have done that with their response to our piece.  Let us explain.

Jackie and Bernie objected to our statement where we said "while you do talk a lot about listening to 'the other side' and learning how they think, that seems to be primarily for strategic reasons."

I got that impression from one sentence that appears on page 41 of The Neutrality Trap: "But if as activists we cannot sometimes step back and try to understand how others are thinking (not what we think of their thinking, but what they actually think and why), including what they believe about us, then we are giving up a major strategic asset." That sure sounds to me as if the reason one should listen to the other side is to gain a "strategic asset."  But, as I also said, they talk about the importance of listening in many other places too, so maybe my assertion that for them listening is strategic was sort of like describing the elephant as a tree.  There are obviously other benefits of listening.

Likewise, Jackie and Bernie seem to believe since we said that "we don't see power inequality as the problem that needs to be addressed first.  We see escalation, polarization, hatred, fear, and distrust as the interlinked problems that need to be dealt with first.  Jackie and Bernie assert that this is "naive" and is coming from a "place of privilege."  They go on to ask how a " black activist or a parent of a teenager who is subjected to police violence, for example, [would feel] to be told that the most important problem our society faces is polarization not racism."  

We would answer that just because we say that hyper-polarization is the number one problem for our society, we are not saying that it is the number one problem facing every individual in that society.  Everyone has different problems, and different priorities. Sometimes those problems are immediate physical threats, and certainly, those need to be addressed first. We are trying to look at the society overall. I hope that the black activist or parent would look at the whole elephant before judging us. If they understood the reason that we say that hyper-polarization is the number one problem is because we see it as a big driver of dehumanization that removes taboos against brutality and violence-—thus we see it, in part as what is driving police violence against blacks.   Similarly, hyper-polarization is driving fear, distrust, and hatred, which is intensifying oppression and threatening to change our democracy and rule-of-law society into an authoritarian regime that would likely be much more oppressive  If they understood those concerns, then the black parent and activist might well agree with our statement at the societal level.  We ask Jackie, Bernie, and our other readers to look at the whole elephant before drawing conclusions about whether or not we are naive, or as they say elsewhere in their piece, are supportive of "the status quo" and continued oppression.  Fixing immediate sources of oppression won't help much if you don't also fix the underlying social dynamics that make such oppression possible. And that requires us to look at the dynamics that causes us to hate, fear, distrust, and wish to exploit one another.


To Be Clear:  The Status Quo is Extremely Dangerous. 

We agree with Jackie and Bernie: the status quo in America (and many other) societies today is completely unacceptable. Indeed, it is extremely dangerous: to democracy, to the oppressed, to the privileged, to every person, every institution, to the natural world. This is the reason we started our Constructive Conflict Initiative three years ago, It is the reason we wrote the framing essay for CRQ, and it is the reason we are sponsoring and putting a great deal of effort into this discussion. 

The first part of the framing essay discusses the status quo. There we say that we are on a ...

... slippery slope taking us ever closer to some awful combination of at least four dystopian futures. To start with, hyper-polarization could lead to paralyzing political dysfunction—the wide-spread inability to analyze societal problems and to develop and implement effective and sustainable solutions. It could also add chapters to the long history of domination and oppression, as opponents demonize and dehumanize each other until the victors impose their sociocultural beliefs on their adversaries. Authoritarianism becomes possible when strong (but corrupt) leaders, even those democratically elected, refuse to let the rule of law obstruct their ambitions and the defense of their own (and, to some degree, their supporters') interests. Ultimately, large-scale civil unrest (and possibly war) could result from the continuing erosion of the taboo lines constraining our most inhuman impulses.

Many observers (and contributors to this discussion) believe that large-scale civil unrest and, potentially, civil war is a very real threat. (See, for example Peter Adler's blog post from January 2022 on that topic and the article that Peter just sent me today, August 29. 2022..)  After participating in a project on Hybrid and Gray Zone Warfare, I have come to the shocked realization that my answer to Peter's question in his January 2022 essay is that we are already in a gray zone civil war now. (Gray zone warfare includes the full range of potentially effective tactics—anything short of large-scale, "kinetic" violence. This includes, for example, the widespread information warfare being waged on the Internet.  

