Newsletter #67 — Jan. 3, 2023
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Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
In our last newsletter we introduced the "Things That Need Doing" Matrix. We ended our Director's essay by saying
The matrix can be viewed as a strategy for breaking the hyper-polarization problem down into its constituent parts. In this context, the matrix cells correspond to a whole series of "how can we deal with this?" questions. The answers, taken together, can be implemented by many people, working independently, on different aspects of the problem. Together, they can be seen as contributing to a movement in massively-parallel peacebuilding, which is the topic we want to introduce again here. (I say "again" because we've talked about this idea before, but not for some time.)
In conjunction with the CRQ paper and our earlier Constructive Conflict Initiative, we have long been trying to imagine how, given their scale and complexity, modern societies could mount the kind of massive, societal-level effort called for in the above discussion. The approach that we have found most promising and realistic is something we call "massively-parallel peacebuilding" (MPP). When we are talking to people who are involved in bridge-building or electoral reform—who do not think of themselves as "peacebuilders," we refer to this as massively parallel problem solving. It's the same idea.
MPP is not some kind of innovative new strategy that we are trying to persuade everyone to adopt. Rather, it is a phrase we use to make society's natural problem-solving processes more visible and understandable, and to then encourage people to help strengthen those processes. While there are plenty of reasons to worry about current trends, it is also important to remember that the learning processes implicit in complex social systems have repeatedly enabled societies to find their way through comparably serious threats (such as wars, natural disasters, and economic crises). While these processes are almost always messy, painful, and deserving of Charles Lindblom's favorite famous phrase "muddling through," they do, at some very fundamental level, work in ways that permit the continuing evolution of society. Our goal is simply to make this process less painful and to help the evolutionary process produce a more broadly-desirable future.
As we see it, the most important driver behind this progress is Adams Smith's "invisible hand." Though they have many downsides, market mechanisms provide strong incentives to anyone who can figure out some way to make things better. (This includes incentives for those who can figure out how to reverse the perverse market dynamics that often transform this invisible hand into an "invisible fist" capable of producing a variety of "tragedies of the commons.")
Massively-parallel peacebuilding (or, more broadly, massively parallel problem-solving) starts by recognizing that, because of our differing perspectives, experiences, and worldviews, it is not realistic to expect everyone to agree on a single plan to save democracy. Instead, MPP relies on large numbers of independent projects, each of which, in its own way, tries to fix (or at least improve) one element of our broken democracy. MPP is an approach that recognizes that the hyper-polarization problem is so big that nobody can really wrap their mind around it all. It recognizes that these limits require us all to specialize and focus on a few conflict problems (cells in the matrix), while we encourage and rely on others to address the other cells. Ideally, these independent efforts should have enough awareness of what others are doing to assure that all problems are addressed, that wasteful duplication of effort is limited, and that we all learn from each other in ways that enable everyone to move up the learning curve more quickly.
This kind of effort is actually already underway, although it may not be readily apparent. Consider, for example, the Bridge Alliance, an association of roughly 300 organizations and five million participants (they are aiming for seven million more this year), all working on different aspects of hyper-polarization and democracy strengthening n the U.S. There are also many people trying to develop and campaign for reforms to electoral, legislative, and judicial institutions they that would strengthen collaborative governance and limit hyper-polarization. These are just two examples. There are already people and projects working on every cell of the matrix.
While these people and projects are making important advances, these efforts are not yet nearly extensive enough to prevent them from being overwhelmed by the combination of positive feedback loops driving the escalation spiral and the deliberate efforts of bad-faith actors to further amplify our divisions. We need many, many more people and organizations doing this kind of work. One reason why efforts to combat hyper-polarization have not attracted broader participation is that, when viewed separately, these relatively small scale efforts seem hopelessly inadequate. These same efforts, however, look much more formidable when viewed together as a complex collection of mutually-supporting activities. We believe that making this larger reality more widely apparent will make it easier to persuade others to get involved in the kind of very large-scale effort that is required to reverse the hyper-polarization spiral.
