Discussion 3: Business as Usual in the Conflict Field

In several of our "Business-As-Usual" posts, I assert that the conflict resolution field is still working with strategies that were designed for small-scale, relatively simple conflicts.  There is a tendency to fall back on a few standard approaches (for instance interest-based bargaining and consensus-building), even in situations where they are not at all appropriate.  There also is a tendency to avoid what we refer to as the "scale up" problem.  In other words, the assumption is made that is a change can be created at a table with 20 people around it, all you need to do is hold many similar discussions with other groups of 20, and the problem will be solve or at least transformed.  

  1. If you agree with our assertion that business-as-usual assumptions are preventing our field from being successful in intractable conflicts, what assumptions do you see that are most problematic?  How do they need to be altered?
  2. What actions or activities do you see among scholars and/or practitioners that are preventing us from successfully grappling with the most difficult conflicts? How might they be altered?
  3. Do you know of anyone who is doing a particularly good job and reframing conflict strategies to better address intractable conflicts?  Who are they and what are they doing?  (It's okay to brag about yourself here if you are challenging "business-as-usual approaches." 

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Microfundamentals Don't Account for Gray Communication

Small scale conflicts happen in many different ways, so those who treat large scale conflicts as just reiterations of small scale conflicts don't understand the many ways small scale conflicts can happen.  They generalize based on presuming good people are on one side and bad people are on the other, so one side must be right while the other must be wrong.  In reality, sides often entail subversion of goodness and reformation of badness.

A classic example of this deals with systemic prejudice that really has four angles of interaction between good, bad, subverting, and reforming parties.  Good people will argue that some demographics are prejudiced against while bad people will deny that prejudice, but subversives will exploit how some demographics are prejudiced against to claim that each individual in those demographics is prejudiced against while reformers will say that while many individuals are prejudiced against, each individual is not.  The problem arrives when good people take their own small-scale conflict, and assume that reformers are just bad people playing dumb in saying, "Not necessarily," to take the excuse that nothing can be done to fix prejudice if the fix doesn't exactly fit.  In reality, reformers aren't those people, but the problem is good people include actual victims of prejudice, so their minds have been traumatized into not accounting for the complexity of the reality at hand.  On top of this, subversives exploit the traumatized mindset of actual victims to frame reformers as bad people.  That way, subversives can get something for nothing from reformers. 

This can go even further in bad people actually victimizing reformers themselves while sympathizing with subversives in order to avoid being properly identified as the bad people they are.  We even see this when ghetto "school of hard knocks" gangsta types are enticed by rugged individualists who blame the victim in saying to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps.  These people actually understand how there are many different types of small scale conflict, but only admit to them when it seems convenient.  The same thing can happen with subversives abusing good people by exploiting how the focus on inter-demographic conflict ignores intra-demographic conflict.  They'll even appeal to reformers who acknowledge the intra-demographic problem and are eager for an example to highlight. 

To be honest, I don't see this being addressed very often because it's a difficult angle to address not just intellectually but socially as well.  Many people find it difficult to grasp all the sides involved in many different small-scale conflicts, and even communicating this is a pain since it's so vulnerable to interruption, misinterpretation, and just plain forgetfulness.  We live in a time period where everyone wants communication to keep it simple, but simple communication ignores the details, nuances, and intricacies of reality.  Yea, sometimes, you get lucky from language being coincidentally charismatic to describe the problem you're pointing out, but that's much less often than not.

Perhaps the real necessity to conflict resolution is a linguistic revolution where language itself is reformed to incorporate more nuanced styles of parts of speech so communication can be concise and precise on a regular rather than irregular basis.

As for anyone in particular, I know Ludwig Wittgenstein once addressed this in "language games" and Jurgen Habermas has addressed this in "discourse ethics".