Discussion 1: Taking the Conflict Problem Seriously

How can we get people to realize that our “business-as-usual” approach to conflict is destroying our ability to solve our biggest problems?

This question has two meanings, depending on who you see referred to with the words "people" and "our" in the sentence above.  We actually do mean it in two ways.

Meaning (and Part 1):

The first "people" and "our" refers to those of us in the conflict scholar and professional community.  I assume, since we are in this field, that most of us  know that conflict is important.  But do you agree with Guy's and my (Heidi's)  premise that it is the A#1 most important problem of our time that is preventing us from dealing effectively with almost any other substantive problems?

If you do agree with this formulation, than we'd like to hear your ideas about how we can get more people in our field to step up and start addressing what we call "the intractable conflict challenge." How do we get scholars and practitioners to go beyond their often narrowly-focused efforts on a particular conflict or class of conflicts to look at the way conflict in general is "done" in our societies?  What can we, as conflict scholars and professionals, do to influence the way our leadership and/or the general citizenry views and deals with conflict?  

For instance, in the United States, an increasing number of people seem to think of conflict in absolute win-lose terms.  "Compromise" has turned into a "dirty word," and both sides of the political divide are out for the total win.  One can argue that this is normal in an election season (which is upon us as I write,) but most of the social commentators I read agree (as do we) that these divisions and these win-lose attitudes are not going to go away once the election is over.  Indeed, they might even be intensified!  What can we, as conflict professionals, do to address that very dangerous trend?

If you disagree with our assertion...if you do not see the inability to successfully deal with conflict as the A#1 problem, what role do you see conflict attitudes and skills as playing in our current social, political, economic and/or environmental predicaments?  How might we adjust our "pitch" to make it more accurate?

Meaning (and Part) 2: 

The second meaning of "people" and "our" refers to the general citizenry.  I haven't been reading the sociological literature lately, but certainly the poll data and pundit data suggests that the United States populace is getting increasingly polarized.  A surprisingly high number of people are turning to politicians who offer simple answers to complex problems, and who frame most of the issues in "us versus them" terms. The problem is always caused by "the other," and "the other" is anyone who isn't "us."   Facts seem to matter less and less. And this isn't just one side...it is both the Democrats and the Republicans who are doing this.  Some think that this election particularly has made this trend worse, but again, this election is just highlighting trends that have been around for a long time. So again, we have two questions:

  1. If you agree with this, how do we get people to realize how destructive this sort of thought process is -- and how can we get people to stop, think, and listen to what they and the other side is doing that makes the problem worse?  Then, how do we encourage people to stop doing those things?!
  2. And if you disagree with our assertion, what counter assertion would you make?  Do you think the general public is helping reduce tensions in the United States (or elsewhere)? Can you even just highlight a few people who are doing constructive things?  What are they doing to do so, and how can those constructive actions be further encouraged?

Part 3:

Following up on the thought questions we asked in the video comparing intractable conflicts to climate change, what can the climate change movement teach the conflict resolution community about ways to get people to take the problem seriously?  And how can we avoid creating or encouraging "conflict deniers," similar to "climate-change deniers"?

To Join the Discussion

In order to post a comment to this Discussion, you need to be "logged in" as a registered MOOS Participant.  For those who are not yet registered, but would like to be, our MOOS Discussion page explains the nature and purpose of the registration process.

We also ask everyone to keep our posting guidelines in mind:  All posts must be civil (no personal or group attacks, obcenity, profanity, no SHOUTING or incendiary comments), no commercial promotion, and no requests for personal assistance. In addition, posts must be proofread, clearly written, and on topic.


Great Question

I really love how you divided this into three forms of meaning since it helps distinguish the perspectives on conflict at hand.  Regarding each intended meaning:

1) Compromise becomes problematic when people have coherentist paradigms. It's like having a puzzle where all the pieces, or a clock where all the gears, fit, but then someone expects you to switch some pieces with other pieces, or gears with other gears.  The puzzle, or clock, no longer coheres.  Is it feasible to have multiple forms of cohesion?  Yes, but that feasibility is at risk.  You could just as well end up with a puzzle with gaps or a clock that grinds.  

Contrast this against a foundationalist paradigm and things change dramatically.  Foundationalist paradigms are like trees that have roots, trunks, stems, limbs, branches, and twigs.  They can grow in many ways because they don't care in which specific direction they grow.  They just care that development happens.  If you expect a foundationalist to compromise, all the foundationalist checks for is that the paradigm you're suggesting supports development.  The foundationalist doesn't have a specific outcome, or set of outcomes, in mind.   In turn, the foundationalist doesn't try to anticipate whether or not your suggestion is compatible with what one wants.  Self-interest doesn't enter the picture unlike with the coherentist who wants a pretty puzzle or a clock that ticks at a certain pace. 

