Fundamentals Seminar 10: Escalation and De-Escalation Processes​

This relates to Conflict Frontiers Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP) Challenge 5.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

In the summer of 2020, conflicts over race, together with conflicts about how to respond to COVID-19, have reached a feverous pitch. Many people on the Left see protesting, sometimes even violent protesting, as a way to draw attention to the problem of systemic racism, which, they believe, has been ignored for far too long.  Some on the Right have initiated counter-protests, supporting (or some say "assisting" or "supplementing") law enforcement, and opposing the Left's agenda. These have increased the escalation of the conflict overall, and led on several occasions to additional violence and even several deaths.  President Trump has repeatedly tweeted his support for the Right-wing militias and protestors, at times adding Federal officers to the mix which heightened tensions even further.  Although we acknowledge that what we call "tactical escalation" is sometimes necessary to raise the profile of low-profile issues, neither racism, nor the pandemic are "low profile."  For that reason, we argue, continued escalation of these conflicts is very dangerous, leading to increasing acts of violence and the potential for much more widespread and destructive conflict.

In late August 2020 and in conjunction with the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog, Guy Burgess wrote six linked blog posts on the danger of the current escalation, and Heidi Burgess added a seventh post examining the argument made by a conflict resolution colleague in June of 2020, that escalation was needed—at least at that point in time.   We are adding these (and may add additional new posts) to the earlier materials included in this seminar, most of which have been (or are being) updated with Current Implications sections.  

Summer 2020 Escalation-related Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog Posts



These posts are part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog

  • What Happens When We Have an Election That Both Sides Absolutely Positively Can't Afford to Lose? - This is the first in a series of six essays that Guy wrote in August 2020, looking at the causes and consequences of political escalation in the United States.
  • The Base Mobilization Trap - Here Guy explains that the key to winning elections in today's climate is not by winning support from undecided voters, , rather, turning out the vote on your own side--which is done by making apathetic voters on your side so terrified of the prospect that the other side might win that they actually vote.  
  • U.S. Hyper-Polarization--Over the Edge? - This article looks at the interplay of the alarming rise in gun sales over the last few years and particularly in the summer of 2020, the lack of gun control, diminished confidence in the police, and frequency of demonstrations--some violent--which have been occurring this summer after the death of George Floyd. "Now think about what might happen if we experience a genuinely major act of violence...
  • Exponential Growth in Pandemics, the Economy, and Escalation Don't be lulled into thinking that because things haven't gotten really bad yet, they won't. Dornbusch's law applies: "The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought." 
  • Where Does the Nightmare of Continuing Hyper-Polarization End?  Our current hyper-polarization and resulting escalation is likely to end very badly, Guy argues, in this fourth article.  It most likely will continue in a rapidly-escalating feedback loop in which will further harden animosities and hatreds across the United States with astonishing speed... quite possibly leading to a large-scale violent confrontation" from which it will be extremely difficult to recover. 
  • Hyper-Polarization, the Pandemic, and the Need for a "Lifeboat Ethic." Guy's last post in his series offers a glimmer of hope about how we can avoid the catastrophes described in the first four essays.  Here, he says, the key is to "recognize just how much trouble we are in. Here, I think it helps if we think of ourselves as being adrift in a terrible storm in one giant lifeboat. If we can't figure out how to effectively work together to navigate the storm, then pretty much all is lost. 
  • (When) Should We Escalate? Heidi Burgess explores the important issues raised by Bernie Mayer's argument that the conflict resolution field often focuses too much attention on the issues that can be resolved relatively easily and not enough on the harder, (more "intractable") issues such as systemic racism—issues that may require what Mayer calls "strategic disruption."

​From the Conflict Frontiers Seminar:

  • Promote Escalation Awareness - This video from the Conflict Frontiers Seminar was produced before Guy wrote the "Lifeboat Ethic" article, but it follows well from it--trying to explain why escalation matters as much as it does and how awareness of its catastrophic potential is the first step towards addressing it.

Original Conflict Fundamentals Materials with "Current Implications" Updates:

  • Escalation and Related Processes -- This introductory essay explains the various types of escalation and related processes with details following in individual essays.
  • Destructive Escalation -- Escalation is an increase in the intensity of a conflict. The number of parties and issues tends to increase, tactics become heavier, malevolence increases, and overall destructiveness generally increases as well.
  • Constructive Escalation -- Despite the dangers of escalation, disputants often intentionally escalate conflicts. Parties generally do this when they feel their needs are being ignored. This essay examines the risks and benefits of tactical escalation and offers suggestions on how the risks can be minimized.
  • Polarization -- Polarization of a conflict occurs as a conflict rises in intensity (that is, escalates). Often as escalation occurs, more and more people get involved, and take strong positions either on one side or the other. "Polarization" refers to the process in which people move toward extreme positions ("poles"), leaving fewer and fewer people "in the middle."
  • Entrapment -- In intense, intractable conflicts, leaders commonly ask their supporters to make great sacrifices. In the most extreme cases, supporters are asked to sacrifice their lives. Once these sacrifices have been made, it becomes very difficult for leaders to publicly admit that it was all for nothing.
  • Limiting Escalation / De-escalation -- De-escalation tends to proceed slowly and requires a lot of effort. This essay describes some key strategies available for slowing escalation and then de-escalating a conflict.
  • Managing distrust -- Trust has often been praised as the "glue" that holds relationships together and enables individuals to pool their resources with others. Unfortunately, when conflict escalates to a dysfunctional level, trust is often one of the first casualties.
  • Building Trust  -- Trust comes from the understanding that humans are interdependent, that they need each other to survive. Third parties can attempt to use this insight to promote trust between disputing parties.
  • Respect -- Treating people with respect is key to conflict transformation. When they are denied respect, people tend to react negatively, creating conflicts or escalating existing ones.
  • Face -- From the correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, it is clear that they were trying to end the conflict while retaining their honor or "saving face." Understanding the concept of face is vital to resolving intractable conflict.