Things You Can Do Help Limit the Destructiveness of Intractable Conflict
Regardless of one's interests, skills, and areas of influence, there are things we can all do to help our community and the broader society. If we're not part of the solution, we really are part of the problem. So, identify some things that are not now getting enough attention, learn what you need to learn, and get to work! The efforts of the few cannot produce peace and prosperity – we all have to work to make it happen!
Challenge 1: Figuring Out What is Going On through conflict assessment and/or mapping.
More specifically, we need to:
- See the Complexity of Conflict – It's not Just "Us vs. Them" – Intractable conflicts are almost always extremely complex with many issues, parties, and destructive dynamics. But disputants very often greatly over-simplify their understanding of the situation, framing it as a simple "fight the enemy," "good guys-versus-bad guy's" situation. The implication, then, is that one can just get rid of the "bad guys" (for instance, a bad leader) and all will be solved. That is almost never the case.
- Map the Basic Conflict Elements – A first step towards constructively addressing a conflict is mapping the parties, the major issues, the parties' sources of power and power strategies, and the major conflict dynamics (for instance, escalation and polarization). These "conflict maps" can be text-based or graphical, but either way, it is important to look not only at the elements in the categories (i.e. the parties, the issues etc.) but also the relationships between the elements.
- Identify the Core Issues in Dispute – These are the fundamental issues in contention, which are often misunderstood. In intractable conflicts they usually revolve around issues of identity, security, moral or value differences, high-stakes distributional conflicts, and/or status conflicts. The more of these types of issues are in contention, the more intractable a conflict can become.
- Identify the "Overlay" Issues – Destructive conflict dynamics often take on a life of their own, overlaying and sometimes completely obscuring the core issues. These overlay issues (which include miscommunication and escalation dynamics) need to be identified and dealt with so that the core issues can be constructively addressed.
- Identify Areas of Influence – Most people have circles of influence that diminish in strength as one moves outward. So most of us have a great deal of influence over our interpersonal interactions, some over the organizations to which we belong, and still some, but less, within our communities, states, regions, and nation states. Yet we all have some ability to exert influence even at these higher levels – by voting, by engaging in public participation or nonviolent actions, or otherwise voicing our opinions. So rather than "checking out," jump in and work to make things better in whatever settings you have influence.
- Scale Up Your Influence – Some people are in a position to have greater influence over larger communities. News reporters (and the media more broadly), teachers, artists, writers, bloggers, and traditional "leaders" have the potential to influence more than the people they immediately know. This can be used to catalyze constructive conflict engagement; however, as we have seen since the 2016 U.S. election, it can also be used in very destructive ways as well. Opinion leaders need to understand the critical role they play in society and take care that their messages are not only engaging and entertaining, but educational and constructive– helping people make sense of – and engage with – their world in a constructive way.
Challenge 2: Defending and Promoting Democracy and blocking those who, for selfish reasons, want democracy to fail so they can profit and dominate.
More specifically, we need to:
- Establish and Protect the Rule of Law – Democracies are ruled by laws, not people. The laws are made by people in legislatures, of course, and they are enforced by other people, but that enforcement must be based on the law, not the whims of a powerful person or small group of people. The rule of law also depends on checks and balances of power, so that each arm of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) balances and limits the power of the other two, preventing any one alone from subverting the rule of law.
- Contend Nonviolently – Ideally, in democracy, aggrieved parties can use "the system," to obtain justice. But when that fails, confronting the continuing injustice with nonviolent direct action is much less likely to initiate backlash, and is more likely to persuade those in power that changes are needed for both moral and practical reasons.
- Resist Divide-and-Conquer Provocateurs – Dividing one's enemies to weaken them has long been a successful military, diplomatic, and political strategy. It is also the principal route through which authoritarians come to power. Recently, democracy has come under increasing threat in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere around the globe. Plutocrats, "tyrant wannabes," and other malicious actors are sowing discord and subverting good governance in many nefarious ways. Leaders and citizens alike must be alert to such efforts, make efforts to block their success, and not fall victim to their siren calls. Rather, identify the provocateurs as such and isolate or block their efforts to influence others in harmful ways.
- Defend Against Propaganda – We need to promote more widespread awareness of and opposition to increasingly sophisticated and widely used propaganda techniques that are deceiving us into supporting causes that we would otherwise oppose.
- Prevent Scapegoating – People need to identify and speak out against the scapegoating efforts of powerful elites who attempt to deflect criticism by unfairly blaming small or otherwise vulnerable populations.
- Limit the Concentration of Power – The concentration of wealth is often linked to the concentration of power, which threatens to displace democracy with plutocracy (governments by and for the very rich). Laws and policies must assure that the power of the rich to control the government and pursue their own goals at the expense of everyone else's is restrained.
- Develop a New Global Security Regime – The imperfect, post-World War II stability associated with the superpower standoff and US military dominance appears to be coming to an end. At the same time, a wide array of new and fearsome high-tech weapons are becoming widely available. We desperately need to develop and operate a new (and, hopefully, much better) security regime capable of preventing large-scale interstate violence while resisting the slide towards increasing autocracy.
- Promote Collective Security Arrangements – One way to reduce the risk of aggression is to support and strengthen collective security agreements through which the larger international community vows to collectively oppose aggression from any nation that violates clear taboos against aggressive behavior.
- Control Arms to Make Them Less Threatening – Verifiable agreements involving the structure and deployment of military forces, early warning systems, crisis communication (e.g. hot lines) and related agreements are needed to limit prospects for intentional or accidental war.