2) I wouldn't say pundits are deferred and referred to because of cognitive dissonance from denying facts for a few reasons.  The first is many people recognize the truth, but they just don't care.  It's the typical, "So what?" response.  If you tell them something is relevant, they'll say that's just your opinion because there are multiple ways that society can function.  Sometimes, this even happens because some people believe crisis is the primary motivator of development.  They believe human nature is innately lazy, and that it merely wants what's sufficient to get by instead of pursuing excellence.  Therefore, problems are needed to make people do something.  Pundits rally people of compatible opinions around in their determination of which facts are relevant or not, especially when those pundits engage in fearmongering since it suggests problems are on the horizon to bring about a new age of development.

The second is how many people are concerned primarily with enforcement before legitimacy today.  They believe power is the end all to be all of conflict resolution, and that reasonable settlements are naive at best, manipulative at worst.  In turn, they rally to pundits in order to socialize with others and organize their power to avoid being exposed to naivete or manipulation.  When they rally, they meet others who share their beliefs and are willing to cooperate in exercising their power.  This might happen in real life, it might happen on social media, or it might happen on TV.  In real life, they form real connections.  On social media, they form a presence that influences others.  On TV, they form an attunement with others who are watching so they're all on the same page.

The third is the matter of drama and trust.  Some people rally to pundits because they like destructive behavior, and they see how pundits are snide, snarky, and sarcastic in how they talk about issues.  They like that ulterior motive because they have it too, and they get to hide behind plausible deniability in claiming you're cynical if you pick up on it and point it out.  Others rally to pundits as a form of payback because they've encountered snide, snarky, and sarcastic ulterior motives in the opposition, so they appreciate someone dishing it right back.  

There are probably more motives than these three, but I'm just saying there's a lot more to it than plain fact denial.

3) (I'm guessing you're talking about this: http://www.beyondintractability.org/moos/intractable-conflict-climate-ch...)

Aside from those who relish and revel in conflict, there are many people who literally make a living from conflict resolution.  If conflict is resolved, they no longer have a job.  I say this with regards to what's said in the video about tons of money being spent on playing the same game without changing the game itself.  Many people don't want to change the game.  They want it to carry on so they can continue supporting themselves from fixing what's broken.  It lets them play the hero while the spotlight constantly shines on them while they're on stage.  These people ironically exploit the limited resources given to solving problems because as long as less than necessary resources are allocated, the problem will continue to fester.

The key to changing this is having an end game in mind and a transformative understanding of what happens after the fact of problems being solved.  If people can't make a living from solving problems anymore, then what else are they going to do?

I say this especially because conflict deniers often recognize this problem.  They recognize problems will fester from not being supported enough, and they recognize how those problems impact others' real lives.  When they deny conflict, they're not being forthcoming.  They're actually supporting conflict resolution taking place at a lethargic pace because they want to get ahead of those who have problems made in their lives.  It's kind of like how gangsters will support crooked cops.  They know that as long as the police department is run haphazardly, then innocent people will remain vulnerable. They'll be paying taxes into a broken law enforcement scheme, and they'll get targeted by gangsters who take from what's left while getting ahead of the innocent.

To be fair, you mentioned how strides were made against immediate gratification which is what these sorts of gangsters and crooked cops often indulge in to avoid having to fully resolve conflicts.  That's the same thing I'm talking about in the key here because it talks about long term lifestyles that people can practice in order to support themselves as an alternative to creating and not completely solving conflict.  This also supports what you're saying about knowledge generation since that's a long-term endeavor like you said finding the cure for cancer will take decades to do.

Responding to Mike

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Mike!

1- Your distinction between coherentists and foundationalists is interesting.  I haven't heard that distinction before--are those your terms?

I think there is certainly a tendency for people to be one or the other, but it seems to me that many people are some of both and may switch from one approach to the other depending on circumstance.  I also wonder if anyone is a pure foundationalist if a requirement for that category is true lack of self interest or someone without  goals. I'll have to ponder this distinction a bit more.

Other thoughts:

1) I love your gear metaphor.  It explains a lot! 

2) Your point about some people "just don't care."  That's true. But they might care if they figure out this is hurting them--particularly in their pocketbook--which it either is, or will do soon, as these problems are going to have massive economic implications in this country.  So how do we get folks to recognize that it really IS going to affect them?

