Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Resolving Conflict is Simple - It's Just Not Easy

There's a lot of conflict in the air as we enter the new year. Various factions in Washington are in conflict over the Federal budget. Various factions in society are in conflict over gun restrictions. And some hard-core tribalists want to continue the conflict that played out during the election.

I have spent my entire adult life studying conflict - how to analyze it, how to understand it, how it gets resolved. Conflict resolution, as hard as it is to achieve, is really very simple. Not easy, but simple. Because there are (on the whole) only two ways that conflicts get resolved:

1) One party beats the other into submission and takes what it wants - the "winner take all" ending.

2) Both parties come to an agreement that ends the conflict - the voluntary and mutual ending.

The essence of civilized politics - the grand discussion of political philosophy for the past 400 years - is about how we get rid of the first outcome and enable the second, and how when outcome #1 is necessary the decision is made objectively on the basis of rules we all agree on ahead of time, rather than on who has the most power.

The systems we have built to accomplish these ends aren't perfect, and still need a lot of work. But on the whole, we've come a long way - Steven Pinker's observations about the decline in violence are only one indicator of our progress. And the march of that progress is, to a significant degree, a measure of our advancement as a civilization. The less we take from each other by force, the less we allow the strong to lord over the weak, the less we end our arguments in fistfights (or gunfights) rather than agreements, the better we are as a people. The recent massive protests in India, to take just one example, are a reflection of a shared human desire to beat back the barbarity that took that young woman's life and impose a more civilized society based on mutual consent.

To a substantial degree, this is an unremarkable observation - few of us want to live in a broadly winner-take-all, dog-eat-dog society. The problem comes, of course, in the particulars. When it comes down to particular issues, some forget the bedrock of mutual civilization in their desire to Win and Be Right.

What do I mean? Here are a couple of examples:

• In his address a week following the Newtown shooting, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre continued his organization's unwavering opposition to any legislation placing any sorts of restrictions on firearms. In a speech labeled by commentators across the spectrum as "tone deaf", Mr. LaPierre blamed everybody in reach and drew a simplistic "good guys/bad guys" view of the world. This is not the first time that the NRA has signaled its aversion to dialogue. Many of its most hard-core supporters cheered his stance, continuing a deadlocked "discussion" that has frustrated a great many Americans who would like to find a way forward.

• The following Facebook meme showed up on my FB feed today (posted originally by a FB group, the Conservative Club, with over 8500 followers - not enormous, but not a trivial number either):

The core message here is one of tribalistic bravado - "we're not gonna take it anymore!" Of course, what exactly these folks propose to do (aside from call their opponents childish names) is left to the imagination. But the gut feeling here is clear - we will win and they (morally bankrupt, Godless, soul-less evil Communists) will lose.

We spent much of 2012 listening to rhetoric from folks like Mr. LaPierre and the Conservative Club. In the context of an election, it was easy to dismiss this as pandering for votes - even as some of us worried about the corrosive effect on society as a whole. Now at the start of the new year, nearly two months after the election, there seems to be a lot of this kind of barbarity still around.

I use the term "barbarity" here not for hyperbole, but for its definition. If your approach to politics (or any conflict) rests on an unwillingness to dialogue, discuss, consider, compromise, or hunt for mutual solutions, you stand against the basis on which civilization is built. Refusing to look seriously for a mutual agreement while rejecting the rules we have set up for resolving disputes (as the Conservative Club's ill-considered meme does) is simply to say, "I'm right, you're wrong, and I'm going to beat you senseless until I win." Or, to give a real-world example of this kind of "dispute resolution" in action:
Tenants killed in snow-shoveling row
This landlord in Maine apparently decided that the only way to resolve his dispute with his tenants was to kill them. I doubt we'll hear Mr. LaPierre, or any NRA supporters, discussing this case.

So we as transition from one year of rabid partisanship to another, let's try to remember that the most basic disagreement in our society isn't between Democrats and Republicans, or between Right and Left. It's between those who think that civilization is based on reason, evidence, the search for mutual agreement, and the rule of law; and those whose adherence to dogma (Right, Left, or otherwise) will drive them to reject anything - reason, evidence, compromise, or law - that stands in the way of their total victory.

Tim O'Brien, recipient of the 2012 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, gave a speech recently in Dayton. In that address, he talked of his own experience in Vietnam, and the "two heads" (Left and Right) which have argued in his own mind ever since about that war. He expressed great concern about those who make the "one headed" mistake - thinking that they are right, that they know everything there is to know, and that there is nothing left to do but beat their opponents into submission. To the extent that this thinking gains the upper hand in our society, we are in real trouble. Let's hope that 2013 sees an increase in reasonableness and a retreat from dogma.

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