Reversing or Better Yet, Avoiding, Destructive Escalation

Newsletter 122 - Thursday June 8, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

If you are a regular reader of our newsletter, you remember this graphic, which we wrote about in Newsletter 117 which was published on May 22.



We ended our discussion there by saying: Is there any question why we might want to avoid this process? But then we went on to say "the good news is that there is a lot that we can do to slow, and ultimately reverse, the processes of escalation. Once we understand the many ways in which escalation can trap us, we can avoid those traps. If we discover that we have already fallen into a trap, we can work to climb out. In addition, there are many things we can do to help our communities resist destructive escalation while, at the same time, more constructively addressing important issues that are at the core of most of our conflicts. 

There are, indeed, so many things we can do to avoid or reverse escalation, that we are not going to fit them all into one newsletter.  But here's a start!

Reversing Over-simplification and Escalation

As is true with many problems, it is much easier to avoid these issues in the first place, than it is  to reverse them once they have really taken hold.  However, when we are talking about "intractable conflicts," these two problems most likely are strongly embedded in the conflict system already.  So it is necessary to reverse these dynamics, or, at the very least, prevent them from getting worse.

The interlocking nature of the problems of over-simplification, escalation, and polarization means that they can usually be addressed simultaneously using the same set of strategies. These include the following.

Escalation Awareness

The first critical step toward de-escalating conflicts is building awareness among disputants about how very insidious and dangerous unbridled escalation is.  When people are drawn into its downward spiral, they do not understand that their images of the other side are distorted.  They do not understand that their own actions are likely contributing to the problem and making the other side respond as it is doing.  If disputants can be shown how their own actions are driving the other side to respond as they are; if they can come to realize that at least most of the people on the other side are not as bad as they think (that's not including the bad faith actors, who maybe are really that bad). But good-faith actors (which most people are, including those on the "other side") are more likely to be willing to change their own behavior once they realize that they are making escalation and polarization worse.

Tactical Escalation

Sometimes disputants (particularly low-power disputants) try to escalate a conflict intentionally because the other side does not care about an issue as much as the lower-power party does, and the lower power party thinks that by escalating the conflict they can get the other side's attention, or even get them to agree to make desired changes.  Sometimes this is true, and it works, as Louis Kriesberg explains in his essay entitled Constructive Escalation

But this is a dangerous tactic, not only because escalation can quickly get out of control (as we discussed in Newsletter 117), but also because it has a tendency to strengthen one's enemies as well as one's friends. So, for example, the Left held huge marches around the world in the summer of 2020, protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This drew a great deal of attention to the problem of police violence, which was good. However, in addition to almost universally-supported calls for strong and effective measures to prevent and punish police misconduct, there were also widespread calls to "defund the police." This implied to many that the advocates of this policy believed that all policing was oppressive or otherwise harmful, and should be eliminated entirely. However, it turns out, most U.S. Blacks, who are victims of widespread community violence, generally are against defunding the police.  Rather, they want more police in their neighborhoods because they feel that police are doing more to prevent crime than to cause it. So not much defunding of police has happened and where it did happen, the funds were soon restored.

But, the campaign has been a huge rallying cry for the Right, which has been able to successfully use it to paint Democrats as "anti-police" and "pro-crime." William Saletan writing in Slate asserts that argument was a  key reason that the Democrats lost many Senate seats in November of 2020. So in that case, escalation worked to strengthen the opposite side more than it worked to strengthen the party that was demonstrating.

For these reasons, tactical escalation efforts designed to promote awareness of a problem and efforts to solve it should be undertaken very carefully, and only if it is deemed the only way to gain the attention of the other side and the larger community. Parties using tactical escalation should also engage in other de-escalating behaviors and language simultaneously, so as to give the other side an opportunity to respond collaboratively, instead of hostilely. Ways of doing this are suggested below. 

