Years ago, we convened a seminar at the University of Colorado which brought together individuals who had been heavily involved in the many intense and highly intractable conflicts that were dividing our community at the time. Our goal was not to negotiate some type of mutually-acceptable resolution of these tough issues. The parties had made it clear that they had no interest in resolution, as they had no interest in compromise (and several had, in the past, accused us of "selling out" when we created an organization named the "Conflict Resolution Consortium.")
Rather, we had a much more modest objective—one that most everyone agreed was a worthy pursuit. We wanted to know what participants had learned over the years about how the conflicts in which they had been immersed might have been handled more constructively. Put another way, our goal was to find ways of better harnessing conflict as an engine of social learning. When conflict is waged constructively, we explained, citizens could challenge policies and practices that they regarded as unfair or unwise and they could work with others to make collective judgments about which complaints had merit and which proposed responses deserved implementation. That idea was well received, our conference was well attended, and we received lots of great ideas—ideas that together reflect much of the accumulating wisdom of the conflict and peacebuilding fields. Since then, we have, in various ways, incorporated many of these insights into the BI system.
|We wanted to know what participants had learned over the years about how the conflicts in which they had been immersed might have been handled more constructively.|
The purpose of this essay is to highlight two especially important ideas that emerged from these sessions – ideas that we think have a lot to say about our stubborn inability to constructively handle the big issues that divide us today.
One such insight came from Homer Page, a Boulder County Commissioner (who happened to be blind). Page's talk was entitled "Constructive Demonstration Strategies," and he explained that his expertise came not only from his political experience, but also from his activism in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the disability rights movement, all of which he had been active in for about 30 years. All demonstrations, Page argued, have three dimensions. One is informational—people want to raise public awareness of an issue. Second, there is the desire for confrontation—simply "getting in people's face." Third, he says is uttering a "primal scream." The simple act of venting anger—showing how mad you are—helps to ameliorate a sense of depression and disempowerment on the part of protestors. It makes people feel that at least they are "doing something."
|Primal screams aren't going to change policy—they might even work against policy changes because they don't win the sympathy of people "watching TV in their living rooms."|
But, he went on to say, primal screams aren't going to change policy—they might even work against policy changes because they don't win the sympathy of people "watching TV in their living rooms." As a demonstrator, you have to say, "Is this going to be a useful tool in accomplishing my goals?...Are my goals at this point helpful to my long-range goal of changing policy?" Primal screaming, he said, is not. (I would suggest that "in your face" actions are not either, though he did not say that explicitly.) 
One of the problems of primal screams is that there are similarly angry people on all sides of today's big conflicts. So you can have screaming matches between opposing sides, but this just drives the escalation spiral in ways that compound hostility, dehumanize adversaries, and sharply limit the interest that people have addressing the legitimate concerns of others.
Another participant in these sessions was Spenser Havlick, a long-standing member of the Boulder City Council. Havlick had a simple, but effective, strategy for combating the primal scream syndrome and the related NIMBY syndrome. (NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard!!) When Havlick was approached with an angry complaint demanding for action to protect his or her "back yard," Havlick would explain that he didn't think that it would be appropriate for him to go to the Council and advocate for policies that would only serve the narrow interests of a particular citizen.
Instead, he would challenge the complainant to open a conversation with other members of the community who, in one way or another, had similar concerns or were either positively or negatively affected by the issue. If this group could come up with some broadly (though not necessarily universally) supported approach for protecting and, hopefully, advancing the interests of all affected parties, then he would enthusiastically take the proposal to City Council with his strong backing. He suggested such conversations on an ad-hoc basis for awhile, and then became instrumental in the formation of the Boulder Neighborhood Alliance which tried to institutionalize such multi-person, multi-neighborhood problem solving. While the original organization ran into difficulties, the rest of Havlick's talk focused on ideas for making such organization effective. 
|We need people and organizations committed to civic engagement and collaborative governance. We need to go beyond easy self-righteous displays of anger and work with others toward genuine problem solving.|
The ideas he raised in 1993 are still very applicable—perhaps even more applicable today. We need people and organizations committed to civic engagement and collaborative governance. We need to go beyond easy self-righteous displays of anger and work with others toward genuine problem solving.
The race problem, for example, is going to get solved when all segments of the community come together to form a mutually attractive vision of what a better relationship between racial groups might look like. It's doubtful that a "primal scream" approach is going to do much to address underlying (and often unspoken) fears and animosities, as well as real disagreements, about what is and isn't fair. Without such an underlying vision, it's going to be a whole lot harder to reduce tensions and implement changes that will really make a positive difference in people's lives.
Bottom line, we need to do more than simply scream about the injustices that we see. We need to get about the hard work of building a society that lives up to the best of its ideals.
 Homer Page "Constructive Demonstration Strategies" Originally given as a talk at the 1993 Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Conference held by the Conflict Resolution Consortium at the University of Colorado. The transcript was recently republished as a Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog post at https://www.beyondintractability.org/cci-mbi-cv19-blog/page-demonstration-strat.
 Spenser Havlick "Confronting NIMBYs by Polling Community Interests" Originally given as a talk at the 1993 Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Conference held by the Conflict Resolution Consortium at the University of Colorado. The transcript was recently republished as a Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog post at https://www.beyondintractability.org/cci-mbi-cv19-blog/havlick-NIMBY.