A Guide to More Constructive Approaches to Intractable Conflict


Guy Burgess

March, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.

Full Transcript:

Slide 1:    Hi!  This is Guy Burgess, with the third in a series of slideshows exploring what the conflict and peacebuilding fields might be able to do to contribute to President Biden's efforts to reunify the United States after a turbulent four years.

Slide 2:    to contribute to President Biden's efforts to reunify the United States after a turbulent four years.

Slide 3:    As you may remember from the previous slide shows, our focus, and this is a traditional focus of the conflict and peac building field, is helping societies turn away from the dystopias of large-scale civil unrest and war, autocracy or the anocracy of a society that just can't cooperate sufficiently well to solve any of its problems. We want to bend the arc of history back toward peace and democracy.

Slide 4:    Now this sense, it's important to understand that unity, as we're using it, and as I think President Biden is using it, focuses on unified support for democratic institutions and the welfare of the society of a whole. It does not imply bipartisan consensus agreement on all the big substantive issues. That's too much to hope for. The truth is that conflict and tension on substantive issues is constructive and helpful, as long as we have an underlying commitment to democratic institutions and the basic principles of equity.

Slide 5:    So in this context, unity is most definitely not going to come out of the kind of zero-sum political system that we've had for the last four years and to a lesser degree, in the decades before that, where we think of politics almost as game in which a win for one side is inevitably seen as a loss for the other. We tune into the news every day and we ask well, did our side or the other side score more points yesterday. Not surprisingly, this leads to policy pendulums that depending on who happens to be in power at the moment, swings policies back and forth between extremes that one side or the other views as intolerable.

Slide 6:    Instead, unity comes from a positiv-sum kind of politics in which we look for mutually-beneficial policies that equitably share rewards and sacrifices, with the goal of producing genuine win-win solutions and settling the pendulum somewhere in the middle in that agreeable space between the extremes.

Slide 7:    Now the Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base Project, and also its predecessor projects have been trying to assemble over the last 30 years as much information as we can on what the field collectively knows about how to make democracy work and actually find these win-win solutions.

Slide 8:    What were trying to do now, for the Biden era, is to refine and improve that system. We are building it around what we call a "Guide to More Constructive Approaches to Intractable Conflict."  This is is a five-part collection of learning materials that are going to try to bring together what we collectively know about this topic. (There been close to 500 people who participated in the knowledge base project over the years and many hundreds more that we've cited in various ways.) We want to bring all of this together and highlight how we can overcome the conflict problems that are preventing us from building a 21st-century democracy in which we'd all like to live.

Slide 9:    Now the first part of this collection of materials is going to focus on materials that help people understand the threats posed by hyperpolarized conflict and us-versus-them thinking and to get past this false promise of decisive victory that somehow, somewhere in the next election we're going win big and the other guys are either going to get pushed into the sea or realize that they were wrong and we were right all along and the conflict will be solved.

And we want people to understand the costs associated with the problem-solving paralysis of our destructive conflicts and the social costs of this kind of hateful disintegration of society in which large groups pretty much hate each other. Not surprisingly, that hate is accompanied with increasing risk of violent confrontations and fear of violence. It also brings a deterioration of political rights where we're not sure that votes will be counted and that the electoral system works. This, of course, also leaves us open to corrupt rule that can edge over the genuine authoritarianism.

Slide 10:    Now, the second part of this Guide is going to be focused on helping people understand strategies for dealing with the scale and complexity of societywide conflicts.  We're not talking about negotiating agreements around a table among a few folks. We're talking about reconciling hundreds of millions of people, with very complex individual psychology. Operating at this kind of gigantic scale is a very different and very challenging thing, made so, at least in large part, by the social complexity of all of these interactions and the large number of independent actors with different priorities. We need to talk about what kind of change strategies will get us to a better political system in such an environment, and how we can all bring this together and something we called massively parallel peace building.

Slide 11:   Now, the next part of this Guide is going to focus on what we called the bad-faith actor problem. Those are folks who seek to amplify and exploit our conflicts for selfish personal gain. I don't think over the years, the peace and conflict field has quite devoted enough attention to this. This is certainly a huge part of the problem. We are going to explore the sources of vulnerability--why society is vulnerable to bad-faith actors.

And then we are going to talk about some of the major categories of bad-faith actors. There is a "tell-people-what-they-want-to-hear" mass media that's arisen over the last several decades, where everybody gets self-serving narratives of the situation that are utterly incompatible with each other and lead people to hate one another.

There is an advocacy-industrial-complex out there that profits from encouraging people to fight over all sorts of things.  There are divide-and-conquer politicians who figured out that the key to winning elections is to make us hate and fear one another. And these guys sometimes are"authoritarian wannabes" and their getting precariously close to being able actually become authoriatarians.

Then I think it's also important to consider the very real possibility, and from the Muller report, we know that at least some of this is going on, that foreign powers are deliberately trying to provoke conflict in the United States as part of a destabilizing effort to weaken the country.

Slide 12:    The complement to this focus on bad-faith actors is another section of the Guide, which will focus on how we can help good faith actors, that is, folks who want to make democracy work, more wisely and equitably address our common problems.  Here we are going to focus on a lot of things that are, kind of, the mainstay of the peace and conflict field, things that we know a lot about.  For instance, strategies for de-escalating hyperpolarized conflict. Strategies for promoting communication and reducing misunderstandings. Fact-finding strategies where we can work together to find accurate common images of the problems we face. Visioning projects where we can collectively work together to imagine a future in which we would really like to live, which is the key to doing everything else. If you have an image of where you want to go, then everything else is a whole lot easier. We also know a lot about how to empower traditionally disempowered and marginalized groups. And once you've leveled the playing field,  how to promote the kind of collaboration that really will enable us to identify those win-win solutions.

Slide 13:  Then the first part of the guide is going to focus on scaling this up to the level of large-scale institutional change. Here we are going to focus on how we can persuade our big socio-cultural institutions to look at society less as an us-versus-them game and think in terms of coexistence and tolerance and mutual respect and democratic values. We'll talk about how we can change today's very divisive media environment to one that's much more constructive. And there is certainly lots of room for reforming government institutions in one way or another. A big part of why democracy is in so much trouble is that these institutions in a lot of cases are not doing very well! But there a lot of great ideas out there on how to fix these things. Finally there is a focus on economic restructuring. Right now we have an economic system that is leaving far too many people behind and concentrating far too much wealth and power in the hands of the few.

Slide 14:  So what we need, and what we are trying to encourage is getting people to work on all aspects of these problems. All of these are essential, but none of them is sufficient. I think one of the reasons we've had so much trouble dealing with this in the past is we haven't thought big enough. We really have to make substantial progress in all five areas if we are going to come anywhere close to Biden's goal of a reunifying, or maybe unifying it for the first time, the United States.

 Slide 15:   In doing this, and this is something will explain in much more detail as we go forward, we want to develop this notion that we have of massively-parallel-peacebuilding, which is simply this way of thinking about getting lots of different people doing different things, that all point us in the right direction. There was a line in the conference room when I was a graduate student that said "none of us is as smart as all of us." I think it implies here.


Slide 4: https://thebulwark.com/what-we-mean-when-we-talk-about-unity/

Photo Credits:

Slide 2: Biden Portrait -- Source: https://www.whitehouse.gov/; February 12, 2021; Permission: Public Domain. Biden Campaign Homepage -- Source: https://joebiden.com/presidency-for-all-americans/

Slide 5: Pendulum – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hitchster/3139553891; By: Hitchster; Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).Scoreboard – Source: https://pixy.org/665980/; By: Pixy.Org; Permission: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Slide 6: Pendulum – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hitchster/3139553891; By: Hitchster; Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 9: Protest outside Trump Tower, Chicago on November 9, 2016 – Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_protests_against_Donald_Trump#... By Albertoaldana; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Slide 10: Complex Network Diagram – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Social_Network_Analysis_Visualiz... By: Martin Grandjean; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Slide 11: Heil Hitler – Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/Hitler_accepts_the_o... Attribution: By Records of the U.S. Office of War Information, 1926 - 1951; Series: Photographs of Allied and Axis Personalities and Activities, 1942 – 1945; Permission: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 12: Group Discussion -- Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Principles_discussion.jpg; By: MPourzaki (WMF); Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Slide 13: Chicago at night – Source: https://images.nasa.gov/details-iss047e043884 -- public domain

Slide 14: