Conflict Core and Overlaying Issues


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Newsletter #83 — February 15, 2023

Reminder: We will be reducing the frequency of newsletters for the coming month, as we take some time off to go visit our children and grandchildren.  During this time we will, however, be able to post new submissions to the hyper-polarization discussion. So, if you have thoughts to add, send them along and we can get them posted quickly. 


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Conflict Core and Overlaying Issues

February 7, 2023

In our Constructive Confrontation Essay, (Newsletter 78), the first step we listed for constructive confrontation was "figuring out what is really going on."  There we noted that it is helpful to identify and distinguish between "core" and "overlaying" issues. Since these are two terms that are not widely used in our field, so we thought it would be useful to follow up with a post that explains what we mean by those concepts. 

These terms are based on a geological metaphor, looking at the core of the earth and the rock layers on top of the core, which geologists call "the overlay." The core of the earth is small, deep, and very hot, just as the core of intractable conflicts is often very deep-rooted and very "hot."  Though the conflict core is not necessarily small—it can be about very big and important issues (the parties' interests and needs, rights, moral beliefs and values, identity, security, and what we call "high stakes distributional issues"), it is not nearly as big as it gets when the many "overlay factors" get added on top of it. Those overlay factors are all the "stuff" that gets piled on top of the core that obscure the core conflict so much that sometimes you can't see it at all. (Examples, which we'll talk about more below, include misunderstandings, factual disputes, procedural problems, escalation, polarization and other factors that make the core of the conflict hard to see and more difficult to resolve.)

Core Conflict Factors:

Core conflict issues are the things that the conflict is fundamentally about — factors such as interests, needs, rights, values, stakes — particularly high stakes — and identity issues — including status issues, or powerrespect, oppression, inequality, and inequity. Let me talk about each of these in turn. 


Bill Ury and Roger Fisher in Getting to Yes came up with the distinction — or I guess I should say they popularized the distinction — between interests and positions. It's a distinction that others had made before, but they made it well-known. Interests are the desires or goals, the things that you really want out of a conflict, as opposed to positions, which are much simpler statements about the policies that one favors or opposes. So positions seem to be simple — I want this, I want that, I favor this, I favor that — where interests are more nuanced. "I want this because..." and the reasons often yield insights about the way interests are negotiable and potentially win-win, when positions tend to be in opposition and zero-sum.  Put another way, particular positions are just one way of pursuing our interests. Unfortunately, we tend to fixate on such positions as the only way In which we can pursue those interests. This neglects the possibility that there are other ways of pursuing those same goals —  ways that are less likely to generate opposition and more likely to become part of some mutually-acceptable agreement.


There are another kind of interests which are much more fundamental. Those are what John Burton and other human-needs scholars refer to as "fundamental human needs". Needs are related to interests, but they are so important that they are seen as non-negotiable. The needs that are most often discussed in terms of conflict and conflict resolution are identity, security, and recognition. 

People don't negotiate who they are. They don't negotiate whether or not they feel secure. They don't negotiate whether they're going to be recognized as a legitimate, respected, honored person. So when people feel threatened, when they feel humiliated or diminished, when they feel insecure, John Burton and other human needs theorists observed that they tend to fight back. And they continue fighting until their needs are met. 

This is why we are so concerned about the tendency of the progressive left to humiliate and threaten people on the right who they label as "racist" or "oppressors." Many diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings, for instance, try to force whites to acknowledge their "privilege," implying that it is undeserved, and that they should feel guilty and lessened by that discovery.  Human needs theory makes it very clear that such an approach is not likely to win friends or allies. Rather, it is more likely to strengthen opposition to the progressive goals and create enemies out of people who might have otherwise been supportive of DEI.  It is, of course, also true that those on the right use similarly disrespectful and threatening language in ways which reinforce antipathy on the left. The result is a situation in which neither side wants to meet the needs of the other. 

So it is important to recognize that everyone has needs and they feel those needs just as strongly as anybody else.  The progressive left has long recognized the damage that has been done to oppressed communities — people of color, LBGTQ+ members, etc. They have long recognized that these groups need to be given respect, they need to feel secure in who they are and how they fit into their communities. But turning the table and denying the legitimate identity and security needs of  people who have been labeled as "oppressors"— often through no fault of their own — is not going to bring equality, and it is not going to bring peace.  It is just going to bring continued destructive conflict. 


