MBI Newsletter #46



Newsletter #46

by Heidi Burgess

October 29, 2021

I have been in the process of writing Section 4 of our coming Constructive Conflict Guide, which is focused on things "good-faith actors" can do to de-polarize and de-escalate intractable conflicts both at the interpersonal and at the societal level. (We use the term "good-faith actors" because we also have a section on how to overcome "bad-faith actors" who are doing so much to drive escalation and polarization for their own selfish gain.) Since this material isn't going to be published until the rest of the Constructive Conflict Guide is complete, I thought I'd start sharing excerpts of this material in the Newsletter and on the Constructive Conflict Blog in the interim.  

The first part of Section 4 will deal with de-escalating destructive, "us-versus-them" confrontations.  This section combines responses to two different, but highly inter-related, problems.  The first is the tendency to oversimplify complex intractable conflicts to simple "us-versus-them," "good guys-versus-bad guys" narratives.  The second problem is escalation, which Guy and I have long asserted is "the most destructive force on the planet," because it causes people to do all sorts of terrible things that they would ordinarily not consider doing (including, at the extreme, genocidal violence and, potentially, nuclear war). "The enemy is not the other side," we tell our students and anyone else who will listen; "it is conflict escalation." 

In this newsletter, I'll discuss the over-simplification problem, and we'll look at escalation in an upcoming newsletter. 

The Nature of the Problem

Most intractable conflicts are very complex. But people, by nature, tend to have trouble dealing with and, therefore dislike, complexity. They try to simplify complex stories into something they can more easily understand and categorize—some things are "good," others are "bad."  New information that corresponds to the narratives that they already believe are "accurate." Information that contradicts what they already believe is "wrong." (Psychologists call this the "confirmation bias"--people interpret all new information as confirming what they already know, and if it clearly doesn't, it is considered clearly false.)  People trust themselves more than they trust others, and when there is a question of who is right and who is wrong, or who is good and who is bad, most people will automatically put themselves and people like them on the "good side," while they will put people who are different from them (and especially those who are opposed to things they want or believe) on the "bad" side.

These very different world views then drive the sense that the other side in a conflict is "bad:" "selfish," "self-serving," "hateful," or even "evil." We tend to assume that it is their choices and their behavior, that is causing our own problems, not our own choices and our own behavior.  Not only is that usually false (on both sides), but such over-simplification is problematic for other reasons.  

First, it tends to spiral. If we blame "them" for everything that goes wrong, they will likewise respond by blaming "us." If we lash out about that, they will lash back—sometimes escalating the rhetoric, perhaps even adding in a negative behavior.

These tit-for-tat exchanges can continue, sometimes escalating to full-blown violence, even war. Although "war" is not something we tend to worry about in the United States, there are some prominent people who are publicly suggesting that "civil war is inevitable," or that it is already happening.  Even short of war, the protests we saw in the United States in the summer of 2020 and then again on January 6, 2021 suggest that a return to large-scale violence such as we last saw in the 1960s and 70s is certainly possible. 

Another problem with such over-simplification is that it assumes that the solution to "the problem," whatever the problem is, is to just "get rid of" the other side, or subdue them, over power them, or, perhaps, convince them that they are wrong and you are right. None of those approaches is likely to be possible, or to work, because the other side thinks the same way. So the situation is like an equally-matched tug-of-war.  But unlike tug-of-war, in which one side eventually prevails, and the game is over, the other side in these contests gets up, dusts themselves off, and comes right back to the fight.  So the fight goes on and on, often getting worse, not better, for all sides.  

Avoiding and Reversing Over-Simplification

Like many problems, over-simplification is most easily "solved" by not doing it in the first place.  But that's hard to do--everyone oversimplifies all the time out of necessity.  We can't possibly take in, store, and understand every detailed bit of information that comes our way. But if we are aware of the dangers of over-simplification, and we are aware that conflict narratives that say that "the problem is the other sides' fault" are almost always wrong, that's a good start. 