Oxford University Press just published Lou Kriesberg's new book entitled Fighting Better: Constructive Conflicts in America. We have just published a summary and review of the whole book, as well as a more detailed description of the final chapter in the blog, as that chapter deals most directly with the blog/discussion topics. In the prologue, Lou begins by saying:
Writing this book was prompted by the recent distressing developments in the United States. The country is fiercely divided. Many people are fearful of further deterioration of the democratic system and are distraught and even in despair. For three primary reasons, I believed I could write a book that would help explain how such unhappy developments happened, and also, importantly, how they might be overcome.
Those reasons, he went on to explain were having the good fortune of living a long life (he is in his 90s, I believe), second he studied international conflicts engaging the United States, finding patterns of conduct that led to either good or bad outcomes, and third, he participated in the creation of the field of peace and conflict resolution. What he doesn't say, but I would add: he is a highly accomplished scholar and an excellent historian. This book reviews the history of class, status, and power struggles from 1945 to the present (occasionally going back to the 1700s) to learn how such struggles have been waged, and what worked and what didn't to reduce inequality and to improve the well-being of the society overall. From this detailed historical review, he distills a number of suggestions of how we might best approach similar struggles now. Among such suggestions are:
1. Use legitimate, institutionalized procedures when they are available. Lawsuits (such as Brown vs. Board of Education) and Congressional Action (such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act) are examples of working within the system to make progress.
2. But, such progress was stimulated by working outside the system, using nonviolent direct action (such as sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and the Freedom (bus) Rides to gain attention and support from a diverse audience.
3. Such actions should minimize violence, relying on a blend of persuasion and incentives, along with a little non-violent coercion (such as boycotts) when necessary. Violence provokes a strong backlash and is likely to undermine progress, rather than facilitate it.
4. Recognize that the opponents are not homogeneous. There are a wide range of views among the opposition groups, some more likely "persuadable" than others. This is why Lou calls for action along the lines of what we (and Paul Wehr and Kenneth Boulding before him) called the "Power Strategy Mix". This suggests that you should use mostly persuasion on opponents who are possibly "persuadable" to see things your way, you should use exchange for "traders," and save coercion for the people who are immutably opposed--we call them "the incorrigibles" in our video, although now, in retrospect, I regret derogatory nature of that term and will probably try to change it.
5. It helps (as John Paul Lederach also suggests in his book Moral Imagination to imagine yourself in a relationship with "the other." If you focus on aspects of your relationship beyond the conflict, that will give insights into ways the conflict might be resolved.
6. It is important to notice and consider the other side's concerns. This can result in some mutual, if uneven, benefits, and make conflict resolution or at least reduction more likely.
These are just a few of many lessons Lou pulls out of a detailed history of the last 75 years. This book is well worth reading if you are considering how to bring about successful social change now.
The above figure illustrates a simple, but useful, way of thinking though the tension that exists between those in advocacy and intermediary roles. The figure is built around a simple metaphor of a bridge built to span the deep divisions that exist on so many contemporary issues. The ultimate goal is to build sustainable agreements on how to wisely and equitably balance competing interests and negotiate complex trade-offs. For simplicity, the figure envisions a simple, bilateral bridge between groups in competition over one issue. The reality is more complex than this, because people are concerned and are contending over many inter-related issues. But the point is clearest if we start with just one issue and two sides.
The value of this metaphor is in the way that it highlights three different but complementary and essential roles. It explains why, even when the stakes are high and the issues are of critical importance, we shouldn't abandon intermediary roles in favor of evermore forceful advocacy.
The first role we somewhat cryptically refer to as the "canaries" because, in the old days, miners would take canaries into the coal mines because they were more susceptible to the buildup of methane gas. By watching the canaries for signs of sickness, the miners would be able to detect a methane buildup in time for them (and, hopefully, the canaries) to escape. In our context, caries are individuals who are focused on warning us about some particular natural hazard or societal problem that they believe represents some major (and, occasionally, existential) threat that is not widely recognized and must be urgently addressed (e.g. climate change, systemic racism, immigration, globalization).
