Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess: Massively Parallel Peacebuilding vs. Massively Parallel Partisanship

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

January 25, 2023

In last week's essay about the Google Maps/Adopt-a-Highway metaphor, we tried to explain how a large number of quite different projects could independently (and in mutually reinforcing ways) pursue a shared objective such as improving the functioning of a regional transportation system. We then argued that the same approach could be applied to efforts to defuse the hyper-polarization spiral that is undermining so many democracies. This decentralized system of independent, but mutually reinforcing, projects is at the core of the massively parallel peacebuilding strategy that we have been arguing for in several recent newsletters.

We have gotten a number of responses to that post, several of which asked some important questions.  One (asked by several people) was what made us think that MPP would bring about more benefits than harm.  Another asked how and whether social justice and nonviolent activism fit into our MPP matrix.  A third asked about the notion of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding as opposed to Massively Parallel Problem Solving. 

We'll consider our use of the word "peacebuilding"first. We recognize that the word "peace"has a lot of adverse political baggage (especially when viewed from a more right-leaning perspective). We use the term in the sense that it was originally coined by Boutros Boutros-Ghali (former Secretary General of the United Nations) as one element of a three-step strategy for bringing peace to war-torn societies. In his formulation, "peacemaking" focused on negotiating an end to active hostilities. "Peacekeeping" involved preventing a resurgence of fighting (often through the use of outside peacekeepers). His third and, in many ways, the most challenging step, was "peacebuilding" which involves efforts to reconcile the society's deep divisions and implement a rule-of-law based system that is trusted to wisely and equitably handle the gigantic stream of disputes that characterize any modern society. While, thankfully, the US is not now faced with the challenge of recovering from large-scale violence, many peacebuilders who have worked abroad in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and the Balkans observe that the precursors of violence — hyper-polarization, dehumanization, demonization, and calls for violence seen in the United States are not unlike those seen before the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and the devastating civil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See, for example, James Adams: A Cautionary Tale for a Polarizing America and the World).  So, a lot of the things that peacebuilders do to try to heal deeply-divided and war-torn societies, are also badly needed in the United States. 

Still, we recognize that, especially on the political right, word "peace" has a bad reputation. In part, this is because peace is often closely associated with a very progressive political agenda and, in part, because, many of the strategies advocated by the peace movement have, to be honest, been naïve and ill-conceived. In our writing, we have often tried to distance ourselves from this by using phrases such as "massively parallel problem-solving. "

Still, this can be misleading. Massively parallel approaches can be used to advance all sorts of social goals — including conquest and war — as well as systemic racism and oppression. What distinguishes what we are trying to do is the word "peace." Our goal is to build a peaceful society in which different cultures with very different values (including different definitions of right and wrong) can coexist in the spirit of mutual respect, tolerance, collaborative problem-solving. and, on those questions of right and wrong, constructive moral debate. This is what a peaceful society is, and that is why in the context of this essay, the words "peace" and "peacebuilding" are worth using and defending.

To answer the questions about whether MPP would be a force for good or harm, and whether there is a role for advocacy and social justice work in this rubric, we have created some new graphics which we explain our thinking in this regard.

We have been using some version of the the arrow graphic in Figure 1 to illustrate and symbolize Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP). It features near parallel efforts (the smaller arrows) as contributing a larger, all-encompassing arrow pushing society in a better direction. 

Figure 1

The people who are predominantly responsible for driving today's big societal conflicts and determining the larger direction of society are not now the peacebuilders. Rather, they are advocates who are trying to get society to address what they see as a threat to their vital interests (e.g. climate change, infectious disease, runaway spending, or immigration) or to correct what they regard as some serious injustice (e.g. racism, reverse racism, abortion, or LGBTQ+ rights). The dynamics of escalation and hyper-polarization has both amplified tensions over these issues and split society into two gigantic political coalitions, each composed of people who have agreed to fight for the interests of coalition members in exchange for the coalition's support in advancing their interests. 

In Figure 2, we've tried to portray this reality by placing peacebuilding efforts in perspective. This figure shows  the dominant role of efforts to pursue partisan objectives (which are drawn as giant red and blue (left and right) arrows trying to pull society toward the left or the right. The result, however, is that they are pulling society apart.  The relatively modest, efforts of (purple) peacebuilders who are trying to pull societies toward some sort of more centrist, pro-democracy goal, are included in the top of the figure.

Figure 2

These big red and blue arrows are drawn with subsidiary, internal arrows to reflect the fact that they, too, are massively-parallel efforts to advance a common objective — the goals of the political coalition.  On both the left and the right, you find people who are so worried about the threats posed by the other side that they are actively trying to do whatever they can to help assure their defeat. This explains much of the politicalization of so many of society's educational, business, media, and cultural institutions. 

It is clear that much of this partisan advocacy is being pursued without much in the way of central coordination. Very large numbers of people simply agree on a common objective — the defeat of the other side, and they do whatever they can to help make that happen without any central organization or direction. Like massively parallel peacebuilding, this too is a massively parallel process and it demonstrates, perhaps more than anything, the power of this way of pursuing social objectives.

Figure 3

Figure 3 starts to draw a picture of where we think those of us in the peacebuilding movement need to go if we want to defuse the destructive aspects of the hyper-polarization spiral, while still providing people with robust mechanisms for addressing their grievances. This diagram illustrates how we might start making the transition from a massively parallel partisanship-dominated system to one that is more balanced.  In this figure, some of the partisans associated with the red and blue arrows realize that their interests would be better served through what we call "constructive advocacy." Constructive rather than purely partisan advocates make a much more serious effort to understand the issues from the perspective of their adversaries. This information then enables the advocates to craft strategies that are more likely to succeed, by minimizing opposition.  For example it calls for eliminating the use of unnecessarily antagonistic language or making unreasonable demands. It suggests advocates show how their proposed changes will help the opponent too, either directly, or by giving them something in exchange that they want.  This approach reduces, or perhaps even eliminates, backlash and penduluming from one set of policies to the opposite. It therefore makes it much more likely that the advocates will reach their goals in a sustainable way, while current highly oppositional and hostile advocacy only continues the stalemate and increases escalation and polarization further. 

Figure 4

Finally, in Figure 4, we offer an image of what we would like to see — a society that handles disputes in a more balanced way with: 1) strong advocacy efforts that make sure issues that need attention are, in fact addressed; 2) effective measures to limit inflammatory conflict strategies and resulting tensions, while staying focused on finding the best way of addressing important substantive issues; and 3) the ability to reconcile competing views in ways that help democracy live up to its ideals. 

So again, summing up, we see advocacy as playing a key role in Massively Parallel Peacebuilding.  But, this role can either be supportive and helpful, or destructive, depending on how it is done.  We will have a number of upcoming posts that elaborate more on how advocacy can be most constructive (and hence, we believe, most effective). But in the meantime, readers can check out our older Constructive Confrontation Seminar.  Although the name sounds very similar to the later "Constructive Conflict Initiative," the first seminar looked directly at how advocates can confront injustice and other social or environmental problems in ways that are more likely to bring about the change they want, rather than generating increased hostility and pushback from the other side.  We welcome our readers' thoughts on these ideas as well.