Introducing a Discussion with Bernie Mayer and Jackie Font-Guzmán about Hyper-Polarization, Neutrality, and Oppression

By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

August 24, 2022

This is the first 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. 


Setting the Stage for an Important Discussion about Existential Problems and Neutrality

The ultimate goal of the CRQ paper and this discussion is to figure out how those with conflict resolution-related insights might be able to do more to help democratic societies live up to their ideals and weave a highly diverse citizenry into an inclusive and equitable social framework. In other words, our goal is to use our collective skills to help build a society in which most everyone would like to live.

In pursuing this goal, one of the most consequential issues that has to be addressed is the relationship between the progressive, social justice movement's efforts to combat systemic racism and other forms of oppression and the conflict resolution field's traditional role as a neutral intermediary focused on bridging differences between deeply-divided communities.

In this regard, Bernie Mayer and Jacqueline Font-Guzman have written an important new book The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change. As they explain in the preface, their purpose is to argue:

that by promoting connections across our differences, conflict intervention efforts can play an important role in social change. Approaches such as dialogue, facilitated interactions, and restorative justice can be an integral part of struggles against oppression but only if they are in sync with concerted efforts at system disruption. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue and collaboration for the sake of collaboration, disconnected from a commitment to social change, is likely to reinforce the status quo. This is the neutrality trap. Unless our engagement efforts are matched by an equally strong commitment to disrupting oppressive systems, they will fail to make a profound contribution to social change. By trying to remain objective, neutral, impartial, and separate, conflict interveners and academics (along with many other professionals) reinforce system-maintaining norms, narratives, and practices that perpetuate a status quo that is calling out for change.

As readers of the Neutrality Trap will quickly discover, there are significant differences between the way in which we each frame the "conflict problem" and the steps that we think should be taken to address it. ("We each" refers to Bernie and Jackie on the one hand, and Heidi and Guy Burgess and co-CRQ author Sanda Kaufman on the other hand.)

Given this, we thought that it was important to invite Bernie, Jackie, and their colleagues to join this conversation.  We want to clarify our differences and areas of agreement in ways that allow us to both learn from our differing approaches.

Bernie's First Response: 

My initial take on your questions is that they perhaps imply, but don't explicitly say, anything about how to engage people in a productive way in efforts to deal with serious power inequities and long term systems change processes.  I would be very interested in hearing directly from you about what you profoundly disagree with and a direct interchange about that would likely be very interesting. (Editor's note: Jackie will join this conversation in the next post.)

Guy and Heidi's Answer to Bernie's Inquiry:

Our fundamental difference and the one that made us highly uncomfortable reading your book, we now realize, is that we define America's (and other places') existential problem differently than you do. Please correct us if we are wrong, but you seem to define America's fundamental problem as oppression and your response to that oppression as fundamental system change in a way that will take power and privilege away from those who currently have it and redistribute it to those who do not.  

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--to figure out how to bring others (presumably conservatives) around to the progressive point of view, or failing that, disempowering them, rather than figuring out how to also meet their interests and needs or, at least, compromising with them in a spirit of coexistence when agreement cannot be reached. Maybe we are wrong, but it seemed very much like a zero-sum sort of approach, rather than an integrative or positive-sum approach.  

We kept on thinking about how a conservative would react to reading your book, and our conclusion was that they would feel as if they were being repeatedly attacked and blamed for all of America's problems and threatened with "system change" that would disempower them and potentially take away money, services, and positions they think they have legitimately earned.  

Though you don't explicitly say that all white men (except, perhaps, allies) are the oppressors and women and BIPOCs are the victims of oppression, that message comes through implicitly over and over again. (Actually you do call out "what supremacy" a fair amount.) If that is really limited to people who, in the spirit of the KKK, honestly believe that whites are superior and deserve to dominate, that's maybe okay. Still, a great many progressives seem to use "white supremacy" as a broader pejorative term, which, like "racist," demonizes anyone who doesn't enthusiastically embrace the entire progressive agenda. This, it seems to us, results in further distrust, polarization, and escalation, which is what made us so uncomfortable with the approach you advocate in the book.  Plus, we think that it will likely further amplify and reinforce oppression, rather than reducing it.

By contrast, our principal focus is on the dangers of runaway escalation and hyper-polarization which we see as posing serious threats to democracy in the U.S. and across the globe, and to Americans' ability to live together in peace. This is only a slight reframing of our long-held belief that America's existential problem is not oppression, but rather the inability to deal with conflict in constructive ways. That inability is preventing us from solving any of our other problems--such as inequality, racism, climate change etc.

 After Trump's election we began to focus on escalation and polarization specifically, particularly looking at the way they are driving hatred, fear, and distrust in a complex set of interacting positive feedback loops, driving each higher and higher. The intensifying dynamics are well on their way to destroying democracy, likely replacing it with some form of anarchy or authoritarian dystopia (which, most likely) will make oppression much more severe, along with causing many, many other problems).

So yes, you are right, we don't explicitly say anything about how to engage people in a productive way in efforts to deal with serious power inequities because 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. As we see it, it is impossible to successfully reduce power inequality when we frame it as a win-lose, us-versus-them existential struggle. Once we de-escalate our hatred, start to build intergroup understanding, trust, and most importantly respect, then we will be in a much stronger position to tackle oppression and injustice.

We do begin to lay out a strategy for long-term system change processes that we refer to as "massively-parallel peacebuilding," but we actually get to that in much more detail in a later paper that we wrote as a follow on to the one published in CRQ.

 While these two sets of goals (reducing hyper-polarization and reducing or eliminating oppression) are not necessarily incompatible, there are tensions that urgently need to be explored. We are hoping to do that, and more, in the coming discussion.

Among the tough questions that we would like the CRQ discussion to ultimately address are the following:

  1.  Can one act as a neutral and as an advocate at the same time? Is it possible to "mediate from a justice perspective" as I saw one training firm recently advertise?
  2.  How can the conflict between the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless, the races, and the genders be waged constructively--meaning in a way that benefits the parties and the society overall, rather than hurting them further? 
  3.  Where does one draw the line between constructive efforts to mobilize support for political objectives and the kind of destructive demonization of political opponents that replaces consideration of legitimate political differences and compromise with mutual hatred and a desire to hurt or suppress one another?
  4. Can we develop a vision for a future in which both the left and the right would like to live, or are we condemned to perpetual struggle over who gets to dominate whom?
  5. How do we decide what views and evidence are constructive and worthy of public consideration and debate, and what ideas are unacceptable and should be suppressed? 
  6. And, if there are ideas that do need to be suppressed, how should this be done? Is "cancelling" really an effective approach or does it just create harmful and unnecessary backlash? 
  7. Are there alternative strategies for pursuing a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society that are not zero sum and hence not likely to generate as much pushback as the current approaches are doing?

At this point, we are trying to find a way to facilitate a constructive, online exploration of these critically important issues and other issues that  you (Bernie and Jackie) as well as our other readers will suggest. 

Bernie and Jackie responded together in the next post.