MBI Newsletter #35

September 22, 2020

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Conflicts over COVID-19, systemic racism, the U.S. election, and many other issues are driving political escalation and polarization to new and dangerous heights.  What can be done about it?



Continuing Our Examination of Escalation and Polarization

In our last newsletter, we started examining escalation, which, along with extreme polarization is gravely threatening the well-being of almost everybody in the United States--and many other places around the world.  We are continuing that examination with this newsletter, supplementing the blog posts we shared last time with newly-updated Conflict Fundamentals essays that give more details about what escalation and polarization are, how they work, and what can be done to prevent them or reverse them. 

Before those, though, I want to share the one blog post I should have put in last time, but failed to.  (Oops!  Sorry, Guy!)
I left out the fourth in Guy's series of six posts on the current state of American political escalation and polarization.  The one I missed was entitled:

  • Exponential Growth in Pandemics, the Economy, and Escalation - Early in the COVID pandemic everyone was talking about "exponential growth," and we are all very much afraid of how the numbers of cases would grow.  They did grow a lot, of course, particularly in the United States, but fortunately, not so much as to completely overwhelm the entire country's health care system, as was originally feared.  (Some regions' health care systems were, indeed, overwhelmed, and there is still the possibility that we'll see such a collapse this fall and winter.  But so far, fortunately, we haven't.) This article points out that "infectious ideas" are much, much more "contagious" than even the most contagious virus.  An infectious idea can reach millions of people via social medial almost instantaneously.  Some are positive--such as the idea that police brutality against Blacks is unacceptable and must be prevented.  But others are very negative --such as depicting one's political opponent of evil and deserving of social or even physical attack.  Such ideas are rampant in social media--many originating from malicious state actors (such as Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Ukraine) and have the potential of stimulating violence or other destructive activities very quickly.

While Guy was writing his blog posts, Heidi was updating the Conflict Fundamentals essays on topics related to escalation and polarization.  These essays give readers a deeper understanding of these dynamics, with all-new "current implications" sections which relate the theoretical ideas to current events.

  • Destructive Escalation - As we described in our last newsletter, escalation can be very destructive, as it unleashes adversarial processes that can quickly escape the actors' control. Six changes typically occur as a conflict escalates: parties move from light tactics to heavy ones, the number of issues, parties, and resources all increase, issues move from specific to general, the relationship between the parties deteriorates to the point that the other side is seen as "evil," and the goal of the parties changes from "doing well," to "winning," and finally, to hurting the other (even if one hurts oneself as well.)  As these changes occur, they tend to build upon one and other, in an ever-rising spiral of contention that can become embedded in the structure of society, so it becomes particularly hard to dismantle. This essay describes these processes in detail and the Current Implication Section applies these concepts to the current political situation in the United States. (Spoiler: all of these changes have happened!)
  • Polarization - This article describes the changes that occur as a conflict polarizes:  parties form enemy images of "the other," lines of communication are cut off, trust diminishes, each side blames the other for its problems, formerly neutral parties are pulled to one side or the other as partisans insist that everyone "take a side," radical positions are reinforced by group homogeneity and cohesiveness, and relationships with outsiders becomes increasingly hostile and competitive.  Although the original article primarily focused on polarization between nation states, the new Current Implication Section shows how the same observations apply to political polarization within one state--for instance, the United States in the current Trump era.

Other recently updated essays begin to look at how escalation can be used constructively.

  • Constructive Escalation - Sometimes, conflicts are escalated intentionally, in an effort to raise awareness of a problem.  This is the strategy of nonviolent action, which, through mass protests of various kinds, seeks to get the attention of the media and hence the general public, in an effort to sway decision makers to make needed socioeconomic and legal changes to remedy past injustice. This is what is currently happening with respect to police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S.  These problems have existed in the U.S. and abroad for centuries, but the summer killing of George Floyd seems to have been the spark that ignited one of the most prolonged sets of racial protests in the U.S. since the 1960s.  This article examines the risks and benefits of tactical escalation and offers suggestions on how the risks can be minimized.
  • Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action - Nonviolent direct action is one of the most common ways that conflicts are constructively escalated.  This article describes the similarities and differences between philosophical nonviolence and strategic nonviolent direct action, explaining how both were used historically to good effect.  The Current Implication Section discusses how strategic nonviolent direct action is currently being used to address police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. in 2020.
  • Peaceful Change Strategies  This article starts by saying that many observers (theorists and activists) see nonviolent direct action and negotiation as being an either-or choice. Indeed, that was the suggestion I (Heidi) made in my earlier blog post (When) Should We Escalate? In this article, Maire Dugan points out that that is a false dichotomy.  Actually, direct action and nonviolence have been and should be used hand-in-hand.
  • Ripeness - Years ago, Political Scientist William Zartman introduced the notion of "ripeness"--the notion that conflicts become "ripe" (or "ready") for negotiation when parties have reached what he called a "mutually hurting stalemate" and are seeking a "way out." The new Current Implications section for this essay suggests that the U.S. is quickly approaching such a stalemate, although the political conflict between the Left and the Right won't be "ripe" until after the November election.  But then, conflict resolvers should be ready to move quickly, as many people will likely be looking for a "way out" of the crisis the election may well produce. 
  • Limiting Escalation / De-escalation While escalation can happen very quickly, de-escalation is very slow and difficult.  For that reason, it is beneficial to try to avoid escalation in the first place. While one might think we, in the United States, are past that point, we may not be.  As escalated as our political conflicts are, they could get worse!  So reading and considering the ideas listed in this article for limiting conflict escalation is valuable.  So are the suggested strategies for de-escalation.  De-escalation tactics are most likely to succeed after the parties have reached a "hurting stalemate," -- at which point they are being significantly harmed by a conflict, but realize that there is no possible way to win outright, without incurring unacceptable costs. This seems to me to be where the U.S. is heading now. Although both sides seem to think that the November 2020 election will solve our political conflicts, it certainly will not--no matter who wins. I would argue that we have definitely reached a hurting stalemate in this conflict, and the time has come to implement de-escalation measures.

Other Recent Posts include:

From the CCI Blog:

From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar: 

  • The Nature and Origins of Oppression -- Hunter/gatherer societies were relatively egalitarian, but agriculture enabled and encouraged the formation of a social hierarchy. #mbi_fundamentals -- Sep 15 
  • Forms of Oppression -- In addition to distributive, procedural, and retributive injustice, moral exclusion and cultural imperialism are also oppression. -- Sep 16
  • Maintaining Oppression -- Oppression is maintained through superior power, control of meaning, self-fulfilling prophecies, and distorted relationships. -- Sep 19
  • Overcoming Oppression: Awakening the Sense of Injustice -- Many have recently awakened to U.S. injustice--but will this awakening last? Sep 20
  • Overcoming Oppression Through Persuasion -- Persuasion doesn't have the risks that come with the use of force, and can be very effective. -- Sep 22 
  • Overcoming Oppression With Power -- When persuasion isn't enough, power must be added to overcome oppression. But that doesn't mean violence. #mbi_fundamentals -- Sep 23 
  • Procedural Justice -- The notion that fair procedures are the best guarantee for fair outcomes is a popular one. Procedural justice seeks to do just that. -- #mbi_fundamentals -- Sep 14
  • Distributive Justice -- Distributive justice can be based on equality, equity, or need. The results are markedly different. #mbi_fundamentals -- Sep 13
  • Retributive Justice -- When people say they want "justice," in the U.S., this most often means retributive justice—they want someone to be punished for their wrongdoing. #mbi_fundamentals -- Sep 12 
  • Restorative Justice -- Victims, offenders, and the affected communities are all key stakeholders in the restorative process--that's why it works. -- Sept. 9

From the Colleague Activities Blog:

  • Will COVID-19 Transform the Global World Order? -- A conversation with Bruce Jentleson, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, Duke University and Wilson Center Global Fellow. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 23
  • Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford -- This lab combines psychology, tech, and business to design practical interventions that increase sustainable, mutually-beneficial social behavior. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 22
  • The Future of Civil Society Organisations -- From The International Civil Society Centre, an important report on the future of CSOs during and after the pandemic. Peace Direct -- Working with local communities to stop violence and build sustainable peace. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 20
  • Peace Direct -- Working with local communities to stop violence and build sustainable peace. #mbi_colleague -- Sep 20
  • Next time someone sends you fake news, share these essential tips -- Things we can all do to defend ourselves and our communities from the epidemic of fake news that is making solving our many problems impossible. #mbi_colleague 

From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

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