The Intractable Conflict Challenge
|Destructive conflict dynamics are our real enemies – they make it impossible to solve our many other problems.|
We have long argued that society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict is a threat to human welfare that is at least as serious as that posed by climate change, inequality, infectious disease, or any of today's other big problems. In fact, it is our inability to constructively deal with intractable conflict that is making it impossible for us to effectively meet these other challenges.
The Immediate Crisis
In the US and many other countries, the intractable conflict problem has now reached an acute stage, where much that people care deeply about is in immediate and serious jeopardy. While people from different perspectives focus on different aspects of the threat, it is clear that, unless we change course, we are headed for one or more dystopian futures–authoritarian fascism, failed states, widespread persecution of vulnerable populations, extreme concentration of wealth, economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, and/or war.
|The intractable conflict problem has reached an acute stage. Failure to respond effectively risks catastrophe.|
While these threats are widely recognized, the central role that destructive conflict dynamics play in making these problems so intractable is not. If we don't start making serious efforts to address the intractable conflict problem, both the conflicts and the things people are fighting about are only going to get worse.
Right now many countries have winner-takes-all systems in which contending factions increasingly dehumanize the "other," often to the point where the winners no longer view the losers' concerns as worthy of consideration. Winners promise big changes (often focused on reversing the actions of their opponents). Losers commit themselves to all-out resistance and redoubled efforts to win next time around. In this "us vs. them" way of looking at the world, the bonds of mutual interdependence upon which everyone depends rapidly vanish.
|We are all responsible for limiting destructive conflict. We can't just be "free riders" waiting for others to do it.|
Unfortunately, despite their considerable accomplishments, "business-as-usual" conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts are not yet up to the challenge of deep-rooted conflicts like this. Compromise is increasingly viewed as little more than a naïve gateway to capitulation or betrayal. Listening to, empathizing with or trying to understand "the other" is similarly viewed as inappropriate and ill-advised. The honest search for mutually beneficial solutions to complex problems is replaced by campaigns designed to achieve selfish objectives by promoting fear, hate, and misinformation.
While the situation is not hopeless, it is clear that we are all in a lot of trouble. If we are going to successfully defend our vital interests, and the larger societies on which we depend, we are going to have to do more than fight harder. We are going to have to fight smarter. This means two things.
- First, we need to help people understand the dangers of destructive conflict dynamics, and show them that there are alternative approaches to defending their interests which work better than name-calling, threatening, lying, and forcing--approaches that are being taken now that are just making our divides even deeper. Put another way, we need to increase the utilization of existing conflict-resolution knowledge.
- Second, we need to work to develop more robust approaches to conflict transformation that can work effectively at the complexity and scale of current society-wide conflicts. While the standard conflict-resolution strategies are helpful to some extent, they aren't nearly enough. New approaches are needed that will be effective at scale, credible (people have to believe they will work if they are to try them), and possible (they can't be too hard or expensive to do).
Developing, promulgating, and implementing such new approaches will require all of the creative potential we can muster and will take the efforts of many people--not just a few conflict resolution experts.
|It's not enough to better apply existing conflict knowledge – we need new ideas for meeting today's tough challenges.|
The MOOS project is a modest, but we hope significant, effort to pursue both these goals--to get people using available strategies more often and more effectively, and to start a large scale conversation about better ways to address these conflicts.
We have four goals for the MOOS:
- To get many more people aware of, thinking about, and acting to address the problem of intractable conflict in the U.S. and worldwide,
- To get people thinking about which currently-practiced strategies can be scaled up to better work on these large-scale, complex conflicts,
- To encourage implementation of those ideas that are already available, but are under-recognized or under-utilized, and
- To encourage the development of new strategies designed to deal more effectively with the big and unsolved problems that lie at the frontier of the field.
The focus of this MOOS goes beyond the narrow goal of limiting violence, to include the broader peacebuilding goals of promoting wiser and more equitable strategies for meeting basic human needs and protecting the social, economic, and environmental commons upon which we all depend.
