Hyper-Polarization Challenges: Scale, Complexity, and Collaboration

Newsletter #52 -- September 16, 2022


In This Issue


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

We are beginning to get enough submissions to the discussion that it seems useful to begin collecting them into topic categories. We have several (by Peter Adler, James Adams, and Richard Rubenstein) focusing on the threat of uncontrolled hyper-polarization, particularly the possibility of large-scale violence.  We have another group, revolving around an essay written by Jackie Font-Guzman and Bernie Mayer that calls the focus on hyper-polarization a "false flag," covering up the more important problem, in their view, oppression. The three-post conversation between the Burgesses and Jackie and Bernie has been supplemented by related comments submitted by several other authors, including Larry Susskind and Jay Rothman.

We want to discuss both of these topics in coming newsletters, but before we do that, we thought we ought to highlight several other posts that came in earlier, but do not fit into a category as easily as those. These include one by Chip Hauss that expands the Burgess's notion of massively parallel peacebuilding and problem solving as an approach to the challenge of scaling up traditional "table-oriented" approaches to conflict resolution and peacebuilding; and two others by Larry Susskind that look at complexity (with Shafik Islam) and collaboration in the context of hyper-polarization. 

If you haven't yet subscribed, we hope you will subscribe to the newsletter and get involved in the discussion if you have something to add. 

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Contributions to the Discussion on Scale, Complexity, and Collaboration

Synopses by Heidi Burgess

Chip Hauss: Beyond Polarization

Chip wrote his own blog post responding to the framing article, saying that we "got just about everything right," but that he had three key ideas to add to one of the most "vital planks" in our argument.  That plank, he said, was our idea of massively parallel peacebuilding and problem solving which, he correctly points out, is a term drawn from computer science in which "a large number of machines are used to tackle large and complicated problems that cannot be handled by any one of them." He continues:

In short, I couldn’t agree with their general argument more. However, perhaps because they focus primarily on the peacebuilding and conflict resolution communities, they miss the fact that  activists primarily working on other issues have made a good start in developing these “massively parallel processes.”

As examples, he points to Yascha Mounk’s new book, The Great Experiment, which contains many ideas about things that are being and can be done to strengthen democracy. 

He [Mounk] "reminded me [Chip] of something my childhood friend, Dick O’Neill impressed on me as the new century dawned. If you spend your time preparing counter-arguments to the other side, you have already lost, because you’ve agreed to play the game on their terms.  What I’m seeing in the activists who are inspiring me on race, climate change, economic inequality, personal growth, and other issues is that they are crafting a new and more positive narrative about the world they want to build. And then they have begun building it.

The second step Chip recommends is working towards realistic, constructive goals—things that are actually working or likely to work fairly soon. 

Success on those fronts could, in turn, lead both to more ambitious projects and provide activists with what I've called a "sense of collective efficacy." ... People stay active, not because their anger keeps getting fueled, but because they see tangible progress being made along with signs that they can accomplish even more down the line.

And lastly, Chip talks about scaling. He recounts his work on his project and forthcoming book Connecting the Dots, and he cites Superpowers 4 Good and Rotary as doing similar things. Chip also points out that scaling must go three ways:  outward to build grassroots support, upward to bring about policy changes at the local, state, and national levels, and inward.  By that he means: 

It’s not just “the other side” that has to change. We all do. Limiting ourselves to toxic polarization for the moment, we all have to ask how we ourselves contribute to it. Frankly, it’s not just Trump supporters and others of their ilk who have gotten the United States into the mess that we’re in. We all have. .. We all have to change in a lot of ways.

Read Chip's Full Post Here



Larry Susskind and Shafik Islam on Complexity

When we wrote Larry asking for his contribution to the hyper-polarization article, he referred us to several articles he had written, one of them entitled Using Complexity Science and Negotiation to Manage Disputes Over Shared Waters. He said that this article had useful lessons about complexity that were applicable beyond water conflicts.  Indeed, they are applicable to many complex public policy conflicts.

Larry and co-author Shafik Islam begin by defining complexity:

Complex problems are those where cause-effect relationships are ambiguous; uncertainty, nonlinearity and feedback are inherent; and emergent properties dominate the system evolution. For this class of problems, there is likely to be very little agreement about what the definition or cause of the problem is, let alone the best way to resolve it.

Complex problems, they say (as we do, too, in the CRQ paper) cannot be solved in the same way that simple or even complicated problems can be solved.  They cannot be analyzed by experts who will find the one "solution." They cannot be "fixed," as a broken machine or human-designed system can be assessed and "fixed." And even when apparent "fixes" or "solutions" are found, these solutions may not last, as the nature of the "problem" will likely continue to evolve.  What does work, Susskind and Islam argue, are ideas and tools drawn from negotiation theory and practice.

They focus on three such tools: stakeholder identification and participation, joint fact finding, and creative option generation.  All three processes, they say, contribute to improved relationships between parties, increased inter-party trust, and increased likelihood of reaching a quality and durable agreement. Joint fact finding, they add, "increases the chances that 'science' will not be pushed aside in favor of politically convenient arguments favored by the most politically powerful parties."

I asked them how they get "parties that are as highly polarized, as highly distrustful, even hateful, as the American political parties are, to the negotiating table in the first place, particularly when bad-faith actors are actively trying to undermine such efforts.   Larry answered (in part) 

The idea is not to ask, “Will you come to a formal session to meet and talk with people you are fighting with (and hating) to work things out?   Rather, would you be willing to come (in your personal capacity) if all your costs were covered to a facilitated sessions (with a facilitator you have met and trust where the focus will be only on “good ideas” that will help to meet your interests in the current situation (as well as the interests of others)?  .., those who want to promote dialogue or peace-making among parties who are “at war” are inviting the wrong people to the wrong kind of event in the wrong way.  There are clear alternatives that work.

Read Larry and Shafik's Full Post Here



Larry Susskind in the Negotiation Journal: Initiating Collaboration in the Midst of a Standoff

In addition to his complexity article, Larry shared his Negotiation Journal article on Breakthrough Collaboration, a process he and colleagues at the Consensus Building Institute developed.  Larry explains in his NJ article: 

Even when “warring parties” know that eventually they will have to talk to one another so that there can be peace, it is extremely difficult to get them to “fast-forward” to that moment.  The reasons for this vary. Sometimes the parties think that “time is on their side”—that continuing the battle will benefit them. Other times, leaders worry how they will appear in the eyes of their own followers if they seem to have lost heart or are ready to give in. A third reason that parties may not initiate talks is their concern that a willingness to do so may lead the other side to assume that they are ready to give up.

Breakthrough collaboration allows parties to take advantage of a critical moment to initiate preliminary trust-building activities, share information and send messages through a neutral party, and engage in internal efforts that can make it easier to move toward joint problem-solving. Such efforts can be triggered by a convener (who is not a party) and assisted by a mediator (who may not meet with the parties simultaneously). The goal is to do more than merely encourage dialogue. The hope is that an extended sequence of facilitated activities or events can lead to a shift in thinking on all sides. The key is to know when a critical moment creates an opportunity for breakthrough collaboration.

But, he goes on to explain,

"self-starting mediators [can] actually create a critical moment or a turning point in which some form of breakthrough collaboration is possible." Such initiatives involve small steps by mediators—sometimes taken with one party at a time (without brining them together).  The goal is to start to build trust in each other and in the prospects of making progress, nurture creative thinking about options, identify and help the parties figure out ways to meet core interests for all sides, manage power imbalances, and test out collaboration on small items before moving on to bigger issues. 

Breakthrough negotiation can work when traditional negotiation and mediation cannot:

Traditionally, mediators are called in when disputes have “ripened.” By that time, presumably, the parties and the issues are clear. Breakthrough collaboration doesn’t need to wait. The relationships among the parties need not have ripened, but rather some shift in the larger situation must have altered their sense of the gains and losses associated with the status quo. Also, breakthrough collaboration doesn’t require the views of all the parties to change at the time of the collaboration. So, dispute resolution involves working with all the parties simultaneously, while breakthrough collaboration does not. This may feel inappropriate to some mediators who have been trained not to give “advice to one side,” but in a pre-mediation context, breakthrough collaboration is an acceptable form of neutral intervention.

I [Larry] think this is a better way to take advantage of a critical moment in a long-standing conflict. The work can begin before the parties agree to engage in face-to-face dialogue. The product of a breakthrough collaboration can well be a significant turning point or critical moment in the larger conflict.

Read Larry's Full Post Here



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