Summary of Why We Can’t “Just All Get Along”: Dysfunction in the Polity and Conflict Resolution and What We Might Do About It

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By Carrie Menkel-Meadow

Summary Written by: Brandon S. Brown

We live in incredibly divided times.  So many aspects of everyday life are filled with hostile opposition, and the ways in which communities, institutions, government, and media outlets communicate with one another, and each other, are increasing the divides and hostilities.  The importance of difference cannot be underestimated. “Differences are important for the polity and our public lives, as well as our individual relationships in smaller units of work places, schools, families, and communities.” (pg. 2068), But the ways that these differences are navigated need to be rethought as that which divides us continues to be addressed in more violent ways, at all levels of relationship from the interpersonal, to group confrontations, mass violence, and even within American systems and institutions. 

Social science and behavioral research can, and should, be tapped into in order to understand how humans behave and process information.  This data coupled with particular “tools and techniques (and theories) of conflict resolution professionals” may provide a road map to navigating difference in a healthy manner if combined, as opposed to utilizing as individual schools of thought.  “Rationality will not necessarily bring us together,” Menkel-Meadow asserts (pg. 2068).  Simply utilizing facts (as individuals view and interpret them) and beliefs to fuel conversation and debate will continue to lead to division. The author uses the example of an English speaker traveling to a foreign country and speaking in louder English, thinking that it will make those who don’t speak it somehow understand the words better.  Using reason, facts, or “good” arguments to try to convince the opposition will not solve today’s issues.

“There are at least three ‘modes’ of discourse in all decision making—the rational-principled, (brain) interest-based bargaining and trading, (stomach) and the affective-emotional-value based (heart) set of claims that people make on each other and within themselves, in different fora” (pp. 2071-2072).  None of these modes can, standing alone, help manage the polarization of society today.  All three forms of discourse must be used together in order to get past some of our nation’s most difficult issues.  (Menkel-Meadow says “some” because she believes that there are certain polarizations that will likely never be resolved.) Sources and examples of such multi-dimensional discourse can be found in the arts “where people are actually seen to learn from each other, and, occasionally and hopefully, transcend their committed understandings of the world.” (pg. 2073).

Individual examples of interpersonal conflict resolution, whether experienced in real-life processes, or represented through film, literature, and the arts, although a challenge, need to be translated or scaled-up to the political and policymaking level.  Menkel-Meadow asks “how can we as conflict resolution professionals design, build and plan appropriate formats, tools and experiences to encourage constructive and learning settings for real human engagement in such different settings?” (pg. 2075).  Revelatory moments of deep understanding need to be captured and organized in productive ways.

Linking the personal to the political may be a starting point.  When parties with opposing views first engage, going immediately to the issues in question can lead to divisiveness in the entire process.  Beginning with “personal statements of who a person is, what the sources of their identity and beliefs are, what major experiences have molded them (in their own views) and what concerns or ‘curiosities’ or questions they have about their own views, often opens up the often hidden assumptions or rigid backgrounds of particular views for further exploration” (pg. 2077). Such discussion can encourage parties to just listen to one another while possibly forming bridges of human connection and perhaps even “some trust across the very values that divide us” (pg. 2078).

The inclusion of the personal into the political can often elicit engagement with empathy.  Feeling empathetic with whom you may disagree, or with whom you might not share life experiences, may be the end result of engaging the brain, stomach, and heart together while engaging in dialogue.  Menkel-Meadow captures empathy in an eloquent statement:“to ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes’ may give you some feelings of sympathy (you are still using your own feet [read own values to filter your experience]), but you need to ‘walk a mile with the other person’s feet’ (their values) in order to experience true empathy” (pg. 2079).  To understand others from their own frames of reference—even those with whom you may deeply disagree—opens up the possibility of collaboration, even on the most difficult of issues. 

“Contact theory,” a sociological and social psychological theory, “has long posited that increased ‘positive’ contact opportunities between distrusting or conflictual groups can improve inter-group attitudes and behaviors” (pg. 2081).  This theory coupled with other similar theories, and managed by skillful facilitators may lead to a decrease in “reactive devaluation”—being unable to give credit to anything offered by “the other side”—even in today’s political climate. 

Combining these elements and techniques drawn from various fields and schools of thought can very well lead to the bridges of human connection necessary to work through some of society’s most polarizing issues.  Whether it be in federal and/or state agencies, private work settings, universities, or a multitude of other organizations, skillful facilitation of such theories can lead to innovation in dispute settlement, conflict resolution, and new policy solutions to the intractable problems we collectively face.