Coronavirus, Race, Beyond Intractability, and the Constructive Conflict Initiative

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By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

Originally posted on April, 6, 2020; updated on June 24, 2020.

In April, as we were stuck at home, hiding out from COVID-19, we began trying to understand how the crisis was transforming our already precarious web of personal and socioeconomic relationships.  These relationships became even more precarious in late May, when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, initiating a world-wide uprising against systemic racism, and particularly what was framed as "racist policing."  Both of these events have spurred us to consider what Beyond Intractability, the Constructive Conflict Initiative, and more broadly, our field, might be able to do to help address the situation.



Read about---and contribute to---our collective search for better ways of handling the conflict problems that surround hyperpolarized US politics, COVID, and racism on our newly broadened Constructive Conflict Blog.


At this point it seems clear that US society will have to endure months of continuing tragedy and fear from COVID-19, while, at the same time, trying to grapple with systemic racism in many institutions and suffering through a bitterly divisive election.  And, that is just the US. The most extraordinary thing about this crisis is the fact that COVID-19 is afflicting the entire planet simultaneously and the outrage about racism is spreading around the globe as well. We are all going to have to rebuild our shattered economies and social systems in ways that, despite the continuing COVID-19 threat, are able to maintain the flow of essential goods and services, while also maintaining the livelihoods of the billions of people whose lives are being upended by the crisis.

On a more hopeful note, it is quite possible that this searing experience will produce a "never again" moment (such as the one we saw at the end of World War II) during which there will be widespread support for the implementation of major reforms based on the "lessons learned" from the crisis.  (The rapid response to the George Floyd killing is one indication that such a response might, indeed, be in the offing.) But the response to COVID-19 is much less promising.

Regardless, shaping the lessons we learn from these events is going to be of critical importance.

From our perspective, society would be much better off if it could learn three things. The first would be a recognition of the need to strengthen institutions which govern the global commons in ways that make use of the best-available information to wisely, equitably, and effectively limit threats such as those posed by pandemics, racism, and climate change.  Second would be a recognition of the need to reform economic systems in ways that effectively address the unmet needs of the many people who have been left behind by globalization. This, of course, includes a disproportionate number of Blacks, as well as lots of other people struggling at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.  This needs to include both short-term, Coronavirus-related assistance and longer-term efforts to truly address the many legitimate criticisms raised by the world's racial minorities and broader "populist" movements.  Third, we need to delegitimize and, as much as possible, prevent scapegoat politics and, especially, high-tech propaganda designed to drive us apart in ways that advance the goals of the world's kleptocrats.



The COVID-19 is not just an epidemiological problem, it’s a serious conflict problem.


We fear, however, that too many people will reach the opposite conclusion—that global governance and "expertise" is nothing more than a tool used by the dominant classes to exploit everyone else.  We see a number of factors that could contribute to such a catastrophic conclusion. The most immediate concern is the possibility that COVID-19 response efforts might fail to adequately protect the public and avert widespread social and economic collapse with gigantic and obvious inequities.  Also worrying is the likelihood that any shortcomings in the response effort will be exploited by unscrupulous actors who have figured out how to profit by driving people apart and denigrating the very idea that we should work together to advance the common good.  Those seeking to do that have been helped, we fear, by the many protests about racism.  Those are being framed as a uprising against whites and against the "true patriots" who "believe in America and what she stands for," which sets up an identity-conflict that could easily spiral out of control. 

While policy and business experts will hopefully generate many good ideas for reforming the globalized economy in ways that better govern the commons, limit inequality, and enhance resiliency, the tougher challenge is overcoming the many intractable conflict-related obstacles that make it so hard to actually build the broad consensus required to implement these ideas. The goal of BI and the Initiative is to help draw attention to this neglected conflict aspect of the problem and the critically important contribution that the conflict and peacebuilding fields could make to helping address it. Our goal is to develop a systematic catalog of these obstacles and, especially, strategies for overcoming them.  In doing this, we are focusing our attention on a series of major challenges including the need to: 

  • Break down enemy images and rehumanize adversaries;
  • Reframe politics away from us-vs-them and toward we-are-all-in-this-together; 
  • Obtain and sensibly use trustworthy analyses of complex problems and potential solutions;
  • Foster mutual respect, tolerance, and coexistence as the key to living with moral differences; and
  • Expose and delegitimize targeted social-media-based political propaganda. 

We are also looking for ideas on how to implement the needed changes at the full scale and complexity of modern society (while also adapting to our new, social distance-based environment with its limits on direct, face-to-face conversations).

We know many of our colleagues are already working to address these issues, and we hope to hear about and help publicize those efforts. Some time ago we started the Colleague Activities Blog to share what others are doing to address these challenges. Recently, we have also added the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog in which we are sharing our own and others' reactions to current events. 

Much more information about the many conflict issues facing the world right now is found on Beyond Intractability and the Constructive Conflict Initiative websites.  This continually-growing collection of materials is focused on helping societies more constructively handle conflicts, with the goal of helping create a globalized democratic world that is truly worthy of the public's support.  In looking back at the challenges laid out in the original Constructive Conflict Initiative documents, it's clear that our ability to take advantage of the above "never again" opportunity will depend upon our ability to successfully address the Initiative challenges. The principal difference is that the COVID-19 crisis —and now the race relations crisis as well —has dramatically pushed up the timeline.

In order to do what we can to accelerate the Initiative effort we are: 1) seeking essays or less formal thoughts from our readers about how our field might help society take full advantage of this "never again" moment which we will publish on our blog and, if appopriate, on other parts of BI as well.   2) renewing our search for people who either are, or would like to, undertake Initiative-related projects; 3) upgrading the BI system to do a better job of highlighting work people are doing to address Initiative challenges; 4) strengthening Beyond Intractability's collection of online learning materials designed to explain COVID-19 and racism-related Initiative ideas to general audiences, and 5) publicizing the effort more widely.

Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated including, especially, information about both people who are doing Initiative-related work that we should be sure to highlight, and people who might be willing to help us develop the Initiative itself (which includes submitting essays as suggested above). As always, we also appreciate financial contributions to help us keep this effort running.  Please consider contributing on our GoFundMe Page.

Thanks, stay safe, and good luck! The key to getting through this (in a time of social distancing) is figuring out how to strengthen the community that binds us together.

Best wishes in this difficult time,

Guy and Heidi Burgess