- Control the Military-Industrial Complex – The interests of the military-industrial complex are not the same as the interests of the larger society. We need to develop and implement measures for limiting conflict-of-interest pressures that, too often, lead to either inadequate defense or unnecessary, counterproductive, and tragic wars.
- Defend Against Attacks from Non-State Actors– The inherent vulnerability of modern technological society, combined with the public's increasingly-easy access to a wide range of highly destructive weapons leaves us all vulnerable to attack from isolated individuals, paramilitaries, organized crime syndicates, and other non-state actors. Support for and oversight of robust defenses for both people and infrastructure is something we all need to support.
- Delegitimize Aggression, Conquest, and Human Rights Abuses – There is a continuing need to widely and actively strengthen strong moral taboos against conquest and aggression – and act on such actions. Both governments, NGOs (such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as churches) have a strong role in the moral condemnation of such acts. Governments, however, need to take responsibility for acting on violations. The R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine was a good start in principal, but much more needs to be done to make it truly effective.
- Initiate Violence Prevention Programs -- More broadly, steps need to be taken to prevent violence in all forms before it starts. Efforts include early-warning programs, conflict de-escalation, conflict resolution training, and empowerment so that low-power groups can learn constructive ways to get their fundamental needs met without resorting to violence.
- Pursue Peacemaking through Track 1 and Track 2 Diplomacy -- Peacemaking is the actual negotiation processes through which cease-fire agreements, interim/preliminary/framework and comprehensive peace agreements can be hammered out and signed. While that ultimately has to take place at the official "Track 1" level, much of the early groundwork, relationship- and trust-building, and development of terms can take place in a variety of "Track 2" or "informal" processes, which then are "fed into" the official channels.
- Provide Free and Fair Elections -- Free and fair elections are one key cornerstone of democratic governance. Such elections must be properly timed and structured, with a representative slate of candidates and widespread eligibility provided for citizens to vote. Steps must be taken to prevent illegitimate campaigning (such as the trolls that were a big part of the U.S. 2016 election), voter suppression, and vote tampering. Finally the outcome of the election must be honored, not ignored.
Challenge 3: Constructively Framing Conflicts and Relationships in ways that limit hostility, foster collaboration, and promote respect and empathy.
More specifically, we need to:
- Limit "Us Vs. Them" Language and Thinking – Wherever possible, we should emphasize cooperative, "we" language that frames complaints and aspirations in terms that are in everyone's interest to support.
- Resist Enemy Images – Thinking about adversaries as enemies undeserving of sympathy, who must simply be defeated, is certain to drive the escalation spiral. Treating people with respect (even when they don't seem to deserve it) is disarming and opens opportunities for dialogue, compromise, and, if that fails, constructive (rather than destructive) confrontation.
- Limit Negative, Outgroup-based Framing – Focusing on what's good about your group is much less antagonistic than focusing on how you are better than the other or what's bad or evil about the other.
- Resist Dehumanization Pressures – Dehumanization of one's adversary is a critical step on the road to violence and even atrocity. We must resist the temptation to do this and discourage others from doing this as well.
- Expose the False Promise of Decisive Victory – Conflicts almost never end when an opponent is "converted" or figuratively (and, sometimes, literally) driven into the sea. Going for the "big win" is actually a formula for perpetual destructive strife.
- Understand the Limits of "Conversion" – It is common for people to imagine that a conflict will end when they are "proven right." While opinions do change over time, sometimes resulting in changes in policies, controversy usually lasts much longer– and has to be managed in constructive and respectful ways.
- Resist the Revolution Trap – Problems are almost never solved by simply defeating (or overthrowing) the established regime. You also need a broadly-accepted plan for the transition to system of governance to replace the current one which usually involves some "transitional government" before the "permanent one" can be established. Without such, you risk catastrophic conflicts over what comes next – conflicts that are usually won by the most ruthless actors who put another destructive regime into place).
- Focus on Common Interests, Not Just Differences – Despite our many differences, we still have many common interests, for example, problems we all have a stake in solving in wise and equitable ways. Focusing on these commonalities decreases escalation and helps encourage cooperation instead.
- Frame Goals Consistently with Societal Ideals – By focusing on aspirations that are widely seen as legitimate, the other side is more likely to be willing to consider a mutually-beneficial compromise. This is what Martin Luther King did, for example, when he called for us to "live out the true meaning of our creed."
- Focus on the Real Enemy: Destructive Conflict Dynamics – Many terrible conflict problems are more attributable to the destructive ways in which we handle the conflict, rather than inherent evil of our adversaries. By working with the other side to fight destructive conflict dynamics, we can reduce such actions, while simultaneously initiating cooperation.
- Identify Unmet Human Needs – Conflicts develop and persist, in part, because peoples' fundamental human needs are not met. If we recognize and move to meet the other sides' needs, the chances of having our own needs met – and greatly improving the conflict as well – go up considerably.
- Promote Inclusive, Need-based Protections – The decoupling of efforts to help the disadvantaged from simplistic and, often, unnecessarily divisive identity-group criteria can broaden support. The key is to focus on a more nuanced definition of "needs" that makes it clear that social protections apply to all.
- Limit Alienation – Excessive individuality can, especially for people who don't see themselves as "making it," lead to alienation and even nihilistic hostility and rage. We all need to give everyone a sense of belonging and being a valued part of their community.
- Recognize and Acknowledge Your Side's Contribution to the Problem. – While individuals and groups must be free to challenge what they see as unjust treatment at the hands of others, it is also important for groups to accept responsibility for things that they have done to contribute to the problem.
