Newsletter # 38— January 26, 2021
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Hurricane Florence / NASA Goddard
Avoiding the Category 5 Socio-political Hurricane
In our last newsletter, we noted that the election was over, but our populace and our political leaders remain as divided as ever. The attack on the Capitol, the vote of 147 Representatives and Senators to block the certification of the election, the a second impeachment of President Trump all illustrate deteriorating relations, not improving ones.
Even President Biden, who has called for "unity" and "collaboration," has put forth a large number of executive orders that are likely to infuriate Republicans. For instance, his order to launch a whole-of-government initiative to advance racial equity, to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, to stop construction of the border wall, and to reverse Trump's limits on immigration while slowing or stopping deportations, are all likely to generate immediate and hostile response. One example was Miranda Devine, a New York Post columnist and Fox News Contributor who said: "We all wish Joe Biden the best, we want him to succeed and we would love it he could unify the country, but every action he’s taken since he was sworn in, has been to spit into the eye of normal Americans who are not protected by great wealth or by protected jobs,"
Most Democrats, likely, think that Devine’s charge is totally unfair, and they might rightfully doubt the statement that Republicans "want Joe Biden to succeed," given their past history of doing all that they could to prevent Obama from succeeding. But the orders do seem to reach out more to help Democratic constituencies (people of color and other minority groups) while not making such overtures to more Republican, white Americans, many of whom are also hurting. Democrats, of course, likely think that's only fair because of the way that Trump seemed to go out of his way hurt Democratic constituencies, while protecting Republican ones along with the disproportionate hurt Blacks and other people of color have suffered over the centuries.
But these policies just keep swinging the pendulum back and forth following each election. And, unlike real physical pendulums, which decrease in amplitude with every swing, social pendulums often increase in amplitude with every swing, meaning attitudes, behaviors and policies get increasingly extreme every time, not less so. (Conflict theorists call that "escalation.")
So the key question facing all Americans, "official" and otherwise, is what do we do now? We seem to have two choices. We can go beyond lofty rhetoric and really try to reconcile with the other side. Or we can continue our increasingly vicious, partisan struggle for dominance, just as we have been doing all along.
I've been thinking a lot about this question, as I am just now beginning a graduate-level course on reconciliation at the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. I decided about a month ago to completely rework the syllabus to focus much more on the crisis in the United States than I had before.
The key questions we will be examining in the course include: 1) is reconciliation in the U.S. possible? and And, 2) is it desirable? Although I will welcome dissent from students over the coming 14-weeks, I made the assertion in one of my early lectures that we "really have no choice." Either we can take the road toward reconciliation, which, if done well, will lead to smoother waters, or we can take the road to further partisanship, which will lead us, I said, to a "Category 5 socio-political hurricane." If we want to avoid this Category 5 hurricane, we need to figure out how to work together.
In the last newsletter, I talked about Ebrahim Rassol's talk at PeaceCon 2020 in which he suggested that the U.S. follow South Africa's example, where they decided that "South Africa belonged to all who lived there." Neither the Blacks nor the Whites were ever going to go away--they had nowhere to go. So the only conclusion they could reach was that they had to build a country that accommodated them both.
The same is true in the United States, although we don't seem to act that way. The Republicans are not going to go away. A large majority of the 70 million people who voted for Trump still support him, and still believe him when he asserts that the election was stolen. This, of course, astonishes and infuriates Democrats, who can't imagine how Republicans can possibly believe that, when the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelmingly clear.
But, that's not the evidence Republicans have seen. They live in a completely different, and largely separate, information universe. They have been hearing repeatedly from President Trump (and from all of the other information sources that they trust and pay attention to) that the election was stolen. Ballot boxes were stuffed, Republican votes were discarded, voting machines were tampered with. They have heard this so many times, from so many people that they trust, that they have no reason to question those assertions and they are not changing their minds because Joe Biden is now in office. So grassroots Democrats have to find a way to live with and work with people who believe that. And the Dems in Congress have to find a way to work with the Republicans, because it is the only way to get anything done.
To do that in South Africa, Rasool said "they started with the end"–they built an image of what a reconciled country would look like. Then they planned the processes that they would need to implement to get to that future goal. (I call that "prospective reconciliation.") That strikes me as a very important step that is being overlooked by many people who are more focused on the past, and remedying past wrongs (which I refer to as retrospective reconciliation). (My video on that isn't done yet--I'll post it in an upcoming newsletter.)