As this is starting as a U.S.-based project, we feel we have a special obligation to focus a substantial amount (but not certainly not all) of our attention on the United States' slide into alarmingly hostile, identity-based conflict that is threatening the very viability of U.S. democracy. Until we can demonstrate that our conflict-handling strategies work on the tough conflicts in our own country (where our own future is at stake), we believe we ought to be very circumspect in offering advice -- or intervening in the conflicts -- of others.
It also seems likely that, over the long term, the global viability of democratic models of governance will, in large part, be determined by how well the U.S. and other developed democracies are able to meet their current challenges. If we can't make democracy work in these countries, with all of their advantages, should we really expect others to follow our “good governance" model?
That said, we recognize that intractable conflict is a global problem. Conflicts in one part of the world quickly affect almost all other parts of the world. Also, active cross-fertilization of ideas across social, cultural, and geographic boundaries offers the best hope for finding solutions.
We also believe that we, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have a moral obligation to help others escape untenable living situations around the world -- particularly (but not only) those that we had a hand in creating. Therefore, we must contribute towards providing safe haven for war refugees while working diligently to figure out ways to stabilize their home countries so they can return. Thus, we want to extend as wide and open an invitation to participate in this MOOS as possible -- welcoming participation from people outside the U.S. and welcoming conversations about issues that are focused outside the U.S. along with conversations about how to deal with intractable conflicts here.
Unfortunately, at this time, we do not have the funding to provide materials in any language other than English. Over the longer term, we want to seek the partners and funding needed to effectively span language differences.
In a conventional seminar, discussions are organized around a syllabus that systematically takes participants through an exploration of a complex topic area -- the sort of thing that is worthy of a semester-long effort. Individual seminar sessions are then built around short presentations from the seminar leader that introduce a topic and, as a starting point for discussion, offers some initial ideas or questions for consideration. The MOOS Seminars also have a syllabi. But in place of face-to-face seminar sessions, the seminars are built around a series of posts with short essays or videos that present key ideas and then ask questions, suggest exercises, or open topics for participants' consideration.
The MOOS format is built around a series of social network "posts" (also available on Beyond Intractability) that highlight interesting ideas to consider along with links to provocative materials.
In a sense, the baseline MOOS material would constitute a book, if it were being written in a more traditional way. But given that few people seem to have the time or inclination to sit down and read whole books anymore, and we want to encourage discussion and collaborative thinking on this topic, we are experimenting with this MOOS as an alternative framework for presenting ideas.
The MOOS Seminars and Blogs
While we originally thought we would produce one MOOS, we realized that we really need several seminars, all of which will "run" simultaneously and be designed for audiences with different interests and time availability. Current plans call for:
- Conflict Fundamentals Seminar and Blog: Videos or essays explaining (in 5 minutes or less) central, "prerequisite" ideas that everyone working in the peace and conflict field should (but may not) know. Both the seminar and blog will contain the same material. The only difference between them is that the blog will have the most recent post listed first and the seminar will have the posts listed in chronological order from earliest post to the most recent.
- Source: This will be largely drawn from existing Beyond Intractability materials, supplemented as time permits with new videos highlighting key ideas.
- Intended audience: This is primarily designed for the general public who is concerned about the direction their communities, our nation, and the world is heading, and students new to the conflict resolution field. However, these people might also be interested, and are welcome to participate, in the other seminars.
- Conflict Frontiers Seminar and Blog: A look at the frontier-of-the-field issues involving the nature of intractable conflicts and more effective ways of addressing them.
- Source: This seminar is based on ideas and materials that we (Guy and Heidi Burgess) have developed and have taught over the last 30 years. However, these ideas and materials are based on our collaboration with over 400 people who have contributed to the development of Beyond Intractability and related projects. Thus, it includes the work and ideas of many people, not just us.