Constructive Confrontation

One alternative to intentional conflict escalation is what we call "constructive confrontation." Newsletter 78 focused on this, but if you missed that or have forgotten (as it was published back in early February) we want to review it briefly here.  Constructive confrontation has four steps.  First is carefully assessing or mapping the conflict to enable you to "see the complexity" and understand, as much as possible, what is really going on. Most importantly, perhaps, is to see that the situation is more complex than the simple "us-versus-them," "good side-versus-bad side" narratives that usually get wrapped around most escalated intractable conflicts.

The second step is setting your goals.  Rather than seeking total victory, which is likely to be a recipe for continued destructive conflict, conflicts can be de-escalated by setting goals that allow the other side to meet as many of their interests and needs as possible too.

A closely-linked third step is developing an image of the future. If you can develop an image of the future in which everyone would want to live, that is going to be much more successful than seeking an outcome that is completely unacceptable to the other side.

The fourth step is considering response options which can be interest-based (focused on the negotiation of mutual interests), needs based (focusing on meeting unmet human needs), or rights based (focused on adjudicating rights).  If the conflict cannot be resolved or transformed by these actions, the next option is to utilize power.  But that doesn't necessarily mean using coercive power (force).  Rather, it means using a mix of power strategies, carefully designed to minimize coercion as much as possible, instead using a combination of integrative and exchange power to reach what we call the "optimal power strategy mix." 

Gandhian "Step-Wise" Conflict Escalation

Another way to get the other side to notice a conflict and get them to take your interests and needs seriously is to copy the way Gandhi designed his pressure campaigns.  Gandhi used self-limiting conflict processes that had built in devices that kept the conflict within acceptable bounds. For instance, he always escalated conflicts in a step-wise fashion, interrupting pressure campaigns with withdrawal, periods of reflection, evaluation, and repeated attempts to negotiate an acceptable outcome. If those efforts failed, he would escalate again, but then pull back, and repeat the reflection, evaluation, and negotiation process.   

Gandhi also stressed the importance of maintaining personal relationships with the opponents, and, as Fisher and Ury later urged, "separating the people from the issues." He also eschewed secrecy, insisting on the open flow of information, including the sharing of his movement's plans for upcoming actions.  Lastly, Gandhi's theory of "satyagraha" saw the goal of conflict being persuasion and the discovery of truth, not coercion.  This shifted the framing of the conflict away from a win-lose frame to a win-win frame.  Gandhi's escalating commitment was not to winning, but to the discovery of the truth of social justice--even if that discovery determined that the opponents' views were in part, or even completely, true. Truth and justice for all were the goals, not victory of one side over the other.

Avoid the "Sacrifice Trap"

It is also important to prevent the "Sacrifice Trap" (discussed briefly, above, in the description of the escalation diagram) from locking people into a continuing, destructive course of action. People often get caught in this trap because they have a tendency to escalate their commitment to a previously chosen, though failing, course of action in order to justify or 'make good on' prior investments. ("We can't give up now--we've invested too much!") 

While this is a problem when it is the individual making decisions on their own behalf, it is an even bigger problem when leaders ask their constituents or followers to make huge sacrifices—even of their life—so the leader doesn't have to admit that their cause was lost, unwise, or, at least, unwinnable.  While there is much evidence that shows that conflict behavior is not rational; it is largely driven by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, still, if people can see how much a conflict is hurting them, and how little chance they stand of improving their situation if they continue to fight, it might help facilitate de-escalation. (This is a necessary condition for  what William Zartman calls "ripeness." ) All of this suggests that it is important to provide people with a "face-saving" way of escaping bad decisions. It is far better to sympathize with and support those honest enough to admit they've made mistakes, than it is to shame them by accusing them of "flip-flopping," which is a taken to be a sign of weakness and untrustworthiness in American politics. 

There are also many ways to "turn down the heat" after escalation has taken hold, but there are so many that we are going to cover those in two coming newsletters. (See  Newsletter 124, and Newsletter 133.).

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