- Balance Rights with Responsibilities – Rights come with responsibilities. While we all have a right to be treated with respect, for example, we have the responsibility of doing the same for others. This same principle applies to more substantive political and economic rights like the political rights embedded in the US Bill of Rights and the additional economic rights (e.g. food, clothing, housing, and medical care) embodied in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. While we all have these rights, we also have the responsibility to grant those rights to others.
- Focus on Individual, not Group, Responsibility – When complaining about the actions of members of a group, be careful not to disparage the group as a whole, only the individual(s) who acted badly. Give the rest of the group the opportunity to disavow the bad behavior and save face themselves.
- Be Careful of Absolute Good and Evil Thinking – While true evil exists and must be fought, it is common for people to ignore their own shortcomings and the other sides' virtues by seeing conflicts as a simple battle between good and evil when there is actually good and bad on both (or all) sides (though not necessarily in equal proportions). While it is important to challenge the other sides' "bads," we should also acknowledge and seek to correct our own "bads" and acknowledge and applaud things the other side does right.
- Think "Win-Win," not "Win-Lose" – Although we tend to assume that most conflicts can only be won if the other side loses, the opposite is more often true. Usually neither side will be able to prevail unless the other side gets at least part of what they want too. If we think in terms of mutual gains, we are much more likely to get our goals met as well.
- Go Beyond Anger to Problem-Solving – Problems won't get solved by simply making others aware that you are really angry (what a local politician referred to as the "primal scream" approach). We have to develop real solutions capable of attracting broad-based support.
- Limit Worst-case Thinking – Caution is good, but be careful of focusing exclusively on low -probability threats posed by others and neglecting the much more likely benign or benevolent possibilities. Treating people only as threats can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Challenge 4: Reconciling the Past and Developing an Attractive Common Future that will be seen as wisely and equitably addressing past conflicts and moving forward toward a broadly-supported vision of the future.
More specifically, we need to:
- Promote Peace and End Violence – Making cease-fire and peace agreements that end (or at least substantially diminish) violence is an essential precondition to any effort to de-escalate a conflict, re-humanize adversaries, and pursue the reconciliation process.
- Determine the Truth about the Past – When conflicts involve a history of human rights abuses by one or more sides, ascertaining the truth about what happened (at least as much as possible) is an important part of reconciliation. Truth does not necessarily require punishment, but it does require acknowledgment of wrongs by past perpetrators.
- Provide Justice for Past Wrongs – Some measure of justice is also essential to successful reconciliation of past wrongs. The desire for vengeance and retribution to "make people pay" for the unrightable (and often grotesquely terrible) wrongs is understandable, but it can often greatly prolong the conflict. Alternatives such as restorative justice through which relationships between victims and perpetrators are restored and compensation is given or amends are otherwise made to remedy (to the extent possible) the harms done, can give all sides a future they can live with. It is therefore much more likely to bring the conflict to an end.
- Limit Retributive Justice -- Some retributive justice (such as prosecution for war crimes) is necessary for a successful transition to democracy after autocracies, but to the extent punishment can be replaced with restorative justice mechanisms, the more likely the conflict can be ended and healing can occur on all sides.
- Provide Restorative Justice Options -- Truth commissions are one large-scale example of restorative justice (RJ), but RJ can take place at the interpersonal level also, as victims and offenders meet personally with a facilitator and agree on a way for amends to occur and relationships to be healed.
- Provide Distributive Justice -- When societal goods and services are grossly unequally distributed, conflict is likely to ensue. Determining what is "fair" in distributional conflicts is a tricky problem. "Fair" might mean that everyone should get the same amount, or everyone should get what they need, or everyone should "get out" in proportion to what they "put in." While it may be impossible to achieve consensus on what is and is not "fair," we ought to be able to at least agree to work to eliminate instances of manifest unfairness. Over time, ideally, we can come closer to agreement on the proper balance between these definitions of "fairness" to provide distributive justice for all.
- Provide Procedural Justice -- This means making decisions through processes that are widely considered to be fair. Fair processes are consistent -- like cases should be treated alike. Decision makers implementing fair processes must be impatial and neutral and must weigh the facts in that way. Lastly, those directly affected by decisions should have a voice and representation in the decision-making process.
- Blend Apology and Forgiveness for Past Wrongs – Efforts to diffuse the deep hatreds associated with terrible, unrightable wrongs require both contrition and apology on the part of the perpetrators and forgiveness on the part of the victims. With that, the parties can start to look ahead to a new and positive future relationship. Without that, tension will continue, and renewed violence, even war, is possible.
- Balance Peace, Justice, Truth, Apology, and Forgiveness to Achieve Reconciliation and Stable Peace – Long-term stability requires true reconciliation that is comprised (according to John Paul Lederach) of at least four interrelated elements: peace, justice, truth, and mercy which arises, (we think), from apology and forgiveness. Although sometimes seen in competition with each other, all elements must be pursued simultaneously, if reconciliation and stable peace or what some call "peace-writ-large" is to be obtained.
- Provide Trauma-Healing Assistance - Trauma isn't healed by "being forgotten" or "ignored." It needs to be processed and worked through. The goal of trauma healing programs, usually, is to "give victims a feeling that they have control over their lives again." This is often seen as requiring movement through three stages: establishing safety, acknowledgement, and re-connection.