- Intended Audience: This is primarily designed for people who know the "basics" and are interested in a cutting edge discussion of what makes intractable conflicts particularly difficult and what can be done about it. We are thinking this is likely to be advanced (MA and PhD) students and professionals (scholars and practitioners) in peace, conflict, and related fields. However, the seminar is open to all participants.
- Several Brown-Bag Seminars: A series of shorter seminars, each focused on particular problems and ideas for addressing them. For example, we plan to have one "brown bag seminar" looking at the intractability of U.S. politics, and another one looking at the conflict between those who want to compromise, those who want to continue, and even those who want to escalate the fight hoping to “win it all.”
- Source: These posts will be subsets of posts used in the other seminars as well as a few new posts specific to each brown-bag.
- Intended Audience: Anyone interested in the particular topic.
- Additional Resources Blog: This isn't a seminar, really, but we have been posting and will continue to post on the Additional Resources Blog -- stories drawn from the news (and other sources) that illustrate particularly well either the nature of the intractable conflict problem and/or responses to it. We will draw some of these posts into the other seminars while others will remain "independent."
- Source: Our daily reading. Suggestions for worthy future posts are welcome.
- Intended Audience: Anyone who is interested in exploring how the ideas in the other seminars "play out" on the ground.
- Colleague Activities Blog: This is a blog where we post information about resources our colleagues (or others) have produced that add important information to the topics we are discussing. We appreciate hearing about your work or others' work that would be valuable to post here.
- Source: Our reading and submissions from participants.
- Intended Audience: Primarily, we expect, graduate students and professionals with a fairly deep interest in this field.
Post Frequency: We aim to post about one new post per day to the two core seminars, the Conflict Foundations Seminar and the Conflict Frontiers Seminar. We will also post 1-2 Conflict Context posts most days. However, since these seminars are not graded and are not for credit, you don't need to read/watch everything -- just the things that interest you. Also, all of the posts are short “quick reads” or “quick views” (for videos) that can be read/viewed in the context of people’s busy schedules. We will also provide links to more in-depth materials for people who have more time and want to explore particular topics in depth.
Participant Recruitment - Please GET INVOLVED!
The Seminars are free (though donations are sought) and open to anyone with a serious interest in the intractable conflict problem (including those from outside of traditional peace and conflict-related fields).
At this stage, the idea of convening a truly "massive" seminar may seem pretty presumptuous. Still, we need to find some way to scale up the peace and conflict field’s efforts. Too many of today’s peace and conflict projects are too modest in scope, too short-term in focus, and too limited in participation to be able to effectively tackle large-scale intractable conflicts. We are hoping that this effort will lay the groundwork for a much more extensive effort by taking advantage of the opportunities implicit in the social networking systems that now reach so broadly around the globe.
Initially, we plan to start recruitment with the informal learning community that we have assembled in conjunction with our Beyond Intractability and CRInfo projects as well as our face-to-face courses. We are inviting these colleagues to invite others and will use social networks to find as many other participants as we can.
But you don’t need an invitation to participate. This seminar is open to anyone who has an interest in the topic and who has an Internet connection. We want to make a special effort to reach out to people from outside the traditionally-defined peace and conflict fields. We are particularly interested in involving people who are thinking about topics such as wicked problems, complexity, and systems as well as governance, development, human rights, criminal justice, and other “allied” fields.
There are two ways to participate in the MOOS--first, by simply reading the posts, and second, by joining the discussions.
"Read-Only" MOOS Participation
We expect many participants will want to simply browse the MOOS posts on the platform of their choice (the MBI-MOOS homepage, Beyond Intractability, Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In (although the latter three may miss some posts). We have two different accounts on each of the three social networking sites, one for just the "core posts," and the other which contains both the "core" and "additional materials" posts. Details about what is where and how to sign up can be found on our Access Page. Alternatively, you can sign up for the MBI-MOOS newsletter, and once every two weeks or so, we will send out a newsletter with a listing of what's new with the MOOS and link to all the seminar posts since the last newsletter. .
Key to transforming the Seminars into a large-scale learning community is the willingness of participants to contribute their expertise.
