Newsletter #55 -- September 29, 2022
In This Issue
- From BI's Co-Directors
- From the Discussion
- Special Edition II: Non-Mainstream Conflict News Sources
- About the MBI Newsletters
- For Previous Newsletters
This newsletter presents the last of a three-part exchange between Heidi and Guy Burgess and Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer which explores the tension between the ideas presented in the Burgess/Kaufman CRQ Feature article on hyper-polarization and the arguments Jackie and Bernie make in their recent book The Neutrality Trap. The previous Newsletter #54 focused on Bernie and Jackie's response to us; this newsletter contains some of our response to them (and links to the full response which is too long to put in an emailed newsletter.) To read the entirety of this essay, look for the link to the full post at the bottom of the section we include here. You can also see the full exchange, along with related submissions from other people on our Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding "Topic Page." (We will also be including those additional responses in future newsletters.)
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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion
by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
False Flags and Elephants
In thinking about Bernie and Jackie's essay, Heidi has to admit, she didn't know what the term "false flag" meant until she looked it up on Wikipedia. (To his credit, Guy did know the term.) In case others don't know, Wikipedia defines it as " an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility and pinning blame on another party."  Wow. That's quite the accusation! At a personal level, we honestly don't feel that we are being deceptive. We are simply trying to explain how we think that our collective insights can contribute to efforts to get us all through this perilous time. At a societal level, we don't think that we are sugarcoating and helping to sustain an oppressive world order. Instead, we are trying to apply what we know about conflict processes to the task of helping new and more established democracies better live up to their ideals and what we see as the most promising strategies for avoiding a dystopian future.
We were not at all intent on disguising anything or placing blame on anybody. Placing blame just makes people defensive and angry. It makes them unlikely to listen to what you have to say. What we are trying to do with our initial essay and the subsequent discussions is to make our own views as clear as we can, and clarify how they are similar to and different from those of our colleagues. Indeed, the entire reason that we are having this discussion, and the reason we invited Jackie and Bernie to join it, was because we wanted to get these very important issues on the table and being discussed out in the open, instead of being papered over in superficial and unfounded attacks on "the other," which we believe are contributing greatly to the deep mess our society is in (and we certainly do seem to agree that we are in a "deep mess.")
It strikes us that we and Bernie and Jackie together are giving a great illustration of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. For readers who don't know that story, it tells the tale of a group of blind men (or people, to be more inclusive) who come upon an elephant for the first time. One touches its tail and concludes it is a rope. Another touches its ear and concludes it is a blanket. Another touches its trunk and concludes it is a big snake. The fourth touches its leg and concludes it is a tree.
Guy and I maybe have done something like that in thinking about The Neutrality Trap, and we feel as if Jackie and Bernie have done that with their response to our piece. Let us explain.
Jackie and Bernie objected to our statement where we said "while you do talk a lot about listening to 'the other side' and learning how they think, that seems to be primarily for strategic reasons."
I got that impression from one sentence that appears on page 41 of The Neutrality Trap: "But if as activists we cannot sometimes step back and try to understand how others are thinking (not what we think of their thinking, but what they actually think and why), including what they believe about us, then we are giving up a major strategic asset." That sure sounds to me as if the reason one should listen to the other side is to gain a "strategic asset." But, as I also said, they talk about the importance of listening in many other places too, so maybe my assertion that for them listening is strategic was sort of like describing the elephant as a tree. There are obviously other benefits of listening.
Likewise, Jackie and Bernie seem to believe since we said that "we don't see power inequality as the problem that needs to be addressed first. We see escalation, polarization, hatred, fear, and distrust as the interlinked problems that need to be dealt with first. Jackie and Bernie assert that this is "naive" and is coming from a "place of privilege." They go on to ask how a " black activist or a parent of a teenager who is subjected to police violence, for example, [would feel] to be told that the most important problem our society faces is polarization not racism."
We would answer that just because we say that hyper-polarization is the number one problem for our society, we are not saying that it is the number one problem facing every individual in that society. Everyone has different problems, and different priorities. Sometimes those problems are immediate physical threats, and certainly, those need to be addressed first. We are trying to look at the society overall. I hope that the black activist or parent would look at the whole elephant before judging us. If they understood the reason that we say that hyper-polarization is the number one problem is because we see it as a big driver of dehumanization that removes taboos against brutality and violence-—thus we see it, in part as what is driving police violence against blacks. Similarly, hyper-polarization is driving fear, distrust, and hatred, which is intensifying oppression and threatening to change our democracy and rule-of-law society into an authoritarian regime that would likely be much more oppressive If they understood those concerns, then the black parent and activist might well agree with our statement at the societal level. We ask Jackie, Bernie, and our other readers to look at the whole elephant before drawing conclusions about whether or not we are naive, or as they say elsewhere in their piece, are supportive of "the status quo" and continued oppression. Fixing immediate sources of oppression won't help much if you don't also fix the underlying social dynamics that make such oppression possible. And that requires us to look at the dynamics that causes us to hate, fear, distrust, and wish to exploit one another.
To Be Clear: The Status Quo is Extremely Dangerous.
We agree with Jackie and Bernie: the status quo in America (and many other) societies today is completely unacceptable. Indeed, it is extremely dangerous: to democracy, to the oppressed, to the privileged, to every person, every institution, to the natural world. This is the reason we started our Constructive Conflict Initiative three years ago, It is the reason we wrote the framing essay for CRQ, and it is the reason we are sponsoring and putting a great deal of effort into this discussion.
The first part of the framing essay discusses the status quo. There we say that we are on a ...
... slippery slope taking us ever closer to some awful combination of at least four dystopian futures. To start with, hyper-polarization could lead to paralyzing political dysfunction—the wide-spread inability to analyze societal problems and to develop and implement effective and sustainable solutions. It could also add chapters to the long history of domination and oppression, as opponents demonize and dehumanize each other until the victors impose their sociocultural beliefs on their adversaries. Authoritarianism becomes possible when strong (but corrupt) leaders, even those democratically elected, refuse to let the rule of law obstruct their ambitions and the defense of their own (and, to some degree, their supporters') interests. Ultimately, large-scale civil unrest (and possibly war) could result from the continuing erosion of the taboo lines constraining our most inhuman impulses.
Many observers (and contributors to this discussion) believe that large-scale civil unrest and, potentially, civil war is a very real threat. (See, for example Peter Adler's blog post from January 2022 on that topic and the article that Peter just sent me today, August 29. 2022..) After participating in a project on Hybrid and Gray Zone Warfare, I have come to the shocked realization that my answer to Peter's question in his January 2022 essay is that we are already in a gray zone civil war now. (Gray zone warfare includes the full range of potentially effective tactics—anything short of large-scale, "kinetic" violence. This includes, for example, the widespread information warfare being waged on the Internet.
Unless we take widespread, strong steps to turn things around quickly, the threat, not only to our democracy, but to our very lives will be profound. When we recently contacted Peter again, asking him to participate in this discussion, he responded that "like you, I’m worried and continue to think we are on the brink of a major outbreak of fighting in the U.S." As a further response to our inquiry, he sent us some excerpts from a novel he has written in an attempt to explain to a non-academic (as well as academic) audience what the threat we are facing really is. Reading that is what causes me to say that the threat to our lives could soon become very real. Peter's novel is not all that far fetched, and it is extremely frightening!
Which Came First, The Chicken or The Egg (or Oppression or Hyper-polarization)?
As is clear from Jackie and Bernie's post (and ours before that), we differ on many dimensions. But tone of the most basic one is how we define "THE" problem. We assert that hyper-polarization is the number one problem that must be addressed before we successfully address oppression because, hyper-polarization, we assert, is driving oppression (as well as all the other dystopias described above). Jackie and Bernie say that our approach is, essentially, oppressive, and that oppression is what is causing hyper-polarization, and hence, oppression must be dealt with first.
