Why Can't We Fix Anything Anymore?

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess




This 7- minute video starts to address a question we often hear from our students--why do we (the US or the world) have so many serious problems that we can't seem to address successfully?

Our answer is that all of our big problems are, at their core, conflict problems, and we are terribly inept at dealing constructively with difficult conflicts.

Starting with a Gallup Poll listing American's identification of the "biggest problem facing the US," I illustrate how each of these problems are bogged down in conflicts over such things as whether the problem is really a problem--or not; whose fault it is; who should fix it, and/or how it should be fixed.  We spend so much time arguing over those issues that we never get around to addressing the problems themselves.  

We end by asking what we can do to change this and point out that we'll be exploring answers to that question throughout the seminar.

Referenced Resources

Gallup, "Most Important Problem" Retrieved 15 February, 2016 from http://www.gallup.com/poll/1675/most-important-problem.aspx

Discussion Questions

  1. Taking the Conflict Problem Seriously: How can we get people to realize that our “business-as-usual” approach to conflict is destroying our ability to solve our biggest problems?
  2. Fostering Constructive Approaches to Difficult ConflictsHow can we get the general public and our politicians beyond the finger-pointing, us-versus-them mode that has kept us bogged down for so long?

Full Transcript 

Hi! This is Heidi Burgess. I want to talk about a question that we get from our students a lot, which is why we can't seem to fix anything anymore. They are quite depressed by the state of the world and the number of apparently intractable problems, and they can't understand why we no longer seem to be able to fix things the way we used to be able to.
The answer that Guy and I have is that almost all of the problems that they identify that are in need of fixing our underlain by conflict problems and we haven't learned how to deal successfully with intractable conflict. Let me illustrate.
Here is a graph and a chart from a Gallup poll that was taken in January 2017 and results are also shown for the six previous months. It asked people what is the most important problem facing the United States today. The most common answer was the economy. Other common answers were dissatisfaction with government and poor leadership, race relations/racism, healthcare, elections and election reform, terrorism, and surprising to me, immigration and/illegal aliens down to 4 (it was considerably higher a year ago), though racism and health care are considerably higher than they were a year ago. You can look at this chart more carefully yourself--a link to this chart is given in the transcript. You can look at the trends over the last six months and you can look at entire list of things that people cited.
All of these problems are tied up in conflicts. Think about the economy. What's the fundamental problem with the economy? We can't even agree on that! Is there too much stimulus or not enough stimulus? Is the 1% getting too much or does the 1% contribute to the strength of the economy by creating jobs, so they are getting to little.  Are we doing enough to keep jobs in the country, or is keeping business profitable a bigger concern?
Why do people care? Because the economy means security and security is a fundamental human need. Conflict theorists have argued persuasively, I think, that when people’s fundamental needs including security is threatened, they will fight until they feel they are secure. When their jobs are threatened, when their life savings is threatened, when their ability to live in the style to which they are accustomed is threatened, they are going to fight, And they’re going to continue to fight until they have obtained their fundamental human needs.

Look at the other problems. Dissatisfaction with government.  Need I say more?  Some of my colleagues thought if liberals won the election last November, our problems would be gone.  Clearly, they are not--and they probably wouldn't have been even if the election had gone the other way.  The conflict between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, is an identity conflict and a security conflict that is as intractable as ever.

Racism and race relations--that's another obvious one.  There are conflicts over race and policing, race and immigration, race and jobs, and education and housing...all intractable.

Healthcare?  There's been a conflict over Obamacare since it was an idea just developing.  Now the Republicans are figuring out replacing it isn't going to be as easy as they thought...they are bogged down in internal and external conflicts.

Elections and election reform?  Many think this last election was illegitimate --on both sides!  

I can keep going...everything on that list is caused by and/or causing deep-rooted conflict. Most relate to security and identity and what conflict theorist John Burton called  fundamental human needs.  And as I said before, when these are threatened, people don't stop fighting until those needs are met.  

So, you get what we call a positive feedback system. When human needs are denied, it leads to conflict. And that conflict then leads to further denial of human needs. And you get a vicious cycle that goes around and around.

So why can’t we solve these problems? I would argue that we can’t agree on – quite often – what the problem is, or what the conflict is, or whose fault it is, or what we want to change, or how we can fix it, or who should fix it.

Take climate change for example. We cannot agree on whether the problem is real or not; whether it’s human caused or not; whose fault it is if it’s human caused; what we should do to fix it; or who is responsible for fixing it. And were spending so much time and money arguing about these things,  that we’re doing far less than we need to do to address the problem. The same thing can be said for any of the other problems on this list.

I want to end this video with a question for you. If you are new to these ideas, I suggest you play with them. Ask yourself, “what are the biggest problems facing the United States --or elsewhere if you are from a different country?” What are the conflicts that underlie these problems? And what can we do to start resolving these conflicts more constructively?

If your first answer is to point your finger at somebody else and say “it is their fault,” keep in mind that they are pointing their finger at you. So that just keeps us bogged down in the same old intractable conflict game. We need to be able to come up with new ideas so we are better able to deal with these conflicts if we’re going to be able to solve any of these other problems!

If this is familiar to you, we invite you to add your thoughts on the discussion board. How can we get the general public and our politicians beyond the finger-pointing, us-versus-them mode that has kept us bogged down for so long? How can we start addressing these conflicts more constructively, and what can people in our field do to help make that happen? Obviously, we haven’t done enough because these conflicts just aren’t going away! So join the discussion board and help us to figure this out!