We hope some participants will be interested in contributing to the conversations we start. We will be including a set of “things to think about” and will be highlighting areas in which we think new ideas are sorely needed. We hope our readers will contribute their thoughts on these matters.
We are aware, however, that online discussions on some venues (for example, news sites) have proven very problematic. Many respected sites (such as, most recently, NPR) have eliminated their comment sections. We are hoping that our MOOS will attract a different kind of reader and, hence, will encourage thoughtful and constructive comments.
We are also requiring all discussants to register (which is free) to join the discussions.
Registration requires a valid email address and can be completed in a few minutes by filling out our simple online Registration Form, and then following instructions on the return email to set up your password.
We hope these measures, along with ground rules for posts (and deletion of posts which violate such ground rules), will allow us to have a constructive discussion.
The kinds of things we hope participants will contribute include:
- Examples of problems and solutions discussed in particular posts,
- Works of others who have addressed similar or related issues (though, perhaps using very different terminology),
- Alternative ways of addressing similar problems we have discussed (participants should feel free to cite their own work),
- Asking questions, requesting clarification, and warning about possible misunderstandings,
- Identifying individuals and organizations working in a particular area, and
- Offering constructive criticisms.
We do ask our discussants to use the Moving Beyond Intractability MOOS Comment system rather than posting on another entry platform (such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn). This will keep all the discussions and new materials in one place, which will be much easier for everyone to follow rather than having different discussions on each platform. Some people may still post their responses on the individual sites and that’s okay. If we have the resources, we may try to get permission to pick these comments up and put them on MBI as well. But for those who really want to actively engage with other seminar participants, the MOOS platform is the place to do it.
Participation Guidelines / Comment Screening
We do not have the funding (now at least) to pre-screen all comments, so comments will be posed without review. But if we or other users find comments to be offensive or inappropriate, we reserve the right to remove them and block the user from future posts. Please visit our Guidelines for Participating in the Discussions page for more information.
Grading, Credit and Certification
At this stage, there is no effort to provide any type of grading, credit, or certification for those who participate. We do not have adequate funding or staffing to do that. We do, however, hope that the opportunity to learn from other MOOS participants and to consider provocative new ideas for advancing the frontier of the field will be sufficient incentive to participate. There will also be opportunities for participants to publicize and perhaps publish their work on Beyond Intractability and the MOOS.
We view this as a new way of promoting very large-scale learning communities. Ideally, this effort will spawn a series of related MOOS projects each built around a different syllabus and focused on a different approach and perspective. We invite others to build additional seminars that use and hopefully improve on the strategy outlined here. To the extent that we can coordinate these efforts, the closer we can come to the vision of a truly massive learning community.
The sense of urgency that underlies this project has meant that we have skipped the traditional process of spending a year or more seeking funding for what is clearly an unconventional and risky project. Instead, we figured out how to inexpensively start posting an initial version of the seminars. Our goal was to sufficiently demonstrate the viability of the concept in order to obtain the funding needed to assemble the much larger project team and budget that will be required to take the next steps of offering more seminars, translation, more active facilitation, wider participation, improving the “production values,” etc.
In the meantime, we will be running this project on a very lean budget and largely on a volunteer basis. While we have ironed out many problems encountered in our beta version, there still may be issues that appear in v2. Please forgive us and, better yet, contribute something to the effort to make this financially viable (see below).
Appeal for Support
We ask that those of you who can afford to do so, please make a tax-free contribution to our account with the University of Colorado Foundation. We are committed to making everything that we produce freely available. We just need to raise enough money to sustain our project long enough to prove its value and get the funding needed to make it a truly massive, yet sustainable enterprise. In order to do this, we need to raise a minimum of $75,000 over the 2016-2017 school year. Please help if you can!
Each of our seminars has an "initial" syllabus, although we will be changing this slightly over time in order to respond to both comments and events. The initial syllabi, however, can be found below.
The Brown Bag Syllabi will be forthcoming later in the Spring of 2017.