How Do We Build Peace and Resolve Conflict in the Age of Hyper-Partisanship and Donald Trump?

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How Do We Build Peace and Resolve Conflict in the Age of Hyper-Partisanship and Donald Trump?

Inaugural Discussion Topic

Many of us in the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields have spent decades traveling the world advising people on how they should handle the deeply intractable conflicts that have torn their societies apart (often in extremely violent ways that have left a terrible legacy of unrightable wrongs). Now we are witnessing similarly deep divisions within the U.S. and Europe, fortunately, so far, without large-scale violence. Even without widespread violence, however, these divisions are preventing effective governance (perhaps even destroying democracy), sowing hate and fear, and threatening almost everything peacebuilders generally hold dear both in the U.S. and around the world.

For those of us based in the United States (and other countries facing similar problems) this raises an obvious question:  How can we better apply what we already know to our own conflicts—and what more do we need to learn? 

​In other words, how many of the ideas and processes that we have been advocating for and applying abroad can be applied at home? 

  • For those ideas that seem applicable, how can we get these processes going—and thriving? 
  • For those ideas that don’t seem like they’ll work, can they be modified and improved in ways that do apply here?
  • If we think they can’t, what changes need to be made to accomplish peacebuilding on our home turf?  And how do we start that?

For example, when we are abroad, we advocate that adversaries sit down together in dialogues or problem-solving workshops to diminish negative stereotypes and begin to build positive relationships that will enable mutual understanding, empathy, and problem solving.  How can we get our own right and left together to sit down in a similar way? Will we (who tend to be mostly left-leaning) have the credibility to convene such meetings?  If not, who can?  And how can we get influential people to attend such meetings and spread what they learn outside the workshop context to a large-scale audience?

And are such table-oriented processes enough?  Can we figure out how to scale up these processes so that they diminish polarization, distrust, and disrespect throughout our entire society?

And how do we deal with new neurobiological findings that suggest that some people are biologically pre-disposed to distrust outsiders and new ways of doing things, finding their identity and security in traditions of religion, family, and community, while others are biologically pre-disposed to be mavericks, seeking and thriving on diversity of ideas, people, and environments.  Can these groups learn to understand, respect, and coexist with each other?  How can we use our skills to help bring that about?

If our skills and processes are not up to these tasks, what do we need to do to re-tool to meet our current home-grown challenges?

Lastly, why AREN'T we "walking our talk?"

To be fair, some of us are! 

But more of us, it seems, are not.  Many of us have “joined the resistance,” or have continued to focus our efforts abroad, thinking (perhaps), that other people will take care of the situation at home. But the situation here is getting worse and worse, the damage to U.S. democracy, society, the economy, the environment, and  the international system is growing daily. Joining “the resistance” and pushing just one side of the agenda, we believe, is only making our divide deeper and wider, entrenching our conflict in ever-growing intractability and governmental dysfunction. Isn’t it time we stepped up and intervened to help bring both sides together as we do abroad?  Shouldn’t we work with both sides to improve cross-group communication, understanding, and respect as a way to reinstate effective politics, governance, and problem solving? 

If your answer is yes, how can we get more people to help do that? 

And if your answer is “no,” how else do you think we can get out of the fix we are all in? Is "joining" the resistance the best way we can defend our ideals? If so, how can we make resistance efforts more constructive?

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Reflections on Thomas Edsall's latest column...and more.

I just read Thomas Edsall's piece in the NY Times this morning, entitled "What Motivates Voters More Than Loyalty?  Loathing."  It is a very depressing examination of how much more we are falling into two tribes that deeply hate each other, and who are far more interested in humiliatting or destroying the other side than they are providing betterment for their own side.  This brings to mind Pruitt, Rubin, and Kim's stages of escalation, where people go from a simple desire to "do well," without regard for the outcome for the other, to a desire to win (thereby out-doing the other) and finally to a desire to hurt the other, even if that hurts oneself as well (as long as you hurt the other more.) Edsall certainly sees us here in the U.S. as having reached this third stage.  

Edsall's article also brings to mind Evelyn Linder's work on humiliation.  Linder has called humiliation "the atom bomb of emotions." Although at times it can lead to honorable behavoir (as, for instance, Nelson Mandela's reaction to incarceration), more often it leads to deep-seeded anger and desire for revenge. 

So the desire to humiliate the other side--described by Edsall as prevalent in current U.S. politics is profoundly dangerous and hence profoundly disturbing.  How can we get both the U.S. public--and our decision makers-- off this train which is racing towards destruction?Lindner, in her book Making Enemies, Humiliation and International Conflict has some suggestions.  The core of her suggestions is the concept of human dignity, which is tied up in human rights' rhetoric.  Increasingly, she argues, people around the world understand and crave human rights, and hence, seek dignity, and understand it's relation to stability and peace.  Rather than organizing societies vertically with the "best" on the top, and the "worst," (humiliated) on the bottom, we need to try to reorder societies along the "equal line of dignity." Lindner says.  Masters need to be "humbled" (i.e. brought down the vertical scale of worth), while underlings must be brought up, but not so much that they can humiliate their former masters, as so often occurs. How can this be done?  This post is running long, so I'll report some of her ideas in a follow up post. 

