Strategies for Revitalizing Democracy in the Post 9/11 Era

Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter #51 -- September 11, 2022


In This Issue


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors—Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Remembering 9/11

We can't send out a newsletter on September 11, without saying something about that. We can remember that day, 21 years ago, glued to our TV screen, horrified, and then busy on what social media was at the time, talking with colleagues about what this would mean to the U.S., and to the world. I (Heidi) remember saying that it wouldn't mean much—it would be an initial shock, and then it would pass. I don't think I've ever been so wrong!

That day, and the many instances of terror that preceded and followed it, changed the world. It unleashed the American "War on Terror," that continues to this day.  9/11 united Americans—Red and Blue came together, we waved flags, we talked about strength, we tried to help each other, and many people volunteered to fight.  We even mostly agreed that we should protect our Muslim citizens from backlash violence, and efforts were made to reach out to them.

9/11 also led to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq and a bold effort to transform those societies into liberal Western democracies. The peacebuilding community, in hopes of helping turn this tragedy into something more positive, became deeply involved in what came to be called the "long war." And now it is 21 years later.  We have ignominiously withdrawn from Afghanistan, having failed at our core mission. Instead, a great many people (especially women) who bet their lives on US promises are now abandoned and threatened with grave harm, even death, as the Taliban now rule in Afghanistan. And, democracy is deeply challenged here in the U.S., and in many other democracies. What went wrong?  The answer to that could fill a library. But hyper-polarization is a significant part of the story, and it is the one we are currently examining with respect to failing democracies world-wide. We continue that discussion below.

Continuing the Discussion of Hyper-Polarization: Please Join In!

In the last newsletter, we announced that BI is switching from using MailChimp for newsletter distribution, to Substack, which is now the best way to stay up to date with the many new materials that are being posted on BI, particularly to our new blog on hyper-polarization blog.  This blog is becoming increasingly active, and the topic is becoming increasingly important, as election season is looming in the United States.  So we hope you will subscribe to the newsletter if you haven't, and get involved in the discussion if you have something to add. 

Subscribe to the Newsletter

As we also explained in the last newsletter, the hyper-polarization discussion is initially being framed around an article written by Guy and Heidi Burgess together with Sanda Kaufman which was published in the July issue of the Conflict Resolution Quarterly.  Three commentaries on this article, written by Carrie Menkel-Meadow,  Connie Ozawaand Barney Jordaan, were published in CRQ simultaneously. We want to share the key ideas from those commentaries in this newsletter, to be followed by some of the comments we have recently received from other readers.


BI/CRQ Discussion Banner

Applying Conflict Resolution Insights to Hyper-Polarization: Three Commentaries

Applying conflict resolution insights to hyper-polarization: "When will (we) ever learn?" — Carrie Menkel-Meadow

In her Commentary, Carrie starts out by explaining that "Conflict resolution professionals must be optimists. We must believe that our theories and practical experience will enable us to facilitate effective communication between disputants and help them to solve their conflicts in mutually beneficial ways."  But, she continues, "Yet a few years ago, more pessimistically, I suggested we were in almost unprecedented difficulty in a polarized polity where people could not hear or listen to each other across political, religious, or even within familial divides (Menkel-Meadow, 2018). Though many have written guides for crossing such divides in small-group settings, I worried about how our small-group methods could or could not be scaled up to larger social and political levels (Menkel-Meadow, 2011).

Following a listing of some of the causes of our problems (including a culture of adversarialism, binarism, escalation; tensions between group and individual identity; lack of participation in rules and decisions that govern us; and the notion that compromise is bad), Carrie suggests four solutions. 

Her first suggestion is a change of mindset from a competitive "win-lose" approach toward everything we do to the mindset of "'we're all in this together' and we need to solve our problems together. We need a massive re-orientation of all socialization and education to make it less competitive and more collaborative. We need more success stories of problems solved, and conflicts, if not “resolved,” then well handled. We need to make conflict resolution and working together “cool”—how about mediation memes and movies, rather than “Avengers” and constant combat or “Games of Thrones”?

Carrie's second suggestion is to follow the original Public Conversations Project's protocols for constructive dialogue.  They had people on all sides of a conflict discuss together such questions as "What are you unsure about in your own thinking? What more information would you need to understand your own views and that of others? What are the sources of your views? Can you imagine others? Are there multiple  points of views? Not just two?"

Carrie then quotes Maurice Rosenberg, who said "the forum should fit the fuss" (Rosenberg, 1987).  We need better analysis of what kinds of processes are best suited to the kinds of problems our polarized societies need to solve—what requires society-wide legislative action (which is often a compromise process when it works), what requires more empathic, mediative interpersonal processes (more emotional processes), when do we need authoritative (and legitimate) decisional processes, calling out that which is evil (racism, cruelty, human rights violations) and when do we need more experimental, contingent processes (for re-invention and evaluation)?

Lastly she urges "early and continuing education for all human beings in conflict resolution, peacemaking, dispute handling, and decision making." which, she says is essential if we are "to learn to really listen, explore our needs and interests and search for solutions that enhance human flourishing, rather than diminish it. If we do not learn to make lemonade out of lemons together, our lives will be quite bittersweet."