The theory of change underlying the work of canaries is, to mix metaphors, a "scared straight" approach. The assumption is that, if you just sound the alarm in a sufficiently frightening way, people will prioritize the threat and respond by immediately taking appropriate corrective measures. Unfortunately, there are so many canaries warning about so many issues, they tend to drown each other out and cause "concern overload." This is where the other two roles come in.
The second role are "constructive advocates." They take a broader view of problems and help canaries build effective strategies for getting their concerns addressed in the context of all the other issues that are challenging any particular issue for attention. To do this, they usually need to build support across the political divide, and with advocates for other social problems.
The third role is intermediaries. They help advocates, canaries, and the broader public understand where their opponents are coming from and why, and facilitate mutually-acceptable, collaborative approaches to problems. Unlike people in the other two roles, intermediaries put aside their personal preferences and devote their energies to helping parties with competing preferences and worldviews navigate the complex conflict dynamics that make it so difficult for collaborative problem-solving efforts to succeed.
If we are to be able to successfully tackle any of our major social, economic, or environmental problems, we need people playing all three roles and we need them working collaboratively with each other and with decision makers to help get needed changes accomplished.
This is explained in more detail in the full blog post.
Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.
- Escalation Limiting Projects
How to Defuse a Classroom Conflict: Make It More Complex — Five practices to help students break through all the binary thinking: setting norms, establishing trust, foster complex thinking, model constructive behaviors, and grounding discussions in personal stories.
- Reliable Problem Assessments
National Issues Forum — A nonpartisan organization that promotes public deliberation about difficult public issues, publishes issue guides, and promotes collaboration throughout its large network.
- Effective Communication Strategies
ABA Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration Commission — ABA’s Cornerstones of Democracy Conversation Guide to learn how to engage members in your community in civil conversations on critical issues.
- Multi-Faceted Projects
CivXNow — A national cross-partisan coalition of over 260 organizations focused on improving our nation’s K-12 in and out-of-school civic education.
- Multi-Faceted Projects
Civics Renewal Network — The Civics Renewal Network is an alliance of 37 nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations that provide free online classroom resources for civics education.
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.
- Countering Disinformation Efforts
Politics and the English Language, 2023 — Starting with George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," a critique of some of the ways in which the left deceptively uses language to advance its agenda.
- Effective Problem-Solving Efforts
Secret Congress delivers more good news on clean water — For a media environment dominated by stories of political dysfunction, a good news account of how (with bipartisan support) we have been making major strides toward reducing water pollution.
- Pursuing a Unifying Common Vision
This man wants Utah and other states to adopt a “pro-human” approach to teaching ethnic studies — From the founder of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, an in-depth interview and ideas about how to structure Utah's new ethnic studies classes in ways that will be broadly supported.
- Social Complexity
The Americanization of Religion — For a society plagued by culture wars and religious conflicts, an analysis of the changing character of religion in US society.
- Pursuing a Unifying Common Vision
Actually, Color-Blindness Isn’t Racist — A controversial but especially clear and persuasive critique of the current generation of antiracism programs and a defense of the kind of color-blindness advocated by people like Thurgood Marshall.
- Social Complexity
Vetocracy and Climate Adaptation — An account of one particularly important instance in which giving people too much power to block things that they don't like can threaten the welfare of society as a whole.
- Left / Right Conflict
What Really Saved the Democrats This Year? — An excellent review of the latest analyses of the 2022 election with real insight into the strategies that generate broad public support.
- Improving Problem Assessment
The rise and fall of peer review — For those who recognize the critical importance of rigorous scientific research, an account of how badly the existing, peer review-based system is failing. Fixing this ought to be a top priority.
- Gender / LBGTQ+
Transgender Athletes are Winning — Amid all of the sound and fury surrounding the conflict over transgender athletes, an account of how we are quietly coming to a reasonable set of compromises.
- Class Inequity
Labor’s Lost — For anyone concerned about the plight of the "working classes," a first-rate exploration of what everyone ought to know about the factors driving contemporary inequities.
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