Rather than going along with that narrative, and the related notion that everything would be fine if "they" either understood the truth, came around to our point of view, were resoundingly defeated, or simply disappeared, and working toward that, it is important to find out what is really going on and then base our response on that more complex, nuanced understanding of the problem.

In almost all cases, "they" are not going to do any of the things the simple-narrative people hope for (such as changing their minds or disappearing), as they think exactly the same way about you.  Most often also, all sides are in some way contributing to the problem, by doing things that unnecessarily drive the escalation spiral.  So a second step, after rejecting the simple "it's their fault" narrative, is to examine if and how things you or your group are doing may be contributing to the problem.  An example is the campaign to "defund the police" when complete elimination of the police, most often, was not what was being suggested.  The language, in that case, was unnecessarily alarming, and just created enemies among people who might have been allies in the broader campaign for police reform and accountability.

How should we get this more complex, nuanced view of the problem?  We need to learn more about the other side--not about how bad they are, but why they believe what they believe, why they respond to us the way they do, and why they advocate for the things we think are so awful.   Most often people who look to be stupid or evil actually have good reasons for thinking and acting as they do.  If we understand those reasons, we will be in a much stronger position to work with them to try to solve our many mutual problems.

Learn Why The Other Side Thinks and Acts The Way They Do

So how do we do this?  For a start, we need to start reading, watching and listening to things the other side reads, watches, and listens to.  That will help us understand where they are getting their ideas, and what they are basing their attitudes and behaviors on. 

You do not necessarily need to read/watch/listen to the most extreme spokespeople on the other side, as that will likely make you mad and convince you that they really are as bad as you thought.  BUT, it will give you an insight into why others who listen/read/watch those people come to the conclusions that they do. Listening to Donald Trump, when he was President, infuriated me.  But it also showed me why so many people believed what he had to say, and it gave me a sense of the issues that they were concerned about. 

Equally or more valuable, however, is reading/watching/ listening to moderates on the other side.  These people are much more likely to explain the legitimate concerns, fears, interests, and needs of people who differ politically from you. They will explain what your side is doing to make them angry or fearful, and what you can do, perhaps, to improve relationships with them and people like them.

While you can say (or think) that you don't want to improve relationships with people like "them," if we don't, we are not going to get anywhere on solving any of our pressing problems.  It has long ago been proven that politics is a back-and-forth proposition. One side wins, then the other side wins. In the United States, and in many other places, the power of the two sides is approximately equal, so neither side can successfully impose its will on the other.  The alternative to cooperation is political stalemate and dysfunction, most likely accompanied by increasingly dangerous hyperpolarization and escalation.

Take, for example, the conflict over race and racism, particularly as it is being played out in current "diversity, equity, and inclusion" programs.  The Progressive Left sees these programs as the key to abolishing systemic racism. Since the overwhelmingly White meritocracy has ruled for so long, and racial minorities have been downtrodden in so many realms (education, jobs, housing, income, wealth, health, etc.), Progressives assert that the way to remedy this is to get Whites to understand that they have been unfairly "privileged" and empowered for far too long, and it is now time for them to actively remedy that by stepping aside and letting people of color lead. "Diversity" to Progressives means more people of color and fewer and less influential Whites.

However, Progressives' definition of "diversity" most often does not pertain to ideas and sociocultural values. While "diversity" at predominantly liberal universities means inclusion of non-Whites (as well as those marginalized because of gender-identity), it does not mean inclusion of those with more conservative, traditional, and largely Christian values. This is why we are hearing so many stories of people being "canceled" for failing to toe the Progressive line on race. 

Ibram X. Kendi asserts, there is no such thing as being "not racist."  Whites, he says, are either racists or "anti-racists."  That means anyone who doesn't take a stand, who doesn't actively work against racism in the ways that Progressives demand, is a racist (in other words, "evil.")  In addition, Kendi and other "anti-racists" assert, those who advocate treating each person as an individual, not as a representative of their race is, by his definition, a racist. They reject the notion that a person's value derives from their accomplishments (a measure tainted by the tilted playing field), and characteristic of the maligned "meritocracy." Virtue is determined solely by race.   So whites should be shamed and held back for their "privilege," giving the formerly oppressed the opportunity to catch up, or even move ahead.  Other class-based measures of relative advantage and disadvantage are considered irrelevant, as is the extent to which a person worked hard, or otherwise contributed to society.

John Burton and other human needs theorists in the conflict resolution field long ago explained, very persuasively in my view, that deep-rooted conflicts are largely caused by perceived threats to an individual's abilityto meet their fundamental human needs, most importantly to assure their security, identity, and recognition. It is not hard to see how the Progressive view might be seen as a threat to the ability of Conservative Whites to meet all three of these needs. 

The notion that one should be ashamed of their race and their socio-cultural heritage because they are "privileged" is a slam on a person's fundamental identity.  Liberals used to argue that it was unfair to demonize someone for an attribute they were born with--their race.  But now it is okay to do that to Whites to "get even." But many whites don't feel any better about that now than Blacks did way back when (and still do when it happens).  It is an affront to one's identity either way.

Also, when people get fired for speaking their minds, when they get denied a good education because their ancestors were "privileged," (as happens when whites are denied college entrance because of their race, or advanced classes are cancelled in elementary or high schools because they tended to be disproportionately White), this is an attack on Whites security, as it threatens their ability to get or keep a good job, and to have a secure livelihood.

And lastly, "recognition" is the need to have others recognize your needs and empathize with you.  In Kendi's antiracism movement, Blacks and other people of color should be recognized, but Whites should not.  But recognition, along with identity and security, are fundamental needs to Whites as they are to Blacks. 

When the ability of people to meet their fundamental human needs are attacked, Burton argued, people will fight back hard.  They will continue to fight until they feel secure, until they feel that their identities are valued and they are fairly recognized for who they are and what they do or have done.  

If Progressives would read, watch, and/or listen to some of the Conservative responses to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, they would better understand why conservatives oppose them and why they are most likely to fight long and hard against them and the ideas that are being taught in them.

Wouldn't it be better to go back to an anti-racism approach more akin to Martin Luther King's which, like Gandhi's, acknowledged the humanity, the value, and even the "truth" of the other, and sought to work with them, rather than against them for a future everyone would want to live in?  And, if this moral appeal is not enough, it is looking increasingly likely that the anti-White agenda will lead to electoral defeat and, quite possibly, a second Trump presidency.  

Note: The above comments are offered from the perspective of someone who has spent her entire career trying to help people escape the destructive spiral of runway conflict, not as an advocate for a particular side. My goal is to figure out how we can bring people in the U.S. and other deeply-divided societies together in ways that repair increasingly dysfunctional democracies, resist authoritarian tendencies, and prevent  large-scale civil unrest.  When the power of both sides is roughly equal, power-over strategies simply do not work.  They just lead to continued polarization, escalation, and eventual catastrophe. I am trying to help advocates on both sides to understand this before we jump off the metaphorical cliff.  We all need to switch to a power-with strategy to begin to work together to solve our mutual problems, true racism being one of them, unbridled escalation being another. 

Conflict Mapping to "See" Complexity

When I teach my graduate course on Intractable Conflict, the main semester activity is learning how to draw conflict maps, which are excellent ways to depict complex systems, and the many interacting factors that are almost always present in intractable conflicts.  This is a pretty involved process if it is done carefully, but it can also be done fairly quickly and easily if you get a few people together to unpack a thorny problem.  All you need is a big piece of paper or a white board (We tell our students to go out and get a roll of brown wrapping paper if they don't have a white board available), post-it notes, pens, and markers.  Then you set to work mapping the conflict of your concern.

For illustration, let's consider the conflict over police violence in the U.S.  Put a post-it note in the center of the big piece of paper or white board and on it write "police violence."  Then ask yourself and your co-mappers, what factors contribute to police violence? "Racial stereotyping" might be one answer.  Write that on a post it note, put it to the left of the center note and put an arrow between them, with the point going toward police violence. 