But you are also right...people listen to their own news sources, and dismiss the others as "fake news."  Very true. But is it impossible to get the primary news sources -- both on the left and on the right -- to recognize the danger and damage inherent in this polarizing discourse and do at least a little bit to reduce or modify it?  I've seen small instances of this on both sides, but there needs to be a lot more.

Last, I don't think that many conflict resolvers try to fail so they still have a job.  Unfortunately, conflict is so ubiquitous and so damaging that there is NO way that our field would be out of work no matter how hard we try to be.  The bigger danger is that we do so bad a job that no one wants to hire us anymore because we don't have any credibility.  

Nevertheless, we do face daunting hurdles both among our own profession and among citizens.  I hope you'll stay on board with us and continue to talk about these issues!

Thanks for responding, Heidi.

Thanks for responding, Heidi.  Yea, I definitely plan on staying around.  :-)

Coherentism versus foundationalism is a classic problem in epistemology.  You can read more about it here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/#STR (scroll down to the next few sections)

In fact, this used to be brought up several years ago when discussing "epistemic closure" but I don't believe the conversation got it quite right.  It assumed that conservatives have a certain type of EC while liberals have another (which you see a lot when people try to say political ideologies compare to psychological profiles).  In reality, there's a difference between coherentist morally absolutist conservatives versus foundationalist morally universalist conservatives (and both sides often accuse the other of being liberal subversives in conservative clothing like the paleocon/neocon debate that happened after Reagan).  

The same thing happens on the liberal side of the equation, especially between coherentist artistic and foundationalist scientific liberals.  Artistic liberals tend to deconstruct in a postmodernist manner in saying that ideas only make sense if they represent the relativist chaos they like (which isn't entirely unjustified, but it's a morally neutral paradigm at best that counterbalances tyrannical conformity).  Scientific liberals tend to say that everything's about the facts such that anything can be proven true as long as the evidence is there to support it (which leads to them being labeled as elitist because they don't account for how everyone doesn't have equal social networks that connect to evidence in society such that you end up with a discrepancy that goes beyond people's control in who's allowed to participate in discussions).  

Can people be some of each?  Kind of, but not really.  For example, a global warming focused scientific liberal would definitely be foundationalist.  You would think one would be a coherentist because the conclusions one draws focus on cohesion (i.e. save the planet, care about all of humanity, appreciate diverse ecosystems, etc.), but the point here is to talk about the method in realizing conclusions, not the conclusions themselves.  The rigor involved in the scientific method is definitely a foundationalist way of discovering justified true beliefs.  It's a step by step process that has conditions that have to be satisfied before making progress regardless of which way that staircase goes. 

That said, you could still argue scientific liberals are a bit coherentist because of how they use induction in statistics when determining if evidence is significant or not (since there's no natural reason to believe a certain level of significance is appropriate, so a judgment call has to be made), and this is a classic debate that's carried on for 150 years at least ever since the methodenstreit (albeit not quite between liberals and conservatives).  On the other hand, you could say some liberals are both artistic and scientific like we saw during the counterculture movement where environmentalists went along with the music played at Woodstock...

...although I'd say they're actually partially conservative, but they just don't know it.  Their goal there was to contrast against the materialistic consumerism of the 1950s, materialistic consumerism which many conservatives reject today for degrading social values. 


Regarding carelessness, I would like to agree with cost-prohibitiveness, but it results in spite instead where a different compromise gets made with socialists.  You see this especially among the working class that supports industrialism while acknowledging environmentalism as a belief that socially alienates them from relating with the means of production.  These are people who understand how money only has value if it's converted to a real life experience. 

The ironic part about this is it happens often in rural communities where people don't live in cities.  These working class people are often conservationists as well, and they relish outdoorsmanship whether it's in hunting, fishing, camping, or some other hobby.  They'll even oppose fracking when it comes to protecting their water supply.  To them, environmentalists are hipsters who don't practice what they preach.  They'll proscribe a solution to a problem that involves regulating people to bridge the private-public distinction, but then they won't live a corresponding lifestyle in private.  Personally, I see this especially when comparing upstate New Yorkers versus Vermonters. Vermonters are known for having that "Bohemian Bouregois" attitude that contrasts against the ruggedness of New York upstaters.  The culture that environmentalist Vermonters have is rejected as unrealistic for being dainty.