- Use Narratives and Story-telling for Trauma Healing -- Telling stories is often a key part of healing. These stories must engage the self and "the other," and provide a narrative that is both cognitively and emotionally compelling. When these stories are actively listened to by "the other," this is a profound step toward trauma reduction, peacebuilding, and co-existance.
- Imagine A Realistic Future That We Might All Want to Live In – Everyone wants to live a safe, prosperous, and happy life. But what that entails and how to get there is not clear. Often we end up in a series of bitter conflicts over who gets what and the spoils only go to the most powerful, while the rest suffer. If we can develop a common vision of what a "good future" would look like, our chances of obtaining it for everyone go way up!
- Promote Diversity Amid Intolerable Differences – The development of a vision of coexistence that works in a society composed of groups who see the beliefs of other groups within that society as so morally unacceptable that they must be actively challenged is especially difficult. Yet such a vision is essential if intractable conflicts are to be transformed.
- Plan for the Future and Protect Posterity – We commonly make decisions that benefit us over the short term, but over the long term, are greatly harmful to ourselves and future generations. Such short-term thinking must be avoided and replaced with simultaneous short-and long-term thinking through which current and future generations are protected.
- Balance Demands for Cultural Security and Cultural Freedom – These are both laudable goals– but they tend to work against each other. People need to be free to pursue the beliefs of their culture, yet they also must allow people with different cultural beliefs to feel secure. This includes allowing young people to pursue different lifestyles and belief systems from their parents and "superiors."
Challenge 5: Limiting and Reversing the Escalation Spiral that commonly intensifies and polarizes conflict in ways that make substantive problem-solving impossible, intensifies intergroup hostility, and makes violence more likely.
More specifically, we need to:
- Promote Escalation Awareness – Major efforts are needed to promote more widespread awareness and understanding of the dangers associated with escalation and polarization – dangers which arguably are the most destructive force on the planet since they can unleash all-out war. Guided by a "winner-take-all" mindset, many people intentionally engage in activities that fuel these processes. Showing how dangerous this is and providing alternative ways to mobilize action are essential.
- Promote Constructive Mobilization – Strategies for promoting the wise and equitable consideration of difficult issues that demand attention without provoking destructive backlash and escalation.
- Use the Power Strategy Mix to Limit Escalation Power – Power is more than the ability to coerce someone to do what they don't want to do. It is also the ability to protect and advance one's own interests. Disputants can also use persuasion or exchange (i.e. negotiation or rewards) to get what they want, which often works more effectively and usually avoids the backlash created by force. Often the optimal approach involves a mixture of all three strategies– using as little force as possible to encourage attention and action, while still avoiding backlash.
- Ratchet Down Tensions – During active escalation episodes when tensions are rapidly rising, individuals and organizations need to step forward with open calls to "ratchet down" tensions. William Ury suggests using cooling-off measures to allow disputants to "go to the balcony" where they can metaphorically "look down" on a situation to see things more objectively. This allows for the calming of emotions and gives time for a wise response to difficult situations, rather than acting precipitously and doing things one might later regret.
- Treat Opponents (and Allies) with Respect -- When people are treated disrespectfully, it easily engenders anger and hostile, disrespectful treatment in return. When one treats others with respect--EVEN if they don't deserve it--it usually de-escalates the conflict and increases the chance that the other side will start acting respectfully as well.
- Voice Complaints Respectfully –People who voice complaints about others often do so in angry and accusatory ways that antagonize, rather than persuade, their adversaries. When complaints are phrased respectfully, they are much more likely to be heard and considered.
- Use "I-messages" to Soften Disapproval, Making It Easier to Receive - I-messages state problems in terms of one's own feelings and needs without directly attacking the other. This makes hearing the disapproval easier than it is when someone is attacked directly with a "you-message."
- Counter Hate and Malevolence - The "normal" way to counter hate and malevolence directed at you is to offer the same treatment back. But this just drives the escalation spiral even higher. By following Fisher and Ury's admonition "separate the person from the problem," it is possible to challenge the hateful remarks without denigrating the person who made them. Further, if one treats the hater with respect, it is possible to surprise and destabilize their thought process, which can change their stereotypes and beliefs in positive ways.
- Counteract Provocateurs – People or groups with selfish interests in the continuation of destructive conflict often attempt to provoke confrontations while also sabotaging conciliatory or de-escalating steps. People need to call out, vehemently oppose, and isolate such efforts.
- Delegitimize Conflict Profiteering – Those who seek to exacerbate conflict because it boosts sales of guns and other profitable conflict-related goods and services must be delegitimized and disempowered. Such actors should not, however, be confused with those who reasonably profit from providing services that help people more constructively handle conflict.)
- Utilize Peacekeepers to Control Violence -- When adversaries are caught in cyles of violence and revenge, peacekeepers can be very helpful just by positioning themselves between the fighting parties and acting as deterrents against further aggression.
- Provide DDR Programs -- After a violent conflict, programs to demobilize, disarm, and reintegrate (DDR) former combattants are important to prevent the disputants from falling back into their familiar violent behaviors.
- Prevent the "Good Fight" from Becoming an End in Itself – While it is good to derive some sense of self worth from participating in the "good fight" for truth and justice, it is also important for that not to become an end in itself. People need to keep asking hard questions about whether or not they are actually advancing their goals and pursing the good of the whole while they fight for their beliefs.
- Honestly Examine Downside Costs – In highly escalated conflicts, an "esprit de corps" effect can make people feel overly confident that they will be able to win an all-out confrontation. But such confidence is often misplaced. People should demand an explicit, careful, and accurate consideration of the downside costs and risks of escalating confrontations, along with a realistic assessment of the probabilities and likely outcomes of "success." That assessment, then, should inform escalation or de-escalation strategy choices.