In addition to needs are rights, which are independent standards of fairness that are either socially recognized or formally established in law or in a contract.  There are the fundamental human rights that are now included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and include such things as life, liberty, security, and a  number of rights that I have  put all together under the notion of rule of law, and equal protection under the law. 

The United States has the Bill of Rights that includes most of what is in the fundamental, universal human rights but also has things such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to bear arms. The latter two, of course, are strongly contested, So, too, is the abortion issue, which was framed as a "right" in Roe v. Wade, but was seen by many (including by progressive juror Ruth Bader Ginsberg) as a badly framed opinion which was so obviously flawed that it led to and allowed for endless conflicts over its legitimacy, culminating in its reversal in 2022 with the subsequent Dobbs decision

Just like needs, rights are non-negotiable. If you have a right, then others have to respect that right, regardless of how much it costs them. That is why, Mary Ann Glendon observed in her book Rights Talk, that we have more and more groups asserting more and more rights. Further, if people believe they have those rights, they will fight for them, either through legal mechanisms or, if legal mechanisms don't work, extralegal mechanisms, including, at times, violence (as has been quite common in the abortion controversy). Glendon's point, with which we agree, is that when you frame things as "rights," you make them non-negotiable, thereby making the conflict surrounding them intractable.  If you frame the same issue as an interest, you are in a much stronger position to negotiate, and might well get more of what you wanted than you'll get framing it as a right that gets forever contested.


Value are fundamental beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad. On important issues, people don't negotiate these either. They stick to their values, and they try to convince other people to follow their values (because, to them, those values are "right" (meaning correct and virtuous) and others are wrong or even evil). And if they can't convince others to observe their values, they fight very hard so they, at least, are allowed to follow their own values, even if others don't. When we initially wrote our essay on core and overlay, we talked about the conflicts over gay marriage and abortion as value conflicts. They still are, but it is interesting to observe how quickly values on gay marriage have changed, and how little change has occurred in the conflict over abortion.  Examining the difference here is outside the scope of this essay, but it is a comparison that is well worth making, as it can teach us a lot about ways to pursue social change and ways not to.

High Stakes

Another thing that contributes to intractability are the stakes of a conflict. If they're very high, if they're life or death or millions of dollars at stake, people are going to fight much harder. And they're going to be much less likely to compromise. If it's not a big deal, if you go, "ehh, I don't care," then it's not going to be an intractable conflict. You can resolve it pretty quickly. This, again, is why the conflict over immigration is so entrenched.  People who are lower on the economic hierarchy tend to see immigrants as threats to their jobs. People who are secure don't worry about that.  

All of the core factors I listed above (with the exception of interests which are often negotiable if one focuses on them instead of positions) are things that tend to make conflicts very deep-rooted and intractable. Unfortunately, though, they are usually made much more difficult by the various overlay factors that obscure the core issues and make them much more difficult to address successfully.  These overlay factors are described below.

Overlaying Factors


One of these factors is framing. Framing is basically a cognitive shortcut, the way we categorize information and look at it as good, bad, right or wrong, helpful or not helpful, pretty or ugly, etc. Americans live in such different geographic, socio-economic, philosophical and moral "places" now, that any information we take in gets filtered by our biases, our worldviews. 

The conflict that we referred to in the Constructive Confrontation newsletter about Florida's banning of the draft AP course on African American Studies is a good case in point. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claimed that the course had "no educational value," particularly objecting to its coverage of such progressive topics as black queer studies, intersectionality, reparations, and Black Lives Matter. He (and his many followers) charged that the progressive view on topics were presented as "truth," rather than being one of multiple strands of thought on these issues.  Progressives, on the other hand, see DeSantis as a hate-monger who is only interested in furthering his own presidential ambitions by further stoking the "culture wars."  Politics has no place in education, they charge, and DeSantis should not be meddling in the education process. 

Which view is "true?" As is almost always the case, there is likely some truth in both views. But almost all the news coverage shows the issues as completely black and white — one side is all right, the other is all wrong, even evil. Such frames do nothing to defuse conflict, or find the best way forward for all the constituencies involved.  Since Florida and other conservative states (such as Texas) are such a large part of the educational market, AP pretty quickly revised its proposed course, deleting the material that DeSantis wanted out.  Was this the best way forward? We doubt it.  But that's what happens when issues are framed in win-lose terms.  Then both sides try to over-power the other, and the more powerful side usually wins.  If, instead, the issue was framed in terms of interests, and the two sides discussed what they wanted to see in the curriculum, and what they saw as problematic, they might have come up with compromises that would have led to a much better education for AP students.  As it is, they will not be exposed to several important debates that are especially relevant now. 