Any good systems theorist would know that causality in complex systems usually goes both ways, and in this case, it certainly does. A very simple systems map would draw this as a feedback loop: hyper-polarization drives oppression which increases hyper-polarization, which increases oppression, and on and on. (In this, everyone feels victimized and oppressed by the other.)
This raises the obvious question, if this feedback loop is making both elements continually worse, what can we do to stop that? (I ask my conflict mapping students to figure out how they can throw a "monkey wrench" into the system to prevent the loop from operating--or at least operating as fast.)
If we were asked how to do that, we'd say, well, first, we need to "complexify" (using a Peter Coleman term), this map. Many more things besides oppression cause hyper-polarization, and many more things beyond hyper-polarization cause oppression. (Indeed, oppression existed long before we had the high-tech, global scale, hyper-polarization that we have today.) If we really included all of the things we can think of that lead to these two variables, our maps would turn into what we call "spaghetti diagrams" very quickly. But we can highlight a few factors that we laid out in our framing article that we think are particularly important. (Apologies—this is verging on towards spaghetti, but I hope you can follow it with the narrative that follows.)
Most important, perhaps, are bad-faith actors (shown in red on the left), who intentionally drive fear, hatred, and distrust, particularly through disinformation, in a classic "divide and conquer" move to take and hold power. So we'd add bad-faith actors and disinformation to the map, which lead to fear, hatred, and distrust, which then leads to hyper-polarization (which then leads to more fear, hatred and distrust in an interlinking and ever-intensifying set of feedback loops.)
Once the bad-faith actors obtain power, they also use it to oppress and otherwise rule with a power-over approach. After all, the key to successful authoritarian rule is the exploitation of others and the use of some of the spoils of that exploitation to pay off their core supporters. Not only do power-over approaches further drive oppression (you could argue that they are the essence of oppression), they also drive polarization and make power-with approaches to problem solving increasingly difficult and often impossible.
One of the nice features of our new Substack newsletter is that it encourages all newsletter publishers to recommend other "Substacks" that they find valuable. In our last Newsletter 54 we recommended a number of non-mainstream sources of news and commentary that we have found especially useful in illuminating the complexity of the intractable conflict and hyper-polarization problems. We include another set of such sources here. As we clarified before, like any news source, only some of the articles published are related to our interests and we often disagree with the arguments being made. Still, taken together, these sources provide an important window into the complex issues we face — a window that is often missing from mainstream sources. It is, of course, important to note that quality mainstream sources like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Policy, also publish large numbers of articles that provide valuable insights into intractable conflict.
- Countering Over-Simplification
Quillette — Quillette offers an extensive series of lengthy critiques of progressive policies on a broad range of subjects (that demonstrate that there is more to politics than the Trump debate).
- Defending a Unifying Vision
American Purpose — With an editorial board chaired by Francis Fukuyama, the American Purpose offers an extensive set of materials focused on defending and improving liberal democracy.
- Understanding The Issues That Divide Us
Counterweight — Counterweight offers an impressive array of resources designed to help those who would like to question now dominant social policies but feel pressured not to do so.
- Efforts to Limit Concentrated Power
Kleptocracy — For a world in which corruption is arguably the biggest threat to the ability of liberal democracy's ability to live up to its ideals, a website that keeps track of the global kleptocracy and efforts to combat it.
- Understanding The Issues That Divide Us
National Association of Scholars — A website devoted to upholding the standards of a liberal arts education and fostering intellectual freedom, the search for the truth, and virtuous citizenship.
- Developing a Unifying Common Vision
The Liberal Patriot — The Liberal Patriot is a website for people interested in building a viable center-left coalition based on longstanding liberal values of tolerance, pluralism, freedom, the common good, and pragmatism.
- Race / Anti-Racism
Journal of Free Black Thought — A provocative Substack newsletter that demonstrates that there is a rich diversity of black thought that goes far beyond prevailing orthodoxies.
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