- Find (and Act as) a Witness – In escalated and, especially, violent confrontations, the parties may be tempted to resort to morally-indefensible terrorizing tactics if they think they can do so in secret. The presence of witnesses willing to expose such behavior can be a powerful deterrent.
- Encourage "Disarming" Actions – The reinforcing dynamics underlying escalation can often be weakened by a key leader acting in a surprisingly "reasonable" way. Such actions can rapidly break down negative stereotypes and make relationship-building and conciliation possible, where it was very unlikely before. Rather than denouncing such disarming steps, they should be applauded and encouraged.
- Establish Early Warning and Crisis Communication Systems – Such systems are needed to deter sneak attacks and prevent accidental confrontations by reducing misunderstandings (about the movement of military forces, for example) from escalating into war.
- Cultivate Face-saving Opportunities – Cultivate interaction patterns that make it easier for one's opponents to make concessions without losing face. Often, leaders will continue to engage in behaviors that are obviously destructive because they don't want to look "weak" or "wrong." Giving people a face-saving way out of bad choices can avoid a lot of unnecessary bloodshed and pain.
- Set Fair Limits on Competition – Unrestrained, all-out competition not only escalates conflicts, but it is also is the pathway to autocracy (or anocracy). We need to cultivate extremely strong support for fair competition rules capable of preventing ruthless exploiters from undermining the ability of everyone else to pursue and protect their interests.
Challenge 6: Improving Communication and Correcting Misunderstandings about one another's actions and motives. These include misunderstandings attributable to honest, simple mistakes; as well as those due to poor communication, deliberate disinformation, and cognitive biases.
More specifically, we need to:
- Open Communication Channels – In escalated conflicts, the parties tend to close off communication with the other side which encourages distrust and fear of the other, and prevents the recognition of areas of common ground. By opening communication channels with clear ground rules that enforce civility, disputants can develop a better understanding of their opponents, which allows for the recognition of joint interests and needs. It also allows for the development of creative problem solving with feedback on the viability of any proposed solutions to joint problems.
- Get Out of Our Bubbles! – All of us exist in "bubbles." We talk to the same people all the time, we read news that tells us what we already know and believe, and we work to protect ourselves from "surprises." But these bubbles just reinforce our stereotypes and make conflicts worse. We all need to force ourselves out of our bubbles and talk to, read about, and consume media from "the other side" to understand why they feel and act the way they do. Success at such efforts, however, may require efforts to limit social pressures against such inquiries and the encouragement of others to do the same.
- Learn to Communicate Effectively Across Cultures -- Cultures have many understandings, norms, and beliefs that are not shared by outsiders. This makes communicating with people from other cultures highly prone to misunderstanding. Learning how to communicate effectively in such circumstances is extremely important to successfully de-escalate and transform cross-cultural conflicts.
- Empathically Listen to The Other Side – People rarely listen effectively, and in conflict, that skill gets even worse. Listening actively and empathically to people who are hurting or angry can go a long way toward correcting (or avoiding) misunderstandings, improve relationships, and at times, can even solve at least one aspect of the problem– as the problem sometimes is simply the sense that one is being ignored. Listening also enables one to understand, and therefore limit, unnecessary things that you may be doing that antagonize others.
- Provide Safe Spaces for Communication – People need space where they can explore and work through controversial issues and contentious ideas without fear of being called out or ostracized. Without such safe spaces, people may not say what they really think, and misunderstandings will abound.
- See Ourselves as Others See Us – Few of us "look in the mirror" and consider what our actions and statements look like to "the other side." We should! Often, while we think we are being "reasonable," we are actually being very hostile and disrespectful, which makes the other side ignore us, or reject us, or worse, fiercely fight against us, rather than considering our views as we wish they would.
- See Others as They Really Are – Some of our opponents are (probably) as bad as we think, but many (and probably most) are not. We need to make the effort to see people as individuals, not just as caricatures of the worst aspects of "their group" that we tend to reinforce in our heads through unquestioned stereotypes.
- Employ Effective (and Ethical) Persuasion Strategies -- A good understanding of psychology as well as effective communication strategies is important for crafting persuasive messages and campaigns--particularly when you are trying to persuade people who initially don't agree with you.
- Scale Up Constructive Communication – Well facilitated, small group discussions among disputants can produce real "conversion experiences" that, unfortunately, tend to only reach those present. In addition to doing this as much as possible, and making such experiences socially acceptable, we also need innovators who can figure out ways to make such experiences widely accessible through social and/or mass media.
- Facilitate Group Learning – Because few are willing to risk the many penalties associated with deviating from their group's worldview, these images tend to be highly stable and unresponsive to persuasion or changing conditions. We need creative ideas for facilitating learning at a group level, perhaps through mechanisms that encourage opinion leaders to update their worldviews.
- Correct Inaccurate Rumors Quickly – In today's fake news, social-media-dominated information environment, rumors can spread inaccurate and inflammatory information at lightning speed. We desperately need to develop and widely deploy credible mechanisms capable of limiting this dynamic.
- Employ Good Policy Analysis and Fair Marketing – Advocates and policy makers need to base their campaigns on sound policy analysis and present their ideas with the persuasive, yet honest, marketing strategies. We need to resist the marketing of bad policy and the assumption that "good policy will speak for itself." It doesn't.
- Restore Vibrant Local News Coverage and Debate – Public engagement in governance has diminished as the economics of local news has made it less available and poorer quality. We need to find creative new ways to provide quality local news coverage (print, radio, TV, and social media) in order to encourage greater public interest and participation in local government. Media consolidation and politically-motivated media monopolies also need to be broken up and prohibited in the future.
- Overcome "Narrowcasting" – Today's news sources are, increasingly, designed to hook users with an unbroken stream of pleasing news stories that just reinforce things they already believe. We need to develop enticing ways of exposing people to alternative ideas and more balanced views– and we, as individuals, should make the effort to diversify our news consumption.
- Overcome the Problem of Feel-good Noise – Media companies focused on the quest for eyeballs and advertising dollars are flooding the information environment with usually meaningless, but occasionally destructive, fluff that is making it difficult to spread important new ideas. To combat this, those with good ideas need to present them in media environments people actually use (including social media) and they need to present the ideas in extremely understandable and engaging ways.
- Encourage and Participate in Dialogue Processes -- Dialogue processes -- which are highly-structured and facilitated discussions among disputants can greatly increase intergroup understanding and empathy, while correcting misunderstandings and hostility.
Challenge 7: Obtaining and Effectively Using "Real Facts" by clearly distinguishing between facts, values, and opinions, and using widely-trusted processes for distinguishing true facts from "fake facts."
More specifically, we need to:
- Disentangle Facts and Values –One of the main reasons that we see so much discussion of "fake facts" these days is the diminished distinction being made between facts and values. Facts are things that are true and can be measured and illustrated. Values are statements about what is good and bad, better or worse. When values are allowed to influence what facts are sought, and how information is measured or presented, we lose the ability to understand how the world really works and we cannot possibly make good decisions.
- Foster Credible Bipartisan Fact Checking – In an environment characterized by competing expert claims, fact checkers can do much to discourage indefensible, self-serving analyses while helping everyone identify trustworthy evidence. The hard part is building a fact checking organization that has the needed resources, expertise, and credibility with all sides.
- Be Aware of and Work to Counteract the Confirmation Bias which leads us to seek out and only pay attention to information that reinforces our underlying prejudices and stereotypes. Whenever possible, seek information from all sides of a dispute and weigh the evidence yourself.
- Prioritize Information Flows – There is only so much information that we can process in a given amount of time. Since we can't know everything, we need to focus our attention on information that matters– information that might change our world view or our behavior. However, we should take care to avoid or at least strongly question information that appears to distort facts or conflate facts and values– information that reinforces negative stereotypes and drives the escalation spiral, for example.
- Promote Resistance to Propaganda and Disinformation – People need to be taught how to identify and then dismiss information which is false and designed to build support for a course of action that would not ordinarily be in one's best interest.
- Assess Contradictory Experts – Fairness principles ask the media to present contending views on each issue. This creates a "parade of experts" making contradictory statements that can almost totally devalue the very idea of expertise. Effective news reporting should indicate the amount and quality of expert support each side has.
- Pursue Joint Fact-finding – One way to make evidence-based problem solving actually work is to jointly analyze problems and potential solutions using methods that all parties trust. This approach replaces "because my experts said so" arguments with a mutually- respectful and persuasion-based effort to jointly understand problems and evaluate potential solutions.
- Decode Misleading Statistics – Statistics are complicated and politicians have been lying with them forever. Experts need to explain and citizens needs to learn what statistics mean, how they are collected, analyzed, presented, and how to distinguish misleading statistics from accurate ones.
- Re-establish Respect for Science and Expertise -- Higher education and science has been losing public support recently, as universities increasingly focus their work on theoretical inquiries that are both hard to understand and also apparently irrelevant to the concerns of everyday people. Support could be re-established if universities would (1) study problems that are of concern to the people in their local area, and (2) if they present the results of that research in generally-understandable ways and places (not just in esoteric, jargon-filled journals.)
- Evaluate Impacts of Actions -- Evaluation is key to determining if one's efforts are working as planned. Though it is most often done after an intervention process, formative and action evaluation, both of which take place as an intervention is ongling, can help revise and improve peacebuilding efforts as they are being carried out, making ultimate outcomes much more likely to succeed.
Challenge 8: Pursuing Collaboration and the Power of Working Together By identifying common interests and goals, we can gain much by working with the other side(s) even when conflict remains over other issues.
More specifically, we need to:
- Find Common Ground Admidst Differences - In conflicts, disputants usually focus on what makes them different (and better) from "the other." But usually, there are many similarities and areas of common ground between parties. When these can be identified and pursued collaboratively, relationships tend to improve, and then the more difficult issues can be more successfully addressed.
- Manage Distrust -- Sometimes distrust is warranted and protective, but at other times it is unnecessary and dysfunctional. Understanding the difference and learning to temper dysfunctional distrust can help improve relationships and conflict outcomes.
- Build Trust - Building trust once it has been lost is very difficult, but it is necessary when distrust is dysfunctional. Fortunately, research shows that a variety of strategies can be successful in building trust even after it is violated.
- Build Understanding and Trust Through Joint Projects - One way to build trust is to work with the other on a joint project where both sides can demonstrate their willingness to work cooperatively and treat "the other" with respect. If just joint efforts are successful, they lead to improved relationships and likely, increased interpersonal trust.
- Demonstrate Collaborative Potential – In escalated and polarized conflicts, people seldom even consider working with the other side. But this often neglects possible joint gains. Leaders and decision makers should be encouraged to break out of their partisan thinking to look for and exploit areas of common ground as often as possible. Not only will that bring immediate gains, but it will demonstrate the power of compromise and collaboration in other areas as well.