Unless we take widespread, strong steps to turn things around quickly, the threat, not only to our democracy, but to our very lives will be profound. When we recently contacted Peter again, asking him to participate in this discussion, he responded that "like you, I’m worried and continue to think we are on the brink of a major outbreak of fighting in the U.S." As a further response to our inquiry, he sent us some excerpts from a novel he has written in an attempt to explain to a non-academic (as well as academic) audience what the threat we are facing really is. Reading that is what causes me to say that the threat to our lives could soon become very real.  Peter's novel is not all that far fetched, and it is extremely frightening!

Which Came First, The Chicken or The Egg (or Oppression or Hyper-polarization)?

As is clear from Jackie and Bernie's post (and ours before that), we differ on many dimensions.  But one of the most basic one is how we define "THE" problem.  We assert that hyper-polarization is the number one problem that must be addressed before we successfully address oppression because, hyper-polarization, we assert, is driving oppression (as well as all the other dystopias described above).  Jackie and Bernie say that our approach is, essentially, oppressive, and that oppression is what is causing hyper-polarization, and hence, oppression must be dealt with first. 

Any good systems theorist would know that causality in complex systems usually goes both ways, and in this case, it certainly does.  A very simple systems map would draw this as a feedback loop: hyper-polarization drives oppression which increases hyper-polarization, which increases oppression, and on and on. (In this, everyone feels victimized and oppressed by the other.)

Figure 1: A simple illustration of how oppression and hyper-polarization feed back up on each other. 


This raises the obvious question, if this feedback loop is making both elements continually worse, what can we do to stop that? (I ask my conflict mapping students to figure out how they can throw a "monkey wrench"  into the system to prevent the loop from operating--or at least operating as fast.)

If we were asked how to do that, we'd say, well, first, we need to "complexify" (using a Peter Coleman term), this map.  Many more things besides oppression cause hyper-polarization, and many more things beyond hyper-polarization cause oppression.  (Indeed, oppression existed long before we had the high-tech, global scale, hyper-polarization that we have today.)  If we really included all of the things we can think of that lead to these two variables, our maps would turn into what we call "spaghetti diagrams" very quickly.  But we can highlight a few factors that we laid out in our framing article that we think are particularly important. (Apologies—this is verging on towards spaghetti, but I hope you can follow it with the narrative that follows.)

Figure 2: A More Complex Map of Drivers of Oppression and Hyper-Polarization

Most important, perhaps, are bad-faith actors (shown in red on the left), who intentionally drive fear, hatred, and distrust, particularly through disinformation, in a classic "divide and conquer" move to take and hold power. So we'd add  bad-faith actors and disinformation to the map, which lead to fear, hatred, and distrust, which then leads to hyper-polarization (which then leads to more fear, hatred and distrust in an interlinking and ever-intensifying set of feedback loops.) 

Once the bad-faith actors obtain power, they also use it to oppress and otherwise rule with a power-over approach.  After all, the key to successful authoritarian rule is the exploitation of others and the use of some of the spoils of that exploitation to pay off their core supporters. Not only do power-over approaches further drive oppression (you could argue that they are the essence of oppression), they also drive polarization and make power-with approaches to problem solving increasingly difficult and often impossible.

Almost every other element in this map is, itself, part of one or more escalating feedback loops.  Disinformation leads to distrust, hatred, and fear; those three cause people to spread more disinformation.  All of those factors increase hyper-polarization, which increases distrust, fear, and hatred.  All three also contribute to dehumanization, which allows for increased oppression.  So all these factors are inter-related, and the question of which came first is just like the question of the chicken and the egg. 

The key is to fight all of these dynamics simultaneously. So, in this sense, we are both right. We need people focused on fighting oppression in its many forms and places. But if we are going to break these feedback loops, they need to fight oppression in ways that don't add to distrust, fear and hatred. With a few extreme exceptions, they need to treat everyone (including those seen to be oppressors) with respect, and work with them to change systems and behaviors in ways that benefit everyone.  And, we need people focused on defusing hyper-polarization. But we need them to do that in ways that work to reduce oppression, not increase it.  

What we found most troubling about Bernie and Jackie's argument is the implication that it is illegitimate for anyone to take a neutral perspective and focus their attention on defusing the dynamics of hyper-polarization. We think that would be a big mistake. If hyper-polarization isn't fixed, anything we do to diminish oppression won't work.  Hyper-polarization is empowering bad-faith actors, who are very successfully driving dehumanization and oppression.  Until we get a handle on bad-faith actors, and start using power-with approaches to solve our problems that take the needs of all parties (except, of course, the bad-faith actors) into account, all we are going to do is further our current escalated stalemate, and lead, at best, to penduluming power struggles, and at worst civil war.  

We Need to Oppose Bad-Faith Actors, Not All Whites

This is why we have large sections in the framing paper (and the secondary paper that provides more detail) discussing the danger of bad-faith actors, and the need to counter their efforts to assert their power over everyone.  Jackie and Bernie don't address bad-faith actors directly in their response to us, nor do they do so in their book, except to repeatedly attack Trump, his supporters, and anyone else who isn't seen to sufficiently conform with the progressive agenda, who are repeatedly denigrated as "racists," "white supremacists" and "oppressors."   In their response to us, they assert that we blame both sides equally for hyper-polarization, which they imply, is clearly not true. We don't think we ever say that both sides are equally to blame, but we do say that both sides have contributed to it, and we stand by that assertion.  Yes, Trump has done an enormous amount to drive polarization, as has Fox News, Mitch McConnell and hundreds of other leaders on the Republican side. 

But so did Hillary when she referred to Trump supporters as "deplorables."  So did the Democratic organization when it created and circulated the fake "Steele Dossier." So does the New York Times with its 1619 project that asserts that all of U.S. history is based on the legacy of slavery and discounts the many genuine accomplishments that have been made in the last 400 years.

We have guesses about which side has done more to drive polarization, but we haven't seen data, so we won't share our guesses here.  But the assertion that both sides are contributing to the problem is very clear. What is also clear to us is what we said at the beginning of this article.  Casting blame, calling people names, calling them out as "oppressors" or "racists" (or even people who condone oppression) isn't going to change behavior.  It is much more likely to make such people dig into their positions. 

It also makes sense that, when confronted with a conflict problem, you should think about what you can do to make things better, regardless of who you think started it. After all, you have much more control over your own behavior than you do over the behavior of others.  There are also a wide range of proven cognitive biases that lead us to underestimate our own contribution to conflict problems and overestimate the contributions of others. It feels better to think of oneself as the most virtuous, but doing so isn't going to get problems solved.

This is why we have a whole section in our article calling for power-with approaches to problem solving instead of power-over.  Perhaps this is the section that caused Jackie and Bernie to say that "our approach is not a new one."  True.  Conflict resolvers have been calling for power-with (or integrative, or interest-based, or principled, or collaborative, or consensual) approaches to problem solving for a long time.  They have done so because they work.  Contrary to Jackie and Bernie's comment about Larry Susskind's plea to remain neutral, saying "this has not led to the results intended," if you go to the Consensus Building Institute's website (founded and run by Susskind and a large number of his colleagues), you will see a very impressive set of case studies that illustrate that their approach does work. Another example is the work of the Community Relations Service (CRS), the arm of the U.S. Department of Justice formed in 1964 as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. CRS helps communities prevent and, when necessary, respond to major acts of racial violence and conflict. I don't have room to talk about their powerful work here, but they are masters at protecting the rights of racial minorities, while gaining and holding the trust and respect of white authorities.  They understand how one can fight oppression while staying neutral and treating all sides fairly and with respect.  

We have a lot more to say with respect to Jackie and Bernie's comments but we will stop here for now. In a coming post, we will talk about how our approach is not more of the same, as Jackie and Bernie assert.  It is not just "more dialogue" (we agree with them, dialogue is not nearly enough to crack this problem.)  We are taking a complexity-oriented approach to the linked problems of hyper-polarization and oppression which we call massively parallel problem-solving and massively parallel peacebuilding. This is what we see as the most promising strategy for dealing with the vast scale and complexity of hyper-polarization (and oppression). We explain more about this idea in section 8 of the CRQ framing article, and have more on this idea in a newer, related article  entitled " The Key to Revitalizing Liberal Democracy: Think of It As a Conflict Handling System." A blog post on this approach is also forthcoming.