See the Complexity It's not Just "Us versus Them"

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

July, 2018 with a July 2020 update

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


Here we explain how we tend to oversimplify our view of conflicts into simple "us-versus-them" stories.  But doing so will make it impossible to confront the conflict effectively--either as a disputant or as a third party.  One of the very first steps for anyone interested in peasebuilding is to map the conflict to see the true complexity.  There are many ways to do this which will be explained in the following videos, but the important thing to keep in mind here is the complexity must be acknowledged and addressed.

July 2020 Update:

In July 2020, the United States is reeling under the pressure of two massive problems, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the anger over the police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, and the continuing systemic racism that event again laid bare.  In both of these situations, the media, and indeed, some politicians, including the U.S. president, have encouraged us to see these issues in very simple "us-versus-them" ways.

With respect to COVID, the Republicans are framing the problem as an overblown hoax and demanding people go back to "business-as-usual" to improve the economy. They see the problem as being one of the Democrats' making--they over-reacted, causing a major economic crash.  The Democrats, on the other hand, place the blame on President Trump and his supporters.  Trump, they say, bungled the response by not taking it seriously, sending contradictory messages, and hindering others from taking appropriate actions in response.  Trump's followers, the Democratic story goes, are making the pandemic worse by refusing to wear masks or socially distance themselves, spreading the pandemic far and wide and overwhelming the health care system upon which everyone depends. In reality, the situation is much more than a Democratic-caused problem or a Republican-caused problem.  It is a very complex epidemiological problem, mixed in with complex psychological, social, political, and economic dynamics, which few people understand, and no one can control. Simply blaming one side or the other is not going to get us anywhere close to solving this problem.

Likewise, liberals are blaming "racist police" for the George Floyd killing and are demanding defunding the police as the answer.  Trump and the conservatives are blaming out of control Blacks for their predicament, asserting that if Blacks would just obey the law, there wouldn't be such problems, and calling for the use of overwhelming force to shut down the protests. Again, both images are far too simple.  The problem isn't just racist police, and it isn't just criminal Blacks.  There is systemic injustice throughout our social, economic, and political systems which affects Blacks, Browns, other people of color and even some "left-behind" Whites. There are good police and bad police, good procedures, bad procedures, and badly followed procedures.  Just as with COVID, this problem is mired in complex psychological, social, political, and even economic dynamics, which again, few people understand and no one can control.  And blaming one side or the other, again, is not going to get us anywhere close to solving the racism problem.

This video is a short description of the over-simplification phenomenon which we produced two years ago.  As I explained above, it is still very relevant today.

Full Transcript:

A PDF version of the transcript with slide images is also available.

Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Name / Logo
See other posts in this series.

Slide 1.  Hi this is Heidi Burgess. Today I would like to talk about the first step people need to take if they're going to be a participant in massively parallel peace building. That is seeing the complexity in the conflicts that they are dealing with, and breaking out of the assumption that it's just “us versus them.”

Slide 2.  In his book The Five Percent, Peter Coleman observed that intractable conflicts happen “when the many different components of a conflict collapse together into one mass, into one very simple 'us versus them' story that effectively resists change.” This happens all the time! We tend to oversimplify the story or our understanding of what's going on in the conflicts we are confronting.

Slide 3.  For instance, here's a diagram that General McChrystal created and showed about what was going on in Afghanistan a number of years ago. Everybody laughed at the time because they thought this was an impossibly complex diagram that could not possibly be understood.  In reality, it's quite an oversimplification! But it shows that there are lots of different parties and lots of different issues. Hundreds of things are influencing what's going and there are many different dynamics. So if you intervene in one place, then your actions are going to reverberate throughout the system.  So you have to understand where you have influence and where you don't, and what the effects of your intervention are going to be.

Slide 4.  But we tend to oversimplify all the complexity by describing the conflict simply as “good guys versus bad guys”, “us versus them.”  We then assume that if we can defeat the “bad guys,” then everything will be fine,  But it's not that simple.

Frontiers MOOS Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts  


This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Slide 5.  The war on terror, overall, has been framed as a simple story:  “we, the good guys, are fighting them, the terrorist bad-guys, and if we can just kill, or otherwise get rid of all the terrorists, everything will be fine." We all know how well that worked!

Slide 6.  Other examples of conflicts people tend to vastly over-simplify are Syria, Israel/Palestine, and in the United States, conflicts over trade, abortion, race (blacks versus whites and blacks versus the police), and immigration. These are all extremely complex conflicts! You could draw a map of any of these that would be a lot like that Afghanistan map in terms of complexity.

Slide 7.  But again, we tend to completely oversimplify it by thinking (and saying) that it is just a case of the “good guys versus the bad guys.” Some of us think that the good guys are on the right, and some of us think that the good guys are on the left. (I have this picture reversed; I should have put the Democrats on the left!)  But it's never that simple!

Slide 8.  You have to do much more than get rid of the bad guys! We thought in Iraq, if we just killed or imprisoned Saddam Hussein, the population would welcome us with open arms and they would create a democracy much like we had in the United States.  That didn't work! We thought if we could get rid of Qaddafi in Libya, then Libya would establish a stable democracy.  That didn't work either! We thought if we could have gotten rid of Arafat, who was the head of the Palestinians for many years, that peace would come between Israel and Palestine. That didn't happen either.

Why do I have Trump’s and Clinton's picture up here along with Saddam, Qaddafi, and Arafat? It is because we are making the same assumption here.  Many Democrats are assuming “if we can just get rid of Trump, everything will be fine!" And the Republicans are assuming “if we can just get rid of the Democrats, in fact, if we can 'lock Hillary up,' everything will be fine!" But again, it is not that simple!

Slide 9.  You can draw a diagram like this of any of these conflicts. Indeed, mapping the conflict in some way is one of the first steps that you need to take toward successful massively parallel peacebuilding. How to do that is what I'm going to talk about in the next several videos.

Referenced Resources:

Slide 2: Peter Coleman. The Five Percent. PublicAffairs. 2011

Photo Credits:

Slide 3: Diagram from: Posted by Geetesh Bajaj (cc by 2.0)

Slide 4: U.S. Military – public domain; Taliban fighter: by newsonline. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 5: Picture:  Beginning screen of video available on vimeo.

Slide 6:  

Slide 7: 

Slide 8: