I (Heidi Burgess) am currently teaching a course on Intractable Conflict at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. I recently assigned what I call a "Future Visioning" assignment. This assignment builds off Elise Boulding's "Future Visioning Workshops" in which she asked people to envision a world without war or without weapons. Once they imagine what such a world would "look like," she had them step backwards to figure out what changes would need to be made and when in order to go from the present to this imagined future in (she usually said) 30 years.
I ask my students to envision a world without intractable conflict. Most apply the exercise to the particular intractable conflict they are studying for their semester project. So I ask them to imagine what the world (or a particular country) would like like if their chosen issue was no longer a conflict, if it and the people involved were reconciled. What would that reconciliation look like? And what steps would be needed to get us from now to that imagined future?
One of the students in this fall's class, Andrew Harward, is studying U.S.political polarization, particularly focusing on debates surrounding social welfare programs such as (as he puts it) "socialized healthcare/medicine, the federal minimum wage, and housing programs." These illustrate "a microcosm of the broader U.S. political conflict," he asserted in his topic proposal, and hence are illustrative of broader social and political trends.
I found Andrew's future visioning assignment to be very well done, and very applicable to some of the discussions we have been having here, as it fleshes out in more detail how conflict resolution education might be used to reduce political polarization. Several other of our commentators have suggested that (see, for instance, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Barney Jordaan, and Jack Williams, but none of them fleshed the topic out as thoroughly as Andrew did. His is an optimistic scenario, certainly, and doesn't account for the many external factors that could continue to drive polarization while his "intervention" is taking place. Nevertheless, I found his scenario credible: it is both doable, and it is likely to have a significantly positive impact.
So I asked Andrew if we could post his vision here and he agreed. Thanks, Andrew! -- Heidi Burgess
by Andrew Harward
November 13, 2022
The current political landscape in the United States is fraught with the kind of destructive conflict that polarizes individuals and leads society further from sustainable solutions to persistent problems. Increasingly, disputants view their political opponents as a problem in and of themselves, rather than as a party to be engaged with cooperatively to resolve problems. In my conflict map, I identified a pervasive tendency towards this kind of enemy imaging (characterized by parties assigning negative traits or malicious intent to their political opposites) which stalls productive dialogue and results in reinforcing feedback loops that escalate tensions. What might a future look like in which negative political interaction has been largely replaced by productive dialogue and cooperative problem-solving?
2052 (30 years from now):
- Adults in the U.S. largely perceive those with opposing political views to have similar goals to themselves, and to be their allies in achieving those goals.
- In order to engage productively with disagreements, individuals draw on skills such as active listening, acknowledgment, reframing, narrative engagement, and other conflict resolution tools—methods they have been taught since childhood as part of a strong conflict resolution curriculum in public schools.
- Federal and state legislative sessions have become open and transparent, easily accessible affairs which the public is strongly encouraged to engage in. The sessions are live streamed on a single platform where the public is allowed to address the house or senate directly to ask questions or share concerns. The process is overseen by moderators that ensure propriety and accessibility.
- Social media algorithms prioritize creativity and originality, and deprioritize sensationalism and divisiveness.
- Those in positions of relative political and economic power recognize the long-term benefits of social unity and the pursuit of higher standards of living for the worst-off in society in order to achieve their personal goals, and they pursue this unity at both the national and global levels.
- News media recognize their role in how members of the public construct meaning and perceive one another, and make strong efforts to reduce divisive rhetoric even as they broadcast their various political perspectives.
- A strong emphasis on shared humanity and the need for national cohesion in order to achieve prosperity has entered the national narrative. Patriotism and humanism are prominent themes, with national pride tempered by an accounting of historic wrongs and a commitment to create a better future.
- Poverty and the historic levels of wealth inequality have been broadly recognized as drivers of social turmoil and economic stagnation. It has become a bi-partisan priority to work together to eliminate these issues, with the hope that other social ills will begin to see commensurate declines.
- Parties to the social welfare debate have found begun to find balance in the roles of government and communities when addressing those in physical, mental or economic need.
- A wave of film, literature, and other forms of entertainment media and art explore themes of reconciliation, and of achieving positive humanist futures through struggle and perseverance. Systems of sustainable human peace begin to become credible possibilities in the public perception.
