Developing a Vision for a Society in Which We Would All Like to Live

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Newsletter #58 —October 15, 2022


In This Issue


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

First, A Question

We'd like to share a question that one of our readers (who is recovering from a period of homelessness) asked that we need help in answering.  He is trying to help the local homeless community better handle their own internal conflicts in ways that will reduce pressure on (and pressure from) law enforcement. More specifically, he is looking for a  set of simple principles of "neighborliness" or other guidelines that might be circulated in homeless communities to help people get along better.  Does anyone have a suggestion?  If so, please share them with us and we'll pass them along.  Thanks!

Moving Ahead

We have now devoted four newsletters (53, 54, 55, and 56) to the debate over how those in conflict and peacebuilding roles should balance efforts to combat systemic oppression with efforts to reverse the hyper-polarization spiral. In this discussion, the one thing that we seemed to be able to agree on is that today's democracies are failing us and that major changes will be needed to make things right. 

With this issue, we are going to start to turn our attention away from complaints about things that are going wrong and start imagining a future in which we would all like to live.  It is not enough to demand changes in a dysfunctional system. We need to imagine and then build support for changes that will actually make things better. And, to do that, we need a clear vision of what "better" actually means, and how we can realistically get from here to there. We need to develop an underlying vision for a fair and prosperous society that those on all sides of the divide see as worth working together to advance.  

This can't just be a vision for a future in which the wisdom of our side dominates. (That is the kind of vision that drives hyper-polarization.)  Instead, we need something deeper—an underlying vision for a democracy that will allow all groups to live life according to their own wisdom (provided, of course, that they extend that right to others).  Beyond this, we need a vision for working together to protect the commons upon which we all depend.

We begin our exploration of the role that the conflict and peacebuilding fields might play in building such a vision by highlighting a truly inspirational talk given by Ebrahim Rasool at the 2020 Alliance for Peacebuilding annual conference that describes the critical role that visioning played in bringing about a peaceful end to South Africa's system of apartheid.

Ebrahim Rasool: Should America Belong to All Who Live Here?

Rasool started out by giving a very brief overview of the racial struggle in South Africa, which has been going on, he pointed out, for over 300 years. Apartheid in South Africa was, he said, "in its very fabric, designed for polarization and disempowerment," just as was, he implied but didn't say, slavery and then racial segregation in the United States. 

In his talk, he presented seven ideas, drawn from South Africa's experience with racism, that he said Americans need to add to their anti-polarization and anti-racism toolkit.

1. First, he said, we have to understand that "the other is here to stay." You, in the United States, have to understand, "your [American] racism, your polarization, your discrimination, is sustainable only as long as you believe the other will disappear or go away." But they will not. This is their home too. In South Africa, he said, the Blacks came to realize that "if we were going to have freedom, we were going to have to be neighbors [with Whites].  We were going to have to co-exist.  And that is mind-shifting!" It makes you realize that you have to come up with a plan to live together in peace.

2. Second, he said "we need to start with the end" -- by defining our ultimate vision of an American society where everyone can, indeed, live in peace--including the whites who are now seen as "oppressors." "The ANC's [African National Congress] vision was that South Africa belongs to everyone who lives there, Black and White. That not only [was] a statement of vision, it [was] an extension of friendship.  It [was] an act of generosity." Even as Whites continued to dis-empower (and often kill) Blacks in South Africa, the Blacks had the "supreme humanity to say that South Africa even belong[ed] to [the White oppressors]. That disrupt[ed] the little pictures [the Whites had] constructed in [their] minds" and allowed people to open themselves up to new ideas."

3. Next, you have to "begin to take responsibility for the country." Instead of fighting it out to the death and destroying all the oppressive structures, you can seek to preserve as much as possible.

4. Rasool's fourth step was to isolate the extremes, but unite the middle.  Even if the other is your oppressor, you take responsibility "for finding the human commonalities with them. Whenever. . . but the middle ground mustn’t be confused for all of them. You have to redeem them with a sense of humanity."  

5. Fifth, he said, struggle must be waged through politics and ideology, but ideology must have a "human lens." Rather than feeding fears and ignorance, it should appeal to "people's better angels."

6.  Rasool's sixth step was truth, which must come out.  This is where truth commissions come into play, but only after the other steps have been taken, not at the beginning.

7. Lastly, you must find the intersection between justice and peace.  "Too perfect a struggle for justice means perpetual struggle, and too easy a reach for peace means sweeping justice into the coffin." You must find a balance, he ended.

In the Q and A, Rasool elaborated on the vision idea:

I think the idea of a common vision is absolutely critical, because the US may have a fragmented vision of itself. Its unity and its coherence are often dependent on an external threat.  The country comes together around its troops.  It comes together when there’s a war.  It doesn’t seem to have a positive, binding spirit within the country itself." He added that the ANC's vision for South Africa was powerful because it was very simple and understandable.  It had just five points that, he said, were "non-ideological and non-controversial."  They called for a "united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, and free South Africa."  Everyone—Whites and Blacks—understood and could support those ideas.  They could see themselves living in a country that espoused those ideas. They were not frightening, as they didn't "other" anybody.  Rather, they emphasized the humanity of everybody. Around that, he said, you can build diversity.


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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

Neal Kohatsu: For Less Divisiveness, We Need More Humility

Neal starts out his post very similarly to the way we started our essay above: 

It is ironic that one of the few things Americans can agree upon, today, is there is almost no agreement on anything in this country. Perhaps most Americans would acknowledge that this state of affairs is not conducive to solving any of the pressing problems facing the country. If flat out divisiveness is a broadly held concern, how do we address it?

Neal then draws on Adam Grant's book Think Again—the Power of Knowing What you Don’t Know to suggest four questions that would help each of us generate "more light than heat in our next important conversation."  These questions are: 

  1. Couldn’t I be wrong on the issue?
  2. Have I gathered all of the high-quality evidence that is available, in formulating my opinion?
  3. I’ve changed my mind, before, on other issues, what might sway me to change my mind regarding the issue at hand?
  4.  Have I thought of the broad context around the issue?

He goes on to say:

While there are a range of strategies and approaches we could consider on how to reduce the divisiveness that is so visible in American society, I suggest that the most fundamental concern is a matter of values—in particular, personal humility. In politics and so much of social media (which are often entwined), humility is nearly absent. Instead, American culture, particularly online, has become dominated by narcissism, arrogance, anger, and hostility. This toxic environment is incompatible with the concept of humility.

If we adopted more humility—if we were open to changing our minds—would this help us work together across the political divide to visualize a country we would all want to live in? 

Read Neal's Full Post


Two other contributors, Ken Cloke and Duncan Autrey, suggested how we might go about doing this.

Ken Cloke: Mediation in a Time of Crisis

In his introduction to his latest book, Mediation in a Time of Crisis: Pandemic, Prejudice, Police, and Political Polarization  Ken said:

We have entered an era of escalating conflicts and crises, in which our survival as a civilization and as a species, increasingly depend — not on military prowess, economic might, or political dominance — but on our ability to listen empathetically, communicate nonviolently, solve problems jointly, negotiate collaboratively, decide consensually, act collectively, and resolve conflicts meditatively.

They therefore depend also on our capacity to appreciate diversity and dissent, engage in dialogue with those who think differently, and build trust between former foes; on our ability to bridge and dismantle the social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental barriers we have erected over centuries to dominate and prevail over others.   . . .

There are, I believe, two varieties of general, universal, or fundamental crises: one is terminal, leading to ever-deeper dysfunctions, and ending simply in extinction. The other leads to evolution, transformation, and the emergence of higher, emergent forms of order.

Ken goes on to explain that such transformations happen slowly and unevenly, as small segments of the population develop new and better ways of doing things, which slowly spread more widely..

In times of crisis and intractable conflict, [we are able to find] the very higher order skills that are needed in order to overcome them. These skills steadily grow inside, between, and around us as our conflicts deepen and crises become chaotic. What are these higher order skills? They include, at their core, the ability to listen and empathize with those who are different; to work together to solve common problems; to engage in dialogue over disagreements; to build consensus; to negotiate collaboratively; to mediate conflicts, and to seek restorative justice in unifying and empowering solutions.


Duncan Autrey: We All Win, or We All Lose

Duncan Audrey takes a similar approach in an article he shared with us. In it, he asks:"How will we, the 7+ billion people on planet Earth (or even the 320+ million U.S. Americans), work together right now to co-create a future we can all live in? "

Similarly to Neal and us, he asserts that:

There seems to be a growing global consensus that cuts across nationality, culture, class, race, religion, and political worldview: Things aren't working. The status quo seems to be fundamentally broken. Our civilizational strategies (representative democracy, authoritarianism, protest, revolution, and traditional values) are no longer adequate to ensure we thrive.

But then he diverges a bit:

We need to stop asking what we need to do and start asking how we are going to do it.

It's time to see how we can begin to have the complex and vital conversations on deck for us. We need to have these conversations with the people who see things differently from us. Only with all of our voices in the room can we begin to build something that serves all the people. We need to recognize that we all are limited in our perceptions. We are unaware of parts of our minds, and not one of us has all the information. We need to look at and see our own (individual and collective) flaws.    . . .

The first step is for us to admit that we can't heal the world alone. We all have to do it together, and each one of our perspectives and dreams is vital and irreplaceable. We need you in the game, and you need everyone else.


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Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.


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Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.

About the MBI Newsletters

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