- Develop and Pursue "Back Channels" – In cases where leaders are unwilling to take the risks associated with the exploration of collaborative possibilities, informal, unofficial "back channels" can do the time-consuming and difficult work needed to build relationships and work out attractive compromises to present to the larger community.
- Think "Win-Win", not "Win-Lose" – Don't assume the only way to get what you want or need is to take it from someone else. Rather, look for ways of limiting conflict by expanding available opportunities so that everybody can emerge better off.
- Understand "BATNAs," "ZOPAs," "Ripeness" and ways to Promote Ripeness - Knowing these terms--and how they are manifested in YOUR conflict is essential to successful negotiation outcomes. For conflicts that are not ripe for negotiation, there are strategies that can be used to promote ripeness, and hence facilitate the beginning of negotiations.
- Expand Your Conflict Styles -- Most people have one or two conflict styles which they use, no matter what the situation. By understanding alternative conflict styles and knowing which is most useful in what situations, your ability to tailor your response to the conflict situation will likely improve your conflict outcomes.
- Improve Your Conflict-Handling Skills Through Training– Most of us have much more background and experience in confrontational approaches to conflict, which tend to escalate conflicts, not resolve them. By learning better (and more collaborative) conflict skills, we are much more likely to get what we want and resolve our conflicts successfully.
- Use Intermediaries – In highly escalated conflicts, background levels of anger and distrust can make it almost impossible for the parties to pursue collaborative opportunities alone. Enlisting the help of experienced intermediaries (e.g. mediators and facilitators, etc.) can help facilitate effective communication, break stalemates and encourage the parties to see opportunities that were invisible before.
- Use a mediator - Mediators are third parties who help disputants communicate better for the purpose of coming to an agreement on how to resolve a dispute. While they can suggest possible solutions, mediators do not make the decision -- the decision to resolve or not and how rests with the parties themselves.
- Use a facilitator - Facilitators are much like mediators but the work in more varied settings. They generally just facilitate constructive communication without necessarily having conflict resolution as a goal. (For instance, dialogue facilitators just seek improved interpersonal and intergroup understanding.)
- Engage in a Collaborative Problem-Solving Process (CPSP) CPSPs are essentially mediations with many parties and often a large team of facilitators who help the disputants understand each other better and work together effectively to come up with a collaborative solution to their mutual problem(s).
- Use an Arbitrator -- Arbitrators are also third parties, but unlike mediators, they can and DO make the decision about how a conflict will be resolved. They listed to both sides' arguments and then render an opinion, much like a judge, about who is right, who wrong, and who needs to do what to end the conflict.
- Go to Court - The formal version of arbitration is adjudication, or court processes. In rule-of-law societies, disputants who think their rights have been violated can challenge the other side in court, and if they win, receive a court-mandated remedy.
- Develop Verification Measures and Performance Guarantees – Fear of being cheated or double-crossed prevents many disputants from even considering a negotiated end to a conflict. But if agreements are written with performance guarantees, legitimate monitoring processes, and remedies for non-compliance, then agreeing to a negotiated settlement becomes much less risky.
- Guarantee Policy Recommendations – Promising solutions are often not implemented because of fears that analyses may have been overly optimistic. This can be addressed with agreements that explicitly give stakeholders recourse should optimistic projections turn out not to be true.
Challenge 9: Promoting Good Governance with institutions that wisely and equitably make the tough decisions to determine the course of the society and the fate of individuals within that society.
More specifically, we need to:
- Strengthen Civic Education – Democratic governments are complex, large-scale institutions that require the support and participation of a large fraction of the population in order to function effectively. This, in turn, requires a strong system of civic education that assures that everyone knows how to use the system to protect their rights and interests and understands why democracy is more desirable than more autocratic or anarchic alternatives.
- Provide Conflict Resolution and Peace Education -- While some societies teach young children ways to resolve their own disputes, many do not, relying on an adult authority (parent or teacher) to act as an arbitrator. Giving people of all ages improved conflict resolution skills can help build peace from the interpersonal level on up.
- Protect Individual Rights – Governmental decisions are seldom made by consensus– there are almost always winners and losers. In order to protect the losers from the "tyranny of the majority," a set of clear and rigorously-enforced individual rights are needed to place limits on what the government can and cannot do. The goal is to maximize individual liberty while protecting citizens from others' malevolence.
- Assure Transparent, Ethical Government – Given the enormous power that government officials can exert on society, clear, strong, and rigorously-enforced anti-corruption measures are necessary to assure individual rights and priorities are protected.
- Limit the Concentration of Wealth – Competitive market dynamics can be manipulated with a wide range of fraudulent and monopolistic practices in ways that allow a few people to become very rich while everyone else becomes increasingly poor. While preserving incentives to work hard and achieve, effective governments will still have education, employment, and tax policies that limit gross inequality as much as possible.
- Provide a Social Safety Net – Today's highly competitive, rapidly changing, complex environment will, inevitably, produce major disparities between those who "make it" (often through a combination of hard work and luck) and the less fortunate who, often through no fault of their own, wind up being "left behind." Human decency and the practical need to limit social stresses demand a strong social safety net that provides the less fortunate with the help they need without relying on identity-group criteria for eligibility.