How could this be achieved?
2023 (1 year from now):
- Practitioners of conflict resolution and peace studies begin to develop movements to increase awareness of the field and educate the public.
- A movement is organized to pass legislation in various states to create conflict resolution curriculum at all grade levels, with the purpose of introducing students to practical conflict resolution skills and methods.
- Individuals in academia begin to expand studies into the political and economic effects of social division and social cohesion.
- U.S. adults continue to report conflict fatigue regarding political discourse and become increasingly invested in finding a way to move past toxic polarization.
2027 (5 years from now):
- Public awareness of the conflict resolution field has increased drastically, with articles, news reports, and public discourse on CR beginning to mirror the discourse on climate change in terms of frequency.
- Debates regarding the politicization of conflict resolution crop up as the topic enters the public lexicon.
- Legislation has begun to pass in various states allocating funding to conflict resolution workshops in schools and the gradual incorporation of curricula. Similar legislative movements appear across the country.
- The first comprehensive conflict resolution curriculum (with topics corresponding to all grade levels) is established in the social studies programs and introduced to kindergarten students in school districts in some states.
- Studies addressing social division as a correlate of political and economic welfare are published and critiqued, inspiring new research and providing the public with new insights into how to begin to de-polarize and de-escalate.
2032 (10 years from now):
- The first generation of students who began to receive conflict resolution instruction as a consistent part of their curricula are beginning to enter high school. Data indicates better academic achievement, improved mental wellbeing, and decreased school violence among these students, generating a great deal of enthusiasm for the proliferation of similar programs.
- Legislative movements have largely succeeded in lobbying for conflict resolution in schools across the country, and begin to shift their efforts to de-politicizing conflict resolution and creating bi-partisan coalitions to implement alternative dispute resolution in other aspects of society.
- Research on the effects of societal divisiveness and social cohesion have become well-established. Schools of conflict resolution are becoming common at universities as students and academics from all fields begin to become interested in and adapt their foci to a lens of sustainable peacebuilding.
- Public discourse is moving away from destructive debate and towards cohesion as political parties actively work to become more unified and tolerant when engaging with one another.
- An air of excitement surrounding the idea of national unity begins to take root in the public arena, though political divisiveness persists.
2042 (20 years from now):
- The first wave of students involved in consistent CR curricula graduate high school and enter adulthood. Having grown up with ideas of positive conflict engagement, they view political discourse quite differently than their parents had and feel largely optimistic about the future.
- Conflict resolution methods are a mainstream part of social studies curricula at most schools, with educational achievement data driving motivation of school administrations to adopt the program.
- Federal agencies and governmental divisions draw upon academic insights to engage with conflict productively on domestic and foreign soil. International relations see an increase in the creation of mutually beneficial policies.
- Trends in public opinion on political discourse and social cohesion have reversed course in the past two decades, with most individuals reporting feelings of optimism even though disagreement on fundamental issues persists.
- The intersection of peace studies with various fields of research has become pronounced in academia, as practitioners from all backgrounds apply their insights to the pursuit of systems of sustainable peace.
- Divisive political rhetoric has decreased within the media, with a preference for spirited but respectful evidentiary debate taking hold.
- Social media and virtual communities have evolved considerably. More and more, accessibility to forums of dialogue between individuals from all walks of life increase. Boundaries of socialization and interaction between the powerful and the powerless have blurred.
- The use of virtual spaces as effective forums for real-time dialogue between the public and legislators begins to be explored and refined.
2047 (25 years from now):
- Subsequent generations of students who have grown up with conflict resolution skills are entering and graduating from high-school. Trends in levels of violent crime are decreasing.
- A feeling of united effort to cooperate has permeated the public mind, bleeding into political discourse and movements. Peacebuilding initiatives have become a largely bi-partisan phenomena.
- The pursuit of the end of violent human conflict has become as much a shared common undertaking as recycling and ecological sustainability.
- Practical theories of peacebuilding specific to fields as varied as medicine and finance have begun to appear in academic journals and areas of practice.
- Trends indicating increased public confidence in the nature of society and the political landscape have continued.