What else contributes to the problem?  "Inadequate police training" might be another answer.  Put that on a note and put an arrow toward the center.  "Police fear" might be a third.  Put an arrow going from police fear to police violence, but also, perhaps, from stereotyping to fear because stereotyping of blacks as violent likely increases police's fear of blacks in their encounters with them.  Inadequate training might also lead to fear. Put in another arrow.  What leads to stereotyping?  Hateful stories on social media might be one answer.  Put that on the map.  What leads to inadequate police training?  Inadequate funding might be one answer.  Ah-ha!  That suggests that defunding the police might contribute to police violence, not deter it.

Keep going like this until you have listed all the factors that you can think of that might lead to police violence, the things that lead to those things, and, if you have time and space, the things that lead to those things.  Then start putting in arrows showing the interrelationships between these factors.

You can already see, this isn't a simple "us versus them" problem.  The more you understand what is creating the problem, the more you will be able to see what might be done to try to fix it. And you might see that policies you are advocating, such as "defunding the police," might be counterproductive.  This is what is meant by the phrase "complicate the narrative" a phrase coined by Amanda Ripley, a journalist who is leading the way in the United States towards more constructive journalism.

Complex Versus Complicated Systems

Another aspect of avoiding over-simplification is understanding the nature of complex systems, which characterize most intractable conflicts. Most people understand complex to mean "complicated" or  "hard to understand."   They are hard to understand, but systems theorists (and a growing number of conflict theorists) make an important distinction between "complex," and "complicated." 

Complicated systems have many parts, but the parts are connected in determined, predictable ways. Cars are complicated, computers and cell phones are complicated. But they were designed by people, who understand how they work, how the parts work, and how the parts are connected. When a part breaks, they can find it, fix it, and make the machine work again. In addition, in complicated systems, the relationship between inputs and outputs is determined and linear. This means small inputs will create small, determined outputs, and large inputs will create large determined outputs.  So when you push gently on the accelerator in a car, the car will move forward slowly.  If you floor it, the car will speed ahead as fast as it is able. How much the car speeds with different levels of pressure on the accelerator is predictable, at least if one is driving on flat ground.

Complex systems have many interconnected parts, but they are not connected in known or determined or linear ways.  Rather, they are adaptive--each element in the system responds (adapts) to its environment in a (sometimes) predictable way. But the system, as a whole, is not determined or predictable--it can produce novel and unexpected outcomes. That means the behavior of the whole cannot be explained by the behavior of the parts, and you cannot fix complex adaptive systems by taking out the broken piece, fixing it, and putting it back in its place. It won't work the same way it did before. You have to be much more experimental when you try to intervene in complex adaptive systems--trying something, watching the effects, adapting, and trying again.

As Wendell Jones points out in his BI essay on Complex Adaptive Systems, each human, in an of themselves, is a complex adaptive system. 

The human brain is the most complex system known to us, in the universe, with one hundred billion (1011) neurons and ten thousand trillion (1016) connections (synapses) among those neurons. At each of these synapses, complex interactions occur among electrical charges and over 100 chemicals. Much work is currently under way to examine aspects of the emergent property of the brain that we know of as consciousness. From the earlier discussion, one can see that an individual's actions might be generally predictable, but those actions can never be precisely predictable. In addition, our human self-awareness (an emergent characteristic) generally allows us to choose how we interact with one another or a group. 

So we can't predict how, exactly, any human will respond when presented with a particular situation.  And when you get many humans interacting with each other, the situation becomes even less predictable. That means that we can't "fix" complex adaptive systems as if they were simple or even complicated systems. There are not cause-and-effect relationships, where a broken piece can be replaced and the system will work again. Outcomes aren't linear.  We might push hard in one place and nothing will happen.  Push a little elsewhere, and the entire system will rearrange itself. 

Jones went on to explain:

The attribute of complex systems that provides direction for intervention is the nonlinear self-organizing property. In these systems, whether a jazz ensemble or an ant colony, agents in the system adjust to every stimulus in ways that are not linear. That is, small input changes can produce large output changes. This is actually very encouraging, for it suggests that small inputs into a protracted or intractable conflict can conceivably produce large effects.

People working the field of dispute resolution need to be willing to embark on "enlightened experiments." That is to say, change something and work with the system while it adjusts to the change. If a positive result is not immediately apparent, wait awhile. It may yet be coming. Many times, these initial changes will not produce a significant reorganization of the system, but there can be changes that will result in reorganization within the system that will be beneficial. Such "enlightened experiments" could include altering aspects of the negotiations, such as changing the venue, changing the negotiation teams, adding culture-specific features to the negotiation, etc. Although it is impossible to tell which change will make the biggest difference, small changes in complex adaptive systems can lead to significant changes and potential negotiation breakthroughs.

In summary, making a difference in the midst of intractable conflict will not come from a reductionistic analysis of the system, conducted in hopes of designing and deploying a "definitive" intervention. Instead, evolutionary progress toward resolution can be possible through mindful experiments from within the conflict and then moving with the self-organization that follows.

The impossibility of predicting and controlling conflict need not result in a sense of hopelessness or resignation. It can, instead, propel us to a deeper exploration of the nature of complex adaptive systems and the amazing possibilities that reside within such self-organizing systems for constructive change.

Bottom Line

So, bottom line, we need to see the conflicts we care about not as simple "us-versus-them", "good-guys-versus-bad-guys" situations, but rather as what they are--complex adaptive systems.  Once we see that, we can learn as much as we can about how the system is "put together," and how it works, and then we can begin to experiment with inputs we can make into the system in the hopes of changing it in the way we would wish. If an input doesn't seem to work, wait awhile.  Watch.  It may bring about the desired change, just more slowly than we expect.  Or it might not--it might actually lead to further problems.  If so, figure out what went wrong, and try something else.  Success is by no means certain, but it is much more probable if we understand the nature of the problem we are dealing with and respond accordingly, rather than simply continuing to escalate an escalated conflict further and try to "win" an unwinnable game.

Recent and Related Posts:

Note: We at MBI took a good part of the summer off from new writing, working instead on other projects and family activities. However, we have been posting many Context and Colleague Activity Blog Posts over the summer, and now into the fall. Here are some of those; all of the ones posted since the last newsletter are found here: All CC-MOOS Posts

From the Colleague Activities Blog:

  • Penal Abolition 2021 -- From the Canadian Friends Service Committee, an infographic explaining why we need to abolish prisons--and how to do it. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 20
  • The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Demoracy -- Conversations and research, grounded in facts and evidence, focused on decoupling hardened policy positions from blind partisanship.      #mbi_colleague -- Sep 19
  • Bridge Alliance Podcasts -- Two episodes so far highlight how Bridge Alliance members bring diverse communities together. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 18
  • Adversarial Collaboration Project -- An especially promising project that helps those involved in scientific debates work through their differences in a spirit of collaborative learning. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 15
  • Civil Squared -- Getting un-likeminded people talking again because that’s how, together, we’ll create the most effective solutions to the challenges our communities face. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 14
  • Make America Dinner Again -- These dinners consist of respectful conversation, guided activities, and delicious food shared among 6-10 guests who have differing political viewpoints. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 13
  • Civic Genius -- Aiming to overcome political polarization and rebuild American civic culture through everyday opportunities to learn and engage with each other and policymakers. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 12
  • Living Room Conversations -- Getting at the heart of what we share in common with one another, these conversations promise respect, understanding, and even friendship in unexpected places! #mbi_colleague -- Sep 11
  • Justine Lee on Political Polarization -- The Executive Director of Living Room Conversations discusses her background, lessons learned, and tips to minimize the negative effects of political polarization. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 08

From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

All CC-MOOS Posts


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