Our frames act as filters that interpret all incoming information as fitting into various categories that we have in our heads.  But when frames (or worldviews) are very different, this sets the stage for fundamental misunderstandings and miscommunication.  One person may say something that they think is completely innocuous and non-controversial and another, who has a different worldview, will see it as a serious insult.  An example of this is what has come to be known as "micro-aggressions." For instance, when I was teaching, I long asked my students on the first day of class "where they were from"?  I was genuinely curious, particularly because I was teaching about international conflict. So it was very educational for me and for the students if we had people in the class from countries that we were going to be discussing.  I later found out, however, that some people see the question "where are you from?" as offensive, as it implies to them that they are "different," that they don't belong here.  As we self-isolate into communities of people who are very much like ourselves, and we read and watch things on social media and traditional media that reinforce our worldviews, rather than challenge them, the frequency of misunderstanding what "the other side" thinks, believes, says, or does becomes significantly higher.  And this then reinforces our negative stereotypes, our enemy images of the other.  

This, of course, is just one of the many dynamics that undermine our ability to communicate effectively. Others include the algorithms that determine what social media posts we see and "targetcast" newspapers, radio, and television that Is focused on giving its relatively narrow audiences the information that they would like to hear (even if it's not accurate).  Beyond this, there are difficulties associated with our ability to speak clearly and listen well (especially when we are angry or fearful).

Procedural Problems

Another overlay factor is procedural problems. All organizations and communities and nation states have set procedures for how they deal with contentious issues and policies. But when these procedures are seen to be unfair or unevenly applied, this can cause big conflicts.  Immigration is a good example of this. (I find it interesting that I'm revising an article written in 2016, which used immigration as the procedural example then too. It's been an intractable issue for a long time.) Most people in the United States agree that current immigration policy is not fair, it is not efficient, and it also is not being applied evenly. The system is stressed far beyond the breaking point as huge numbers of would-be immigrants show up at America's southern border everyday.  When they are turned away without any consideration, the would be immigrants (and many progressives) in the United States get very angry.  When they are allowed in (or they manage to sneak in illegally), conservatives are in an uproar.  What should the process be?  How can we manage the press of would-be immigrants fairly?  And, this is just one of a great many examples of procedural injustice — the failure to give everyone the right of due process and equal protection of the laws. The polarization seizing our politics is such that we cannot even consider such issues, we just use them as political footballs in election rhetoric.

Factual Disagreements

A third overlay factor is factual disagreements.  What is true?  What is a "fake fact"?  The term "fake fact" was flying all over the place during the Trump administration, and while it's not in the news as much anymore (at least it seems so to me), we are still having a lot of trouble finding trustworthy (and trusted) answers to a wide range of important factual questions.  Take COVID.  Do vaccines help prevent serious illness and death, or not? Some people say they help a lot, other studies show they don't have much effect at this point in the pandemic.  How much do masks help? We still don't really know. How many people are dying of COVID?  That ought to be a simple matter to answer, but even it is not, as apparently anytime someone died with COVID (not necessarily from COVID), it was recorded as a COVID death.  Factual disagreements are key in the climate debate as well.  How much of a threat is climate change now? How important is it that we give up fossil fuels — and how fast?  Will such changes even help, or are we over some "tipping point?"

Joint fact finding (plus, unfortunately, a lot of money) could help sort out these questions. Sadly, we are preferring to use these factual disputes as political footballs too to help get our side elected.  Learning the truth and designing policy with respect to such truth is not something we seem to care much about.


Escalation and Polarization

A fourth overlay is escalation and polarization. Conflicts go from minor disagreements to major conflagrations as the size of the conflict increases (in terms of numbers of parties, issues, and resources expended, the issues go from specific to general (until both sides simply hate and distrust everything the other side is and does), tactics go from light to heavy (eventually reaching large-scale violence) and the parties' goals go from meeting one's own needs (doing well) to doing better than "the other" to simply hurting "the other," even if it hurts one's own side as well.