Adding to the call to action:  A few more thoughts — Connie P. Ozawa

In her commentary, Connie points out first that a "desire for change and creating a shared vision are critical in CR [conflict resolution]. The first provides motivation for action. If people see the status quo and current trends as unacceptable, working with others becomes more attractive." Instead of focusing on our partisan differences so hyped by the media, advocacy groups, and politicians, she suggests that we "focus on an image of the future we desire. This would likely reveal not just commonalities as we recenter our gazes on the positive attributes of a future reality, but also areas on which we do not outright disagree." Most people, she suggests, "would support reducing hostility and violence, addressing the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, ensuring healthy food on market shelves, ensuring a sense of safety and security on our streets and reducing homelessness with a roof over all our heads."

Connie admits this is very challenging in this day and age of "us-versus-them" identity politics and tribalism.  But the conflict resolution field has a long track record of working successfully with people who profoundly disagree with one another.  Indeed, she reminds us, it is essential that we include all affected parties, even those with whom one disagrees, to reach sustainable decisions. She shares the example of the High Desert Partnership which 

has a 20-year record of bringing together conservative ranchers, ardent environmentalists, and well-meaning federal resource managers to restore natural areas and promote the health of the resources on which the local economy depends. Project participants concede that collaboration does not occur overnight, but often only after “100 cups of coffee.” Despite the CR field's success stories, we have done a poor job of advertising them. The mainstream media favors spectacle and fear-mongering, not stories of traditional adversaries getting along. Social media largely benefits from reinforcing beliefs, not challenging them. Dealing with the industrial media complex may be too big an order, which is why the 100 cups of coffee may be the better road to joint problem solving.

This, of course, is a small-group process, and scaling up such processes to bigger scales, she agrees, is challenging, particularly because trust and credibility is highest in personal interactions—with family, friends, and neighbors. But, she points out, the conflict resolution field has many arms (dispute resolution, reconciliation, peacemaking, K-12 programs and more), and we can partner with the many organizations working to strengthen democracy to add to our reach..  

Connie wisely adds that "We must keep in mind that 100% CR success, while sought after, is not essential: “Perfection is the enemy of action.” Partial consensus is a step forward.." She concludes:

On-the-ground work to create a shared vision for our future, acknowledging our distinct and shared identities, creating a narrative that broadcasts past CR successes that have brought together traditional adversaries—are steps forward toward a healthier democratic system. Our future and the future of our children and grandchildren depend on us working together. We in the CR field have the knowledge and the skills. Let us continue to make massively parallel steps forward with like-minded others.


Helping organizations and individuals develop conflict wisdom by Barney Jordaan

In his commentary, Barney focuses on the importance of conflict frames, "not only of those engaged in a conflict, but more broadly at a societal level." 

Frames matter. How we perceive conflict itself—as a threat or opportunity; how we perceive those on the other side of the conflict—as an adversary to beat or as a fellow human being with merely a different point of view than mine; and how we frame the issues that caused the conflict—zero-sum or potentially integrative—are crucial to success or failure in situations of conflict. Thus, our frames determine the strategy or approach we adopt to address a conflict (competition or joint problem-solving); the tactics and behaviors we employ—threats and bad faith actions aimed at “winning” the conflict, or ones encouraging dialog and joint problem solving; and, ultimately, the success or failure of our endeavors

Most of us have a generally negative view of conflict, Barney asserts, based on our own past experiences, and the way it is portrayed in the media. By helping people develop a positive frame about conflict, we can help them develop positive strategies, tactics, and behaviors for addressing those conflicts. This is the first step in developing what Barney calls "conflict wisdom." 

Conflict wisdom refers to: (i) having an understanding of conflict, its antecedents, and acquiring productive conflict skills and behaviors; (ii) awareness of one's own conflict frame or mindset and its effect on how one deals with a conflict; (iii) awareness of one's own preferred conflict style and developing the ability to apply different styles depending on the context; (iv) having conflict handling skills; (v) implementing procedures aimed at early conflict resolution; and (vi) creating a work environment that normalizes conflict and encourages open dialogue.

Conflict wisdom can be taught wherever people are. Barney described doing such through a peer mediation program in primary and high schools in a deeply divided crime-ridden community near Cape Town, South Africa, where he used to live. He also describes the creation of local peacebuilding "hubs."

For example, in some towns in Belgium (where I currently live) and the Netherlands, town-wide initiatives were launched involving local authorities (including police), nonprofit organizations, schools, universities, trade unions and employers, faith-based organizations, mediators, and others to establish so-called “peaceful cities.” Their purpose is to create dialog, implement restorative justice initiatives, and proactively identify strategies for preventing, limiting, and resolving conflicts.

Barney concludes his commentary by a quote from Mary Parker Follett:

“Our ‘opponents’ are our co-creators, for they have something to give which we have not. The basis of all cooperative activity is integrated diversity … What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature … Fear of difference is the dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.”



Colleague Banner.png

Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.


Context Banner.png

Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.


About the MBI Newsletters

Once or twice a week, we will compile BI news, along with new posts from our Hyper-polarization Blog and elsewhere on BI into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us



Disclaimer: All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Beyond Intractability or the Conflict Information Consortium.

Copyright © 2016-22 by Article/Post Authors/Publishers
All other content
Copyright © 2016-22 Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
All rights reserved. Content may not be reproduced without prior written permission.

Photo/Graphics Credits
Beyond Intractability Sunrise Photographs. By Guy and Heidi Burgess.
Arrow Constructive Conflict Initiative Graphic: By Guy and Heidi Burgess.
Crowd of People Cartoon Graphic. By Clker-Free-Vector-Images; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons.
News on Phone, Tablet, Computer Outline. By OpenClipart-Vectors; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons.
Daytime Protest -- Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash -- Free to use under the Unsplash License