I think we all know why this is really happening though, and it even comes out sometimes among the people I just described, especially when they believe in survival of the fittest.  The people I described are Social Darwinists through and through.  To them, free markets aren't justified because of profit.  They're justified because of competition with harsh elimination. On the side, this is why Trump was so appealing.  He was literally talking about winning, and he had the reputation of being known for, "You're fired."  This was while running a show where there was drama on project teams where players sabotaged themselves on purpose to get rid of others.

When they see environmentalists talk about cost-prohibitiveness, they see fear and their predatory instincts pop out.  Just like how a rising tide lifts all boats, a torential downpour sinks all boats.  To them, the excitement of life comes from being the last boat floating... or at least seeing who's still floating after the hurricane's over.  To them, environmentalists are desperate people who are worried about a future they can't handle.

You have to understand that human nature is not necessarily good or even neutral.  Many people are evil.  When you're persuading evil people, you have to understand that rationality has a different goal in mind.

The same thing applies to what you're saying about news sources.  Many people recognize the danger of polarization and still engage in it on purpose.  They find the drama of incomplete information exhilarating.  It's kind of like how some people believe it's cool to be stupid, and anyone with a complete paradigm is an arrogant knowitall.  On the other hand, if you try to persuade these people to review the opposition's news sources in order to study the dark arts to gain an edge on the opposition during debates, they still don't do it because they view that as too complicated to be bothered.  

(Personally, I read news from as many angles as feasible, but the point isn't to actually be informed.  It's to understand what others are reading in order to stay in touch.  We have to remember that news agencies make money from being read, and people only read what they want to.  Confirmation bias is done on purpose to maintain an audience, so even if you read news from everywhere, you still have to take it with a grain of salt and read between the lines.)


As for not all problem solvers getting things wrong on purpose...

...all problem solvers aren't like you.  :-P

There are good problem solvers in the world, yes, but the good ones are often forgotten.  When you altruistically help others without looking for something in return, it results in many people abandoning you and going their own way in life.  Even when they're appreciative, they just have their own lives to live.  The bond you create in the moment unwinds over time.  This is another reason why I focus on follow-through culture - it maintains indirect support between those who are helped and those who are helping without making things too personal.

Without this culture, the implication is the problem solvers who don't fix problems are remembered more than the ones who do.  The ones who let problems linger have more of a place in society to keep on fixing problems like a car mechanic who fixes a different part of a car everytime it's brought into the garage instead of every part getting fixed all at once.  Even when there's always another conflict to resolve, your mind gets exhausted over time. You feel like, "Here we go again," and it gets you stuck in a position of either generalizing how you solve problems to streamline your finite attention span while ignoring the specific details at stake, or you remain consciously committed to paying attention to details while losing your unconscious enthusiasm for solving them such that you slow down, possibly even to the point that you can't solve problems in time anymore.

That said, I hear you on solving problems poorly and losing credibility.  That's definitely a priority.  The problem is all clients don't have the ability to ruin someone's reputation, and established professional authorities often have so much credibility that they can dismiss those clients who are treated poorly as ridiculous in trying to slander them. 

Again, all problem solvers aren't like you. 

Okay, but let me turn this around...

Thanks for the citation and explanations--as I said before, the "coherentist/fundamentalist" distinction is a new one for me. As I am sure you can tell from the past conversation, we agree on some points and disagree on others.  But let me ask you this...your essay...particularly this last one, strikes me as very discouraging.  It suggests that people are deeply stuck in their ways (with which I'd probably agree), that both ways are ineffective (having more costs than benefits), and as you said (and I also agree) some people are flat-out evil.

So what can (1) conflict professionals who really do want to do good--not those just out for a profit, and (2) well meaning, concerned citizens who (like me) are saying "we can't go on like this!" do?

Now caveat--this is, essentially the subject of our entire seminar, so asking you to answer it in 300-500 words isn't exactly fair.  But, following directly from your last post--what does that impy about constructive actions--by or for anybody?

Yea, I wish people weren't

Yea, I wish people weren't stuck in their ways, but the reality is most people are stubborn.  Change is very slow because they have egos.  Sometimes, they're suspicious of manipulation.  Other times, they anticipate you're vulnerable and making excuses to avoid being exploited.

Ultimately, conflict resolution has to take place on a social level, not a personal level.  You can't persuade people individually to see and treat issues differently.  Instead, you have to use reverse psychology by presenting a position you don't actually believe in, and convincing them to oppose it.  In turn, they actually support the position you really want without them knowing it.

The key to this is identifying the motives people have behind their beliefs.  Agree with your opponent, but use the opposite motive.  Your opponent will eventually start to question oneself and believe in what you really believe in order to oppose your supposed motive.