- Protect the Commons – Governments provide the critical mechanism through which citizens can collectively band together to protect and strengthen the common resources upon which everyone depends. For instance, only the government can assure a healthy natural environment with clean water and air, vibrant human capital (an educated citizenry), and a financial system that works to the benefit of all. Without these, private enterprise and human well-being cannot exist.
- Provide Support for the Common Infrastructure – Public infrastructure is needed to increase the productivity and quality of life for all. Rather than focusing on infrastructure for the rich, most government infrastructure projects should, on balance, benefit everyone.
- Encourage Grassroots Interest Groups – The success of democracy depends upon a vibrant array of active grassroots interest groups that can promote the interests of the many against the selfish, powerful "vested interests" of the few.
- Discourage "Free-Riding" -- Free-riding is taking advantage of the work of others without contributing effort oneself. In democracies, people often assume that others will stand up for their interests, doing the hard work of civic participation, while they sit back and enjoy the benefits of that work. However, if democracy is to thrive, everyone needs to be involved in contributing to good governance.
- Prevent Fraud– Unbridled competition encourages fraud. Successful capitalism therefore requires laws prohibiting misleading and deceptive business practices concerning such things as pricing, advertising, trade, mergers, etc.
- Institutionalize Future Protections – An important role of government is the creation of legal requirements and institutional structures that prevent the current generation from acting in ways that unduly endanger future citizens.
- Assure Meaningful Elections – If democracy is to succeed, voters need to feel that their participation "makes a difference"– that they can really influence policy with their votes. This only happens if elections are truly contested and if the primary process assures that the candidates who run actually do represent the interests of the citizens in their districts so that the voters can really choose between alternative views of a "better future."
- Assure Expertise-based Governance – Complex modern societies require a high degree of expertise to administer successfully. Decision makers must have access to, understand and use real facts and expertise to inform their decisions. Without such, decisions taken to advance particular goals are much less likely to succeed in doing that. This, of necessity, limits public participation to the setting of broad priorities which public officials with access to the needed expertise are then responsible for figuring out how to achieve.
- Provide Governmental Oversight – In addition to transparency, oversight agencies and "loophole resistant" policies can help limit the effects of incompetence or corruption and help guarantee that agencies are fulfilling their responsibilities
- Consider How Safe Is "Too Safe" – Where risks are concerned, we all tend to support leaders who promise ever-greater protection from threats of disease, crime, terrorism etc. But we also need to consider whether the costs of risk reduction are worth the benefits. For example, is the risk of one teenager committing a serious crime high enough to justify the immediate economic and long-term social and economic costs of incarcerating large numbers of juveniles for minor or imaginary offenses?
Challenge 10: Promoting the Invisible Hand While Controlling the Invisible Fist
There are limits to the government's ability to foster a productive and equitable marketplace capable of meeting the basic needs of its citizens. Entrepreneurs with viable business models for providing both employment opportunities and affordable goods and services are necessary for a health society. This is especially important for those who are being "left behind" by current economic trends.
More specifically, we need to:
- Promote Socially-Responsible Businesses – Without restraints, unbridled competition will force businesses to cut corners and cheat wherever possible if they want to be successful. Both government regulation and public pressure are needed to create healthy, ethical competition that enables businesses to succeed while protecting their employees, their customers, and the environment.
- Constructively Engage One Another in the Private Sector – When a business is not acting responsibly, citizens can engage in nonviolent direct actions (such as boycotting or giving negative reviews of the company online) to encourage the business to act in a more responsible way.
- Provide Quality Goods and Services to the Economically Disadvantaged – Although much research and development is being directed towards high-end goods and services for the rich, it is much more important that entrepreneurs work on new ways to provide quality housing, medicine, transit, and other goods and services at low costs for less-advantaged clients.
- Expand the Non-Exploitive Sharing Economy – The new "sharing economy" is quickly coming under fire– some deserved, some not as much. The sharing economy (peer-to-peer businesses such as Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit) allow people who could use some additional money to get it, while providing services at a lower cost to consumers who need that. So it is potentially a big win-win, if exploitation of providers and customers can be prevented.
- Provide Consumers with Accurate Information – Software that attaches star rankings to businesses and consumer reviews that give responsible companies with satisfied customers a competitive advantage can help keep businesses "honest." In cases where expertise is required to reliably evaluate products and services, independent organizations like Consumer Reports can similarly give high-quality, responsible businesses a competitive advantage.
- Require Business to Take Responsibility for their Public Harms – Businesses often make decisions based solely on internal cost-benefit calculations that do not factor in the costs that they are imposing on the larger society. We need to strengthen and enforce mechanisms that force businesses to plan for and pay these "external" costs such as paying for technology to reduce their air and water pollution, or paying for better roads to prevent traffic problems around their facilities.
Massively Parallel Peacebuilding: Making it Happen
We argued early on that this was an imposing, yet not totally crazy, list of things that need to be done. As we said then, and will repeat now, this obviously cannot be done by one person or one group. It will take thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of people each doing one or two of these things to implement MPP.
But as is true in all complex systems, no one is or can be "in charge." Each of us needs to gauge our own knowledge, skills, time, and level of influence, and on that basis, choose which of these items to undertake.
It also helps to make an assessment of where one is most needed, in order to avoid having lots of people work on the same things, and no one work on the rest of this list. If everyone who sees this can choose one area in which they think they "can make a difference," and if they go further and share this list with the people they know, who also choose one area in which to make a difference, then perhaps this idea can take off.
We hope you'll join us in this effort!
In addition, if you have ideas about other "things that need doing," please use our contact form to suggest one or more items we should add to this list.