Following Up on My Last post

How does one go about making such a profound change from vertical organization of societies, to horizontal ones? She discusses this in  Chapter 8, of Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict.

Among her suggestions:

  • Develop many "weak ties" to many different people instead of having a few strong ties. (This creates "cross-cutting identities, rather than overly-simplified"us-versus-them" framing).
  • Learn better communication skills. "Everyone must learn to serve as a diplomat, mediator, messenger, envoy, and conflict solver on the national and international parquet." (p. 147.)  I'd add "family, workplace, and community" settings to her list. Unfortunately, it seems we are only becoming worse communicators as we stop interacting face-to-face but only "talk" online. This needs to change!
  • Stand up when humiliated.  Refuse to release one's dignity. "The best approach is to confront humiliating situations with measured calls for justice combined with dignifying and respectful behavior toward the humiliators, making it easier for them to step aside without losing face." (p. 148). This is very hard to do, but King and Gandhi taught their followers nonviolent direct action, which empahsizes this point--and in both cases was extremely successful in bringing about social change.
  • Start with cooperation and reciprocal altruism.  Lindner references the winning strategy in the Prisoners' Dilemma, which starts with cooperation, and only uses competition in response to the others' competition.  This "tit-for tat" strategy has been shown to beat all other strategies--and can be applied in large scale social relations as well.
  • Cultivate and honor creativity: Echoing ideas that we've been focusing on related to complex systems, Lindner argues that survival requires adaptability and flexibility in reaction to unexpected change.  Creativity allows this, rigidity does not.
  • She goes on in Chapter 8 to list making the effort to calm down, combining coercion with respect to contain escalation , respecting individuals over cultures, stopping voluntary "self-humilation," and lastly, celebrating and support the global human rights movement to assure dignity for all.

This is a tall order, it seems, but if we don't start making such efforts--and pushing many, many other people to make such efforts, we're looking at a catestrophic metaphorical train crash, no doubt!

Building peace and resolving

Building peace and resolving conflict in the age of hyper-partisianship can seem quite daunting, especially with the extreme hyperbolic rhetoric - treason, lacking patriotism, etc.

A suggestion would be to focus on policies that address all segments of society (upper, middle, lower classes, minorities - African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQ, pro-gun folks, etc.). This will help bring the polarized groups together in seeing that their voices are being heard.

Another area to focus on in resolving this conflict would be to assess where each group lacks a basic human need. One common denominator for the minorities group and the white working class is issues surrounding poverty. In addressing economic needs, both sides will feel the burden of the enconomy lift off of their shoulders.

Lindner's suggestion for changing into a vertically organized society seems to be in line with a lot of conflict theorists views and her tips aren't far out in terms of attaining as goals. 

Heidi Burgess' response to Lindner's point on improving communication is not far from the truth! With many conversations taking place online, people can be very bold and rather cruel in their rhetoric. For example, check out the comments section on any news article and most likely there are folks spitting fire - but this will be far less likely to occur say, if the indivudal was speaking face-to-face with someone. Hiding behind the screen can embolden even the meakest in us! 

Being creative in reaction to unexpected change is crucial to discovering methods to resolving conflict. Dan Ariely gives an example of sudden change in his book,  "The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home." Ariely says if a frog were to put into a pot of boiling water, it'd leap right out. Put the frog in cool water and it will stay as it gradually heats up (poor froggy!). Humans operate pretty much in the same manner. So if there's a need for adaptation and flexibility, our water should be heated slowly.

Lindner suggestion on standing up when humiliated is eloquently put. "The best approach is to confront humiliating situations with measured calls for justice combined with dignifying and respectful behavior toward the humiliators, making it easier for them to step aside without losing face." We know ego can be a prime culprit in conflict escalation, so by being graceful and exercising respect, it will allow the humilators to save face and prevent bruised egos = de-escalation = peace. 

As mentioned by Burgess, these are certainly tall orders, but it will make small differences throughout different areas and with different groups which eventually lead to large-scale changes.

You are so right, Ef Pea! 

You are so right, Ef Pea! 

Focusing on the basic needs of all sides is really important!  An initial driver of many Trump voters' discontent was their inability to get good jobs (or in some cases to keep them as industries closed down or moved away).  The lack of apparent concern about their plight on the part of liberals--accentuated by humiliating comments such as calling poor whites "deplorables" soundly pushed people into the Trump camp.  As long as liberals keep treating conservatives with disrespect, and ignoring their legitimate human needs, we're going to only deepen this conflict. 

I don't know how to convince liberals that that is true, though.  So many are so stuck in the traditional liberal narrative, they don't even see how they are part of the conflict spiral.  The call to "resist!" is strong, but the way we are resisting is causing more entrenchment.

Thanks for posting! 

How very true - the liberals

How very true - the liberals certainly have their blind spots and are not realizing their contribution to the conflict.

Perhaps inter-group dialogue may help open everyone's hearts. Sharing stories will also help prevent demonizing the "other." 

As someone heavily involved in interfaith work, we focus a lot on bulding bridges through three things -

1) Working together on service projects - giving back to our communities since this is a common tenet of many faiths.

2) Hosting dialogues on misconceptions and breaking into small groups of mixed backgrounds to learn from one another.

3) Social gatherings, because who doesn't love picnics??

One challenge to all of this would be preventing preaching to the choir or so to speak. Folks with open hearts and minds are already making such efforts. The difficulty lies in attracting those who are very charged and limited in perspective. Hopefully, with those who do participate, they can spread the word and attract others.

These are great ideas, Ef Pea

These are great ideas, Ef Pea, and I'm sorry I didn't respond sooner!  As you may have noticed, we ran into a major conflict (yep!) with our web hosting service that refused to renew the security certificate we bought and paid for, which meant that for over a week most people failed to get to our site because it was supposedly "insecure."  That had us fully occupied trying to fix that--but the entire site is now moved to a new (and we hope better) server on a new web hosting service.  (My excuse for not responding to you earlier!)

I do think the preaching to the choir problem is huge--how do we get reluctant--even initially hostile--people to reach out and engage in good faith dialogues?  So many people are so hostile now--we can't ignore them or write them off.  We have to reach out and bring them around!  Have you managed to draw in initially hostile people in your efforts?


One More Thought--About Constructive Confronation

I realized that before I went on about Edsall and Lindner (my last two posts) that I should have mentioned that Guy and my primary answer to this question at least for now is Constructive Confrontation--the name of this spring's initiative.  As I say in the introduction to that, "Most people see themselves as advocates on one side or the other of a conflict, not as neutral intermediaries who, by implication, see the validity of arguments on all sides of an issue.  Such advocates tend to be distrustful of 'conflict resolution.' They worry, for example, about being pressured to make unwanted compromises or, in the event they do decide to compromise, about being double-crossed."  Isn't that so very true about what's going on in U.S. politics now?  No one wants to compromise with "the devil," on one trusts the other side at all. So all of the standard conflict resolution rhetoric of "win-win" and "compromise" aren't selling.  

But most advocates want to be succesful--they want to win.  So if we can teach them how to advocate more effectively--which, by the way--requires using all sorts of conflict resolution skills such as good communication, attention to the needs and interests of the other side, treating others with respect and protecting "face,"--they will get further with their advocacy efforts and we (the conflict resolution community) will get further in advocating for constructive conflict engagement as well.  So I hope you'll join us for our investigation of what "constructive confrontation" means and how we can widely apply it!   

And by the way, folks, I've put three comments up here.  Will others join me?  Let's talk!

Mark Oelze's picture
the idea that most of us are "leftist" in our thinking

With total openness and humility, I begin by saying I have only recently come across the beyond intractability website. I have been a marriage and family counselor for 30 years and focusing/writing on communication and conflict management for the last 10 years. This website brings matters to a whole new level for sure. The one thing I might add to the above article at this point is for us to sit back and think: why do we tend to label ourselves as left wing/right wing? Undoubtedly most of us are aware that we somehow do fall on one side or the other - for me being more the right wing side. Maintaining that posture however, I think sets us up with predispositional thinking that inherently brings conflict to the table. What would it take for us to empty ourselves of a left wing/right wing mindset so that we might come to the table more with a mindset something like: what good can we collectively work towards period?  Just my thoughts for now. Thank you for all the work put into this site. It is amazing!


This is a great question!  It

This is a great question!  It brings me back to Peter Coleman's book The Five Percent, which we posted about on April 11 and April 12. One of Peter's main points is that in intractable conflicts, we tend to simplify very complex situations into a simple "us-versus-them" narrative, and explain everything that is happening in that way--"it's their fault," "they are the bad guys," etc.  We are certainly doing that here, and as long as we continue with that approach, we are only going to make things worse.  

Just as you say, we are in dire need of a leader--at the national level, and many, many such leaders at the local level (they can simply be respected people, not necessarily mayors or governors or anyone official, (even people who read this post and agree with you!) who will recognize that we are "all in this together," and the only way out of our many shared problems is to work as a team to problem solve and fix things.

And the first problem I propose we problem solve is this very one!  How can we break down this "us-them" mindset and realize we are all living in this country together and if it goes down, the right and the left are going to go down together!  And if can't do that together, maybe we can at least fix a pothole or two? :-)  (I thought of that after reading about public works projects that were undertaken by Tutsis and Hutus working together after the genocide in Rwanda.  Cooperative public service is mandated there for every able-bodied adult.  Getting reds and blues to work on community projects together would go a long way for us too, I suspect!  

Thanks for participating in the discussion!

Heidi Burgess