Polarization is a coalition-building process in which interest groups recognize that the only way that they can successfully defend their interests is by forming alliances and agreeing to fight on behalf of others (in return for their support). This makes it hard to make peace with respect to particular issues since coalition partners are now obligated to continue the fight on each other's behalf. The constant effort to defend (and advance) the many interests of the coalition also sets off an arms race dynamic that leaves both sides feeling that they have no choice but to devote increasing resources to the conflict and use evermore extreme tactics. The resulting positive feedback loop is how escalation pushes societies toward catastrophe (and away from a good-faith effort to address core issues). 


Another overlaying factor is geography.  In our original description of this factor we looked at "buffer states," such as Turkey, which is caught between the cultures of Europe and the cultures of Asia, just north of the contentious Middle East.   We also talked about "bad neighborhoods," referencing the Middle East overall.  The U.S. has its violent neighborhoods too, of course, but the really important geographical overlay is what Bill Bishop called "The Big Sort" in his book of the same name (published in 2009!), the subtitle of which was "Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans Is Tearing Us Apart."  This geographical clustering has grown into professional clustering and religious clustering, so increasingly, people live with, work with, socialize with, and worship with people who are just like themselves.  This drives people's worldviews farther and farther apart from people in other social and geographical groups, which intensifies framing divergence, factual disagreements, escalation and polarization.  

Past Wrongs and Collective Memories

Past wrongs and collective memories of past wrongs constitute another conflict overlay. Wrongs do not disappear when the wronged person dies.  They get passed on from generation to generation, driving enemy images, distrust, demand for reparations and/or revenge.  Trying to ignore the past and just "moving on," doesn't work, as the wronged seldom are willing to let go of those wrongs.  One way through such overlays is to treat them as core issues, and address the enemy images, distrust, and harms directly, using some kind of mutually-agreed upon restorative practice.  Also important is developing a positive vision for a society in which all sides would like to live and be willing to work toward. It is a lot easier to move beyond the unrightable wrongs of the past if you have a clear image of how doing so will lead to a brighter future.

Bad Leaders

Bad leaders represent another overlaying factor capable of making manageable core issues vastly harder to address.  Bad leaders can make things worse very quickly, especially when they fan the flames of hatred, distrust, and anger as part of the fear-mongering strategy designed to mobilize supporters.   Neurobiology teaches us that the fear part of the brain takes precedence over the pleasure part of the brain.  That makes sense — if one has to escape a charging lion, one had better move fast and not be distracted by the pleasurable activity one was doing as the lion approached. But this biological tendency can work strongly against our ability to understand and respond to complex situations, and makes the work of bad-faith actors (who profit by dividing us), unfortunately, much easier than the work of their peacebuilding counterparts.

Siege Mentality and Victim Mentality

The last two overlay factors we identified (there are actually many more) are the siege mentality and victim mentality. Siege mentality is the notion that everybody in the world is against you, and you have to fight for your life against overwhelming odds. And the victim mentality is that you're the victim, and the other side is totally at fault. Both of these lead to framing problems, and make it extremely hard to extricate oneself from one's predicament without totally defeating "the enemy," which is seldom possible.  This way of thinking makes it very hard to pursue the obvious solution of working with  the other side to mutually identify grievances and then work to address them together. The alternative is to continue to battle one another to the death, which might bring about the death (literally or figuratively) of one's own side (or the things one's own side cares about) as well as destroying the other.


All of these overlay factors tend to feed back upon each other, making each of them more intense, and more intractable. And, most importantly, they make the core conflict seem huge — sometimes  "existential." The result is that  the only thing people focus upon is the need to win decisively (and not compromising on anything). When there are people on different sides (two or sometimes more) who feel just as strongly about the conflict, but in oppositional ways, the end result is profound intractability, often accompanied by a growing risk of violence and other seriously destructive tactics. And those occurrences further decrease the likelihood that either side will prevail in attaining its core goals.

What To Do About All of This?

As we presented in the Constructive Confrontation Post, we think that the most constructive approach to difficult and intractable conflicts starts by figuring out what is really going on.  We tend to greatly over-simplify our understanding of such problems, turning them into simple us-vs-them, good-guys-vs-bad-guys narratives.  It is almost always much more complex than that. So another chart we might introduce is the Core/Overlay Analysis Chart.  We suggest that people trying to develop a strategy for addressing any difficult conflict go through this chart and try to fill out as many of the cells as possible.  We think that this can serve as a useful planning guide for people working to advocate for one side or the other, and a tool that could be used by facilitators or mediators, trying to help parties to understand their situation more clearly and then consider ways of diminishing the various overlay factors and then more constructively addressing the core issues.


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