In Unit Two of my George Mason course, I'm asking students to work in teams to develop a vision of a "reconciled America." I stress that it needs to be a place where Progressive and moderate Democrats, as well as moderate and Trump Republicans would see as a place in which they would like to live. It doesn't need to be a place without conflict--conflict is inevitable, and it is the only way we grow and change. But it has to be constructive conflict, that leads to resolutions that are satisfactory to everyone. While it may not be as desirable as the decisive victory each side wants, it is clear that a decisive victory for either side is not going to happen–at least not for long, as the political pendulum will swing back the other way in two or four years. And a reconciled future will certainly be much better than the Cat 5 hurricane we are likely to create if we continue our efforts for total victory.
As I argue in the course, if we are going to really work on "unity," as Biden refers to it or "reconciliation" as conflict resolution professionals refer to it, we cannot continue to pretend "the other" is going to go away. That's true for Democrats and it is true for Republicans. Rather, we need to work together.
Given that, before we start holding truth commissions, before we start implementing programs to dispense “justice” to some groups, but not to others, I suggest we determine our goal. What kind of a country do we want to live in ten, twenty or thirty years from now? Do we want to live in a country in which one group of people (for instance women or people of color) dominate and discriminate against men or whites? Is that going to avoid the Cat 5 hurricane? Or do we want to live in a country where all people are treated fairly, are respected, and are able to live fulfilling lives? If we choose the later, we should consider one of Ebrahim Rasool’s other admonitions: “The process of struggle needs to incorporate the solution. ...You cannot call for the end of racism and mobilize [on the basis of] race. You cannot want a peaceful society and be wantonly violent in your conduct towards it. You cannot speak of unity and polarize society in the conduct of your struggle.”
So while I agree that justice and truth are key to reconciliation, we need to look at justice for all people, not just for some people. And we need to look at the truth of what has happened to all people, not just some people. And we need to help all who need help in fulfilling their potential.
In the next Newsletter, I'll talk more about justice and truth, putting them together with peace and mercy as John Paul Lederach does in his story of “The Meeting Place.” But this is enough for now.
Recent Posts Relating to this theme (along with some others) include:
From the CCI Blog
Note: The first three of these posts are new; the others are ones we have reposted recently because they are topically relevent to current events.
- Shamil Idriss: America’s Hard Path Forward -- We must address extremist groups' grievances, while standing firm against their extreme actions. By focusing on commonalities, as well as differences, we can find a path forward -- Jan 17
- Chip Hauss - On Coups and Reconciliation -- The U.S. desperately needs reconciliation at a time when it is going to be especially difficult for us to reconcile. -- Jan 11
- These Four Steps Will Help When You’re Stuck--How do some people make major changes happen? -- Introducing "desire paths," and the importance of designing change to follow them whenever possible. -- Dec 18
- Hyper-Polarization, the Pandemic, and the Need for a "Lifeboat Ethic" -- As we struggle to navigate the terrible storm produced by the pandemic, the economic crisis, and climate-related disasters, it makes sense to adopt a lifeboat ethic, put aside our differences, and work together to address the big threats. -- Jan 20 (reprise)
- What Happens When We Have an Election That Both Sides Absolutely Positively Can't Afford to Lose? -- We just had an election that both sides felt they couldn't lose. Now, our ability to reunify the US depends upon overcoming misinformation and assuring Republicans that, even in defeat, their vital interests be still be protected. -- Jan 18 (reprise)
- Power Strategy Mix -- We need to remember that, in many ways, coercion is the weakest form of power. It generates a terrible and often counterproductive backlash. The real key to sustainable change is persuasion and exchange. #mbi_cci -- Jan 17 (reprise)
- Dehumanization in Politics -- As outrage on all sides continues to intensify, we need to find more effective ways of resisting the dehumanization that threatens more violence.-- Jan 14 (reprise)
- U.S. Reconciliation in 2020 and Beyond -- Reconciliation is not the imposition of one side's view on the other, but rather a meeting of minds and a way forward. #mbi_cci -- Nov 22 (reprise)
From the Constructive Conflict Seminar:
- Finding Common Ground / Constructive Addressing Differences: a Discussion Guide -- For a time when it seems like our differences are unbridgeable, a guide to finding what binds us together and dealing with what drives us apart. -- Jan 20
- The Blood-Boiling Trap -- For a time when there are lots of things that, for good reason, make us furious, a reminder that too much anger can be a trap.-- Jan 12
From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar:
- Morton Deutsch on Understanding and Overcoming Oppression -- For a time when it seems like everyone thinks they're being oppressed by someone, a comprehensive look at what oppression really is and what to do about it. -- Jan 24
- Third Siders -- For those who are looking for a way to be part of efforts to start reconciling our divided society, Bill Ury offers great advice, become a Third Sider. -- Jan 19
From the Colleague Activities Blog
- Shamil Idriss and Cynthia Miller Idriss talk about the follow up to the U.S. Capitol attack. -- Shamil Idriss and his wife Cynthia Miller Idriss talk out responses US extremism and the events of January 6 on CNN Newsroom. -- Jan 25
- Why Nonviolent Communication Literacy is a critical 21st Century Literacy Skill? -- An important reminder that we need to emphasize constructive conflict communication skills as we teach people how to navigate modern, high-tech society. -- Jan 24
- Five Framing Tips: Framing for Social Change -- An example of how cognitive science and the theory of framing can be applied in ways which help us make things better. -- Jan 20 (reprise)
- Countering Global Kleptocracy: A New US Strategy for Fighting Authoritarian Corruption -- A comprehensive examination of the pervasive threat to democracy, prosperity and security posed by globalized corruption. -- Jan 20
- World Happiness Report 2020 -- A report on an effort to understand and quantify the intangible quality-of-life factors that really matter and should play a bigger role in policy. -- Jan 19
- How to Democracy -- Your guide to public participation during an unprecedented hybrid legislative session. -- From Montana, a hopeful story about how, amid the pandemic, Zoom can be used to expand involvement in state-level politics. # -- Jan 18
- Engaging Narratives for Peace -- An effort to understand and apply to peacebuilding work the surprisingly complex narratives that guide our conflict interactions. -- Jan 14
From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog
- Coexistence Is the Only Option -- It's time to abandon the illusion that the other side will decide that we were right all along. We need to learn how to live together despite our differences. -- Jan 25
- Biden's Culture War Aggression -- An exploration of the tensions between Biden's effort to promote equitable treatment for core Democratic voters and his larger, national unity campaign. -- Jan 25
- President Donald J. Trump: The End -- For the new Biden era, a challenge--act in ways that surprise our political adversaries on the "upside" by being more reasonable than they expect.-- Jan 24
- Grievance politics is a dead-end road -- For conservatives (and progressives) an exploration of the pitfalls and dangers of a politics based on grievances and anger.-- Jan 20
- Relativity In Portland: The Other Insurrection -- From Portland, case study in how aggressive protest campaigns can cross the bounds of civility and become counterproductive.-- Jan 20
- Essential Reading for Skeptics (and Others) -- For those who don't really trust mainstream liberal media, more conservatively-oriented sources of reliable information. -- Jan 19
- The Woke Future -- Imagine a West where liberal ideals have shriveled away. Could a "successor ideology" be taking over? -- Jan 19
- Trump Ignites a War Within the Church -- A report on a critically important "does the ends justify the means" conflict that has erupted among President Trump's evangelical supporters. -- Jan 18
- QAnon Woke Up the Real Deep State -- Sound advice for anyone contemplating crossing the line between nonviolent protest and direct attacks upon the US government and the rule of law. -- Jan 18
- Mavis Staples - Eyes on the prize -- For Martin Luther King day, a moving reminder of what he was up against and what he was able to accomplish. -- Jan 17
- Overreaction Won’t Help Anyone -- Amid our rapidly escalating political confrontations, a reminder that, wherever possible, we need to ratchet tensions down, not up. t -- Jan 17
- Making policy for a low-trust world -- Timely advice for a world in which we have lots of problems to solve and very little trust in those who must solve them. #mbi_context -- Jan 14
- Voters Say Those on the Other Side ‘Don’t Get’ Them. Here’s What They Want Them To Know -- For those who don't really have an opportunity to reach out to the other side, an excellent summary of the big things we want each other to hear -- Jan 12
About the MBI Newsletters
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